Friday, August 13, 2010


Well, we're in Montreal again. Surpise.

Trying to take the bus from the airport to my mom-in-law's yesterday during rush hour painfully reminded me, quite clearly, of Baha'u'llah's observation that the city is for the body, and that it is the country that is for the soul. As usual, though, it is wonderful to see Marielle's family, and re-kindle her French accent.

But I'm not going to talk about family today. No. Instead, I want to write about the flight out here. You see, airplanes always fascinate me, and not just because of the technical wonder of soaring through the air in a gleaming metal tube at amazing speeds. No. What really interests me is the people. Some very carefully avoid eye contact as soon as they get into the airport, and even try to avoid any physical contact while they are trying to get into their airplane seat. (It's very amusing to watch this sort of person as they try to put on their seatbelt.) They are the sort who try to hide behind their books or within their Ipods. Many airlines help them do this now by forcing their passengers to watch these little tvs embedded in the seats in front of them (I wonder the question of the radiation from the screens will arise) and blaring the sound from the commercials over the intercom system so that it is nearly impossible to talk to the person next to you without shouting, as if the noise of the engines wasn't bad enough.

Air Canada has gone even beyond this minor annoyance with their 1st class seats, or whatever other euphamism they now use to refer to these overpriced spots. These new chairs are set at an angle, with a wall between each seat, thereby turning them into cramped, flying office cubicles. You can't even see the person next to you, much less try and engage in conversation. And then they charge you through the nose for the privelege of this enforced solitary confinement. Thank you, but not for me.

I am of the other style of flyer. I look forward with anticipation to see who will occupy the seat next to mine. I often go so far as to say a prayer ahead of time to ask for someone from whom I can learn, or who is eagerly seeking. Rarely am I disappointed.

As I got into my seat yesterday, the man next to me was just getting out a thesis called "Torah and Faith".

I knew my prayer was answered.

For four hours, Gideon and I had a marvellous conversation, beginning with my trip to the Bug Zoo with Shoghi and what I learned there, across a panoply of religious ideas, and ending with patience as we awaited our turn to get off the plane. "You see," he said as we spoke about the need for patience, "we're right back where we started: the patience of tarantulas." "Oh no," I replied, "we haven't come full circle. We gone to the next level of the spiral."

So what did we discuss? I'm glad you asked, dear Reader.

We began talking about reality, and how language attempts to describe reality. We realized that the words we use point to an objective, external reality, but that the light they shed upon the individual is always subjective. When we speak about these different issues, we may agree, but our specific understanding will always be clouded or shaded by our own experience.

We talked about prayer in this manner. We agreed, quite readily, that many of us pray, but we do so in different ways. The actual prayer itself, or the actions involved, do not define the prayer, but rather our internal state is what makes it prayer. When a Catholic says their Hail Marys, that creates the internal condition of being in prayer, just like when we Baha'is say our Allah'u'Abhas. For many of us, using another form of prayer just doesn't quite do it, but we need to be aware that this doesn't make the prayer invalid for the one who does use it. This is a point of unity towards which we can work. We should not try to get us all to use the same words, or actions, but instead to honour those words and actions in others.

It is like working for money, to use a crass analogy. Some people are carpenters, while others are mechanics. Both get money for their work, and each job is useful. Now imagine how deprived we would be if the carpenters told all the mechanics that they had to be carpenters, instead, or vice versa. We'd run into all sorts of problems. Both occupations are valid, and both are rewarded.

We also spoke at length about the idea of evil in the world. I used the Master's example of darkness being an absence of light and cold being an absence of heat. He really liked that, but still had many wonderful questions that engendered conversation and thought. He also taught me about the Hebrew language, and how the word for absence implies missing something, in a more obvious way than the English. With his background, evil implies an absence of virtue, but virtue also implies an absence of evil. I mentioned the dark room into which you have to add light in order to read a book, and talked about how we could lament the fact that in a bright room you stil can't read your book under the shadow of the chair, but wouldn't that just be silly? I could go on and on about this, but I think there's enough here already to get you to think about it a bit on your own. Besides, you already know all this. I'm sure you're way ahead of me here.

Gideon shared a story of a friend of his who recently passed away. This friend had throat cancer, and the day before he passed away, was unable to swallow anything. He turned to Gideon and said, "I think I'll fast today." It was stories like this, sprinkled throughout his wise questioning and explanations that really made the conversation memorable.

The last point I want to share, before I get back to playing with my son today, is his observation that you need to know where you have come from before you can know where you are going. He wanted to know how I had become a Baha'i, and why I had left Judaism behind. This was not asked accusatorily, but with curiosity, instead.

During our discussion about history, he did make an observation that I have heard time and again. He said that all the Baha'is he knew really conveyed the belief that "we're right and everyone else is wrong". He said that he was surprised that I didn't believe it, nor try to convert him. I pointed out that those who still believe this, and act in this manner, probably haven't read One Common Faith. We talked about that great document, and he said that it seemed I had a lot of work to do to help spread this idea amongst my own community. "Why", he asked, "haven't more Baha'is studied this book?" I explained how much there was to read, and how it is very difficult to keep up, even though these letters and books from the Universal House of Justice are so crucial to the exact moment in which we live. Sometimes we just forget.

We also spoke a little bit about how the Kitab-i-Iqan is a book that talks very directly about where we have come from, and perforce where we are going.

In the end, though, with great love, he really encouraged me to study my own personal Jewish history. I said that I am, and would continue to do so. I also asked him to understand that for me, by embracing the Baha'i Faith, I did not leave my Jewish roots behind. I have not lost my Jewish history. Instead, I feel that the history of all cultures, rather than just the history of a single tribe or nation, is now my own history. By becoming a Baha'i, I have gained a richer past, into which my Jewish roots fit in a global context.

I am grateful that I am a Baha'i, and am equally grateful for the diversity that is out there. What a blessing it was to be able to sit next to a Jewish scholar on his way to Tel Aviv, and learn from his questions. I really hope to keep in touch with him. After all, not only do we share a common background, he is also a neighbour in Victoria.

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