At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden by Yossi Klein Halevi
At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land
by Yossi Klein Halevi
William Morrow. 315 pp. $25.00
Yossi Klein Halevi, for many years a senior correspondent for the Jerusalem Report and now also a regular contributor from Israel to the New Republic, is one of the Jewish world’s finest journalists. An American-born Israeli whose first book, Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist, told of growing up in a Brooklyn family of religiously Orthodox Holocaust survivors, he displays in his writing both a great capacity for empathy and a strong sense of where—as a committed Zionist, a politically centrist Israeli, and an observant Jew—he himself stands. Much of the strength of his reporting on politics and culture derives from this ability to slip inside the skin of those he disagrees with while not compromising his own beliefs.
Klein Halevi’s new book is about religion rather than politics or culture—to the extent that in the Middle East these things are ever separable. Indeed, it is his wish that they be separable, coupled with the realization that they almost never are, that impels this account of his quest for a religious common denominator among Jews, Muslims, and Christians living at the heart of the Israeli-Arab conflict. Not a lowest common denominator—Klein Halevi is not interested in the usual ecumenical clichés about our Judeo-Christian-Islamic heritage. What concerns him is not religious narrative or theology but religious experience—and specifically mystical experience, that direct perception of the divine nature of things that, going beyond the forms of conventional religion to the Ultimately Formless, has been described with remarkable similarity by the most varied traditions. Not only in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam but also in Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and other belief systems, mystics tend to talk the same way because, to judge by the writings they have left us, they feel and think many of the same things. Even if their terminology differs, they might be compared to a brotherhood of pilgrims traveling a single road.
Can such a brotherhood be found in the Middle East? Can it survive the region’s violence and hatred? These are the questions posed by Klein Halevi’s new book. His answer is a qualified “yes.” Yet one need not be unappreciative of his thoughtfulness, his gift for portraiture, or the lures of the mystic way itself to realize how thin a “yes” it is.
The book is divided into three parts: an opening one dealing with Islam, a middle one turning to Christianity, and a closing one returning to Islam. The Islamic sections are centered around three Sufi sheikhs whom Klein Halevi seeks out and comes to know. (Sufism has been, since its inception two centuries after Muhammad, the main mystical current in Islam.)
The first of these, Sheikh Ishak Idriss Sakouta, is a half-Saudi, half-Egyptian “religious counselor” first encountered on a visit to Jerusalem. The second, Sheikh Ibrahim, lives in a West Bank village near Nablus. The third, Sheikh Ibrahim’s teacher Sheikh Abdul-Rahim, resides in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. All three men are willing to meet with Klein Halevi and allow him to participate in Sufi rituals even though they know he is a religious Jew, and he is grateful to them for this. (He is also careful to note that this willingness was manifested before last year’s breakdown of the Oslo process, since which time he has not been in touch with any of them.) Their attitude toward him ranges from the enthusiasm of Sheikh Ibrahim, who claims to “love Jews” and is flattered by Klein Halevi’s attentions, to the ulteriority of Sheikh Abdul-Rahim, who would like to convert his Jewish interlocutor to Islam. Yet while all three men are reasonably friendly, none evinces the least interest in the author’s Jewishness, let alone in a religious dialogue with him.
Nor, when talking about religion, do their remarks ever rise above the commonplace. “It is God who decides who has inner peace,” says Sheikh Ishak. “God doesn’t dance. He is the dance,” says Sheikh Ibrahim. “If a person loves people, prays, and tries to get close to God, his grave is like paradise. If he does the opposite, his grave is like fire,” says Sheikh Abdul-Rahim. Only once is Klein Halevi jarred by any of them into a higher awareness.
This occurs when he joins a Sufi zikr or trance dance at Sheikh Abdul-Rahim’s. “Beyond ecstasy,” he writes, “the zikr had imparted the feeling that I’d found my natural rhythm and could keep spinning inexhaustibly. . . . I [was] no longer an Israeli with a kipah in a Gaza mosque but part of the great human wave of surrender.” At a climactic moment, his fears of being in the mosque allayed by the atmosphere of religious devotion, he even confesses to having been a soldier of occupation in his hosts’ refugee camp. To his relief, they do not appear to hold it against him.
Klein Halevi’s encounters with mystical Christians are on a higher level. In part that is because these meetings are unencumbered by contemporary passions or politics, in part because the Christians involved are more open and intellectually sophisticated. At one point, for instance, the author is told by Sister Johanna, a Catholic nun in Jerusalem, that her “hardest spiritual struggle” has been “overcoming sentimental love,” because “the difficulty is to love truly, without discrimination. . . . If you close your heart to even one person, it’s not yet divine love.” In these words we are hearing something that, while hardly original, needs to be thought about. (That Klein Halevi chooses, uncharacteristically, not to think about it is a point I will come back to.)
Moreover, many of the author’s Christian contacts are genuinely interested in Judaism—some out of a sense of guilt toward Jews akin to what he himself feels toward Palestinians—and are looking for a relationship with it. Even if they occasionally step on Jewish toes, they are quick to apologize. When Sister Johanna tells Klein Halevi that the Jews’ refusal to believe in Jesus means “that the people of Israel isn’t accepting what God wants to give it,” she makes amends at once by “moving her fingers to simulate talking lips, as if [she realized that] her mouth was out of control.”
Summing up his quest, Klein Halevi writes in a post-intifada epilogue:
At difficult moments—when I am overwhelmed with fear for my children’s safety and rage at the Palestinian leadership for rejecting compromise and despair at the Middle East for turning the Jewish homecoming into another form of exile—I try to recall what I leaned from my teachers, the monastics and sheikhs of the Holy Land. I remind myself of Sister Johanna’s warning against building barriers in the heart and excluding even one person from our love. . . . And Sheikh Abdul-Rahim’s contempt for death. . . . The cross and minaret have become for me cherished symbols of God’s Presence, reminders that He speaks to us in multiple languages—that He speaks to us at all. Even if much of Arab Islam has descended into the kind of Jew-hatred for which Christianity is now trying to atone, I insist on revering Islam and its fearless heart. The fanatics will not deprive me of that victory.
But this is too pat. It is too pat not only because, as Klein Halevi acknowledges, Sufis and mystical nuns are a tiny and uninfluential minority of their Middle-Eastern coreligionists, but also because it does not grapple with the hard questions implicit in its own formulations. Might it not be possible, for example, that the Islamic “contempt for death” is somehow related to Muslim terrorists who—contemptuous also of life, their own and others’—have struck repeatedly at Israel and now at America? If it is no accident that the overwhelming bulk of terror in today’s world is carried out by Muslims, then Klein Halevi owes his readers at least some explanation of why he thinks “the fearless heart” of Islam has nothing to do with this. What makes him so certain that, when the Jew from Jerusalem has left his mosque, Sheikh Abdul-Rahim does not, like many of his non-Sufi colleagues in Gaza, praise the fearlessness of the suicide bomber?
One’s reservations about At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden go well beyond this, however. They go right to Sister Johanna’s words, endorsed by Klein Halevi, that overcoming “sentimental love” means “to love truly, without discrimination.” The truth, it seems to me, is exactly the opposite.
I can think of nothing more sentimental, and more divorced from the hard ground of human reality, than the idea of undiscriminating love, the notion that it is possible—indeed desirable—indeed imperative—to love the stranger in the street as one loves one’s family and friends. To love everyone with part of one’s heart is to love no one with all of one’s heart, not even one’s family and friends. This is a nunnish ideal of loving that only those, like Sister Johanna or Jesus, who have no husbands, wives, or children can believe in. It marks one of the great differences between Judaism, in which there is no monasticism or celibacy, and Christianity, which was built on these two things. To Christians like Sister Johanna, Judaism’s insistence that true love is hierarchical and preferential—that one’s own come first—is clannish and egotistical. To Jews like myself, Sister Johanna’s determination to love everyone equally is emotional escapism.
The mystic way and its beliefs are alluring. There is something in all of us that yearns to be “part of the great human wave of surrender.” There is something in us that is easily exasperated by the pettiness of human egos, interests, conflicts, and cruelty and that craves a selfless world of human brotherhood. But the self, while it can and must be disciplined, cannot be extinguished. Those who deny its claims in the name of divine love more often than not merely end up by tormenting it. And tormented selves will not bring brotherhood to the Middle East. Politics will not bring brotherhood, either, but it may one day satisfy enough selfish interests to give the region some peace.