Living with Ambiguity: Chaim Potok's The Book of Lights (1981)

[Introduction] As the Corona virus was dominating the media and everybody’s daily lives, many of my friends on Facebook began launching “book challenges” to entertain themselves and the members of their networks. I accepted a challenge to list “10 books that changed your life,” and soon discovered that it was not just great fun to select ten titles and write about them, but that the exercise triggered a process of self-reflection. It made me conscious of some deep and long-term motivations and obsessions that have very much determined my personal life and my career as a scholar as well (or the other way around?). Below follows an expanded version of nr. 1 on my list. 

Chaim Potok became famous with his best-selling novels The Chosen (1967) and My Name is Asher Lev (1972). I devoured and loved those books when I was young, but undoubtedly it is The Book of Lights that really did it for me. It is not so well known as the others, probably because the central theme is Jewish kabbalah – not such a familiar topic for the general public. Many readers may have found it somewhat difficult to relate to this story and understand what it was really all about, but I have to say that I took to it like a fish to water. It is through this novel that I first became aware of the great kabbalah specialist Gershom Scholem (1897-1982), who appears in the novel as Professor Jacob Keter. Potok presents him as the polar counterpart of an equally great Talmud scholar who goes by the name of Nathan Malkuson: yes, nomina omina sunt, for these are transparent references to the highest and lowest of the ten sefirot (luminous manifestations of divinity) that constitute the kabbalistic “tree of life.” The novel’s hero, Gershon Loran, is a student who falls under Keter’s spell and embarks on the path of becoming a scholar of Jewish esotericism. The novel’s picture of Jacob Keter is so impressive that it became my ideal model of what the scholarly life was supposed to be all about. Basically what happened is that I said to myself: “that’s what I want to be!” As for Gershon Loran, I think I identified with him on several levels, and as I re-read the novel not so long ago, I found that I still doCentral to the narrative – written by a writer born in 1929 who came of age in New York during the later 1940s and the 1950s, the high period of Cold War paranoia – is the mysterious phenomenon of the divine Light of Creation central to kabbalistic mythology. How, Potok was asking himself, does it relate to the Light of Annihilation revealed by the detonation of the atomic bomb? Is it at all possible to determine which one comes from the divine world and which one from the demonic realm, the sita achra
When I visited the quinquennial conference of the International Association for the History of Religion (IAHR) in Japan in 2005, I took The Book of Lights with me and followed Gershon Loran’s trajectory, traveling by high-speed train from Tokyo to Hirosjima. This visit remains one of the strongest impressions of my life. I spent a sunny day in the area where the bomb went off, now known as the “Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park,” surrounded by smiling tourists making pictures while trying to imagine what happened there on 6 August 1945. If by sheer luck you survived at all, how would your mind react to seeing literally everything and everybody around you obliterated, incinerated, utterly wiped away in one single blinding flash of total destruction? I spent hours in the Peace Memorial Museum at the square, feeling sick and exhausted when I finally came out, convinced that any President or PM in control of nuclear weapons should be obliged by law to visit this museum as a condition for taking office. And of course I spent time near the strange saddle-like monument, the Cenotaph, from which Gershon Loran heard a voice from the sita achra whispering to him. For me, Auschwitz and Hiroshima remain the two geographical centers of ultimate demonic horror that demonstrate the evil human beings are capable of. In my mind, the Cenotaph is also linked to Alain Resnais’ great movie Hiroshima mon amour (1959; based on Marguerite Duras). Watching it again after my trip to Tokyo, I realized that the hotel where the French actress and her Japanese lover have their final meeting must be the very same one from which Gershon Loran and his friend Arthur Leiden see the Cenotaph too. 

Still from Hiroshima Mon Amour (Alain Resnais, 1959)

There are many passages in The Book of Lights that I love, and some of them I know almost by heart. A great favourite is the extraordinary account of Gershon Loran’s oral exam with Keter, during a long walk along Riverside Drive. Gershon drifts into a hallucinatory altered state, watching a numinous white bird circling above the water while listening as if from a distance and in a dream how he and Keter go through centuries of kabbalistic myths and imagery. But I will quote a conversation in Japan with his friend Arthur Leiden, the son of a great physicist who is tormented by the knowledge that his own father helped create the bomb and unleash the death light. Arthur asks Gershon why on earth he is so attracted by those weird kabbalistic books.

Weird? Maybe. Those books are really records of the religious imagination, Arthur. When I was a kid I once went up to the roof of our apartment house in Brooklyn and looked up at the stars. I remember I raised my hands in supplication – a little like the gesture of the monkey we saw today on the road. I felt something touch me. Oh yes, something touched me. I’ve been waiting to feel that touch again. Is that childish of me? This is, after all, the twentieth century. But sometimes when I read those texts I’m on the roof of that building again. I don’t know why I feel that way. They say things in those books that no one dares to say anywhere else. I feel comfortable with those acceptable heresies. God originally as sacred emptiness; ascents to God that are filled with danger, as if you were going through an angelic minefield; creation as a vast error; the world broken and dense with evil; everything a bewildering puzzle; and the sexuality in some of the passages. I like the sexuality. I especially like the ambiguities. Wow, Arthur, listen to me go. I’m saying more to you tonight than I did during all our seminary years. That is really good wine. Where was I? Yes. Ambiguities. You can’t pin most of it down the way you can a passage of Talmud. I can live with ambiguity, I think, better than I can with certainty. 

I suppose that it was while reading this passage that I realized this to be true for myself as well. Gershon Loran came from an orthodox Jewish background while I was raised as the son of a Protestant minister; and both religious cultures were teaching their members to understand the world in terms of clear doctrinal certainties. Much too two-dimensional for my taste – reality couldn’t possibly be that simple. I felt more comfortable with the heretics, those who do not follow authorities but “make their own choices.” I still do.

The original bomb on Hiroshima


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