Chalk this post up to Saturday being Yom Kippur. Or to my having spent last Saturday evening at a Sufi-style zikr (religious dance) at a local Friends’ meeting house. Or to a certain nervousness over the future of the latest Gaza ceasefire.
For whatever reason, I was moved to pull down from my shelf Yossi Klein Halevi’s book At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden, and reread his story of two Jews at a Sufi zikr in Gaza, November 1999.
Gaza in 1999 wasn’t exactly a Friends’ meeting house. The Oslo peace process between Israelis and Palestinians, which generated so much hope earlier in the 1990s, hadn’t yet disintegrated into the murderous madness of the Second Intifada. But it was plainly on its last legs, and Gaza was a seething, impoverished, frightening place.
Halevi, who’d been an army reservist in the occupation of Gaza and went back partly in hope of making amends, couldn’t forget what happened to another reservist who made a wrong turn in Gaza. He was set upon by a mob, stoned, trapped in his automobile and burned alive.
To accept the invitation of a Gazan Sufi sheykh–“Sheykh Abdul-Rahim welcomes Rabbi Froman and Yossi Halevi to the zikr in honor of the Prophet Muhammad”–took more than a little courage on Halevi’s part. It helped that when he passed through the military checkpoint into Gaza that November evening, Rabbi Menachem Froman was at his side.
Froman, rabbi of the Tekoa settlement on the West Bank, was entirely fearless. As a settler rabbi, you’d expect him to have been a right-wing religious zealot, and in a way he was. He was convinced that peace between Arabs and Jews was irrelevant and futile as long as it was the work of rootless secular elites. The real peace had to be made between the real forces in the Middle East, namely its religious faiths.
This Orthodox rabbi was a fervent and unabashed admirer of Islam, capable of leading a Muslim crowd in cries of “Allahu akbar,” God is great. The Muslim credo la ilaha ill’ Allah (there is no god but God) was in perfect harmony with Judaism as Froman understood it.
“Ya sheykh,” Froman told his host at Sheykh Abdul-Rahim’s Sufi mosque, “why did I leave my wife and ten children and come to Gaza on this night? To learn from my Muslim brothers, the children of Ishmael, how to worship God. The Jewish people was exiled from this land because of our sins. And during the exile we forgot many things about how we served God in our youth, when we lived in the land. Now God has brought us back, to serve Him. God wants us to learn from our Muslim brothers how to serve Him in the joy of the zikr, as we once knew how to do when we were young.”
Halevi describes that “joy of the zikr“:
“The zikr began with cymbals and drums, so loud and relentless that my own thoughts became inaccessible, and that was perhaps the point: to empty the mind. Though no more than fifty people were gathered, the long and narrow prayer room was filled. Old men, working men, teenage boys and children held hands and formed a circle. Yusuf, quietly looking after me, took my hand. Froman joined the circle. Ibrahim and Sheykh Abdul-Rahim’s son Nabhan stood in the center and led us.
“‘La illaha ill’Allah. La illaha ill’Allah. La illaha ill’Allah!’ Slowly, then faster, until the phrase merges into one word, one breath. We sway in unison, a dance of controlled ecstasy balancing effusiveness and restraint, stripping away inhibition but avoiding hysteria, gradually losing ourselves into heightened awareness.
“‘Allah-hu,’ Allah is He. Bow to the waist and exhale, rise and inhale. Quickly, repeatedly, until your hands dangle uselessly like a marionette and you know yourself to be a mere instrument of a higher will. I forget to worry about being observed, the outsider trying to keep in step. I am no longer an Israeli with a kipah [skull-cap] in a Gaza mosque but part of the great human wave of surrender.
“Froman breaks from the circle, waving his hands and laughing. After all these years of lonely search for peace with Islam, he’s finally embraced by Muslim prayer. ‘Allah!’ he cries. ‘Allah! Allah!'”
On an earlier visit to Sheykh Abdul-Rahim’s mosque, Halevi met a massive Palestinian from Canada who was jokingly called, from his green robe and turban, “the Green Sheykh.”
“We have to live the story of this time,” the Green Sheykh told Halevi in his fluent English. “The question isn’t anymore to be or not to be a Muslim or a Christian or a Jew. Now it is about direct experience of the God. Not to believe in the God; to know the God. The story of religion is soon going to take a different turn. The God Himself will bring us to Him. Everyone will know that the God is real. The duty of Muslims, Christians, and Jews is to prepare the world for this divine revelation of harmony and unity and love.”
There’s a peace plan implicit in these words. The rub is that, for it to work, all parties have to really, really, really believe in God. The Middle East’s problem may not be that it’s too religion-ridden. Possibly it’s not religious enough.
Menachem Froman is no longer around to offer guidance on how we get there from here. He died in March 2013 at age 68, which no longer seems the ripe old age it once did. (I turn 67 in November.) Can the checkered career of the late Ian Paisley provide useful lessons in this regard? It’s a question worth pondering.
I myself mostly don’t believe in God, mostly do believe in religion. I have no doubt that human individuals are better off with religious faith than without it. I’m not sure the same applies to human societies–religion has been responsible for enough atrocity through the centuries that it makes sense to be wary of it. Still, are we sure its potential for good has been fully tapped?
Seven years ago, the minister at my Unitarian church sent an email to members of a certain committee, none of whom was Jewish but me. “Wishing you all a good Yom Kippur, a new year of recommitment to life’s abundant presence, gifts and needs.” That’s not quite the Yom Kippur I remember from my youth, but I like it. It reminds me that Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, and atonement is at-one-ment, “being at one.” That was the goal to which Menachem Froman dedicated his too-short life.
May this world soon experience it.
by David Halperin
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