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'At The Entrance To The Garden Of Eden' 3 Faiths, 1 God - 2001-12-23

Around the world there have been celebrations for the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the Jewish festival of Chanukah, and Christians celebrating Christmas. All three of the faiths that inspired these celebrations emerged from the Middle East, and an Israeli writer has gone on a quest to find the spiritual link between them.

In April of this year, two days before Easter, an Orthodox Jew accompanied by his two eldest children entered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's walled Old City. The man, Yossi Klein Halevi, wanted to demonstrate to his children that they could draw inspiration from what he describes as another religion's "sacred place." The church is revered by Christians, who believe it is located on the site where Jesus was crucified, buried and rose from the dead.

The reasons why Mr. Klein Halevi could enter a place that many of his fellow Jews regard as off-limits are to be found in a book he has written. The book movingly recounts his search for God in the Holy Land. It shows how, in an area deeply divided over politics and religion, he, an Orthodox Jew, sought out and prayed with Christians and Muslims. "I had goals that were at once very modest and very ambitious," he said. "and the goals were to see whether Jews, Christians and Muslims could pray together, could meditate together in this land, whether religion could be used as way of inciting love rather than inciting hatred."

Mr. Klein Halevi's approach was to strive for a mystical connection, largely through prayer, between the three religions. "I was searching for a language of prayer," he explained, "a religious language that would allow believers in this tortured strip of land to bypass all the accumulated grievances of politics, the misunderstandings of theology, the deep psychological gaps among us. And see whether we could experience something of the presence of God together."

Mr. Klein Halevi, who was born in New York City and has lived in Israel for many years, credits his encounters with Christians and Muslims for providing him with a deeper understanding of the divine, as well as a greater insight into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One sheikh he spoke to told him "You know this land doesn't belong to Palestinians, it doesn't belong to Jews, it belongs to God. In the end, we are all going to belong to the land because we are going to be buried in the land."

Mr. Klein Halevi believes it is this "higher religious conscience" that is missing from the Middle East peace-making process. "I think that one of the terrible mistakes of the process was that it tried to create an artificial peace among secular elites on the Palestinian and Israeli sides," he explained, "while ignoring the deep religious sensibility in this region. When peace comes it will have to have a religious component."

That is a lesson Mr. Klein Halevi hopes the leaders on both sides will learn. After 14 months of violence that has left almost 1,000 people dead, he says those who truly want peace must learn to speak to each other in a language that has meaning to them all, a language that incorporates God. "What I feel when I hear the muezzin calling from the next hill," he said, "is that he is reminding all of us that this world is transient."

His willingness to see members of other faiths as his brothers reaches one of its most dramatic climaxes at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the divided West Bank city of Hebron. The tomb, revered by both Jews and Muslims as the burial place of Abraham, is divided in half, with a synagogue on one side and a mosque on the other. As he prays silently at the shrine with his fellow Jews, Mr. Klein Halevi attempts to cross the chasm by asking God to also bless Muslims, who are worshipping on the other side of the wall that divides them. "That is the only building in the world that I can think of where Jews and Muslims pray under the same roof." he said. "Now we are separated because of security reasons. We are not allowed to get close together. Still there is something about the gift of our father, Abraham, that enables this joint pilgrimage to this same place to happen, in one of the cities where Jews and Muslims are most at each other's throats."

Hebron, a city of 120,000 Palestinians, is torn apart by violence, much of it focused on a Jewish settlement of 400 people who live there under the protection of the Israeli army. It was in Hebron, at Abraham's tomb, that Mr. Klein Halevi conceived the title for his book, At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden. "For me that building is a kind of sanctuary," he explained, "and you know that, according to Jewish legend, the entrance to the Garden of Eden is hidden under the Tomb of the Patriarchs, under Abraham and Sarah's grave. And that was very much in my mind when I thought of the title for the book."

But while Mr. Klein Halevi's was trying to reach out to other faiths, he found that members of other faiths were not always willing to embrace him. He says, for him, the way to Islam appeared most open through the minority Sufi sect, which emphasizes mystical pathways to God, while observing the other tenets of the Muslim faith. "On the whole, the communities that were most welcoming to me were the Sufi communities, he said. "And here unfortunately we are really talking about communities on the periphery of Palestinian society. The political situation has obviously made a real intimacy between Jews and Muslims very, very difficult and truthfully in most places impossible."

Ali Qleibo is a Sufi who lectures at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem. He says the Sufi branch of Islam, probably because of the way it relates to God, is generally considered more accessible to people of other faiths. "In Sufi Islam, one is dealing with God directly and the direct relationship with God is not mediated by religious dogma," he explained. "With Sufis in particular, the relationship is of a more universal type than if you are a strictly orthodox Muslim. Once you are dealing with God in the absolute and you are relating to God personally then you don't need the mediation of the whole theological, dogmatic, ritualistic, forms of religious expressions."

Mr. Klein Halevi's access to Christianity was in some ways helped by his wife Sarah, to whom the book is dedicated. She was born a Christian and converted to Judaism. But the two still interact with other members of her family, who remain committed Christians. "One of the remarkable changes that is happening within the Christian world, especially the Catholic world," he said, "is this transformation from seeing the Jewish people as implicated in the death of Jesus to embracing the Jewish people as the brothers of Jesus. And I felt the need to acknowledge those changes, and I see this journey that I took into Christianity as a way of reciprocating something of these gestures that have been offered to my people from much of Christianity."

Father Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, a Roman Catholic priest, author and scholar at the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, praises Mr. Klein Halevi for perhaps being the first person to write an account of the Holy Land from the perspective of the three faiths of the Holy Land. "I think that what Yossi Klein Halevi has done is in fact unique," he explained. "He is a reporter so he wrote a book about it. There may have been others that came here and I am sure there have been pilgrims who have sought to deepen their faith, particularly once they recognized that all three monotheistic religions worshipped the same God." And, he concluded, "if you go through the rituals, go through the texts you should reach the same God."

Mr. Klein Halevi's approach also has the blessing of eminent rabbis, among them David Rosen, international director of the Interreligious Relations at the office of American Jewish Committee in Jerusalem. "It has always struck me as something of an amazing paradox especially within our Abrahamic tradition," Mr. Rosen said. "We preach the idea of a universal, omnipresent deity. And yet at the same time we have all too often tried to encapsulate him exclusively within one particular tradition. That should be an obvious contradiction. If God relates to us in all our diversity, then there must be diverse ways of relating to God and no one tradition can encapsulate the totality of the divine. So naturally from my perspective, I applaud Yossi's journey."

Mr. Klein Halevi himself says that if his odyssey has a wider meaning, it is that people should begin to take monotheism seriously. "And the real meaning of monotheism is that there is one God but not one way," he added. "And where the real monotheistic faiths have failed in the past was to confuse the one God for one way."

Mr. Klein Halevi likens the followers of the three great religions in the Holy Land to climbers scaling different sides of the same mountain. All are striving, he says, to reach the same peak.

Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001