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Sometime, somewhere, someone is searching for answers . . .
. . . in a thirteenth-century castle
. . . on a train to a concentration camp
. . . in a New York city apartment
Hidden within the binding of an ancient text that has been passed down through the ages lies the answer to one of the heart’s eternal questions. When the text falls into the hands of Rabbi Kalman Stern, he...
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Sometime, somewhere, someone is searching for answers . . .
. . . in a thirteenth-century castle
. . . on a train to a concentration camp
. . . in a New York city apartment
Hidden within the binding of an ancient text that has been passed down through the ages lies the answer to one of the heart’s eternal questions. When the text falls into the hands of Rabbi Kalman Stern, he has no idea that his lonely life of intellectual pursuits is about to change once he opens the book. Soon afterward, he meets astronomer Isabel Benveniste, a woman of science who stirs his soul as no woman has for many years. But Kalman has much to learn before he can unlock his heart and let true love into his life. The key lies in the mysterious document he finds inside the Zohar, the master text of the Kabbalah.
“Lawrence Kushner . . . revolutionizes our understanding of God, and shows how we discover our true nature by opening ourselves to love.” —Daniel C. Matt, author of The Essential Kabbalah
“Part damn-good storytelling, part mind-bending magic, Kabbalah isn’t really a novel; it’s an experience of Jewish mysticism—seductive, cerebral, and humorous, told in a wholly unique and beautiful voice.” —Debbie Danielpour Chapel
“Like all creative spiritual thinkers, Rabbi Kushner . . . blends humor, suspense, and the sublime in a contemporary amalgam of magical realism and the traditional religious fable.” —Bernard Horn, author of Facing the Fires: Conversations with A.B. Yehoshua
* One *
On this day the light had disguised itself as the first ordinary orange rays of a September sunrise over the East River. It easily eclipsed the big red neon Tower Records sign and silhouetted all the sheets of newspaper scurrying over Broadway's empty sidewalks. It ricocheted off the windows on the building across the street and then flooded Kalman's office. And for a moment, light was everywhere. And everything was light.
Kalman opened the door and squinted in the brightness. Winded from climbing three flights up the utility stairwell, he was proud his forty-six-year-old constitution could still take them in stride. He set his coffee on the desk, hung his parka over the back of a chair, and began unpacking his bag-teaching notes, books, a folder of last week's marked-up homework. Finally, he peeled the tape from the flap of a bubble-wrap envelope protecting a very old volume of Zohar, the master text of Kabbalah. Kalman had picked it up in Israel decades earlier; the caretaker of a little out-of-the-way synagogue had given it to him.
"Here," the old man had said. "Take it, it's yours-has your name on it."
So he took it. He'd been using it ever since as a pedagogic prop, a teaching aid for his courses on mysticism. How could he possibly have imagined that, after all theseyears, the back cover of the book was about to come unglued and give birth to another page? That's the way it is with a good book: Just when you think you've read all its words, the damn thing falls apart in your hands and you have to start all over again.
The leather of the cover was long gone; only the interior pastedowns had survived the continents and centuries. Similarly, all that remained of the binding was naked stitch work. The back cover was even more distressed-a sandwich of several barely-glued-together and delaminating layers. The extremes of New York's climate had taken their toll on whatever adhesive properties the old glue might still have possessed. Indeed, the book was so insubstantial, it seemed more pneumatic than corporeal-a child's helium balloon in imminent danger of floating away. The paper of the pages had a bluish cast and was so softly textured, it felt like cloth; wormholes embroidered the edges and much of the gutter. Many margins were embellished with handwritten notes. The title page bore the names or biblical verses poetically alluding to the names of generations of owners. And at the bottom there was printed a verse from the Book of Job: "What is hidden shall come into the light."
Then, like a man swearing an oath in court, Kalman placed his open palm on the book and mused, "And what was hidden has come to me!" He closed his eyes and smiled.
Kalman's office was at the back of the library stacks, a destination distinguished primarily by the fact that it could be reached from the stairway door by at least half a dozen different paths. And each one was through a different maze of aisles created by floor-to-ceiling gray metal shelves of books and-if you bothered to flip on the switches as you walked by-illuminated by overhead fluorescent lights. There were routes for every mood: You could walk through medieval Europe and the Holocaust; you could walk through commentaries on the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, or the Koran; you could walk through the Talmud, the history of Israel, Jewish ethics, or Jewish humor. But no matter which path you chose, it was through books, literally thousands and thousands of them, all waiting patiently for readers like flowers for bees.
"So you're interested in becoming a rabbi. . . ." Kalman set down her letter and smiled at the red-haired young woman sitting on the other side of his desk.
"Yes, I am, Rabbi Stern. I'm particularly interested in Kabbalah."
"Which is why, I suppose, the dean asked me to meet with you."
Kalman looked over his reading glasses. "Does God talk to you?"
"Not that I know of."
"Well, that's a good sign."
"I majored in classics and religion at Brown. I even took a year of Hebrew. For the past several years, I have tried Buddhist meditation, spent six months in India on an ashram, and then last year I had an epiphany. I was at my nephew's bar mitzvah, and it dawned on me that Judaism must have something mystical, too."
"Indeed," said Kalman. He reached over, picked up the Zohar, and handed it to her. "Be gentle, it's very, very old."
"When was it published?"
"Look at this line, here," he said, pointing to the verse from Job at the bottom of the title page.
"Why are some of the letters bigger than the others?"
"You mean where each letter has a numerical equivalent?"
"Excellent." He handed her a pencil and a notepad. "How's your arithmetic?"
"You'll have to help me."
"Let's first wait and see if you need any. . . . Remember, only the big letters."
"Okay," she said, "Ayin is . . . Wait, don't tell me, mem, nun, samekh, ayin, yes, seventy; lamed is thirty; yod is ten. . . . Tsadi. What's tsadi?"
"Ninety," said Kalman.
"Thank you. The alephs, of course, is one; the vav is six; and the resh is . . ."
"Two hundred. Relax, this is not a test."
She tallied the numbers and replied with a hesitant grin, "Four hundred and eight?"
"Bingo!" said Kalman, clapping his hands together in mock applause. "Pub date hidden in a scriptural verse."
"But how is four hundred and seven a date?"
"The publisher assumes you know which millennium you're in. So you add the present millennium and get 5407. Then subtract that from the current Hebrew year, 5757, leaving 350. Finally, subtract that from this year, 1997, which tells us the book was published in 1647. Piece of cake. And if that's too complicated for you, just add 240 to the Hebrew year and correct for the proper millennium."
"But I don't understand, Rabbi Stern. Why didn't they just put the date?"
"Because the publisher believed that everything worth knowing is already in the Hebrew Bible. That's what it means to say that God gave it. We only have to learn how to read and interpret those words correctly. That's what we're supposed to be doing here in this school: learning how to read them properly."
SAFED: ITERATION ONE
Kalman watched while the young woman contemplated the book in her hands.
"It's really beautiful, Rabbi Stern. What is it?"
"The red letters at the top of the page."
Falteringly, she sounded out the three words: "Ha-Zohar al ha-Torah. The Zohar on the Torah-awesome!" Her cheeks flushed. "I've read about it, but I've never seen one before."
"You are holding the first of a three-volume set that purports to be the transcript of the peripatetic teachings and adventures of the second-century mystic Shimon bar Yohai and his companions as they wander the Galilean hills. Like other rabbinic texts, it humbly claims only to elaborate on the real meaning of the Bible. Gershom Scholem . . . you know about him?"
"Historian of mysticism?"
"Yes. Scholem once pointed out that, in a revealed religion like Judaism, creativity must masquerade as commentary."
"I don't understand."
"If everything worth knowing is already in the Torah, then no one can say anything new of any real value. So if you're a Jew and you have a creative idea, you must begin by demonstrating how it's already in scripture."
"And so that's why the Zohar claims to elucidate the Torah?"
"Correct. It was Scholem who also first suggested that the Zohar is a mystical novel. That would make the Zohar a treatise on Kabbalah that has been disguised to look like a commentary on the Torah, which, in turn, is masquerading as a novel. Scholars now agree with Scholem that it was pseudepigraphically written by the Castilian Kabbalist Moshe de Leon toward the end of the thirteenth century."
"It sort of gives ghostwriting a new dimension, doesn't it," she said.
Kalman laughed. "Well, if you believe in the transmigration of souls, I suppose. According to at least one document, Moshe de Leon feared that no one would read something he wrote, so he invented-or I suppose you could say channeled-a more prestigious author. But whoever wrote it, the Jews bought the whole thing. After the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud, the Zohar has effectively become the third canonical sacred text in Judaism."
"May I ask, Rabbi, how you got the book?"
He rotated it in his hands, examining it in the light. "It's actually a pretty good story," Kalman said. "The caretaker of a little synagogue up in Safed gave it to me. It must've been twenty, maybe twenty-five years ago. I was leading a tour of Israel for members of my part-time congregation. We were up in Safed, in the Galilee. After visiting the synagogue of Isaac Luria, the group had had enough of my history of Kabbalah and wanted to go shopping in the artists' quarter. So I wandered off down the hillside, alone. Within only a few blocks the buildings began to thin out and the narrow street became just a rocky, zigzag path down the side of the mountain. That's when I noticed the entrance to the courtyard of a small Spanish-Portuguese-style synagogue. I was tired, the gate was ajar, and the place was deserted. So I walked in. . . ."
Kalman closed his eyes for a moment, recalling that old Mediterranean prayer hall. Its ceiling was high-easily two stories-and supported by four slightly pointed, white plastered arches that, in turn, rested upon columns. Each column was painted a bright, high-gloss blue. Most of the windows had bright blue curtains that billowed lazily with every passing breeze. The big stone blocks paving the floor had been worn to a shine by the foot-shuffle genuflections of generations of worshippers. Every inch of mortar between every block of pavement was also painted bright azure. The bottom half of all four walls was also a bright, high-gloss blue.
Blue: the color of the sea and the color of the sky. "And beneath God's feet was the likeness of sapphire stones, like the purity of the sky itself"-Exodus 24:10. And blue: the color associated with God's fleeting feminine presence.
The top half of the room and ceiling was white and festooned with a haphazard array of fluorescent lights, space heaters, bare incandescent bulbs, chandeliers, and sconces for candles, as well as an assortment of electric fans. The walls were interrupted regularly with cushioned benches and alcoves for bookshelves. Along the far wall were six high, narrow, arched windows. They had neither screens nor glass. Birds occasionally flew in and out. Rays of afternoon sunlight flitted across the prayer desks and bookshelves, igniting them, one after another, with flashes of white light. And in the center, several feet above floor level, stood an ornate pulpit surrounded by a turquoise railing.
"It was the most mysteriously beautiful place I think I've ever been in," said Kalman. "I just stood there, mesmerized by the sunlight and the twittering of the birds, when the caretaker, an old Moroccan-looking man, startled me out of my reverie. . . ."
"Mincha doesn't start for a few hours."
"The afternoon service, it doesn't begin for a few hours."
"This is a beautiful synagogue."
"It needs a new roof; the plumbing's shot."
"What's it called?"
"The plumbing problem?"
"No, the synagogue."
"Benaiah, the Yose Benaiah Synagogue."
"Who is Yose Benaiah?"
"Third-century Talmudic teacher."
"I've never heard of him."
"We only have fragments."
"Tractate Ta'anit 7a: 'If you occupy yourself with Torah for its own sake, your learning will become a source of life.' "
"My personal favorite is from tractate Baba Batra. It says that once Rabbi Benaiah came upon Abraham's burial cave. There, in front, standing guard, he found Abraham's servant, Eliezer. 'What is Abraham doing?' asked Benaiah. 'He and Sarah are making love,' said the servant."
"Visiting the caves of people who make love for eternity-an interesting character, this Benaiah guy."
"Maybe that's why they named the synagogue after him."
"What a wonderful story. Thank you. Say, you wouldn't by any chance know where I might find some old Kabbalistic books, would you?"
"Have you looked over there?" The old man gestured toward what looked like a pile of rubbish on a table in a darkened alcove. "Go ahead, help yourself."
"But when I walked over to the table," said Kalman, "I saw that it wasn't trash; it was a heap of old Hebrew books. Most of them were in pretty bad condition-individual pages, covers without contents, dozens of damaged prayer books. And that's when I noticed this book. I asked the caretaker if it was for sale."
"Doesn't belong to anyone now," he replied. "Go ahead, take it. It's yours. Has your name on it."
"I couldn't possibly-"
"Don't be silly. It's been lying there for years waiting for someone like you. If it will make you feel better, you can make a donation." He gestured toward a small wooden box by the door. Carved on it were the customary words A gift given in secret.
"I thanked him profusely," Kalman said, "stuffed a twenty-dollar bill into the slot, and walked back outside with the book you are holding."
The young woman looked at Kalman, then she looked down at the Zohar.
"Here," said Kalman. "You mentioned earlier that you had an epiphany. Let us learn something together from the Zohar about epiphanies." He opened the book to its first comment on Genesis. "It's a very famous passage; I've studied it many times before. Each time, I get something new."
"In the beginning . . .&
Excerpted from Kabbalah by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
1. Before reading this novel, what did you know about Kabbalah? How has your understanding changed?
2. Discuss the pair of quotes on the frontispiece. How do Gershom Gerhard Scholem’s thoughts relate to George Carlin’s assertion that “Time is just God’s way of making sure that everything doesn’t happen all at once”? How does this relate to the novel?
3. One of the major touchstones of the novel is the idea of the dark spark, botzina d’qardinuta, and the world that is coming, alma d’atay. What do these terms mean to you? Is it something you consider in your everyday life, or practice of religion?
4. Compare Kalman’s fascination with Kabbalah and Isabel’s fascination with the cosmos. How are they similar? How do the disciplines complement one another?
5. On page 112, the old man at Safed tells Kalman, “No one is given a sign–not Moses at the bush, not the Israelites at the Red Sea. The natural order does not change, ever. The only things that do change are your own eyes: You see in a new way.” Yet there are signs, both literal and metaphorical, throughout the novel. What do those signs mean, examined through the statement above? Do you think the author believes in signs? Do you believe in them?
6. There are multiple iterations of the events at Safed, when Kalman comes into possession of the master text of Kabbalah. Given what you know of Kabbalah, is it possible they are all true? How does your understanding of Kalman’s behavior change with each iteration? Which one seems most real to you?
7. Compare the two couples in the novel, Kalman and Isabel,Moshe and the senora. In what ways are they similar? And different?
8. Why do you think the senora’s name is kept a secret for most of the novel? What is the reward when it is finally revealed?
9. From the very first sentence, images of light are a recurring motif. What is the significance of this?
10. The phrase “It’s got your name on it” is repeated multiple times. How does its meaning change over the course of the novel?
11. On pages 124-5, Kalman and Isabel compare theism and mysticism. Which seems closer to your own belief system, if either one does?
12. Pregnancy and maternity is another recurring theme, both in mystical terms and real ones. What do you think Kushner is trying to express? How does the elevator scene change Kalman?
13. Although the bulk of the book takes place in contemporary New York City and Israel or 13th-century Spain, there are a handful of scenes set during the Holocaust. What is the significance of those scenes?
14. Discuss the outcome of Moshe’s story, on page 176. Was this what you expected to happen? Why do you think he gave in so willingly?
15. On page 189, Kalman has an epiphany: “You can only have it if you give it away!” What does this mean? How does the realization change Kalman, and the outcome of the novel?
16. When Kalman is stressed or flustered, he suffers from dysnomia–his syntax becomes jumbled–yet in the penultimate scene, at what might be the most stress-filled moment of his life, Kalman’s speech is pristine. Why do you think that is?
17. Discuss the ways in which the author plays with time. Is it possible that everything that happens in the novel is actually happening concurrently? What does this have to do with the teachings of Kabbalah? How does it enrich your experience of reading the novel?
18. Several times in the novel, it’s said that everything worth knowing is already written in the Hebrew Bible. What does this statement mean to you? Do you believe it’s true?
19. In the very last scene, Kalman asks, “Do you really think that every question is contained in that spark of light?” After having read Kabbalah: A Love Story, how would you answer that question?
Posted February 27, 2011
Kabbalah: A Love Story: <BR/>Novel Mystical Approach and Mystical Novel<BR/><BR/><BR/>Reviewed by Arthur L. Finkle<BR/><BR/>I have used this gem in a serous study group on mysticism. What is arcane, Kushner explains simply. Like the Zohar, its explanation involves becoming part of the cosmos; not looking from the outside. <BR/><BR/>Providing the ambience and involving the reader with the word, this novel provides the flavor of mysticism, which tastes delicious and will endure longer tan reading complicated texts. <BR/><BR/>This lyrical and sometimes poetic novel involves the reader in exploring the stories of love and of being a part of a larger being.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 19, 2006
When I read Rabbi Lawrence Kushner's first work of published fiction, I knew I was in for a treat. In 'Honey on the Rocks,' Kushner's first book, he established himself as a storyteller extraodinaire. This book works on two levels. There is a beautiful romantic tale between two befuddled, beautiful, interesting human beings. And the metaphor of human love is a perfect analogy for how God aches, yearns, waits patiently and longs for us to perform teshuvah, or perfect repentance. In 'Honey on the Rocks' Rabbi Kushner said that if one person performed perfect teshuvah then heaven would arrive. This book, for anyone who is looking for a larger, more inclusive notion of the divine, is filled with penetrating insights, whimsical fragility and a rabbi's immense wisdom on the working of the human heart. Kushner tells us that rabbis are present when everything comes together and when everything comes apart. My favorite sections are the insights of the caregiver--especially how he says that we can't choose much in life, only the reverence of our attitudes towards it. I have been reading and rereading Lawrence Kushner all my adult life. His humor, his love of manking and for God, and his razor sharp intellect make this simple fable a tremendous offering. I read a review that said the romantic conclusion was simplistic. I liked the simple. I like a bumbling hero who finds redemption in his life and in his love for his God. There is a scene in an elevator where our protaganist faces his greatest fear and survives, using the Word of God as a tool to sift away breath-blocking mucus. What a wonder indeed. Dale Anthony Beaulieu firstname.lastname@example.orgWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.