Published in the Atlanta Jewish Times Copyright© 1996. All rights reserved. The following writing may not be republished or redistributed, in whole or in part, in any way including electronically, without the prior written consent of the author.
i Met God on Death Row
by jane davis ©1997
The inmate on death row with whom i worked the longest, forced me to look to my own religion with regards to the death penalty. He heard a Rabbi on TV speaking animatedly about supporting capital punishment. He wondered why i, a Jew, kept coming, and why i did spiritually supportive work with the inmates and their families.
A few years ago i wrote a story for the Atlanta Jewish Times on "Jews in Jail." i never really thought about the subject. As a contributing writer for Prison Life magazine, i was always aware of a column by Sid Kleiner of the Int'l Coalition for Jewish Prisoner Services (now Jewish Prisoner Services, Inc.) and out of curiosity i got in touch with him. i learned of the work being done by the Aleph Institute and the Coalition, providing contacts and resources to as many of the 8,000 incarcerated Jews and their families as they could.
i spent six hours secluded in a room in the bowels of the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, as well as Metro Correctional Institute, a women's prison in Georgia, listening to stories of lost souls. Something that i can only ascribe to my Jewish soul, my n'shama, came forth. i responded to what i heard as an area of tremendous neglect and an area that our forefathers understood as a place to walk in spirit.
The Aleph Institute is founded on Rabbi Akiva's teachings that 'once a man is found guilty in a court of law we are commanded to treat him as an innocent man.' "What does that mean?" i asked myself. Through the inmates, the answer became clear. It plants seeds of faith and forgiveness in the one who is able to see beyond a person's act and walks where most judge. It recognizes the power of the court, the power of something outside ourselves. It challenges us to practice a principal that is demanding of our spirit, to love where we want to hate. It challenges us to move from the logical human emotions to the illogical embrace of spirit. It challenges one to rise to a higher level of n'shama through acceptance of higher laws.
Prison work, more than anything else i have ever done, provides an opportunity for this kind of growth because it challenges us to see humans where we don't want to. Through this we have the opportunity to see a person beyond his action.
"What is a "Jewish" woman doing on death row?" i am asked over and over. According to Halakha [positive Jewish law], death is merely another part of life. Our souls return and are resurrected, and our physical body goes back to the earth. Although the Bible allows for the death penalty, in Sanhedrin, we learn that if a court sentences a man to death once in seventy years it is considered a "killer court" and is dismantled. Jewishly, we recognize the severity of the crime in having the death penalty as a sentence, but our everpresent sanctity of all life cautions us strongly before we could ever carry out such a decree. Through our Jewish laws we are taught to maintain dignity for the human spirit and an element of compassion for the perpetrator.
The death penalty is an opportunity for people to truly face their spiritual relationship with death. This maintenance of compassion is what our collective n'shama is all about. "BUT!", yells the Reform Jew... "i don't agree"... says the Conservative to the Orthodox to the Chassid.
And so... who are we... Jews? Did the man on death row hear a Reform Rabbi? Or a Reconservadox one? Nationally, there are five Jewish inmates on death row at this time, as well as one whose sentence was commuted to life but who served more than eight years on the row. Virtually forgotten. Who sit and wonder what it means to be Jewish. Who suffered with the humanity of their deeds and the rebuff of their people.
Jewish law, in it's wisdom, addresses both discipline and respect. Perhaps those who kill are giving a gift to their brothers and sisters by offering an opportunity to practice loving forgiveness. Forgiving doesn't take away the loss but offers a spiritual device for healing of the souls left with a hole filled by hate and revenge.
There is a classic Bhuddist teaching in the Mahayana text called the Compendium of Practices which asks: "If you do not practice compassion toward your enemy than toward whom can you practice it?" In virtually every spiritual path this concept exists.
As i prepare to drive cross country, visiting death row inmates in a spiritual advisor capacity, i am carrying the souls of the men and women behind bars on death row that i am privileged to know. i meet with those in general prison populations, as well as those who have been released.
These friends have taught me how deeply human beings can turn their lives around. How human beings can act in a heinous manner in a moment in time, accept their punishment, and even, in numerous cases, rejoin society in a productive way.
When i walked the man who had wondered about my Jewishness to his execution, he no longer asked me why i was present for him and his family. We sat in a small room surrounded by three concrete walls and one barred one. A wooden table separated us. i extended my hands, palms up across the table. Our eyes met as did our warm, sweaty hands. He held them tightly. We spoke for three hours. i said to him, "In the media business when we finish a project we say..."it's a wrap". Well, my friend - "it's a wrap."
In a few short hours he had an appointment with death. This man was about to go somewhere that we wonder about with awe, reverence and fear. There were reflections, tears, smiles and excitement. He thanked me. He told me how my supportive presence to him and his family, over the years, taught him something about "Jewish" that he never knew. And that made me feel deeply proud to be Jewish because i always thought that being Jewish came with a responsibility to walk on this earth living the commandment "love thy neighbor as thyself" not just saying the words. Even the man on death row is my neighbor.
And so i answer the question, "why am i, a Jew, walking with those most throw away?" Because it is there that i find God, and love, and a human, spiritual element that i would never imagine existed.
To me that is what being a Jewish soul means. And that is simply what being a loving soul means no matter which path one chooses to get there.