Characters in a Divine Story: Theological Reflections on The Beautiful Possible by Amy Gottlieb
This will not be a conventional review of a book, because this a review of a book that defies conventions. Instead, this review will be (in part) a story, because this book comes to teach us, among many other things, that all of our lives are stories, and that the world is a great tapestry of narratives.
I am a rabbi and an academic philosopher. My philosophical interests focus upon language, metaphysics, logic, and latterly, religion. But more and more, and for various inter-twining reasons, my research has lead me to explore the nature of fiction.
We say that Sherlock Holmes was a detective. But that can’t be right. Sherlock Holmes doesn’t exist. You can’t be a detective if you don’t exist. But Sherlock Holmes is a detective. He’s not anything else. He’s not an investment banker.
The ways in which falsehoods (like Holmes’ being a detective), but not all falsehoods (like his being an investment banker), can be true within a story, take on the contours of a philosophical puzzle. What are fictional characters, and what are fictional truths?
Enough of the philosopher. Now for the Jew.
In my Jewish life, there were many years in which I stood aloof from Hasidism. I took myself to be a religious rationalist; a philosopher. The Hasidim simply seemed to trade in stories, and in voodooistic philosophy – with all of their talk of spiritual energies, and other things that seemed to make no sense to me. Rabbi Herzl Hefter was the first person ever to make Hasidism make sense to me. And I’ll always remember the first Hasidic text that he really brought to life before my eyes.
The text was from the Mei Hashiloach, a collection of teachings of Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner; the Ishbitzer Rebbe. The excerpt in question was a commentary on Genesis 41:15, a verse in which Pharaoh asks Joseph to interpret his dreams. At this point, the Ishbitzer says that “all of the matters of this world are but a dream in need of interpretation. And just as it is interpreted, so it will come to be for him.”
As I came to understand these enigmatic words, I came to realize that, for the Ishbitzer, the entire world is unfolding in the mind of God, like a dream that He is dreaming, or a story that He is spinning. The world is God’s story. But, somehow, and in some sense, it is up to us – his characters – to decide what this story is about.
Despite its radical flavor, and its irrational scent, I was sucked in. This text spoke to me as a Jew and as a philosopher, given my interest in the nature of stories, and the relationship between characters and authors. God is the author. We are his characters. Just as a character in a book is there to express some idea or image that occurred to the author, or to work out some issue that arose for the author, each one of us is here, in this world, to express some Divine idea, or image, or to work through some issue that has, so to speak, arisen for God.
Given the story of my life, I felt as if Amy Gottlieb’s The Beautiful Possible was written for me.
A central tension that arises from the Jewish tradition is that, on the one hand, we’re each supposed to believe that the entire world was created only for us, but we’re also called upon to be humble; to see ourselves as dust and ashes. One way to accomplish this gestalt switch is to realize that, if there are 7 billion people on earth, then God is telling 7 billion stories right now (most probably more). We are each the main character of our stories. In that sense, it’s true to say that the entire world was made for us. But we are each incidental characters, extras, or completely absent, in the stories of countless others. The Beautiful Possible is a novel which weaves together a number of deeply connected lives, slowly revealing more and more, the ways in which those lives were interconnected.
The author, and the narrator (whose identity I won’t give away here), and many of the characters, are vividly aware of the fact that the world is just a tapestry of stories. The Ishbitzer’s Torah is sometimes referred to in the novel, but always present in deeper ways.
I’m a Jew. I’m a philosopher, and I’m also a rabbi– a rabbi who has decidedly walked away from any opportunity to be the leader of a congregation or the occupant of a pulpit. The Beautiful Possible resonated with me because it expresses so painfully well what a struggle and a conflict it must to be a ‘professional’ rabbi; to be in the “impossible holiness trade” as her characters call it.
How can you be the one who is always religiously inspired, always strong in faith, always ready with an answer, an insight, an explanation, a word of Torah? How can that ever be authentic for long? And yet the desire to connect to God, to connect to the people, and to help others to connect, as well as the desire to have that desire, when it ebbs and flows, are what keep this impossible trade rolling on, as the rabbis continue to fret about the meaning of their lives, their roles, and their own sincerity.
I started reading this book on a Friday night. I finished it that same night. At one point, I thought I’d have to stop, because I didn’t want my tears to pierce the silence of the house in which everyone was asleep except for me.
The Beautiful Possible is a book that brings things to life. It brings the Jewish Theological Seminary of yesteryear to life. It brings prewar Germany, and war-time India to life. And just as God blew the breath of life into Adam and Eve, Gottlieb blows the breath of life into a vivid cast of characters across multiple generations.
At one point, I felt that the book had misinterpreted the Ishbitzer. A central character, Rosalie, seems to have taken from the Ishbitzer the view that if something is deeply felt, and deeply desired, then it cannot really be wrong. It must be God’s will.
There are, at least, two senses in which Rosalie is right about the Ishbitzer. Firstly, for the Ishbitzer, everything is God’s will. Just as nothing happens in The Beautiful Possible without Amy Gottlieb signing off on it (since, even if the unfolding plot began to surprise her, she could at any point have exercised some editorial control), God too signs off on all that happens in our world. Where the Talmud says that all is in the hands of heaven, except for the fear of heaven, the Ishbitzer said that all is in the hands of heaven, including the fear of heaven.
A second reason stems from the Ishbitzer’s famous comments about Zimri who, in the book of Numbers, is killed by Pinchas, for having sexual relations with a Midianite princess in the middle of the camp. Astoundingly, the Ishbitzer comes to Zimri’s defence. He argues that Zimri’s urge for her was so great, that it became clear to him that it must be God’s will for them to be together. They must have been soul-mates destined to be together since the Garden of Eden.
Saturated with the Torah of Ishbitz, Rosalie gives into a certain desire, and says to herself, “Something so beautiful cannot ever be a mistake.”
My first reaction to this was that the Ishbitzer has been misunderstood. His texts so often give voice to an explosive antinomianism, but in his actual life, he was scrupulous in his halakhic observance, as were his followers. Something doesn’t add up. In actual fact, the Ishbitzer thought that Zimri knew what he knew only because he had worked so very hard to conquer his sexual desires, and to keep them in check. In this life’s work, he had succeeded. Only after that extensive labor could he be sure that any residue desire must be the deep will of God, rather than a whim of one of his characters.
In his controversial commentary on the rebellion of Korach, the Ishbitzer makes it seem as if a person can sometimes know that the laws of the Torah don’t apply to him, or to anyone else, because he knows that everything comes from God, including our thoughts and desires. But, on a closer reading, the Ishbitzer makes it clear that we live in the story. And, in the story, we do have free will. And things are up to us. Even if outside of the story, it’s true that all that we do is rooted in the will of God. Compare: in The Beautiful Possible, it’s true that what Rosalie does, she does freely, and at her own behest, even though outside of the story, it’s true that she only does what Amy Gottlieb writes for her to do. Korach is wrong because Korach has no right to pretend that he’s not living within the story. He is. And in the story, he is commanded, and he is responsible.
The Ishbitzer’s reading of the Zimri story complicates matters, because there it seems as if sometimes, we do catch a glimpse of what the author wants for us, even if it falls outside of what’s permitted in Jewish law. But that antinomian streak of the Ishbitzer has to be qualified by so much introspection and self-understanding, that most people never get there, and the people who think they have, only think they have because of their arrogance.
So, I thought that Rosalie was wrong. Just because she felt something deeply, as do other characters throughout the novel, it didn’t mean that this was God’s deep will, or command for her. It didn’t make what she desired right.
But then I remembered.
This is a story!
This is how Rosalie understood the Ishbitzer. She may have got him right, or she may have got him wrong. That’s not what matters. Her understanding of the Ishbitzer is what shapes her religious life. Furthermore, in her world, it might have been true. Perhaps she could know that the desires that overwhelmed her were so profound, and so free of impurity, that they could only have been put there by Amy Gottlieb, for the purposes of a story that had to unfold.
This brings me back to that first text that ever got me hooked into Hasidism. Enigmatically, the Ishbitzer promises us that the world will be as we interpret it to be, just a dream only really takes on a meaning in the light of an interpretation that we give to it. So often, in The Beautiful Possible, I wanted to know what really happened. Not what this character or that character thought, but what really happened. This echoes my concern for whether Rosalie had got the Ishbitzer right or wrong. But the question is a bad question. Like a story, the world isn’t determined. It is a tapestry of narratives, and each one of those narratives is awaiting an interpretation.
Samuel Lebens is a senior research fellow in the philosophy department at the University of Haifa. His research in the philosophy of religion is made possible through the support of a grant from Templeton World Charity Foundation, Inc. The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Templeton World Charity Foundation, Inc.