Why visit only the holy places of the world’s three major monotheistic religions? I had the chance recently to get to know one of the minor monotheistic groups a bit better as well by visiting the Baha’i Gardens in Haifa. Somewhat incongruously, given Israel’s identification as a Jewish state, Haifa and Akko, both on Israel’s uppermost northern coast, serve as the world center of the Baha’i faith. The Baha’i have a shrine in Haifa to one of their prophets; the remains of its other prophet are buried in Akko. The Haifa shrine is surrounded by a kilometerlong garden, which is made up of eighteen terraces running straight up the side of Mount Carmel, the mountain on which Haifa is built.
I knew little of the Baha’i before going, so I found the Baha’i’s central principles on the web. Here they are:
-- Abandonment of prejudice
-- Full equality between the sexes
-- Recognition of the oneness and commonality of the world’s religions
-- Elimination of extreme poverty and wealth
-- Universal compulsory education
-- The responsibility of the individual to search independently for truth
-- Establishing a world federal system
-- Recognizing that faith and reason should be in harmony.
Hey! That sounds just like what I believe! Individuality, fairness, thoughtfulness, equity – those are my values too! (Well, to be fair, I’ve never really considered the idea of a world federal system, but I am for government-run universal health care, which would be a start, wouldn’t it?) And to top it off, there are no churches, synagogues, or mosques, and the Baha’i administrative structure is very limited. That all works out great, because I don’t deal well with bureaucracy and I’ve always hated going to church. Plus, the Baha’i have gardens. And I like to garden! This was starting to sound like a good match.
(Great, my husband responded when I shared the revelation that I may, at root, be Baha’i. You’ve managed to find the only religion on earth whose members have been persecuted almost as much as the Jews.)
But back to my trip to the Baha’i Gardens. I tried to get into the shrine, which is supposed to be stunning, but was turned away. (This was disappointing, especially since I was still residing in the mental penumbra of my failed Dome of the Rock visit. How many more religions, I wondered, will reject my attempts to honor their holy sites before I leave Israel?)
So I took the garden tour instead. These gardens were unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Everything in them is exactly symmetrical and perfectly ordered. Red geraniums, orange marigolds, purple petunias, flowering cactuses, and white stone – every one impeccable, and offset by the greenest possible grass. They are also the most manicured gardens I have ever visited. There was not so much as a single blade of grass out of place. Even in the midday heat, I saw at least 20 people tending the gardens, a task that must take place around the clock. I got the sense that it must be one person’s job to stand near the bushes to catch any errant leaf that shows the temerity to fall – the gardens are that perfect. One of the jobs of the missionaries who come to Haifa, my non-Baha’i tour guide tells me, is to wash by hand the hundreds of lights that run the length of the gardens. (It’s hard for me to believe that that is true, but the gardens are so perfect that the claim is at least plausible.)
There’s a fastidiousness about it all that seems at odds with my understanding of the Baha’i. They prize individuality of thought, yet the central showcase of their religion is managed in such an uptight manner? Not only are the gardens themselves impeccable, access to them is controlled carefully. The shrine itself is open very few hours of the day. And more than one guard stands at each gate to the shrine and its gardens, making sure that those who enter are wearing respectful clothing. No visible knees, shoulders, or anything remotely suggesting cleavage are permitted in the garden or shrine, which are for the Baha’i a holy place. Both men and women are asked to employ the top buttons on their shirts, and women with shirts that show even the area just below their necks seemed to wind up wearing shawls. I respect the need to maintain dignity at a holy place, but it strikes me that the Baha’i are much more fastidious about their holy place than other faiths have been about theirs when I’ve visited them here in Israel.
There is definitely more for me to understand about this religion, about which I currently know so little. Its values – the emphasis on commonality, oneness, reason, and individual thought – sound so appealing. Yet the little bit of its world center to which I gain access could come across as the world’s single most visible monument to obsessive-compulsive disorder. At the end of the day, I’m just not sure what to make of it.
Monday, August 4, 2008
OMG! Maybe I'm really Baha'i!