Read an Excerpt
* 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 bagteaching 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 yourshas 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 these years, 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 distresseda 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 corporeala 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 andif you bothered to flip on the switches as you walked byilluminated 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 Torahawesome!" 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 inventedor I suppose you could say channeleda 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 higheasily two storiesand 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 Yosé Benaiah Synagogue."
"Who is Yosé 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 eternityan 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 conditionindividual 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 . . ." The beginning of the Holy One's interpretation [of Scripture] was the scoring of a glyph in the supernal purity: a dark spark, a hardened flash of light. It issued from what is beyond comprehension, from the secret of the One without End. . . . Beyond that point, nothing can be known. . . .
"That's pretty much how everything begins," Kalman reflected. "You wake up. Before you open your eyes, there is only a mirror-smooth sheet of unconscious ice. And then, from out of that nowhereand it has to be a nowhere, because there are no coordinatessuddenly a pinprick of light. And the spark does only one thing. It chisels out a single mark, engraves one letter. Andwhammo!the unity is gone. Where once there was One, now there are galaxies and migrating birds, mitochondria swimming in our cellular protoplasm, giant Sequoias, refractor telescopes, that big red neon Tower Records sign down there across the street, and this mug of French roast Starbucks coffee that I picked up this morning on my way here."
The young woman reached into her bag for a notebook.
"Relax," said Kalman. "This is not the sort of thing you can or should write down. Trust your ability to absorb what's important. Remember, all the good stuff is already recorded in sacred text anyway."