‘LISTEN, O ISRAEL’ … ‘LISTEN, MY SON’. THE EXPERIENCE
OF A BENEDICTINE LIFE IN THE HEART OF ISRAEL.
A Sister of the Monastery of St Frances of Rome,
at Abu Ghosh, Israel
‘The monk is for the Church what Israel is for the world’. Such is the conviction which inspires the witness of a nun who lives on the soil of Israel, land of the Word, the ‘Listen, my son’ of the Benedictine life.
When we try to explain to pilgrims who visit our monastery our vocation of monastic life cheek by jowl and alert to Israel, in a perspective of the unity of the Church, the question arises in them spontaneously, ‘And what do you do about it?’ This is the first difficulty in speaking about our life, for it consists less in doing than in being. This is a being which cannot be communicated by explanations. To understand it from within it must be shared. A second difficulty is to be rigorously careful to avoid confusing the spiritual with the political. The very words are boobytrapped: it is complicated to speak of Israel theologically and at the same time to preserve the right stance towards the Hebrew State. Furthermore, any mistake is costly; we will return to this point.
This article aims to convey the specific experience of a Benedictine community in Israel, trying to live fully from the stock of the olive-tree onto which the Church is grafted. Of course this occurs through the Word of God. Once more, it is impossible to understand merely intellectually this vocation and the fruit it can bear. The heart is involved, and we live heart to heart. Heart to heart communication does not always involve words, what is called ‘interreligious dialogue’. This can happen and has its important place. But the essential is lived in a different way and communicates itself rather by osmosis, in the long and patient work of assimilation. Words used to express it can be no more than the tip of the iceberg.
1. ‘Listen, Israel’
The Word, Creator of the People
It all begins with Abraham, ‘I will make of you a great people’ (Genesis 12.2). Without this word, no Israel. It will be repeated in each generation until, with Jacob, it issues in the gift of the name of Israel. This then becomes a point of reference, a means of reminding God that he has engaged himself definitively: ‘Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to whom you swore by yourself and said, “I shall multiply your posterity like the stars of heaven”’ (Exodus 32.13).
This foundational word beckons to another, the Covenant. It is at the time of the appearance to Moses in the burning bush that God begins to speak of ‘my people’: ‘I have seen the misery of my people… Bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt’ (Exodus 3.7, 10). The expression ‘my people’ will be reinforced by another expression at the time of the conclusion of the Covenant on Mount Sinai: ‘Now, if you listen to my voice and keep my Covenant I shall hold you as my own possession among all peoples’ (Exodus 19.5). This will be the link between listening and the identity of the people: this is the listening which makes Israel the ‘possession’ of God, his ‘treasure’, his ‘cherished people’, as one can also translate the Hebrew word segulah.
If one follows this expression across the five Books of the Pentateuch, one finds that it reappears three times in the Book of Deuteronomy (7.6; 14.2; 26.18). It leads to highly significant conclusions, each time in connection with listening: the first epithet granted to Israel is ‘you are a people consecrated (a people holy) to the LORD your God’. This marks its conformity to God himself who alone is holy, indicating that such holiness no less than the choice itself is a gift wholly undeserved, in no way dependent on the real and visible virtues of this people. Next, the quality of ‘son to the LORD your God’ is highlighted, in a text which is commented in the Rabbinic tradition, ‘Rabbi Meir used to say: in any case you are ‘children’, for it is written, ‘They are senseless children’ (Jeremiah 4.22). Even if they do not study Torah they are called children.’ The third text which speaks of the Covenant, of the way God and Israel belong to each other, of the listening to his voice and keeping his commandments, raises the question what this listening means and how it can be lived out in concrete ways.
Listening, study and dialogue
The ‘Shema, Israel’ (Deuteronomy 6.4), the heart of the daily prayer, is ‘the profession of faith which accompanies the Jew from his tenderest childhood right to the tomb. It was chosen from the 4875 verses of the Pentateuch to be the badge of Israel at all times and under every horizon.’ The imperative ‘Shema’ (‘Listen!’) is followed by a command to teach these words to the next generation. Listening takes place in the framework of transmission from one generation to another. ‘What is required is not belief, nor even personal experience in the natural sciences or history, but knowledge of the tradition’ .
Study of the Torah, prescribed for every man from the moment at which the child begins to speak until the day of his death is not a solitary enterprise, but must be done first with his father and later with a master. This is stressed at the beginning of the treatise Pirke Aboth in the Mishnah: ‘Moses received the Torah on Sinai. He passed it on to Joshua, Joshua to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets passed it on to the men of the Great Assembly’. The listener is brought into an uninterrupted succession from master to disciple since the gift of the Torah on Mount Sinai to the present day.
Study of the tradition, of the Talmud, must be done in pairs, in company with a study-partner. It is only in the juxtaposition of several ways of viewing and understanding that a true listening, which brings out the truth, can be accomplished. The Hebrew word for this intellectual exchange is maloqet. The first and last letters of this word make another word, met, which means ‘death’. Between these letters comes ‘alaq which signifies smooth pebbles which give off sparks when struck against each other. These sparks bring life in the middle of death. Intellectual exchange, the perpetual game of question and answer which generates new questions is, then, the place of listening, the place of truth and life, far from all sleepy, sterile, dead thinking.
Listening and Practice
According to Exodus 24.7 putting into practice comes even before listening: Moses ‘took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people who cried out, “Everything the Lord has said we will do and we will listen”’. According to the Jewish tradition this verse expresses the will of the people ‘to serve God with a willingly accepted devotion’. The positioning of ‘doing’ before ‘listening’ shows a profound understanding of human nature: only through and thanks to putting it into practice is it possible to understand the true meaning of the words of the Torah.
The Word and the Land
The question of the practice of the commandments leads inevitably to the theme of the Land, for many of the precepts can be practised only in the Land of Israel, for example the annual pilgrimages for the three great festivals of Pesach, Sukkoth and Shavuoth, or the sabbatical year, the practice of leaving the land fallow every seventh year. But this theme has a further extension, since the gift of the Land is an integral part of the promise to Abraham and his descendants: ‘I shall give this land to your posterity’ (Genesis 12.7). This is a delicate subject which leads inevitably to politics, but there is no way that the link between the people and the Land of Israel can be understood without it.
2. ‘Listen, my son’
A profound partnership with monastic life runs through the themes evoked by the link between Israel and the Word of God. It is well summed up in the sentence, ‘The monk is for the Church what Israel is for the world.’
At the origin of every monastic vocation is a contact with the Word, with Him who calls and chooses someone to belong totally to Him. The call is a totally undeserved choice, not earned, often not even looked for, but accepted in the most total liberty. For the Benedictine life there is a partnership between the ‘Shema, Israel’ and the first words of the rule of St Benedict, ‘Listen, my son, to the teaching of the master’. It is a partnership in the transmission of a tradition which is not acquired by learning in solitude, but which necessarily comes through someone else by dialogue, face to face between the new arrival and the guide to whom he has been entrusted. In the best case of all this consists in a questioning on both sides, leading to a new life. And finally this monastic listening is not authentic unless it is accompanied by obedience and by practice which is often not understood or is even thought impossible.
The Benedictine motto, ‘Ora et labora’, shows that listening to the Word and praying are not the full story. Manual labour and the need to earn a living are essential for any community which wants to persevere and lead a balanced life. This dimension is deep-rooted in the Jewish tradition: ‘Rabbi Eleazar, son of Azariah said, “Without flour, no Torah; without Torah, no flour”’. Rashi comments, ‘How can anyone who has nothing to eat concentrate on the Torah?’ The final chapter of the Rule of St Benedict recalls that to find the way of perfection it is not sufficient to keep this rule, but that the whole of the biblical, monastic and patristic tradition must be taken on board. Other items could be added to this list of the tradition capable of leading the Jewish root of the Christian tradition to perfection. There is something vital for Christian and monastic tradition in this contact with the people of Israel and its way of listening to the Word.
It is welcome news to hear that in our days many monasteries are open to this treasure. The speciality of our community at Abu Ghosh is this listening to the Jewish tradition and to Israel today. It is the reason why the first brothers and sisters were sent into this land. This is where we rebuild the link with the people and Land of Israel, and our specific vocation can be lived in no other way.
3. Listening to Israel
Israel – even the name of the country is not neutral; right from the start it demands a political stance, which is exactly what one wants to avoid, not as an escape but from a deliberate decision not to take sides. The high regard for Israel as a chosen people, called ‘elder brothers’ by John Paul II or ‘fathers in faith’ by Benedict XVI, cannot be reduced to simple political or theological options, as is the case in certain forms of Christian Zionism or for a Judaising theology. Living here we can neither forget nor refuse to see and feel the sufferings of the Palestinian people. On the contrary, the mission of our community to live our Benedictine life in the heart of Israel implies a presence warm and welcoming to all, inspired by the spirit of intercession so well formulated by Cardinal Martini in coming to live at Jerusalem: ‘Intercession always means going to the centre of the conflict and placing oneself between the two warring camps. It is a matter of putting oneself in the middle… Intercession is being there, immovable, refusing to escape, seeking to put a hand on the shoulder of the two adversaries, accepting the risks of such a position. This is the gesture of Jesus Christ on the Cross’.
A people of the present, not of the past
The first and most important lesson learnt from life in this country is never to neglect the link between the Word of God and the real, contemporary Jewish people, and between this people and the Land. It is impossible to continue thinking and reading the Bible as if the Jews were only a people who existed in the past, in the Old Testament or in the time of Jesus. It is impossible to be unaware that Israel is a lively people, attached to this Land at the deepest level of their being, suffering from 2000 years of exile and from the unparalleled trauma of the Shoah. A people which amazes by its diversity and complexity. One cannot fail to react against biblical commentaries or theological writings where Judaism is treated merely as something which preceded Christianity without continuing to exist right up to the present day. It is impossible also not to lose one’s possible illusions about a people whom one used to think better than others and from which one expected a superior perfectionism and morality.
Our vocation demands an opening to the whole reality of this people, both what is attractive and what is difficult to accept. The explanation given by the Jewish tradition to the bouquet of four kinds of vegetation, part of the liturgy of Sukkoth, the festival of Tents, illustrates this, and also acts as a link with a monastic community called to live as one body and allow itself to be guided by Christ ‘all together to eternal life’: ‘Our sages have seen in the bouquet of Sukkoth the image of the unity of Israel! The perfume represents knowledge (of the Torah), the fruit represents action. The ethrog, rich in delicious perfume and also in fruit, represents the elite of Israel, illuminated by knowledge and ennobled by good deeds! The lulab, which has no perfume but has succulent fruit, represents those who have no knowledge but devote themselves to good deeds. The myrtle, perfumed but lacking edible fruits, symbolises people endowed with wisdom but holding themselves aloof from action. Finally, the willow, which has neither perfume nor fruit, represents the mass of the people who have neither knowledge of the Torah nor religious zeal! By holding them together in our hand and waving them before God we proclaim the solidarity of all the elements of our people, which must form a single body where the virtues of some compensate the deficiencies of others! And the Name of the Eternal One will be hallowed by the whole gathering!’.
Reading and Study
How do we live this openness in our daily life? Of course there is study and lessons, beginning with study of the Hebrew language for each according to her possibilities. It is a treasure to be able to do one’s lectio divina in the Old Testament with the original Hebrew text and to be inspired by the traditional Jewish methods of opening up the hidden riches
of the scripture, making necklaces of pearls in which one word successively draws us on to another throughout the whole Bible. And a few words of Hebrew immediately give colour to any meeting with Israelis.
Every Friday evening we hear the siren to announce the beginning of the Sabbath. This gives us the chance to share in the joy of the Jewish people and its thanksgiving for this special time in which it is allowed to live as a sign of the Covenant with God. Some of us do this by personally studying the Parasha, the part of the Torah which is read in the synagogue on that Sabbath, with the help of Jewish commentaries.
Visits and Meetings
In addition to the dimension of personal study which is, of course, practised in many monasteries all over the world, our community lives something more specific on the level of the community through the celebration of a small part of our office in Hebrew, through the choice of readings for the refectory, through sessions, meetings, conferences and outings into the countryside. These always deepen our knowledge of the Land and its inhabitants.
Such meetings with a wide variety of people (a writer, a rabbi, Israeli and Palestinian friends) are like the tesserae of a mosaic which vary with time. We can obtain periodicals and articles. We have the possibility of taking part in formation sessions (the Ecce Homo, teaching given by the Brothers and Sisters of Sion). At the time of the Jewish festivals we participate in the experiences of the Jewish people through various commentaries, and every year some of the brothers and sisters spend the whole of Yom Kippur, the day of the Great Pardon, the most holy day of Judaism, in Jerusalem.
From the very beginning of our community in 1976 we have enjoyed a close link with the three Dominican Fathers who have worked – each in his own way - for a closer relationship with Judaism, Bruno Husard, Marcel Dubois and Jacques Fontaine. P. Jacques created the ‘Bible in the Land’, an ‘alternative’ pilgrimage, traversing the Bible by means of nature rather than the sanctuaries. Our first brothers and sisters were among the first to live this experience, and Abu Ghosh has remained the starting and finishing point of this pilgrimage which continues to be so fruitful.
We have our own way of pursuing this idea. In our annual community outings and pilgrimages we visit the holy places at the corresponding liturgical seasons. In addition we visit archaeological sites and other places and people who speak to us about the history and the present state of Israel. The importance of these visits makes sense in the long run thanks to our Benedictine vow of stability. The purpose is not to make a whistle-stop tour of all aspects of the country. On the contrary, this acquaintance with biblical landscapes and the two peoples who inhabit them gradually takes root in us more deeply as the years go by.
The Road to Emmaus
Our monastery lies on a site which the Crusaders adopted 800 years ago as being the place of the biblical Emmaus, the place where the Risen Christ halted with his two disciples to make himself known to them in the breaking of bread. It is a place of meeting and understanding the Easter event through the scriptures, that is, through a new reading of the book which we call the Old Testament. This place, in the centre of an Arab and Muslim village corresponds well with our vocation. It is a place of Christian pilgrimage, through which pass a good number of groups and individuals, but also a place of relaxation for Israelis, who on the Sabbath come to eat in the numerous Arab restaurants of the village of Abu Ghosh, and at the same time to enjoy the beauty of our garden and our church with its twelfth-century frescoes.
The story of Emmaus tells of a meeting based on the scriptures and the breaking of bread, the same dimensions as we are called to live with all those who come, those who stay in our guesthouse, inhabitants of the country wherever they come from, our friends, pilgrims from all over the world. To all we have the same mission: to witness to another kind of life, to offer words of peace, understanding and openness, to make it possible to recognize the love of God, which for us passes through Jesus Christ, in a warm and fraternal welcome.
Two examples may illustrate how this openness operates. Our Brother Olivier, who for years has been welcoming groups of young recruits of the Israeli army, shows them a glimpse of Christianity to which they are attracted, recognizing in it their own roots. He bears abundant witness to his amazement at seeing the collapse of the walls of fear and incomprehension on the faces and in the hearts of his audience. Many groups pass Abu Ghosh at the end of their journey, having already seen the suffering of the Palestinian people, which is more obvious than that of the Israelis. The welcome given by our brothers suggests to them an attitude other than indignation, a non-judgmental openness and a reminder of the Christian vocation to do, say or even think nothing which can foment hate and violence. An attitude of faith in the Jewish people as a people chosen and loved by God, independently of all political considerations. An attitude which ‘understands its own existence as a participation in the choice of Israel and a vocation which remains in the first place that of Israel, even if no more than a small part of Israel accepted it’.
Life under the Word of God in Israel gives this Word all its breadth and flavour, beginning with the countryside and the climate and on to the smallest details of daily life. Slowly we are digesting the fact that as Christians we are not the sole recipients of the Word, but that the same response is required from ourselves as from Israel, ‘to fulfil justice, love goodness and walk humbly with your God’ (Micah 6.8). We journey with our fathers in the faith who have given us everything and follow their own course, according to the plan of God who remains a mystery till the end of time.
 Quoted in Elie Munk, La voix de la Thora, Commentary on the Pentateuch, Le Deuteronome (Paris, 1991), p. 136.
 Op. cit., p. 60.
 Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Hilkoth Talmud Torah I.6 and 10.
 Pirke Aboth I.1 in The Mishnah volume 15, Pirqe Avot, traduction et commentaire de Claude-Annie Guggenheim.
 Elie Munk, op.cit., p. 294.
 Pirqe Aboth 3.7.
 Cardinal Carlo Martini, Vers Jerusalem (Paris, 2004), p. 174.
 Benedictine Rule, chapter 72.
 Sepher haTodah.
 The Jewish People and its Holy Scriptures in the Christian Bible (Rome, Pontifical Biblical Commission, 2001), #37.