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Kabbalah: A Love Story


Kabbalah: A Love Story

For many, knowledge of the term Kabbalah is limited to its
association with pop culture icons like Madonna and Britney Spears
or esoteric symbols like red string and magical water sold for $8 a
bottle. To these casual observers, Kabbalah can safely be assigned
to the same pigeonhole as a host of other dubious New Age spiritual
practices. Readers seeking an alternative to such a superficial
understanding of this ancient strand of Jewish mysticism will find
a welcome antidote in Rabbi Lawrence Kushner's new novel.

Kushner is a San Francisco-based rabbi and highly-regarded author
of numerous works of theology and spirituality, including HONEY
FROM THE ROCK: An Introduction to Jewish Mysticism. In this novel
he tries his hand for the first time at a full-length work of
fiction. While the novel shows some of the weaknesses of a debut
effort, chiefly in the depth of its characterization and
occasionally wooden dialogue, its flaws are outweighed by the way
in which it engagingly tackles the subject of divine and human

KABBALAH: A Love Story stitches together a series of interconnected
narratives that range across more than eight centuries and
transport the reader from 20th century New York to medieval Spain
to Poland during the Holocaust. The main thread that links these
tales is the story of Rabbi Kalman Stern, a congenial, if
undistinguished, scholar of Jewish mysticism whose psychic scars
from his first wife's decision to abandon him for another man early
in their marriage have stunted his emotional life, preventing him
from connecting with any other women.

In the binding of a 17th century edition of the Zohar, or The Book
of Splendor, the preeminent text of Kabbalah --- casually obtained
in a pile of discarded manuscripts on a trip to the Israeli city of
Safed, one of the early centers of Kabbalistic teaching --- Rabbi
Stern discovers a fragment of Aramaic text that will transform his
life. The text refers to the "seed point of beginning" and the
"mother-womb of being," concepts fundamental to the Kabbalistic
view of creation. At the same time, it reads like a cryptic
fragment of a love letter. The discovery launches Rabbi Stern on a
quest to uncover the text's true meaning.

Rabbi Stern soon encounters Isabel Benveniste, a Columbia
University astronomer specializing in cosmology, who shares his
fascination with the origins of the universe. Damaged in her own
way by the early death of her mother, Isabel slowly finds herself
engaged by the Jewish scholar. Their exploration of complementary
intellectual disciplines evolves into a genuine, if unlikely,

Paralleling the story of Kalman and Isabel is the tale of Moshe ben
Shem Tov de Guadalajara, otherwise known as Moshe de Leon,
generally believed to be the principal author of the Zohar in the
13th century. In the novel, de Leon is engaged as the Hebrew tutor
to the wife of a prominent Castilian Jewish financier. Their
lessons quickly progress from arid discussions of the Hebrew
alphabet and grammar to explorations of mystical theology. The
senora reveals a penchant for profound spiritual insight, and de
Leon is transformed from teacher into student, racing to transcribe
her observations as quickly as she utters them, profoundly
reshaping his mystical worldview.

True to its mystical context, KABBALAH stops short of offering a
definitive resolution to Rabbi Stern's quest. Despite that, he
achieves an insight that meaningfully links the cosmic and human
realms in which Jewish mysticism dwells, and is transformed as a
result. At the novel's end he concludes, "Moshe de Leon, the author
of the Zohar, figured out that knowing ultimate truth and giving
yourself to your lover are effectively identical. You move from
this World of Separation to the World of Unity by giving yourself
away, and once you can do that, new life is the reward." That
insight leads him to a true understanding of his relationship with
Isabel and lays the foundation for their relationship to

Gershom Scholem, the leading scholar of Jewish mysticism, has
described portions of the Zohar's narrative as a "mystical novel."
Rabbi Kushner's KABBALAH embodies that same spirit. While it offers
only a brief glimpse into the complex and profound subject of
Jewish mysticism, for some curious readers it no doubt will serve
as a springboard to exploring that subject in greater depth. When
they do that, they'll be equipped with tools more useful than the
ones offered by pop culture.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg ( on January 22, 2011

Kabbalah: A Love Story
by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner

  • Publication Date: October 10, 2006
  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway
  • ISBN-10: 0767924126
  • ISBN-13: 9780767924122