The Jewish case to free Britney

Politicians across the political spectrum have expressed their support for #FreeBritney and conservatorship reform. We in the Jewish community should do the same.


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Sara Himeles, Jewish Unpacked

This article originally appeared at Reposted with permission.

Britney Spears’ conservatorship is all over the news and has attracted attention from politicians and the general public. But the movement to “Free Britney” is also a Jewish issue because Jewish tradition has a vision for what a conservatorship system should look like.

For those who have not been closely following this story, for the past 13 years, Britney Spears has been in a conservatorship — a legal arrangement that is set up for individuals who are deemed unable to care for themselves or manage their own finances. Spears’ conservatorship is currently managed by her father, James Spears (who goes by Jamie), and a co-conservator.

In shocking testimony against her conservatorship in June, Britney Spears revealed disturbing new details about her situation: her “team” prevented her from removing her IUD, she was put on lithium days after refusing to do a new show, and was forced to perform against her will. The New Yorker summarized Spears’ statement this way: “For the first time in years, Spears spoke for herself, sounding lucid and furious… For the next twenty minutes, Spears described how she had been isolated, medicated, financially exploited, and emotionally abused… She had tried to complain to the court before but had been ignored… [Spears] added, ‘It concerns me I’ve been told I’m not allowed to expose the people who did this to me.’”

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Some people are listening and realizing that this is a bigger issue than just a pop star family dispute. Last month, Representatives Charlie Crist, Democrat of Florida, and Nancy Mace, Republican of South Carolina, proposed a bill that would give conservatees the right to ask a judge to replace their conservator. Senators Elizabeth Warren, Ted Cruz, and Bob Casey, along with several other members of Congress, have also expressed their support of Spears and conservatorship reform. While politicians across the political spectrum are uniting on this issue and coming out in support of “Free Britney,” I have not heard Jewish leaders discuss this issue. Maybe the reason is that they do not think it is a Jewish issue, but here is why I think it can be.

Looking at what Judaism has to say about Spears’ situation, three questions emerge. First, what is the Jewish perspective on abuse (whether physical, psychological/emotional, financial, or sexual)? Should Jamie Spears be allowed to remain as his daughter’s co-conservator in light of the pop star’s (and others’) allegations against him? Should Britney Spears continue to be in a conservatorship, and was her conservatorship even justified in the first place?

First, Judaism does not condone abuse in any form. The Torah tells us that all human beings are made in the image of God; therefore, every human being has inherent dignity and we should not abuse others. The rabbis took the value of human dignity — kevod habriot (“the honor of the creations”) — so seriously that they ruled that this concern sometimes overrides rabbinic laws and that even some Biblical commandments can be set aside in order to preserve another person’s integrity.

The sayings of the rabbis also underscored the importance of treating all human beings with dignity. Ben Zoma said, “Who is honorable? One who honors all others” (Pirkei Avot 4:1). Rabbi Akiva said, “Beloved is every person who was created in the image of God” (Pirkei Avot 3:18). Conversely, Rabbi Tanhuma said, “Know who you put to shame, for in the image of God is a human being made.” (Genesis Rabbah 24:7)

Although there is not a concept of “conservatorship” in Jewish law that I am aware of, there is a halakhic term, “apotropos” for “guardian.” While halakhic sources deal mainly with an apotropos who is appointed over orphaned children, they also cite the need for such a person in the case of a “shoteh” who is unable to manage his own affairs. The Jastrow dictionary defines shoteh as a “madman” or “insane person,” but the term’s precise meaning is difficult to define. The Talmud (Hagigah 3b and 4a) lists four criteria exhibited by a shoteh: “One who goes out alone at night,” “sleeps in a cemetery,” “tears his garment” or “destroys whatever is given to him.”

Halakhic sources are in broad agreement that an apotropos should be someone of good character. He should be a person who is trustworthy and able to advocate for the rights of those in his care (Ibid. 290: 2). Additionally, the apotropos may be removed by the Beit Din if his conduct casts doubt on his personal character. In the case of an apotropos who in the course of the guardianship “returned to being a glutton and drunkard and went on a path of darkness, or broke his oaths and took advantage of what he was entrusted with…the court must remove him.” (Ibid. 290: 6)

This halakha is illustrated by a Talmudic story (Gittin 52b) of “Amram the dyer” who was removed from his position as guardian. Relatives of the orphans who Amram oversaw went to Rav Nahman and reported that Amram was purchasing lavish clothing, food and drinks from the orphans’ property. The orphans’ relatives said to Rav Nahman that Amram was “damaging” the orphans’ property by causing them financial loss. Rav Nahman asked them to bring witnesses to confirm their allegations and he would remove Amram as guardian, because “the court removes an apotropos who damages the property of the orphans.” The Gemara concludes, “The halakha is that the court removes him.”

In addition to the question of who is fit to serve as a guardian, Jewish law also addresses the question of when a guardianship is appropriate for adults. First, in the case of a child under guardianship who reaches an age of maturity but who engages in irresponsible behavior — by eating and drinking too much, squandering their inheritance and holech baderech ra (“pursuing a bad path”) — the court may not appoint a guardian to continue presiding over him.

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