Klein Halevi, Yossi, At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden

Yossi Klein Halevi, At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden (William Morrow – HarperCollins: 2001) 315 pp.

In the midst of a world of violence and hatred, this is a book of beauty and of spirituality. In the turmoil of rage and counter-rage, it is a work of hope and of love. The subtitle puts it well: “A Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land” for this is Yossi Halevi’s search for living contact with the Presence that is God, and it is also his search for human love and more-than-social connectedness with fellow human beings of other faiths.

To go on such a pilgrimage, one must know oneself. Yossi Halevi is an American, child of Hungarian survivors, who came to Israel and works as a free lance journalist. He is well aware of his own contradictions:

I loved the biblical landscape but was ready to share it with the Palestinians; I hated the occupation but didn’t trust the Arab world to let us live in peace. I was at once a religious Jew and a democrat; I wanted a Jewish state that honored its roots and a modern state that honored all its citizens…. I tried to detach, not take each Israeli failure so personally. But that strategy wasn’t working. Every issue was life and death; the fragile land offered no margin for failure.” (237)

Halevi also realizes that he must overcome his fear of the cross and Christianity as the enemy of the Jewish European history; he is after all the son of survivors. Halevi also must deal with his fear of the implacable hatred of Palestinians and the missionistic dimension of Islam:

“What does Israel need to do to make you feel part of it?” I asked. The answer was unequivocal: dismantle itself as a Jewish state. The national anthem, which invoked a Jewish soul longing for Zion; the national flag with its Star of David; the Law of Return, which granted Jews automatic citizenship. All would have to go. (263)

The Palestinians resented us as usurpers of their land, their homes, even their cuisine…. with a crude young nationalism whose motive often seemed hatred of the Jews more than love of the land. (100) “Accept your place under Islam &endash; not ‘under,’ with Islam!” (55) And with his knowledge that he had served as a reservist in Gaza where he saw the faces of oppression and hatred, and was wounded by a thrown rock.

Two attitudes make the pilgrimage possible. The first is the security of his Jewish identity as a member of the majority in a Jewish state: “Jews protecting Christians on Easter eve was our vengeance, not against Christianity but against Jewish powerlessness” (170). The second is the realization: “Only those who loved all of this city’s pilgrimage sites were truly at home here, could consider themselves citizens of united Jerusalem” (167).

Armed with self-realization as a religious, modern Jew who is a citizen of the State of Israel, Halevi’s pilgrimage includes a dizzying array of persons and places: Sheykh Ishak, Elihayu McLean, Sheykh Ibrahim, Abu Falestin, Rabbi Menachem Froman, Sister Johana, Mother Maria Teresa, Sister Gabrielle, Sister Rachel, Father Yaakov, and Sheykh Abdul-Rahim. The pilgrimage takes him to the Cave of the Machpela with a sufi sheykh, to a sufi mosque in Ramle, to holy men in small villages, to a Galileen hermit, to the convent of an order of sequestered nuns, to the Ethiopic Church and the Armenian community of Jerusalem, to a Catholic charismatic community of young devotees who practice as much of Jewish ritual as the faith allows, to Yad Vashem with the nuns and brothers, and to a sufi mosque in the refugee camp, Nuseirat, Gaza, where he had served as a reservist and been wounded.

Several moments stand out in my mind. Twice, Halevi participated in a zikr, the ecstatic dance of the sufi (Muslim) mystics. He bows, breathes, moves, and recovers with them (102-4, 304-7). These are among the most moving moments in the book. While with the community of charismatic Catholics, he realizes that there is a genuine spirituality there that is not hostile to Judaism. He sings and prays with them and also, sensitively, observes them at mass on Christmas (223). There, too, he realizes: “Though she loved the Jews, she wasn’t drawn to us by mere emotion. Nor was she motivated by guilt or even anguish over the Holocaust, or by a search for Christianity’s Jewish roots. Her focus wasn’t the past at all but the future. If the two faiths that had most in common and had been most estranged could form an alliance of messianic expectation, that in itself would be a redemptive act …” (215). Halevi’s meeting with the Armenian community is also touching because, for them, as for him as a Jew, trauma and survival are central; so is marginality: “I am a Jew. You are an Armenian. Let’s drink together because nobody likes either of us” (174). And then there is “the love attack,” the need of souls from different traditions and warring communities to meet and to love over and above the conflict around them (90).

So, what did Halevi learn? First, he learned that there is genuine spirituality in other traditions; that the Presence of God can be felt among, and also shared with, others — from within their traditions. There are even meditative techniques that can be adapted from the other and used in one’s own tradition. Second, he learned that total submission and acceptance of God is the way. For the Christians this meant: “If you want to learn about God, leave your questions behind and enter silence” (148); “Only an act of reckless love could challenge our pathological estrangement” (201). For Muslims it meant: “I felt charged, cleansed, as if I’d been submerged underwater and had learned to breathe in a new way” (104); “Kull min Allah &endash; everything comes from God … the awareness that everything not only came from God but ultimately reverted back to Him had freed him from anxiety and produced an astonishing courage … ‘Is there anything we can do to reach inner peace?’ ‘Through repetition of God’s names, and asking for God’s mercy'” (36, 41).

Third, there was the intellectual wrestling: If Christianity is not just its anti-Jewish history but a religion that embodies the presence of God, what is it? If Jesus is the center of Christian experience, how does a Jew relate to him? If Muhammed is the prophet of Islam, what is he to a Jew who acknowledges the spirituality of Islam? What, indeed, is interfaith dialogue? Finally, there is the realization that, even though this is a dialogue of elites, a marginal phenomenon, the work should continue.

At several points, Halevi contrasts the traditions of his pilgrimage with his own: “… my inability to sit with him in silence and accept his presence as sufficient came from precisely that restless Jewish need to analyze and understand. At its best, the Jewish quest for the divine qualities resulted in genius … but that obsessiveness could also obscure spiritual insight … For a Muslim, the presence transcended the qualities, dispelled the need for understanding God’s attributes. The only quality of God worth knowing was His godliness, His very being” (52). Similarly, the contrast between the silence of contemplative Christianity and the noise of Jewish religion is noted. Halevi really needs to take another pilgrimage, one in which he seeks out those few islands of profound spirituality in the sea of Jewish tradition. Then, he needs to write another book.

Christians should be sure to read chapter five and Muslims should be sure to read chapter six; but everyone needs to read this book. It is a very fine statement by an experienced journalist, who is also a spiritually sensitive and honest person, of the vision of human relatedness that sustains hope in the hearts of humans in a time and place of conflict.

Appeared in Reviews in Religion and Theology, 10:1 (February 2003) 65-68.

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