Read this post, if you want, as a belated tribute to the World Day of Prayer, observed last Thursday on the day better known as Patriot Day or simply 9/11. Or as a memorial to the late Philip Berg, head of the LA-based “Kabbalah Centre” where the celebs–most visibly, Madonna–learn their Kabbalah. Berg died one year ago today.
Mostly, though, it’s a meditation on religion and its potential. “Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum,” said old Lucretius: so much evil religion was capable of inducing. (Suadere literally, “to make it seem sweet.”) Can it be a sweetener also for good? Can it bring human beings together, not as the righteous ganged up against the infidel, but in a love encompassing all?
How much of itself does it need to leave behind in order to do that?
I take my text from an article by one Jenny Hazan that appeared in the Israeli English-language newspaper Jerusalem Post on March 12, 2003. It was posted the same day to an online group of academic scholars of the Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition. It stirred up a lively discussion.
“Some 100 Kabbalah Center members brought smiles and cheerful songs with them to the Kalandiya checkpoint outside Ramallah on Tuesday afternoon for a special mission: distributing pocket-sized copies of the 2,000-year-old mystical texts of the Zohar to the carloads of Palestinians passing through the checkpoint.
“Christian Arab Elias Jabor from the House of Hope, Druse Sheikh Hussein Abu Rukun, and an anonymous representative from the Congolese Embassy joined an eclectic crowd of Israelis clad in ‘Unconditional Love’ T-shirts.
“They braved the drizzle to hand out 1,000 tiny blue hardcover copies of the book in order to ‘bring peace to anyone and everyone who might need it,’ according to a statement from the organization.”
Of the innumerable places on this aching planet that need peace, the beautiful, tormented land you might want to call either “Israel” or “Israel-Palestine” is high on the list. March 2003, moreover, was not among the cheerier times in its history. The very worst of the extended horror known as the Second Intifada was a year in the past, but the killing and fear and hatred went on. The situation was grim–as it is today, though not quite for the same reasons.
The Zohar was written, not 2000 years ago, but around the end of the 13th century. Its original language was Aramaic. I’d assumed that the portion of the Zohar the KC people handed out was translated into Arabic, but maybe not–the news story speaks only of the introduction being translated into “six different languages, including Arabic and Chinese.” Nevertheless …
“Their efforts didn’t go unappreciated. Many of the Palestinian laborers who received a copy greeted the activists with smiles and handshakes.
“‘Now is the first time I read this, and I feel good,’ said Jamal Abdallah, a Palestinian truck driver from Ramallah, as he perused the Arabic version of the introduction.
“‘This is really nice,’ said Nablus-based Palestinian Hakim Ali Abed Hassan, as someone handed him a copy. ‘I want them to come every day. It’s good for us and it’s good for them.'”
A different news story on the same incident quoted Sheikh Hussein Abu Rukun as saying, “The Zohar has wrought many miracles throughout the world. Maybe it can make a miracle happen here.”
From his mouth to God’s ear.
But it looks like God wasn’t listening. 11 1/2 years have passed; no miracle. Israelis are still holding Palestinians down in the mud, muddying themselves in the process. They’d let them up if they could but they can’t–they’re too afraid of being assaulted. The fear is not irrational. That’s what happened during the Second Intifada (2000-2005), when the hopes that Israelis and Palestinians could move together toward peace and decency collapsed into an orgy of hatred and terror.
It wasn’t that the bad guys won. It was that the good guys–the Palestinians and the Israelis–just couldn’t make it. Making peace between two horribly traumatized peoples is like sewing together pieces of chocolate cake.
Can religious faith do the trick? Something more than handing out Zohars on a drizzly March day seems to be required. Rereading the Jerusalem Post article and the discussions it inspired, after 11 1/2 years, I’m struck both by the touching beauty of the Kabbalah Centre’s gesture and its utter futility. The problem is not religion’s inability to move the human soul. It’s that it tends to move souls in wrong directions.
As if in defiance of the meaningless argument that “Arabs can’t be anti-Semitic because they’re Semites themselves,” Islamic anti-Semitism is deep and potent. Judaism has its own tradition of xenophobia, just as deep-rooted and as ugly. Some of the worst expressions of it, actually, are in that same Zohar that the Kabbalah Centre people handed out expecting a miracle. (“‘According to Kabbalah, the energy that comes from the words of the Zohar is enough to bring peace to the world,’ explained Osnat Youdkevitch, organizer of the Israel branch of the international, California-based non-profit organization.”)
Mysticism sometimes works to transcend human differences. Traditional Kabbalah, with a few heartening exceptions, normally does the opposite. Kabbalistic writings underscore the spiritual abyss that supposedly separates Jews from non-Jews, literally demonize non-Jewish religions. The Zohar, for all its beauty and sporadic profundity, is as harsh as any.
Some of the Kabbalah scholars in our online group spoke of the inappropriateness–or at least the irony–of using the Zohar as a bridge among faiths, as if the book’s mystical “energy” could be divorced from its problematic contents. What the Kabbalah Centre did, said some, was “absurd,” “inane,” “frankly dangerous.” Others disagreed. Boaz Huss, professor of Jewish Thought at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, posted this response:
“Considering what Palestinians receive from other Israelis these days (and vice versa) calling the distribution of Zohar volumes ‘dangerous’ seems to me extremely inadequate. I certainly prefer this gesture to the attitude of other kabalistic oriented groups to the Palestinians. I wish with all my heart that exchanging uncritically examined texts will be the most dangerous exchange between Israelis and Palestinians.”
Once again–from his mouth to God’s ear.
A new Jewish year, the 5775th since the Creation, begins next week. Maybe this is the year that God, and those whose lives revolve around God, will start to listen.
by David Halperin
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