A pulpit rabbi is called upon to be all things to all people — spiritual leader, teacher, counselor, comforter, administrator and much else besides. Naomi Levy, as the founder and rabbi of the Los Angeles-based Jewish spiritual community called Nashuva, is all that and more. What we discover in her latest book, “Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul” (Flatiron Books), is that she also is (perhaps above all) a gifted storyteller — courageous, daring, witty and wise.
“The Hebrew word Nashuva means We Will Return,” she explains in the book. “We all have a need to return — to passion, to our dreams, to love, to our own souls, to God.”
Among the many examples of loss and redemption to be found in “Einstein and the Rabbi” is the heartbreaking loss she suffered at the age of 15 when her father was gunned down in a robbery. She had dared to dream of becoming a rabbi — something unheard of in the Conservative movement at the time — but the loss erased her dreams: “I was numb,” she writes. “Prayer died too. All those powerful discussions my dad and I had about God and faith and prayer seemed hollow now. What good was God? I stopped longing to be a rabbi.”
By her senior year of college, however, a door opened — literally. The Jewish Theological Seminary voted to accept women into its rabbinical program, and Levy was a member of the first entering class to include women. She reconnected with both her childhood dream and her father, too. “When I heard the news, I was laughing and crying at the same time,” she recalls. “I knew my father was laughing, too, laughing from pure joy.”
The title of the book refers to a kind of mystery story that runs throughout the work. Levy found her way to an obscure letter whose author turned out to be Albert Einstein: “A human being … experiences himself … as something separate from the rest,” the great scientist wrote. “The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion.”
The letter inspired her to play the role of a detective: “Little did I know that this powerful teaching by Einstein about the universe would lead me to the soul of a stranger, and that I would feel compelled to follow the sacred thread of his story.”
I won’t give away the ending — or the fascinating and sometimes sorrowful twists and turns — of the story that she tells about Einstein’s letter except to say that it carries a profound irony. For Levy, the words of a famous man of science reveal a path to something every bit as elusive as the theory of relativity — the human soul.
“What you see with your eyes is only a piece of the truth,” she explains. “But the soul wants to offer us its expansive vision, a consciousness of the whole we have trouble seeing. Soon we may begin to see a bigger picture, how random threads are all actually woven together in a single majestic tapestry.”
For Levy, the words of a famous man of science reveal a path to something every bit as elusive as the theory of relativity — the human soul.
The crown jewel of “Einstein and the Rabbi,” however, is Levy’s account of a dire medical ordeal she was forced to endure. Again, I do not want to take the edge off her remarkable and ultimately triumphant story except to say that it begins with a triviality and quickly escalates into something truly nightmarish. And yet, as Levy tells it, the final moments before a crucial surgery presented her with an experience of the divine.
“And all of a sudden I crossed a river,” she explains. “From drowning in waves that were engulfing me to the purest stillest water I have ever seen. It wasn’t something I did, it just happened. Grace.
“Whoa!” said a nurse who happened to enter the pre-op room at that moment. “ ‘Something really powerful is happening here,’ and she backed away and closed the door.”
My ethical obligation as a book reviewer requires me to disclose that Levy is married to Rob Eshman, the publisher and editor-in-chief of the Journal, but that’s not the only reason to mention him here. Eshman figures importantly in the book and often is in its most poignant and endearing passages, as when Levy describes how he “wooed me with food.”
“Our kids grew up knowing that both their parents would be sitting with them every night eating amazing food together,” she writes. “Love, sensuality, soul, friendship, community, family, food. Eden. Thank You, God. I am full.”
“Einstein and the Rabbi” is Levy’s fourth book, and the readers of her previous work (“Hope Will Find You,” “Talking to God” and “To Begin Again”) already will know that she brings not only eloquence and wisdom but also a wry sense of humor and the deepest compassion to her writing. Yet her new book achieves something even more exalted, an intimate revelation that rings with courage and authenticity. The reader surely will come away from Levy’s latest book with that sense of spiritual fullness she seeks to impart in everything she does, whether from the pulpit or on the printed page.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.