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Men of Mystery

A haftorah of reasoning and redemption

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The manifesto of Poland’s Soviet-backed provisional government, 1944. (Wikimedia Commons)

A Bahai friend of mine likes to tell a story about the time he walked into a bar.

It isn’t a joke. As faithful Bahai are forbidden from drinking alcohol, my friend was dangling on his stool and nursing a soft drink when he was accosted by two drunken gents he knew and who decided to mock his faith. At first, my friend did nothing. He merely smiled and looked away as the lushes lashed their tongues, calling him names and disparaging his beliefs. But when they started shoving and poking, my friend didn’t stop to think. With his glass still in his fist, he smashed it into the nose of one of the offenders, cracking it. With blood gushing down his face, the man looked up, shocked. “I thought Bahais were supposed to pursue peace!” he said indignantly.

“We are,” replied my friend. “I’m a bad Bahai.”

I’ve heard that story at least a dozen times, and it amuses me still. But beyond the bravado and the catharsis, the story, I think, appeals to me because it rests on a fascinating premise. For the joke to work—my friend being the bad Bahai—we have to assume that the normative Bahai, the kind that shies away from violence, is the good Bahai, and that one is definitely preferable to the other.

But is it true? Let’s assume for a moment that the answer is yes. If one wanted to be a good Bahai, then, all one would have to do is consult the rulebook and keep to the straight and narrow. And the faith—any faith, for that matter—would become nothing more than a spell of spiritual bookkeeping, with good deeds acting as debits and each of us constantly busy with calculations of cost and benefit. In short, religion wouldn’t be much fun, nor would it hold as a system of moral justice.

This week’s haftorah makes this point elegantly, not so much by what it says as by what it keeps veiled.

Channeling God, the prophet Amos offers his listeners a brief glimpse into the future of the Jewish people:

For, behold I command, and I will scatter the house of Israel among all the nations. As it is shaken in a sieve, and not a coarse particle falls to the earth. By the sword shall all the sinful of My people perish, those who say, ‘The evil shall not soon come upon us.’ On that day, I will raise up the fallen Tabernacle of David, and I will close up their breaches, and I will raise up its ruins, and build it up as in the days of yore.

It’s one of those glorious disjointed sentences that makes the prophets so much fun to read. One moment God is talking about scattering the Israelites among the nations, and the very next He promises their resurrection and return to Zion. The one thing this paragraph lacks—the one thing modern, rational readers have every right to expect—is causality. God could just as easily have vowed to raise up the fallen Tabernacle of David only if the Israelites all obeyed His rules, repented, or otherwise proved worthy of His mercy. But God remains vague. He promises salvation but is unclear about its terms.

Reading the passage, I thought of childhood and of totalitarian regimes, two constructs that for reasons too tangled to discuss here are closely intertwined in my mind. “If you don’t know what you’ve done,” says the parent to the errant child, “I’m not going to tell you.” Panicked, the child looks inward and digs for clues, trying to ascertain which of his or her seemingly innocuous deeds so upset the parent. In the process, each deed is reevaluated, each action examined. The parent needn’t intervene any further: The child is now his or her own police state. Which, of course, makes the work of real police states that much easier; as any biography of state terror suggests, obfuscation and innuendo are the tools with which obedience is crafted, not clearly stated and eloquent accusations or demands. The tragedy of living under totalitarianism, as has often been noted before, is that one never really knows the precise nature of the state’s logic and is constantly left guessing. As today’s hero could likely be tomorrow’s pariah, and as the grand ideology of the morning could dissipate by nightfall, the best thing to do is nothing at all.

Religion works on a similar principle, but in the inverse. It, too, keeps moving the goal post. There are, of course, precise rules to follow, clearly prescribed in books and upheld by the clergy. But reading this week’s haftorah, and many other Biblical texts like it, one gets the feeling that it’s not blind adherence to the rules that is paramount, but rather some elusive spirit, some flash of enlightenment that brings us much closer to God than all the strictures in the world ever will.

What does God want? We don’t know. He wouldn’t say. Why would he punish us one moment and reward us the next? No clue. But while the cynic and the tyrant both urge us to do nothing about this natural state of uncertainty, the prophet is urging us to explore, to inquire, to figure it out for ourselves. If we do, we would become much closer to God. All redemption really means, we would learn along the way, is asking the right questions. My Bahai friend has always done just that. It’s what led him to punch his provoker in the face; more than pursuing peace, he believes, a man must pursue justice. It may not sit well with the sticklers, but it’s his own path to God. Could there be any other?

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While Baha’is are peaceful, it is a misconception that they are “pacifist.” While one aim of the Baha’i Faith is to establish peace, such a peace can only be maintained when there is a high cost to any nation or people that betrays that peace. Thus the Baha’i teachings call for a binding covenant among nations, so strong that if one nation violates that covenant, all others will unitedly arise against it. Likewise, at the national level, Baha’is recognize the right of governments to protect through the existence of armed forces (Baha’is seek noncombatant status but will serve if so required). At the level of the individual, a Baha’i is permitted to defend himself if no other legitimate authority is able or available to protect him.

I was not there to witness what may have provoked my Baha’i brother to take the action of hitting someone. It would not be my choice of response to people impaired by alcohol. But if he was being physically manhandled, he did have a right to resist. One would hope that the bar’s employees are savvy enough to call the police when drunken customers become unruly. Perhaps that would have been the better course of justice. Or the Baha’i might have walked out of the place. If the drunken assailants remember anything of that night, they may remember that they can’t count on their own expectation of how a person will react when they engage in loutish behavior.

Inspired commentary, Sure we do not have blind adherence to the rules. We are bad Bahai’s and good Bahai’s hopefully choosing the right “Bahai” for the occasion

Today, April 23, 2010 is Day 25, or 3 weeks, 5 days counting the Omer. According to Rabbi Jacobson, we need each of the 49 days to internalize a kaballistic insight, by permutations of the first seven sefirot:

“Day 25- Netzach of Netzach: Endurance in Endurance
Everyone has willpower and determination. We have the capacity to endure much more than we can imagine, and to prevail under the most trying of circumstances. Ask yourself: Is my behavior erratic? Am I inconsistent and unreliable? Since I have will and determination, why am I so mercurial? Am I afraid of accessing my endurance and committing? Do I fear being trapped by my commitment? If yes, why? Is it a reaction to some past trauma? Instead of cultivating endurance in healthy areas, have I developed a capacity for endurance of
unhealthy experiences? Do I endure more pain than pleasure? Do I underestimate my capacity to endure? Exercise for the day: Commit yourself to developing a new good habit.”

The beauty of Kaballah is that takes a mitzvah, and without breaking it, completely changes it’s meaning in a sparkling way. Today is a good day to discover a tyrant and do something about it. If if there are not tyrants visible, or felt, to appreciate what this feels.

It is not what God wants. It is what we want, We have both Chesed (Kindness) and Gevurah. Your Bahai friend has chosen Gevurah (Justice and force). In the Zohar Book of Concealment (Sifra de-Tsni’uta), we learn Gd experimented with many worlds, that he destroyed. He was seeking the right balance of Chesed and Gevurah, This breeding lead to our world today, that it exists blessed by Him. He permitted then us to look face-to-face, meaning, he permitted us to procreate.

lion says:

first part of article was interesting but then went down hill. how can you talk about judaism in an in depth way if you don’t seem to know much about it? You ask, “What does God want?”..I think the scriptures have something to say about that despite your confusion…

That fact that, for the author “childhood and of totalitarian regimes” are tangled constructs suggests that he has a problem with authority. While commentators have disagreements with interpreting Amos, most agree what Amos means is that following the scattering of Israel, the process of redemption of the righteous will begin.

Bob says:

Of course, no one is perfect, but the concept of good and bad is different for Baha’is. Bad or evil is the “absence of good.” We must be trained, preferably from infancy, to learn what is good, and never to dwell “on the unpleasant things of life.” To a Baha’i, it is better to be killed than to kill, and as “BC” suggests, walking away would be the better choice…leaving justice to the authorities. We are far too emotional in the West…spontaneous reaction like this seems animalistic and not the response of a thoughtful person. And BC is correct – we are not pacifists, but should only raise our fists in defense of family or the defenseless. We look to the combined efforts of all countries in multi-national cooperation to agree to demolish any rogue nation that would violate the sanctity of another. Shalom.

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Men of Mystery

A haftorah of reasoning and redemption

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