Reading “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden”

I have just finished reading a remarkable book, At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden, by Yossi Klein Halevi.  Halevi is a journalist- he is the Israel correspondent for The New Republic and a senior writer for The Jerusalem Report.  Among other publications, he has also written for the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.

Halevi’s book is an intensely personal account of his quest for peace between Arabs and Jews in Israel. His version of interfaith dialogue takes him on a journey from his Jerusalem home into West Bank Sufi mosques to meet with mystic sheiks and participate in the secretive rite of zikr, to practice meditation in obscure Christian monasteries whose monks celebrate Shabbat and sing in Hebrew, and to remember the Armenian genocide with exiled Armenian Christian monks who live in cloistered isolation deep within Jerusalem.

At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden captures the paradoxes of Israel, of orthodoxy, and of religious pluralism in a very palpable manner. I have quoted below some of my favorite passages:

"I am a part of the Israeli majority that is ready to offer almost any concessions for real peace, to end the pathological hundred-year war between Arabs and Jews that threatens to draw the world into cataclysm.  The journey described in this book—my attempt, as a religious Israeli Jew, to encounter the devotions of my Christian and Muslim neighbors—was the ultimate gesture I was capable of offering for peace.

… Even if we managed one more Israeli miracle and fashioned the Jews into a people that learned to respect its own diversity, how would we integrate the one million Arabs among us?  For Israeli Jews, the founding of the state was an act of redemption, a movement from holocaust to rebirth; for Israeli Arabs, that process was in effect reversed.  How could we create one nation from Jews who celebrated Israeli Independence Day and Arabs who mourned it?  Our notions of the Israeli future were hardly less antagonistic.  Arabs were demanding a de-Judaized Israel, a state that would accommodate its citizens into a neutral national identity; Jews insisted on an Israel that remained heir of the Jewish story and protector of the world’s Jewish communities.  Both expectations were just, but they were irreconcilable.

The land was too crowded and intimate to sustain such contradictory visions of it s most basic nature and purpose. In my better moments, I could appreciate the vital insights of each of our ideological camps. Israel’s contradictions, after all, were being fought within me. 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 believed it was no coincidence that Israel was an intense meeting point between democracy and tradition, East and West. Our contradictions were the stuff of our spiritual work, perhaps the purpose for which we had been returned to this land. Somehow, we had to overcome our absolutist instincts and learn to contain opposites. And so I refused to take sides, nurturing my confusion and inhabiting an uneasy center in which Israel’s paradoxes clashed. I saw in my journalistic work an extension of my spiritual challenge as an Israeli: to find truth in every voice.”

This is a great book—if you are interested in interfaith dialogue, you need to read it. I hope to meet Yossi Halevi in person on my next trip to Israel.

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