Date:May 9, 2004
Location: University of Dayton, Alumni Hall
Speaker: : Dr. Eric Friedland
Hosts: Agnes and Eugene Hannahs
At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden, by Yossi Klein Halevi
A Book Review
One of the many nice things about being retired is that one hopes to finally have the opportunity to catch up on one’s reading. That means attacking that pile of books that have yet to be opened beyond the title page. This winter I had a chance at last to turn to an extraordnary book I’d purchased two years earlier, At The Entrance to the Garden of Eden, by the American-born Israeli correspondent, Yossi Klein Halevi. And an extraordinary and beautifully written book it is, because it is, for one, an account of rare interfaith encounters in Israel and, secondly, a frank, textured and moving religious document. Currently a journalist for the Jerusalem Post, The Jerusalem Report, NYTimes, LATimes, and The New Republic, Halevi is a son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary who was born and grew up in Brooklyn, NY, within the insulated world of Orthodox Judaism. It is a society that keeps steadfastly apart from Christians. He broke out of the mold, attended a secular university, and married an Episcopalian woman who converted to Judaism. He eventually returned to a life of religious observance and commitment and, in 1982, made aliyah with Sarah - that is, emigrated - to Israel, where they presently live with their two small children. As you may recall, in 2000 Pope John Paul II made his his noted and unprecedented pilgrimage to Israel and, among other things, inserted his note of prayer in a crevice of the Western Wall, the last remainding relic of the ancient Temple. In that note the pope asked forgiveness for the Church’s sins against “the Children of the Covenant,” i.e. the Jewish people. This remarkable event gave Halevi the idea and incentive of taking two years off from his normal journalistic activity for his own spiritual journey as a religious Jew, which was made up of a series of encounters with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land. The book is an account of that remarkable two-year journey.
We don’t have time to be introduced to all the memorable personalities Yossi Klein Halevi met and writes so vividly about. I’would very much like to take the time out this evening to expose you to a handful of them who made a powerful impact on Halevi - and moved me quite deeply. Please note how each one unfailingly speaks out of abiding conviction, with knowledge, and from the heart.
Among the Muslims with whom Halevi was able to develop a profound and even loving relationship was a sheykh by the name of Ibrahim. Now a sheykh is usually the head of an order of Sufis, something like an abbot of a monastery in Christianity. In Israel and in the Territories, a sheykh is generally a healer, exorcist and guru-like figure to followers who are mystically-inclined. While not of the mainstream, Ibrahim represents that tradition of Islam that unfortunately one doesn’t hear often enough of, peace and love.
READ p. 187.
The colorful Ibrahim takes Halevi to mosques where the salat is performed and the zikr is carried out, and where he is allwed to participate. Mind you, there’s tremendous risk involved because, as I don’t have to tell you, hostilities have run high and unspeakable hatred runs rampant. Some of the exchanges reported in the book have been candid and sharp, and modest breakthroughs are periodically made. As an Israeli and as religious Jew, Halevi knows at first hand the painful dilemma of secuirty and morality. He knows of the universal antipathy of the Arab countries towards the Jewish homeland. Yet he recognizes with a genuine appreciation of Islam’s total submission to God and its fearlessness of mortality. The meetings with Muslims in the book are all riveting.
Halevi has an encounter with two remarkable nuns, Sister Johanna and Sister Maria Teresa, Sisters of Zion. Sister Johanna heads a convent/retreat center, where Halevi spends some time in prayer, meditation and discussionThe verbal exchanges between them and Halevi are examples of I-Thou dialogues at their best. Let me share witth you some compelling and disarrmingly candid conversations in a couple of passages that caught my eye and my heart.
READ p. 121
Halevi thought the time had come to deal with a theme that continues to give nightmares to Jews and to reopen wounds even after Vatican II: the Crucifixion. The angished concern in the Jewish community over the Gibson film “The Passion of the Christ” gives you some idea of the sensitivities that have hardly died down. Holy Week was approaching, and Halevi considered the possibility of going to a Greek Orthodox church, but was rebuffed. It was then that he decided on inquiring at the very ancient Armenian community in Jerusalem to see if he would be allowed to paricipate somehow without betraying his religious convictions. The experience was an eye-opener for Halevi. What he learned is how deeply embedded in the Armenian consciousness is the holocaust of the Armenian people prior to World War I at the hand of the Turks, the first full-scale systematic genocide of modern times. As a Jew and a son of Holocaust survivors, he felt an immediate sympathy and kinship. Armenian theology, he discovered, never dwelt on the Jewish implication in the Crucifixion, and has, as a result, been traditionally free of Antisemitism. By the shape of it, the Armenian cross emphasizes Jeus’ resurrection rather than his death. Just as Christians have worn the Yellow Star of David out of solidarity with the Jewish people over the Holocaust, Halevi put on his lapel an Armenian cross out of solidarity with the Armenian people in its sufferings.
Halevi tells us of an unusual Dutch priest , Father Yaakov, who lives in a hermiatge he built himself. His perspective - indeed his whole life as a priest - embodies the hope of reconciliation between Arabs and Jews in the Holy Land. Father Yaakov’s first step was to join the Melkite rite of the Roman Catholic Church to which many Arab Christians in Israel and in the West Bank belong. The language of that rite is Aramaic. It is also believed to be closest to the Christianity Jesus and his Jewish disciples practiced. This courageous, thoughtful solitary has had some provocative things to say. Let me read to you:
READ p. 254-255
Still another kind of encounter was with a Catholic Community of the Beatitudes, whose members make a point of affirming Judaism and the Jewish people as a way of being true to the Christian message. Every Friday evening, for example, the community does the traditional Kabbalat Shabbat service and celebrates its Sabbath meal in the customary Jewish fashion. The figure that stands out here is another truly remarkable woman, Sister Gabrielle. There are so many quotable passages that I’m forced to limit myself to a tiny sample.
READ pp. 192-194 [Shabbat]
p. 201 (first full para.) [love of the Jews]
p. 215 [waiting for the Messiah]
p. 217 [Chosen People]
Interesting, eh? I have to say I found Yossi Klein Halevi’s voice in At the Entrance at the Garden of Eden a refreshing and articulate one of sanity, realism and profound faith. His work is one further proof of the truth of the biblical expression, tehom el tehom qore, “Deep calleth unto deep.” When there is serious dialogue, in a spirit of openness, knowledge and, yes, religious commitment - even if pain is inescapably involved - it resonates with authenticity and hope.