Book of Lights, by Chaim Potok.

What’s it about?

Gershon is a rabbi-in-training with an interest in mysticism over law (Kabbalah over Talmud), and a need to connect that mysticism to experience.

He does it through his friend and fellow rabbi-in-training, whose father helped build the atomic bomb (as did many Jews, I think). His friend is full of guilt (and rejection of his parents), which distracts from the quality of his religious study.

Military service, as chaplains, is required, and they go to South Korea. There, Gershon’s experiences separate his values from his religion. The people he admires are not Jews: a Korean boy, a Mormon assistant who is harder working and more open-minded than his Jewish assistant. The difference he sees himself making is practical: improvement of physical conditions. The actual spiritual counseling is presented as minimally important, and consists largely of Jewish soldiers in conflict with the military (prostitution is mentioned several times). The main Jewish advocacy occurs when there is war in the Middle East (the Suez Crisis, I think), and there is talk that the Jews are about to start a nuclear war.

Gershon’s drift away from  seeing value in  his religion continues to a crisis point, producing a severe questioning of faith. After the military service, it’s unclear whether mysticism still has relevance for him.

This passage, spoken by one of his professors near the end, is a good expression of the purpose of spirituality, in contrast to religion:

“What is of importance is not that there may be nothing. We have always acknowledged that as a possibility. What is important is that if indeed there is nothing, then we should be prepared to make something out of the only thing we have left to us–ourselves.”

I wonder: Why not make something out of ourselves regardless of whether there is nothing (i.e. no god)?

At the end, Gershon meditates on a rooftop and has a conversation with some entities (God and/or a tempter…it is not made clear). He resolves to continue study of the Kabbalah.

I like the book because the themes are understated and thoughtful. It’s not a book that will work for you if you expect to be entertained. The reader is expected to make some meaning for himself. Quite a bit is not explained, but there is enough for the pleasure of building your own meaning from what is given.


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