Saturday, 27 November 2010

The Fiftieth Gate


Without telling his teacher anything of what he was doing, a disciple of rabbi Barukh’s [of Mezbizh] had inquired into the nature of God, and in his thinking had penetrated further and further until he was tangled in doubts, and what had been certain up to this time, became uncertain. When Rabbi Barukh noticed that the young man no longer came to him as usual, he went to the city where he lived, entered his room unexpectedly, and said to him: “I know what is hidden in your heart. You have passed through the fifty gates of reason. You begin with a question and think, and think up an answer – and the first gate opens, and to new question! And again you plumb it, find the solution, fling open the second gate – and look into a new question. On and on like this, deeper and deeper, until you have forced open the fiftieth gate. There you stare at a question whose answer no man has ever found, for if there were one who knew it, there would no longer be freedom of choice. But if you dare to probe still further, you plunge into the abyss.”

“So should I go back all the way, to the very beginning?” cried the disciple.

“If you turn, you will not be going back,” said Rabbi Barukh. “You will be standing beyond the last gate: you will stand in faith.”

(Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim)

Sunday, 21 November 2010

My Jerusalem and Israel Photo Album

Preview on Blurb

Press the link above to preview 20 pages of my 72-page photo album full of impressions and faces from the Holy (and, at times, not-so-holy) Land of Israel.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Reflections on the Parable of the Prodigal Son

(This is an extract from a larger article published in Cistercian Studies Quarterly)


We know how a child normally identifies with her father or mother, how a teenager identifies with a sport hero or a movie star, or simply with an adult whom he admires—who could be a teacher. Later on the young man or woman will identify with what he or she does and achieves, or what he or she acquires and owns, or with his or her affective conquests. But when someone really becomes an adult—which is not simply a question of number of years—that person will discover and realize her identity: who she is independently of all the superficial egos and of all the images that she has or others have of her. She is the person who has some talents and does not have other talents, who has things and can lose them, who has successes and failures, and who always remains the same person through all the upheavals of life, while becoming more and more herself.

That process of becoming an adult and an autonomous person, both humanly speaking and spiritually, is very well expressed in a number of parables of the Old Testament as well as of the New Testament.

In the Old Testament, we have the story of Job. Job has everything in which people normally find their psychological, social, and spiritual identity. He is a good man; he has a good reputation in society; he has a wife and many children (seven sons and three daughters), numerous possessions (fields, camels, sheep, oxen), and also male and female ser­vants to take care of all those possessions. He has good health and good friends.

He loses all of this, including the understanding of his wife and of his friends and his health. Then he makes the wonderful discovery that, even after losing everything, he is. He exists. He is the same Job who had all those things and has lost them. The Job who now has nothing is the same person who was a rich, powerful, and influential man. Having nothing to lose any more, he is free. Therefore, he can stand before God and speak very strongly to God. Nobody in the Bible speaks like that to God. This is not arrogance; it is parrhesia—confidence and freedom—the freedom of those who have nothing to lose. At the end he will be able not to recover what he has lost, but to acquire again similar riches (what is lost is lost). That will not change who he is. He is free.

In the New Testament, the same growth process is described in one of Jesus' parables, that of the prodigal son (better called the parable of the prodigal Father). We have here a family whose life seems to be happy and without sorrow. It is a well-to-do family, since there is a fortune to divide among the children. There are fields, flocks, and servants. What the par­able wants to show is the different attitude of three of the characters.

One of the sons has enough of that quiet family life, although it seems to have been harmonious, easy, and pleasant. He wants to live his own life. The life he shares with his father, his brother, and the rest of the fam­ily does not fulfill him any longer. He needs personal achievement. He wants to be somebody and enjoy life. He wants to exist as an independent and isolated individual and not as a member of a whole, a desire we hear in our communities, at times.

What does the father do? He does not express any objection. He must certainly have made his own mistakes during his youth, and he ac­knowledges his son's right to make his own. What is important to him is that his son have a life. The conditions in which he will realize his life are important but secondary. The prodigal son then tastes all the pleasures of life. They are real pleasures, but at the superficial level of existence. Gradually he squanders everything he has, and, as a matter of fact, he experiences the same losing of everything that Job did. The only differ­ence is that he inflicts it upon himself while it was imposed on Job by the Tempter. Then he comes to himself—he has therefore reached his iden­tity in that way—he has found himself in his own way. There was some­one who lived in the past with his father, and who left his father who had a fortune that he has squandered, who has enjoyed the pleasures of life that he cannot afford any more. This person is capable of conversion and of returning to his father. He is free enough to return. He does not fear to be disinherited, since he has already had his inheritance and wasted it. He does not fear to be rejected as a son, since he does not claim the right to be considered a son. He simply wants to be a servant (this word is perhaps the most important of the parable). And when the father sees him coming, he runs to him and embraces him, because his son is alive. The father does not see the ungrateful son, he does not see the fugitive, he does not see the debauched person. He sees his son who is alive, and he wants to celebrate life with his family and servants.

Not everyone is able to celebrate life, especially life in others. The second son is the most pathetic figure of that parable. He is like the good Christian, or the good religious, always faithful to all his obligations, but who has not understood the meaning of life, and especially has not un­derstood anything about love and mercy. He is unable to celebrate. In fact he has nothing to celebrate. When he returns from the fields and he hears the music and the dancing, he asks what the meaning is of that music and of that dancing. That poor man, with all his virtue and his faithful observance, has not made the journey to maturity and adulthood that his brother has made.

Let us now return to the story of the young rich man. He asks Jesus what to do in order to have eternal life. His goal is certainly good—eter­nal life. He is very concerned about the "doing" He asks what he should do, and when Jesus quotes some of the commandments of the Decalogue to him, he says that he has done all of that since his youth. Then Jesus invites him to get rid of everything and come and follow him. In reality Jesus invites him to do voluntarily and freely exactly the same letting go of everything that was imposed on Job by circumstances and that the prodigal son imposed upon himself. He is unable to do it. He is not free. He has not achieved adulthood.

[...] We want to identify with Christ. It is certainly a noble desire! But perhaps it would be more important to ask ourselves, "With whom does Christ want to iden­tify?" The answer is quite obvious in Matthew 25:31-46. Christ identifies with the little ones, the needy, and the downtrodden. "I was sick, I was hungry, I was in jail, I was persecuted .... What you did to the little ones, you did to me." It is when we belong in one way or another to one of those categories that we can be sure that Christ identifies with us.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Remind you of anything?..


I found this on the web by accident. It’s an invitation to a tomorrow’s event in Kensington by an organization called – in case you can’t read the small script – Muslims Against Crusaders.

I loved the name they gave to the demonstration, though… No comment.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Gamila Soap



This is a soap made by a Druze woman from Israel. She inherited a secret formula of mixing wild herbs and oils into unique natural soaps, and has become world famous, now selling the soap to some 20 countries worldwide. Gamila Secret soap cleanses, revitalizes and restores natural balance to any type of skin, is hypo-allergenic and is only made with pure 100% organic ingredients.

They used to sell it in a small shop in Oslo, in Bislett, called Mitt Hjem Mitt Slott. Otherwise, it’s Ebay Smile The soap is truly unique, recommended by beauty and healthcare professionals and ordinary users.

I found this story about the founder of the industry that I would love to share:

“The field and the herbs were my secret garden.It was an incongruous sight. Among the business and military dignitaries who were honored by Israel as torchbearers marking the beginning of the country's 58th Independence Day celebrations in May, was a Druze Arab great-grandmother dressed in festive traditional garb.

Gamila Hiar, 68, known widely as 'Safta Gamila' - Grandma Gamila -- of Peqiin, a small village in the Upper Galilee stood alongside Israeli billionaire Stef Wertheimer, former Southern commander Major General Doron Almog and other notables chosen to usher in the holiday. With the ceremony's theme "the development of the Negev and Galilee," each torchbearer was honored for contributing in some way to the communities in northern and southern Israel.

Hiar, specifically, was honored for the example she set for her village and the country at large by establishing a hand-made soap industry that has developed into an international enterprise. Employing twenty-five Christian, Druze, Moslem and Jewish women in her soap factory, Gamila serves as a beacon to her neighbors and her country for actualizing her personal dream of decades, and at the same time has brought modern medicine, feminism and education to her community.

"I felt very proud. Very proud. And very honored to light the torch," Gamila told ISRAEL21c after the event.

A slight woman dressed simply in a black cotton dress and black, knit stockings with a thin white head covering, Gamila's stature, warm eyes and endearment-laden talk - "Come sit, Aayouni" (my eyes) - belie her impressive achievements.

Raised in Peqiin adjacent to Safed, Gamila says she was affected by the region's spirituality. Recognized for hundreds of years as an area where Druze and Jews live peacefully together, Peqiin is notable for its place in Jewish history. The Zohar - the most important book of the Kabbalah - was written by Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in an area cave where he hid during the 2nd century to avoid persecution by the Romans.

As a young girl, Gamila spent her days playing in the fields near her house and gathering flowers and herbs. During her youth, conventional doctors were an anomaly - ailments were treated with herbal remedies passed down through generations. "The field and the herbs were my secret garden," she explains.

Gamila spent forty years gathering herbs, studying their properties and boiling olive oil in her home kitchen in an effort to find the balance between olive oil and healing herbs. Seven years ago she exacted the formula and today she runs a burgeoning soap business selling her goods within Israel and exporting Gamila Soap to high-end retailers in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

"My product is unusual and it's international - now it's sold in 13 countries. Just last month I was in Portugal and Holland holding press conferences," Gamila said. "Wherever I go, I always talk about Peqiin and the Galilee. That's why I was chosen for Israel's Independence Day, I think. Because through my work, hiring multi-ethnic women and believing in peace, I am doing something for the village and the country."

Factories in Israel and Rotterdam collectively employ 60 workers and production that began in Gamila's kitchen - she sold bars wrapped in newspaper - has expanded to a 30,000-unit-per week output over 3 years. The Rotterdam factory was opened as a means of marketing to countries like Syria and Saudi Arabia that otherwise boycott Israel.

"In Rotterdam we market ourselves as 'Upper Galilee' soaps," eldest son Fuad told ISRAEL21c.

Three of Gamila's five children have a hand in the enterprise - one son works as a chemist, another as marketing manager and Fuad, her eldest, as the company's managing director. Fuad returned to Peqiin from Holland 5 years ago to help open a factory in Tefen and to oversee with the growing business.

In his late forties, Fuad describes childhood memories of his mother alternately working multi-shift, menial labor jobs picking oranges and cleaning offices and standing over a pot of boiling oil in the kitchen.

"When I was ten, I remember waking up in the morning and seeing her throwing oil in the kitchen. I never knew what she was doing but I knew that I wouldn't get new shoes or a new outfit because she put her money towards buying expensive olive oils," he relays.

A former Golani infantry major during Israel's 1982 Lebanon War and the first Druze to graduate from an Israeli military boarding, Fuad explains why there is no conflict of interests for himself or his brothers in serving in Israel's military, common among young Druze men.

"Druze belong to a secret sect and religion but we are loyal to Israel. We believe in reincarnation but we don't believe in politics or borders. It's a sort of combination of Judaism, Islam, Christianity and Buddhism. We are loyal to the place we are born, loyal to the land and hospitable people," he explains.

According to historical reference, the Druze religion evolved from Islam in the 10th century and Druze adapted a taqiya or "dissimulation"- a practice whereby they conceal their true beliefs and outwardly accept the religious beliefs of those among whom they live even as they secretly retained their true convictions.

Gamila summarizes: "We believe that the apple tree in my garden is not mine. It's from God. So when I die I'm supposed to not only to share with you but also to give you my prime apple as my guest."

Her son adds as a caution, "but don't interfere with my religion."

Fuad says he is proud of his mother receiving such prestigious public recognition: "She is an example to the village of honor and peace. She advocates for peace between Jews, Moslems, Christians and Druze. Many years ago she was also the first example of feminism in our area. She brought a doctor to the village to speak with women about sex education and gynecology. And she brought math and English teachers. She believed in education," Fuad says.

On principle, Gamila only employs women in her Peqiin factory.

"Women only, aside from my sons. I believe in advancing women's causes," she said.

Gamila says she believes in being instrumental in helping others because she believes in quid pro quo. "I encourage strong women, peace, coexistence and the idea of giving back. If you have something, then you need to help others with your good fortune. It's a must," she explains. “