Some readers might raise an eyebrow – how does an article about a religious secular encounter fit into a site dedicated to defence policy and national security? Well, as I wrote in a previous article about the Kingdom of the Hashmonaim, amongst the reasons for its defeat in the hands of the Romans and for the destruction of the Second Temple were deep ideological divisions within the people, futile hatred and quarrels between brothers, so an article about bridging gaps and healing wounds of this kind is very relevant.
As a student, I lived and studied in Jerusalem. My then girlfriend was a student in the Hebrew University. One of her classmates was a quiet and pleasant religious girl and they became friends. After the girl heard from my girlfriend that we were interested in spiritual and alternative lifestyles, she surprised us one day by an unexpected invitation from her neighbourhood Rabbi who had invited us to his home for a Friday night dinner.
I hesitated a lot before going. The last thing I needed, I thought, was a religious brainwash, attempts to convert us and a telling off for our unholy spiritual inclinations. Finally I agreed to go with a total lack of enthusiasm. I was a young man then and humility and tolerance were not my most developed attributes. I did not take a yarmulke with me – even at the Rabbi’s house on a Friday evening, I will not let anyone force me to wear a yarmulke, I thought. When the day came, we bought flowers and made our way on foot to meet with the religious girl who was to take us to the Rabbi’s house. When the girl saw the flowers, she explained that we should not bring them with as it will be a breach of the commandments to put them in water during the Sabbath. We left the flowers in her room, me wondering what I had let myself into.
We reached the Rabbi’s home. His wife greeted us with a welcoming smile and after a short while the Rabbi and his young sons returned from the synagogue. He was a kind man, tall and bearded, wearing a hat and with wise eyes and a face full of light. We sat down to the beautifully laid table with the lit candles on it. No one mentioned my uncovered head but before the Rabbi started blessing the food I asked, full of shame and with a red face, if I could please borrow a yarmulke.
The Rabbi and his wife, who knew we were vegetarian and prepared a special meal for us, apologised time and again for eating a chicken in front of us and expressed their hope that this would not hurt our feelings. At the table a discussion developed about the near-sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham and the Rabbi’s children amazed me with their knowledge and wisdom. After that, the discussion moved on to subjects of spirituality and the Rabbi asked many deep questions about the wisdom of the East, the New Age, vegetarianism and other disciplines we were into at the time. At the end of the conversation the Rabbi asked: “Where did you learn so much about Judaism?” We agreed that the truth is present everywhere, not just in one teaching or another. At no stage during this wonderful evening had anyone tried to lecture us or convince us about anything.
I did not become a religious Jew keeping all the commandments after that evening, but my attitude towards religious people who follow their beliefs and let others follow their own beliefs had changed a lot. I also learnt a very important lesson that took me many years to adopt and implement – say Yes to anyone coming your way, as they are a friend, bearing a gift for you.