Orthodox Jewish author learns to pray with the neighbors
Orthodox Jewish author learns to pray with the neighbors
By James D.
October 22, 2001
They say the Holy Land
breeds miracles. If Yossi Klein Halevi had any doubts, they were settled when he
found himself walking around Jerusalem after Holy Week with customary kippa on
his head and uncustomary cross on his chest.
Christians were, after all,
the enemy, the cross their emblem. Yet there he was, bearing it as a positive
symbol of understanding. It was a high point in a trek not through streets or
wilderness, but through religious frontiers.
For two years, Halevi
visited Muslim and Christian communities in his homeland. He learned to accept
them, and they in turn welcomed him. And all without removing the skullcap
marking him as an Orthodox Jew.
"Until now, almost all the dialogue
between Jews and Christians has focused on talking to each other," says Halevi,
47, who chronicles his journey in his new book At the Entrance to the Garden of
Eden (William Morrow, $25). "I wanted to test if it were possible for Jews and
Christians and Muslims simply to pray together. And that's not something we do.
We're afraid of each other's prayers."
Halevi, who will speak at two
South Florida venues during Jewish Book Month, came by his writing credentials
as honestly as his religious ones. He studied journalism at Northwestern
University in Illinois before moving to Jerusalem in 1982, where he became a
senior writer for the Jerusalem Report. He also writes on Israeli affairs for
The New Republic and the Los Angeles Times.
But it was in writing about
the spiritual landscape that he found one of his greatest challenges. How to add
to the reams of words on history, politics, theology, social issues -- all the
questions that never seem to get resolved?
His first inspiration: Don't
"I was going to write about all three religions,"
Halevi says by phone from Jerusalem. "Then I thought, wait a minute. I am a
religious Jew. The book should be about me. About how a religious Jew encounters
the faiths of my neighbors."
His second inspiration: Don't write about
words but experiences.
"The book is experiential, not philosophical or
theological," he says. "I wanted to find common expressions of prayer. And maybe
to experience something of the divine presence together."
research around the Muslim and Christian holy days, Halevi decided meditation
offered the best hope. That quest took him to holy sites and communities that
might have been on alien worlds for a Brooklyn-raised Orthodox boy.
stop was a Sufi mosque in the Nuseirat Palestinian refugee camp, which he called
"the scariest place I've ever been." As an Israeli soldier, he'd been struck on
the head by a rock while patrolling that very camp. But the Sufis, heirs of a
medieval mystical tradition, accepted him into their zikr, or remembrance
Still wearing his kippa, Halevi learned to chant in Arabic, leap
and dance in what he called a "series of controlled steps toward ecstasy. It was
a part of a carefully coordinated procedure, a sensation of hysteria without
losing control. One of the most extraordinary forms of prayer."
point, Halevi says, he had something like an out-of-body experience. "You merge
with the people in the line. You're no longer an individual; you're part of a
In that transcendent moment, he was convinced he felt the
presence of God."Whatever God wanted to happen would happen. I didn't belong to
For Christians, Halevi chose a convent of meditative nuns near
Jerusalem. Again he found himself immersed in a surreal experience.
had visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the cavernous, domed shrine
believed to shelter the gravesite of Jesus. But meditating with these sisters,
he somehow felt like the Holy Sepulchre was filling him, the rotunda area
filling his chest.
"I was brought up in a tradition where we were
forbidden to enter a church. Yet there, I felt the ultimate church enter me. I
felt a tikkun, a healing
, for the unnatural rupture between us."
more hurdle remained: a "phobia of the cross," a deep trauma reaching back
centuries, when the Christian symbol was carried by inquisitors and
To try to get past that, he forced himself into the worst-case
scenario. Holy Week, the series of observances -- especially Good Friday and
Easter -- for Jesus' death, burial and resurrection. "Ground Zero for the Jewish
fear of Christianity," Halevi calls it.
He chose Jerusalem's small but
thriving Armenian community, descended from survivors of the Turkish genocide
1915. The climax actually came the week after Easter, when he attended St. James
Cathedral for the anniversary of the genocide. Halevi froze up when he saw a
young girl in the courtyard pinning commemorative crosses on participants. "I
can't do that," he remembers thinking, and instead turned aside to see a photo
exhibit that was part of the commemoration.
One photo drew his shocked
attention: the corpse of a young girl, with a cross carved into her chest. "Then
it hit me: This is the Armenian version of the Yellow Star," he says. He turned
back to the girl with the crosses and asked her to pin a cross onto
Despite the chain of remarkable events, Halevi isn't sure his
approach would work for everyone. As an Israeli, he lives in a Jewish majority
with Christian and Muslim minorities -- the opposite of everywhere else, where
Jews live as a minority with Christian or Muslim majorities.
insists that talking less and praying more is a valid alternative to the endless
talk. "We keep arguing about what Christians and Muslims believe -- the popes,
the Holocaust -- 2,000 years of poisoned words. What we haven't had is silence.
As soon as I tried that, I felt things falling into place."
Davis can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4730.
Copyright © 2001, South Florida
Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel