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Arts & Culture with Love Story Based on Zohar, Rabbi Makes a Foray into Fiction

Some things that happen are not true, and some true things never happened. That’s how Rabbi Lawrence Kushner recalls a teaching he heard from Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel.

And it fits Kushner’s newest book, which is a book about a book, based on a real book the author found many years ago in Safed, Israel, city of mystics.

Like Wiesel, Kushner has spent a lifetime delving into the Jewish mystical tradition. Unlike Wiesel, the San Francisco-based Reform rabbi has done most of his teaching from a podium and through non-fiction writing.

Now, after 15 books on Jewish spirituality, 28 years as a pulpit rabbi in Massachusetts and a stint teaching spirituality and mysticism at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, Kushner has issued his first novel, “Kabbalah: A Love Story,” published by Morgan Road Books, an imprint of Random House.

It’s a short book that, on its surface, entwines two love stories: the first is of Moshe ben Shem-Tov, a late-13th-century Spanish scholar, and his brilliant-but-married female student; the second is the romance of a modern-day New York Reform rabbi and his astronomer lover.

The stories are tied together by the Zohar, Judaism’s central book of mysticism. Ostensibly written by the second-century mystic Shimon Bar Yohai, it most probably was composed by Ben Shem-Tov, who attributed it to the earlier sage to give it more prestige.

In Kushner’s novel, the present-day rabbi finds a 17th-century copy of the mystical tome and spends much of the ensuing narrative learning its lessons.

The novel is based on a real incident.

Sitting in his home on San Francisco’s Russian Hill, Kushner carefully handles another book. It’s an 18th-century Zohar, old and fragile, its creamy pages crackling with age, its cover a worn-out yellowish-brown that is peeling back from the edges.

“Go ahead, touch the page,” he urges. “Feel the letters.”

Kushner found the book in Safed while leading a congregational trip to Israel in 1975. He spent an afternoon wandering the streets asking passers-by, in his rudimentary Hebrew, where he might find some antique books. He entered an old synagogue to rest, and asked the same question of the shul’s caretaker.

The caretaker went to a pile of rubbish lying in a corner, rummaged through the heap, picked up an old book, dusted it off and handed it to Kushner. The American flipped through a few pages and saw it was a Zohar printed in 1791 by the famed Livorno press.

Not wanting to take so valuable an item, he tried to hand it back, but the Israeli urged him to keep it.

“It’s yours,” the man’s gestures indicated.

Five years ago, Kushner returned to Safed to find the synagogue. He spent a full day hunting, but no one, including the city tourism office, could help him. The next morning, his companion tripped over a dog lying in the street, and the dog’s owner recognized the shul from some photographs Kushner had taken on his first visit.

“It’s right over there,” the man said, pointing down the block.

The book and its unusual provenance became the perfect foil for Kushner’s first foray into fiction.

“Fiction is another way for me to teach,” he says, citing midrashic literature and the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer as his main influences.

Like midrash, and most of Singer’s writing, Kushner’s book is more fable than novel. Rather than characters driving the narrative, it and they are instruments the author uses to elucidate his kabbalistic lessons.

If he had to put a name to it, Kushner would call the genre “spiritual fiction,” but he’s not bothered with where it belongs on the bookshelf. The story gently, and somewhat obliquely, moves the reader through the kabbalistic process of, as Kushner describes it, “using the sacred tradition to comprehend the inner workings of the divine.”

It does that through the two love stories — for love, which Kushner says demands “the dissolution of the self,” parallels the Kabbalah’s understanding of God as encompassing all reality, including the self.

All very highfalutin ideas. But the book itself is simple, easily read in one evening. Like a fable. Or a sermon.

Now Kushner lives in San Francisco, where he is a full-time scholar-in-residence at Temple Emanuel. He teaches, writes and mentors up-and-coming rabbis, who will face a profession quite different than the one he entered more than 40 years ago.

“When I set out, the rabbi was the de facto leader of the community and, even if he was a jerk, was regarded in high esteem,” Kushner says. “There was some real kavod,” or respect, “that went with the job, which made up for some of the intense demands.”

Today’s rabbis are expected to do more multi-tasking and, Kushner says, get back less emotionally. In response to the increasing pressures, seminary graduates are fleeing the pulpit.

“It’s a different job,” he remarks. “If Abba Hillel Silver’s job were open today, who could fill it? The Jews don’t seem to want rabbis like that anymore.”

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