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?