In the “Justice” issue of Parabola, the great Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsalz talks about the difference between limited and infinite knowledge. “When it comes to real knowledge, we do not have it,” he explains in an interview conducted in Israel this past summer. ” The divine knowledge, being all-encompassing, is something very different.”
Who knows why the wicked seem to prosper, why the treacherous seem happy? Rabbi Steinsalz freely admits that people are not born equal and that there is inequality throughout creation, that some are better off, some worse, but this is not proof there is no divine justice. God knows what we do not know.
So what does Rabbi Steinsalz’s view have to do with the daily efforts of death row prisoner Damien Echols to live a full spiritual life in solitary confinement? I interviewed Rabbi Steinsalz along with Jeff Zaleski back in the early spring. The tape got mangled somehow so much of the interview was lost, but two remarks the rabbi made stayed with me. Everyone has a spark of the divine in them, he told me. But in some people it is so deeply buried it never emerges, while in others it shines out even in very adverse circumstances. People are not born equal, he told us. He drew on his pipe during that talk, looking very much like my childhood image of droll St. Nick. And his face really did crinkle up when he told us that Parabola has always reminded him of a fashion magazine (which he was very familiar with as a boy because his mother was a seamstress). With each issue we present a gorgeous collection of spiritual experiences and insights on the runway of the readers’ imagination…readers who of all different shapes and sizes who can only dream they are going to be able to squeeze into that dress and look like that model.
Who knows why the innocent suffer while murders walk free? I came away from my conversation with Damien Echols convinced that I had met someone in whom the spark of the divine burns bright in the most adverse conditions. He is a daily reminder that spirituality is meant to be lived. I keep thinking of this description of taking in the energy patterns of someone who had just been executed. “It was like he never knew he had been a person. It had no idea who it was, where it was, anything else. It was like leaves caught in a high wind, disintegrating, being blown in every direction.”
I happen to be listening to a series of lectures on Indian religion around the time of Buddha that describe to just this sense of the blind wandering of transmigration. How do we claim our lives? In those moments when I feel the need to call my energy and spirit home–when I know to actually try on some of the great ideas I’ve encountered in Parabola, to live them body, heart, and mind–I think about Damien Echols practicing in his cell.
One thought on “The Runway”
When I was a child, I was told the story of Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants arrested and tried for murder. The facts of the case were not important to the trial lawyers. What mattered were the radical politics and ethnic identities of the men. It was easier to erase difference than discover truth.
As a child, the story left an indelible mark. I came to believe that justice had to be blind to the faces, accents, and appearances of the defendants or justice simply couldn’t exist. It was easier for me to understand the intolerance of a mob mentality than the cool detached reasoning of lawyers who knowingly violated the first rule of democratic law: the presumption of innocence until the proving of guilt. I didn’t need a higher truth to reveal the obvious truth that there can be no true justice without the presumption of innocence.
And yet, over seventy years after the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, a man who was tried for his appearance and beliefs rather than his actions sits in a prison cell awaiting death. And though mere men cannot fathom the divine, mere men must stand for something greater than the base instinct to persecute difference rather than prosecute truth.
While we can never fathom the will of God, we can work for justice. In the case of Damien Echols, for all who hold dear the rule of law over the rule of base instinct, we must demand that our judicial system adhere to the ancient Roman ideal of innocence until proven guilty. For a house built on any less of a foundation certainly will crumble. Religious men and women have always known that there is the world we live in and a higher world. But without higher principles to guide us, the world we live in will always be the City of Decaying Man and not the City as God Intended.