(THE FOLLOWING POST CONTAINS SPOILERS. IF YOU THINK YOU MIGHT READ POTOK’S THE BOOK OF LIGHTS YOU MAY NOT WANT TO READ THE BELOW).
Ever since I read The Chosen and The Promise, Chaim Potok (1929-2002) has been one of my favorite authors. As has been noted by literary scholars “All of Chaim Potok’s novels vividly depict the study of sacred texts as central to the Jewish tradition.” Instead of Torah and Talmud, the texts which interest Potok in The Book of Lights (1981) are the medieval Jewish mystical writings called the Kabbalah. The novel's title is derived from a central mystical text, The Zohar. The actual title of the work, the Sefer ha-zohar, means “the book of lights.”
Light is very important in Jewish mystical theology. “Kabbalists believe that the universe was created by a light ray that poured into containers, some of which broke, thus causing evil to enter the world. Pieces of light are everywhere. When the spilled light is gathered up by humankind, people will become immortal. For kabbalists, the two-thousand-year dispersal of the Jews is to prepare the world for the Messiah who will come when the lights are recovered. Kabbalists naturally would be fascinated by light, for God said “Let there be light,” just after creating the heaven and the earth. Before light the earth was “without form, and void” (Genesis). Like mysticism, light is incorporeal. But as particle and wave it has substance, motion, and power.”
As with the protagonists of Potok’s earlier novels, The Chosen, The Promise, and In the Beginning, the main character of The Book of Lights is a young rabbinical student who lives in the Jewish section of Brooklyn, New York. Gershon Loran is a lackluster student of Talmud but becomes excited about the study of Kabbalah. The novel opens in the early 1950s when Gershon is a student in a seminary. Gershon’s parents were killed in a cross fire between Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem in 1937 when Gershon was eight years old. Orphaned, Gershon has been reared by his aunt and uncle. His uncle owns a run down Hebrew bookstore and his aunt has never recovered from the death of the couples’ only son during World War II.
The Book of Lights has many more literary devices and metaphors than Potok’s earlier novels. Gershon’s aunt and uncle live in a ramshackle apartment building. Gerhon’s uncle acts as the building supervisor and collects rents for the unknown absentee landlord. “They lived in a sunless ground-floor apartment in an old five story redbrick building where his uncle collected the rents for the owner no one ever saw. The house was the talk of their Brooklyn neighborhood. There was something wrong with it, something had gone awry from the beginning.” This suggests a metaphor for the world where “something had gone awry from the beginning,” and suggests the role of the Jews as God’s chosen people who serve the unknown absentee Creator of the Universe in his broken world.
One night, on the roof of the apartment building, Gershon has a mystical experience which he believes is God revealing himself. Throughout the novel, Gershon has visions of people and places and seeks to recapture the experience of the night on the roof when he touched the stars and all things seemed to be one.
Gershon is sent to an Orthodox yeshiva where he has a lackluster academic performance. After graduation from the Yeshiva, Gershon enrolls in a non-orthodox theological seminary. Gershon is a competent student of Torah and Talmud but his academic career does not take off until Jacob Keter, an expert in Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism, arrives to teach at the seminary.
Gershon’s roommate is Arthur Leiden. Arthur’s father is a famous physicist who worked on the development of the atomic bomb. Arthur’s mother is a noted professor of art history. Arthur has chosen to be an observant Jew and to study to be a rabbi in apparent rebellion against his parents who are secular Jews. Arthur drinks too much and is often unprepared for class. Gershon is dating Karen Levin who is studying for her doctorate in philosophy at Columbia University. Karen’s father is a noted rabbi, and Karen makes it clear to Gershon that she does not intend to be the wife of a “pulpit rabbi.” Nevertheless, Gershon and Karen continue to see each other.
Due to a lack of Jewish chaplains in the armed forces, seminary administrators make it a requirement for ordination that all graduates serve two years as a military chaplain. However, Gershon’s military service is delayed for a year when he wins an academic scholarship, endowed by Arthur’s parents and named for Arthur's dead brother, which enables Gershon to do graduate study on Kabbalah with Professor Keter. Finally, his year of graduate study over with, Gershon reluctantly joins the army.
Worship in a Shinto Temple
Sent to Korea as a chaplain just after the end of the Korean War, Gershon is a great success as an army chaplain. He is well respected by both the officers and men, and gains a reputation as a good chaplain. In Asia, Gershon’s perspective is considerably broadened. He realizes that there may be other ways to God than Judaism. During a trip to Japan, Gershon and another soldier watch people pray at a Shnto shrine:
“In the indoor shrine at the end of the street, people crowded before an altar on which stood an image. Candles burned in tall black metal candelabra. Women stood with their hands together, praying. Children prayed softly. Before the altar was a railing. An old man stood at the railing. He wore a hat and a brown coat. He had a long white beard, a flowing beard that lay upon his chest and seemed possessed of a life of its own, like a waterfall. It caught the soft lights of the candles and glints of the sunlight that came through the door of the shrine. In his hands he held a prayer book. His body swayed back and forth, back and forth, as he prayed. His eyes opened and closed behind rimless spectacles that flashed and flared with the lights of the candles and the sun. Gershon looked at him. Had he seen him somewhere before? He could not remember.
“Do you think our God is listening to him, John?”
“I don’t know, chappy. I never thought of it.”
“Neither did I until now. If He’s not listening, why not? If He is listening, then-well, what are we all about, John? That’s my thought for tomorrow. It think we ought to go back to the hotel.”
The day was Friday, Gershon’s Shabbat began with dusk. He remained by himself in the room; John went out for a walk. He sat in an easy chair, reading a work by Chaim Vital on the kabbalistic thought of Isaac Luria. He put it aside after a while and took up the second of the two books he had brought with him, a volume of the Zohar. He began to read the commentary to the Torah portion of that Shabbat, the section that tells of the Revelation at Sinai.
He read, “When a man spreads out his hands and lifts them up in prayer and supplication, he may be said to glorify the Holy One in various ways. He symbolically unites the ten sefirot, thereby unifying the whole and duly blessing the Holy Name.” He read this and thought of the Japanese he had seen praying in the shine.”
Hiroshima after the Bomb
For a while, Gershon is the only Jewish chaplain in Korea. Finally, a new Jewish chaplain arrives, Arthur Leiden. Arthur desperately wants to travel to Japan and especially want to visit the cities of Kyoto and Hiroshima. After first going to Hong Kong, where they meet a Muslim lawyer and his daughter, Gershon and Arthur arrive in Japan. Arthur wishes to see Kyoto because his mother was instrumental in saving the city and convincing the army not to drop an atomic bomb on it due to all of its ancient art treasures. He wants to see Hiroshima due to guilt that his father helped to build the bomb which killed thousands of people. At the shrine to the dead of Hiroshima, Arthur says the Kiddish, the traditional prayers for the dead. Near the end of the novel, Arthur is killed in an airplane crash attempting to return to Japan.
After leaving the army, Gershon returns to the United States after visiting Arthur’s parents he spends time with Karen who has accepted a job teaching philosophy at the University of Chicago. Gershon tells Karen that he cannot go with her and that their marriage will have to wait. Gershon then travels to Israel to continue his Kabbalah studies with Jacob Keter. At the end of the novel, Gershon is sitting in a garden in Jerusalem, waiting. We can infer that he is waiting on God.
The Book of Lights is a very deep and involved novel. This discussion only scratches the surface of the riches of this book. The atomic bomb is itself a kind of divine light and, like God, the physicists who created it also unleashed evil. Gershon’s first name is a variation of the name Moses gives to his son which means “stranger.” Gershon’s last name, Loren, is an acronym for a navigation device. Gershon is a stranger seeking God but he is navigating in the right direction. Arthur’s last name is also symbolic. Leiden means suffering in German. Karen, the student of philosophy who rejects the life of her rabbi father, is the secular humanist who demands certainty.
Chaim Potok (1929-2002)
The Book of Lights is the kind of novel that demands a lot from the reader. It is well worth it. Shalom.
Soll, W. (Spring, 1989). Chaim Potok's Book of LIghts: Reappropriating Kabbalah in the Nuclear Age. Religion & Literature, 111-135.
Sternlicht, S. (2000). Chaim Potok: A Critical Companion. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.