When I finished reading all of Chaim Potok’s novels for the first time in the early 2000’s, I considered his novel The Book of Lights my least favorite. In re-reading it, I think I’ve gained a better appreciation for it.
Potok’s novels usually have an element that is uplifting as his protagonists struggle to figure out where they fit in to their world – leaving behind some aspect of their traditional faith or upbringing. In The Book of Lights, however, things are more bleak even if it does end on an affirming note.
As a rabbinical student in the 1950’s, Gerson Loran studies Kabbalah, mystical Jewish texts from medieval times – a topic not all of his professors feel is worthy of study. As he moves on from seminary to become a chaplain in Korea, he frequently sees visions and hears a voice from the “darkness” pointing out the sad state of affairs in which his century finds itself. Adding to his confusion, his experience in the Eastern world leads him to appreciate the beauty of God in what his tradition considers a pagan land:
Do you flee from the giants of your century, the great ones whose lights blind the eye and whose faults numb the heart? They fill you with hurt, with anger, with awe, do they not, these giants? They make ashes of great ideas, do they not? Do you flee to pagan worlds remote from the civilization of your teachers – to test their teachings? To escape their visions, their echoes, and the shadows that lie between what they are and what they teach? How far will you flee? Or are you done? Did your journey end in the fused light and darkness of the Macao brothel? I ask cruel questions of truth, Gershon. Truth. I come from the other side.
Gershon’s seminary roommate, Arthur Leiden, also struggles with the events of his century in that Arthur’s father helped develop the atomic bomb. And in an interesting twist, Arthur’s mother also had a hand in the United States’ decision to drop the bomb on Japan. Arthur’s struggles seem more self-destructive than Gershon’s questioning but both of their journey’s take them to Hiroshima where Arthur movingly says the Kaddish at the Peace memorial – but the journey still doesn’t end.
While the voice out of the darkness could easily be only a literary device, Potok uses it to provide depth to the questions Gershon and Arthur ask. These questions are not just their own questions but questions for an entire generation. Questions that don’t come with any answers. Questions that produce the prevailing sadness of the entire novel.