Living with Ambiguity: Chaim Potok's The Book of Lights (1981)
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 do. Central 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?
|Still from Hiroshima Mon Amour (Alain Resnais, 1959)|
|The original bomb on Hiroshima|