As rockets fall and the Middle East erupts in
war, FSM Contributing Editor Stephen Schwartz remembers the region’s
diverse legacy and the historic traditions of so many religions that now
face the realities of conflict.
The Mysteries of Safed, The Banners of
July 26, 2006
By now many non-Jewish Americans know the names of
Safed (Tzfat in Hebrew) and Haifa better than they did in the past, for
both the former small town and the latter maritime metropolis have been
targeted by Hezbollah rockets in the assault on northern Israel.
I was in both places only six weeks ago. Each
spoke profoundly to the yearnings and strivings of my heart. Mine was
not a “Jewish roots” journey. But I had been on the path to Safed, and
had dreamed of visiting it, for 27 years; and had turned in that
direction after 16 years’ straying on a road that leads to Haifa.
Both Safed and Haifa are “unknown capital cities,”
each the center of a hidden, or obscured, Jewish tradition; but in both
cases, of a legacy that became universal.
Safed is small, and is the holy city of the
Lurianic Kabbalah, a Jewish mystical movement that commenced in the 16th
century C.E. under the charismatic guidance of a Jerusalem-born rabbi,
Yitzhak Luria. This was a profound development in Judaism, having
almost nothing in common with today’s Kabbalah fad – though I condemn
nobody who sincerely seeks after the divine.
I close my eyes and savor Safed as I first
observed it so recently, in the sunlight of peace. My memory moves back
to the year 1979, and my first trip to Paris. I knew little of Kabbalah
then – little more than fragments. I was 31. I visited an American
tourist trap, the Shakespeare & Co. bookshop on the left bank of the
Seine. I was invited into the inner sanctum upstairs (and did not
realize until much later that it was infested with fleas). But there
was a red-bound volume on a crowded bookshelf: The Zohar in Muslim
and Christian Spain, by a Palestinian rabbi, Ariel Bension.
The Zohar (Splendor) is the greatest work
of Kabbalah, and I had read at it for years. I close my eyes and watch
my hand reach for the Bension book as I ask if it is for sale; it was,
and it was my door to Jewish spirituality, as well as to the
relationship of Kabbalah to Sufism, the mystical tradition of Islam. It
was my first introduction to the lore of Safed. I followed the path laid
out in Bension’s book through Spain to the former territories of the
Ottoman empire, which sheltered the Jews expelled from Spain, and
finally to Safed. The hand touching the red spine of the book marks
the biggest turning point in my life.
Six weeks ago I visited synagogues in Safed named
for Luria, for the Kabbalists Moshe Kordovero and Shlomo Alkabetz, and
for a great law-giver, Rabbi Yosef Karo. I sat in a café and looked
through the window at a hill where the fabled 2nd century
Jewish mystic and leader of an anti-Roman rebellion, Shimon Bar Yochai,
is reputedly buried. It is said the Kabbalists came to Safed because Bar
Yochai's remains rest there.
Safed is green, a welcome relief after the dry
stone of much of Israel; Safed lies in hills reminiscent of
California. And now it appears empty, we are told, with its population
in shelters under the rocket attack of Hassan Nasrallah. It seems an
unmistakable conclusion that Nasrallah seeks to eradicate the memory of
Kabbalah, of Jewish mysticism, as it developed in a Muslim setting, four
centuries ago. He and his minions and backers strike out against a
symbol of mutual respect between Jews and Arabs in Israel.
It was, for so long, my dream to see Safed, and I
could not imagine that I would come to it so close to the explosion of
terror in its ancient streets. I observed there that a historic mosque
had been transformed into an art gallery, and wrote a proposal for the
mosque to be reconsecrated as a center for Sufi studies, in
collaboration with the Kabbalists among the Jewish residents. Nasrallah
has made my perhaps-naïve project seem impossible, at least for now.
And then there is Haifa. I was a radical leftist
when young, and the turn to spirituality expressed in the Parisian
anecdote above came at the end of my revolutionary commitment. I became
a conservative and a registered Republican, and was quite surprised
when, in Haifa, I was taken to meet an elderly Jewish Communist, and
given a tour of the city’s crimson-festooned memorials.
The port was once known as Red Haifa, because it
was so far to the left in politics. If it is now considered “pink,”
because its radicalism has faded in the direction of a more moderate
socialism, it is still known as a place where Jewish and Arab workers
celebrate a long history of friendship.
Haifa has also been targeted by Hezbollah. Among
the first dead were workers in a railroad repair yard. I worked on the
railroads in America, as a young Marxist. These railroad workers are my
people, along with the Kabbalists. It is also difficult to avoid the
presumption that rockets have fallen on Haifa precisely because it
represents, once again, Arab-Jewish cooperation. Indeed, the whole
Hezbollah target zone is filled with Arab communities that have learned
to function within Israel. They include Nazareth, the Christian holy
site, which has an Arab majority and whose walls are also decorated with
leftist posters bearing the same scarlet banners as those seen in
I observed that nearly all of the great religions
have holy sites in Israel and I visited the most famous: the Western
Wall for Jews, Nazareth for Christians, the Al-Aksa mosque for Muslims,
Safed for Kabbalists – and there are Sufi shaykhs of great wisdom at
Ottoman mosques in Akko, another city within range of Hezbollah’s
weapons. Finally I joked that even anti-religion, in the form of
Communism, with its false promise of human solidarity, has shrines of
hope in Haifa.
The universal values of spirituality and of the
failed socialist ideal, the faith in humanity embodied in Israel, the
legacies of Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, and yes, the heritage of the heroes
of the Shia sect, Ali and Hussein, the memories of Safed – all is
brutally injured by the whims of Nasrallah. The Hezbollah chief, like
Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic, has decided to unite his
followers by a bloody attack on his neighbors. Let him meet the same
fate as the butchers of Baghdad and the Balkans. Tyrants of that ilk
will never prevail. I truly believe that people of differing faiths will
soon return to their lives together in Haifa, that Sufi devotions will
be celebrated in Safed – and that the fragile Lebanese and sturdy
Israeli democracies will endure.