Following another’s spiritual journey can be a voyeuristic undertaking. Like sampling diverse liturgies, one can, as an aloof observer, watch others worship, making insightful observations about their correctness or oddity. But, like engaging liturgy, one can also accompany the other to find what he found, to taste, albeit vicariously, what he experienced.
Yossi Klein Halevi, an accomplished Israeli journalist for The Jerusalem Report and The New Republic, has written a forceful volume, At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land. Halevi’s own background offers a compelling starting point. Earlier from the United States, he made aliyah (return to Israel)which he refers to as the Jewish coming homeas a follower of the far-right winger Meir Kahane. He chronicled his growth out of this particularly narrow Judaism in his Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist. Now, obviously more mature and moving to a more widely embracing posture, he engages most positively the beliefs and prayer practices of others. So he takes us on a thoroughly engaging and well-written series of encounters with a few Christians and Muslims of the Holy Land.
More than a series of interviews, however, Halevi’s book invites the reader to step out from being a remote observer to become a fellow pilgrim. For this is no visit to sacred dead stones that commemorate events of long ago. Rather Halevi invites the reader to meet and, more daring, to pray with some of the people who make up the current cast of Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land. Surveying other traditions is not new in this part of the world (especially among Westerners), but the author’s courage and openness to go into the other’s territory as an active learner, as it were, are fresh and welcome. He describes his pilgrimage as an attempt at religious empathy...to encounter, as an Israeli Jew, my Christian and Muslim neighbors in their intimate devotions.
With him we question, sometimes curiously, sometimes pointedly, his Christian and Muslim interlocutors. While he is certainly eager to learn from the Christians and Muslims he meets, there are times when he must speak an understated, contrary word. Witness his reflections on hearing the following Ethiopian Orthodox explain why they reserve the New Testament to adults only after a childhood of Old Testament stories: It is just as God did with His people. First He gave the people of Israel the sweet milk of the law in their spiritual infancy. Then when they got older, they didn’t need that good mother’s milk anymore, and they graduated to the law of love. But it’s hard to leave Judaism, which is the mother, the father, the milk. Halevi reflects to himself: That was the loveliest form of Christian contempt for Judaism I’d ever heard.
Among Christians, Halevi seems to have resonated most with Latin (Roman Catholic) Christians and among them, particularly, contemplative sisters who themselves displayed a particularly warm cherishing of Jews and the Jewish tradition. One noteworthy encounter with a contemplative sister yielded a most touching recognition that her striving for love of all people, while at first appearing naïve and simplistic, ends up drawing both Halevi and the reader into a respectful, envious wish to have such an uncomplicated destination for all interreligious encounters.
In the contemporary milieu, where one cannot seem to obtain enough written material about Islam, Halevi finds some rather unconventional and very attractive Muslim friends and soul mates, as it were. Muslims, primarily of the Sufi tradition, invite him into their world, where they recognize him and all persons as children of the same God. And they pray together. Despite one vain effort to convert him to Islam, the Muslim partnersintroduced to him by other Jewish searcherscome off as quite intriguing and warm, even if unrepresentative of the more numerous Sunni Muslims of Israel. One would wish that the religious empathy aimed at by Halevi could have engaged some of the majority Muslims. But that is another journey.
Sadlyfor both the book and its charactersthe pilgrimage ends in the beginning of the Second Intifada. Warm relations with Muslims that began expansively with courageous but tentative outreach to the other, shrivel to occasional phone calls. But the most touching and enduring relationsbetween Halevi and Latin Christians (of the European variety)seem to have the potential at the end of the book to continue into a longer story. The reader wishes here, too, that the Christians encountered in the book were more representative of the majority of Holy Land Christians, who are Arab.
One may wonder, then, if the unconventional style of some of Halevi’s Muslim and Christian partners requires a similarly unconventional Judaism that Halevi reflects. One hopes not. For in the post-Sept. 11 and current Second Intifada, the kind of searching, honest and, yes, inspiring, dialogue that Halevi demonstrates may be the only kind that will in the end save us. This is a pilgrimage well worth going on.