Lawrence Kushner, one of the Living Spiritual Teachers of this website, is a rabbi and teacher who serves as the Emanu-El Scholar at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, where he lives with his wife, Karen. Kushner is also a visiting professor of Jewish spirituality at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. He is the author of more than a dozen books on spirituality and Jewish mysticism. His works range from illustrated meditations on Hebrew words to children's books about the questions that really matter in life. In Invisible Lines of Connection, one of our favorites, he illustrates spiritual concepts through personal accounts of serving on jury duty, playing a computer game, and dancing the Hokey-Pokey.
We suspect it was only a matter of time until Kushner tried his hand at fiction, a genre for which his sense of humor, attention to detail, and vivid imagination are very well suited. With Kabbalah: A Love Story he is on familiar and very fertile ground — the story centers around a rabbi who studies Kabbalah. Devotees of Kushner's work will recognize Kushner's playful touch in an early quotation from George Carlin: "Time is just God's way of making sure that everything doesn't happen all at once."
For those who might not know the background to this story, Kushner sets the scene:
"Of all the varieties of Jewish mysticism, Kabbalah is the most fully developed and certainly the most well-known. Most historians agree that it attains maturity as a thirteenth-century Spanish system of theosophy claiming to explain the influence of human action on the inner workings of God. According to Kabbalah, human experience, the unfolding of world history, even the laws of nature themselves, are all manifestations of the divine psyche. . . . Kabbalistic thought reached its zenith a century later with the appearance of what is now known as the zohar. Its author was purported to be none other than the renowed second-century mystic Shimon bar Yohai. Indeed, the faithful even today still believe that. It seems fitting that the authorship of the Zohar should remain mysterious."
Rabbi Kalman Stern teaches courses on mysticism in New York City. One of his pedagogic props is an ancient copy of the Zohar, a book of mystical teachings on the Torah, that he found in Safed, Israel. Several versions of the story of that find are woven through the novel. When he discovers an extra page hidden within the binding of the book, he sets out on a quest to learn what it means and where it came from. Could it be that it was written by the Castilian Kabbalist Moshe de Loen toward the end of the thirteenth century? And could this Kabbalist be the true author of the Zohar? Or could those ideas have come from someone else he knew? Kushner explores these possibilities with another storyline, as well as a smaller one about a Polish mystic on a train to a concentration camp.
As Stern is busy trying to unravel the nature and meaning of this ancient text, he meets Isabel Benveniste, an astronomer. She is interested in mysticism and asks him for a definition. He tells her that "Mysticism is the taking of more and more into your field of vision until there is nothing left outside — not even the one who is looking." She has her own mystical proclivities and shares with him the awe she felt while watching 25,000 snow geese, cranes, and great blue herons lift off from a body of water to continue on the next leg of their migration.
Kalman and Isabel begin a relationship, but he is very awkward and frightened since his wife walked out on him many years ago. Although this learned rabbi knows a lot about Kabbalah, has a fine sense of humor, and loves movies about connections; he worries that in love he is a failure.
Kushner's mystical novel moves through three time periods and takes within its embrace a great respect for God's creativity, the human choice of reverence, the nature of time from a divine perspective, the trickiness of memory, and the feminine side of God. One of Kalman's friends states that there are 49 million stories about Kabbalah. Now there is one more, and it is an enchanting tale about the one thing that matters most in life and in mysticism: love.