Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

There is light everywhere. In reportorial style, Potok writes of sunlight, fire, the death light, and the emanations of God. Gershon frequently studies the Zohar, the compendium of Jewish mysticism from the fifteenth century. It is a book of radiance, of enlightenment, and details the ten emanations of God through which the mystic must ascend to encounter his Creator. The Book of Lights contains ten chapters, each reminiscent of the corresponding emanation (or sefirah).

The novel is an attempt to come to terms with evil through means of the Jewish mystical tradition. Gershon is the navigator who sees “creation as a vast error; the world broken and dense with evil; everything a bewildering puzzle; . . . I especially like the ambiguities. . . . You can’t pin most of it down the way you can a passage of Talmud. I can live with ambiguity, I think, better than I can with certainty. Doubt is all that’s left to us. . . . Doubt and desperate deeds.” This is not only Potok’s legacy for contemporary Jews, but also his gift to the modern world as well: We must navigate by our deepest visions, with fear and trembling, understanding that God encompasses the evil as well as the good; God himself is found in the very feeling of abandonment, of in-betweenness, of being a stranger in the land.