In the Jerusalem Hills, about 40 minutes outside of Jerusalem, not far from the city of Beit Shemesh, Kibbutz Tzor’ah and the Forest of Eshta’ol, there is a fascinating place tucked away in an aura of solitude. This is Beit Jamal, named for Rabban Gamaliel I, the Nasi (President) of the Sanhedrin during the 1st century CE. Apparently the great sage was buried in this place, but in 1873, what were believed to have been his remains were exhumed and re-interred on Mount Zion in Jerusalem.
On the grounds of Beit Jamal is the first meteorological station in Israel, which is still in operation. But more central to the site is a monastery that was established in 1919 by an order of Salesian monks. There is also a group of sisters there, though they are not part of the Salesian order. Rather, they belong to the Sisters of Bethlehem, of the Assumption of the Virgin and Saint Bruno.
The sisters live an ascetic life, and are completely devoted to God. They go about their daily activities in complete silence, except for the two times a day when they gather in the chapel to sing beautiful hymns of praise, in French, Hebrew and English. Each sister remains within her own little cubicle during these services. They don’t look at each other, and they hear only the sonorous chanting of the Psalms and hymns as their voices rise together. They have no idea how many sisters are there at any given time, nor if there are visitors sitting in the back and listening to their beautiful prayers. They pray five additional times every day as well, but these prayers are in solitude. Once a week, however, on Sundays, they do talk and laugh with each other. They leave the walled enclosure of the convent and stroll through the peaceful olive groves of Beit Jamal. During the week they bake bread and prepare food for their community, and create exquisite pottery as well, which fills their gift shop. But to encourage detachment, each piece is done by four different sisters: one shapes the clay; the next draws the outline of the design; the third colors the piece; the fourth fires and completes it. In the photos below are two examples of their beautiful work, displayed by yours truly.
This past Sunday I traveled with my colleagues from the Hartman Institute to visit Beit Jamal. I believe it is the first time that so many rabbis (27 of us, plus two of our teachers) have visited the convent at one time. The two sisters in the photo below are Sister Yedidah (left) and Sister Karin (right). They are both from France. They told us that God had called them to come to this monastery and serve Him in complete devotion. They do not travel anywhere, even within Israel – not even to the Galilee or Bethlehem, two of the most central places in the life of Jesus. They remain at Beit Jamal, in constant and complete devotion to God. The sisters were respectful and courteous, and responded to all our questions with honesty and candor. At one point the question of sin and sinfulness came up. We know that before partaking of Holy Communion in the Catholic rite, one must engage in Confession. We spoke with them about the tremendous problems and challenges that we face every day in the world outside the convent. In such complete isolation, we wondered, what are the challenges of their lives, and what are the areas in which they fall short of their aspirations? Sister Yedidah assured us that they are subject to the same human failings as anyone else. They experience jealousy of each other at times. They can become impatient, arrogant, angry, petty and greedy — pretty much the same characteristics that ALL of us deal with – the human failings which we confess particularly during Yom Kippur each year, when we look deep within ourselves, and try to refocus our own lives as we aspire to better behavior.
My colleagues and I left Beit Jamal on Sunday evening profoundly moved at meeting these sisters and attending their communal service (at least by sitting in the back and listening). We were astonished at their devotion to the contemplative life, and the complete focus and beauty of their prayers. But, for sure, it is a world apart from the one that Jewish tradition embraces. By and large our “statutory prayer,” if you will, is a combination of history, theology, human aspiration and Jewish peoplehood. Nevertheless, there are indeed meditative qualities to parts of our prayer services, particularly in the form of niggunim, or wordless melodies, that tend to repeat over and over again to help us focus and “loosen up,” if you will. And indeed, there are those in the extreme wings of our community who believe that sitting in the Beit Midrash, the House of Study, is their only responsibility in life, apart from the very large families they create. Mainstream Judaism, however, has never glorified withdrawal from society. On the contrary; it is our direct involvement with society that marks our tradition – our commitment to Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, through direct participation in societal efforts. It is our relationships with others, and our personal and communal interactions that enhance the joy and value of Jewish life. Nevertheless, Sister Yedidah and Sister Karin helped us to remember that while our way may be right for us, it is not the only way toward holiness.
Our leader on this trip was the author and journalist Yossi Klein-Halevi, who is a valued faculty member of the Hartman Institute. His involvement with the sisters of Beit Jamal came about through his search for pathways to holiness in the Holy Land, particularly among Christians and Muslims. His book “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden” reflects his spiritual journey. Aside from the chapters I have read thus far, which are characteristically beautifully written, I find the title of Yossi’s book quite intriguing. If we could imagine the entrance to the Garden of Eden, what would it be like? While our answer may be different from that of the Sisters of Bethlehem, our quest to find meaning and beauty in our lives is a human aspiration at its core. This past Sunday, our visit to Beit Jamal showed us another pathway to realizing this aspiration.