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.
(Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)


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.’”

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.

This is true even if the individual’s biological parents had stipulated that their child should not be released from guardianship until he was “successful” — and even if the parents expressed their wish that the child remain under guardianship beyond the age of maturity. (Shulhan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat 290: 26) In other words, holech baderech ra is insufficient justification for maintaining a guardian over grown children and adults.

The distinction between a shoteh and a holech baderech ra is particularly relevant to Spears’ case. Is Spears really mentally incapable of managing her affairs, or do her parents (and much of society) simply not like her behavior? In terms of Spears’ ability to manage her own affairs, she is a 39-year-old woman who is able to earn hundreds of millions of dollars while under conservatorship. Ironically, Spears has substantially greater ability to provide for herself and others compared to the vast majority of people, so this concern must be ruled out.

What about her mental state otherwise? New information related to the circumstances in which Spears was first placed under conservatorship casts doubt on the claim that she was mentally unfit. Spears’ conservatorship began in 2008 in the aftermath of two incidents that, as The New Yorker article explained, “cemented her image as crazy.” “In February, 2007, she shaved off her hair… five days later, she attacked a paparazzo’s car with an umbrella.”

The New Yorker added that “Both [incidents] were precipitated by her driving to [her ex-husband Kevin] Federline’s house, trailed by photographers, and being refused access to her kids.” While this information certainly does not justify attacking someone’s car with an umbrella, it does paint a more complex picture than the infamous photograph of this incident immediately suggests.

In other words, would anyone respond well to being constantly photographed and having their kids taken away? Could this have even been a human reaction to circumstances that were truly extraordinary? Returning to the halakhic sources, does this incident prove that Spears was a shoteh in need of guardianship, or was this an expression of holech baderech ra, behavior that was certainly objectionable but not proof of severe mental illness?

Finally, what does Jewish tradition say about whether Jamie Spears should be allowed to remain in his position as Britney’s conservator? Jamie Spears’ behavior — based on his daughter’s testimony, court records and interviews with many people who know the family — does not reflect the morally upstanding qualities that Jewish law requires of an apotropos.

Britney Spears said at a hearing last month that she was pressing charges against her father for “conservatorship abuse,” adding that “this conservatorship has allowed my dad to ruin my life.” A former friend of the Spears family said that Jamie Spears would call his daughter “fat,” “a whore and a terrible mother.” The New Yorker reported that “Jamie got rid of anyone his daughter had been close to.” Additionally, despite Britney’s $60 million fortune, Jamie Spears gives his daughter only a $2,000 weekly allowance.

As we have seen, Jewish tradition offers wisdom and guidance about the kind of person who is fit to serve as a guardian, when a guardian should be removed from the role, and how to determine whether guardianship is needed. What should we do with all of these ideas?

First, we should recognize that this issue is not only about Britney Spears or her conservatorship; it is about others in conservatorships as well. According to the Department of Justice, there are 1.3 million people in guardianships or conservatorships in the U.S., accounting for about $50 billion in conservatee assets. Spears’ case is bringing attention to all of these cases and opening the door for change that would practically impact all of them.

Second, the Jewish community can support the FREE Act and other efforts to reform conservatorships and end abuse in these arrangements. These efforts will help ensure that others in conservatorships do not endure the same experiences that Spears has. Advocates say that the proposed legislation is a good start, but that additional reforms are needed. For example, there should be laws to encourage courts to use the least-restrictive alternative to conservatorship and make it easier for conservatees to end their conservatorships.

Like many people my age, I grew up with Britney Spears’ music. Three of my favorite albums were “Oops! I Did It Again,” “…Baby One More Time” and “Circus.” At the sleepaway camp I attended, our bunk was frequently woken up to Britney, and we would listen to, sing and create dance routines to her music throughout the day. In college, my roommates and I were still just as obsessed with Britney who was one of the top artists overheard in our apartment.

Britney’s music influenced my generation for many years as we were growing up: there is no question that this made her testimony even more upsetting for many of us. But this issue represents more than Britney and Jamie Spears and extends to the situations of many others. Politicians across the political spectrum have expressed their support for the Free Britney movement and conservatorship reform. We in the Jewish community should do the same. I hope you will join me in saying #FreeBritney.

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