A Religious Secular Encounter of the Third Kind

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.

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6 Responses to A Religious Secular Encounter of the Third Kind

  1. Leslie krane says:

    Sounds like a self-serving attempt to justify a godless way of life: “look how open I am, I’ll even wear a yarmulke if people behave nicely by MY standards”.


    • Much Courage and Peace says:

      Good morning Leslie
      How you reached this conclusion from the article above is beyond me. Were shall we start? OK. You do not even know me. How can you say that my way of life is ‘godless’? Perhaps I follow more of the Ten Commandments than many of the so called ‘religious’ people? You have completely missed the point about the yarmulke. These events took place in 1979. I said clearly – I was a young man then and humility and tolerance were not my most developed attributes. In my arrogance and stupidity I went to a Rabbi’s house for a Friday night dinner intending not to wear a yarmulke. Meeting these people was a humbling and eye opening experience. I asked to borrow a yarmulke because I realised there and then how insensitive and insulting my behaviour was. The Rabbi and his family did not behave nicely by MY standards – they were godly people. We all had a meeting of minds, each understanding and opening up to the other’s way of life. If more of this will happen in Israel today it may help to aleviate the extreme chasm opening up as we speak between secular and charedi Jews.

  2. Leslie krane says:

    “Perhaps I follow more of the Ten Commandments than many of the so called ‘religious’ people? ”
    – I wish I had a shekel for every chiloni who’s ever made that statement; it’s the Israel version of “some of my best friends are Jews” – corny and stupid, apart from its being total nonsense.

    • Much Courage and Peace says:

      Some of my best friends are indeed Jews…
      I rest my case Leslie. Let’s just agree not to agree. Shabbat Shalom and have a Happy New Year.

      • Sara says:

        Oh dear Leslie, it sounds like you are exactly the kind of person the author of this piece was worried about encountering when he entered the Rabbi’s house that evening.Thank goodness they left him with a better impression than you’re leaving non-Jews reading this blog. Embarrassing.

        Some of my close friends are, indeed, very religious Jews. However, they are as respectful of my life choices as I am of theirs. I’ve always thought that’s what sets us apart as a people.

        There is only one person in this conversation who has cast a judgemental light on someone else’s spiritual choices. God is everywhere. If you choose to find him (or her – quick, get the stones out) through following a book and that works for you then great. If you choose to look elsewhere, you won’t be disappointed either. What matters is that you’re looking.

        Blessings. I hope next year brings you a similarly humbling experience.


  3. jason says:

    I’m a ‘non jew’ and believe me, I wouldn’t worry about the impression Leslie is leaving, us non jews have our share of ‘Leslies’ as well, very interesting blog.

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