Long after reading Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul, I found myself thinking “What would Rabbi Naomi Levy do?” In everyday life, I find myself rethinking decisions, with Levy’s voice in my head steering me towards patience and compassion. Instead of getting frustrated with irritating obstacles, Levy showed me a different path, focusing on hope and optimism. Life can make you hollow and hard, but Levy refuses to succumb to darkness. Her wisdom and openness and wondrous spirit ripple through the pages of her engaging new book.
Levy grew up in a loving Orthodox family and lived a charmed life until her father was murdered by a robber when she was 15. Her world imploded and the Jewish rituals and prayers that had always sustained her felt meaningless. But at Cornell University just a few years later, she felt her father’s presence walking beside her and could hear his voice.
Worried for her sanity, she sought counsel with a trusted literature professor who told her, “Naomi, you come from a tradition of great prophets, of Abraham and Moses and Deborah and Samuel – they were all touched by a presence...
Trust me, you’re not losing your mind.
You’re meeting your soul... and your father’s soul, too.”
In 1984, Levy became part of the first co-ed class at the Jewish Theological Seminary and was on her way to becoming a rabbi. Her faith was tested again when her beloved daughter was diagnosed with a horrific disease that required extensive therapy. She wrote about her devastation in an earlier book, Hope will Find You: My Search for the Wisdom to Stop Waiting and Start Living. Her daughter is doing much better now, but still faces considerable challenges.
The rabbi lives in Los Angeles, where she runs Nashuva, a Jewish prayer community and outreach organization that speaks to Jews who have not been able to find the spiritual nourishment they seek in a traditional synagogue.
Her sermons are known to bring people to tears. There is much laughter and live music and meditative prayer. Her book is filled with moving anecdotes about the many people she has counseled to lead more meaningful lives.
Her advice sounds simple at times, but gently reminds us how much we ignore as we go about our busy lives. She stresses taking the time to enjoy nature and food and friends and encourages everyone to try to wake up with a prayer on their lips ready to allow God to speak to them.
Levy’s latest book is part memoir, part self-help guide, part religious teachings, and part prayer. She asks, “What if the soul isn’t just a metaphor for the deep place inside us? What if the soul is a spiritual entity, a holy guide, an eternal messenger of God dwelling within us? “What if the soul can see what our eyes can’t perceive? What if the soul has longings and needs and wisdom to offer us about our higher calling and true love, and the very purpose of our lives? What if the soul lives on when we die? What if the soul of departed loved ones are closer than we ever imagined?” She believes that the closer we are able to come to communing with our own souls, the closer we can get to living our best lives. Not lives without pain or discomfort, but with deeper purpose and meaning.
A life where we can connect authentically with others. A life where death becomes less frightening. A life filled with love. She applies this thinking to her own life and shares with us many stories about her most intimate relationships.
She tells us about her cherished husband and how he seduced her at first with food and laughter, convinced before she was that they would marry. She discusses the intimate bond she had with her mother, whom she spoke to several times a day; always ending with each of them blessing one another.
She shares the struggles she endured as a young mother and rejoices in the lessons each of her children has taught her about her own warmth and resilience.
Levy claims the impetus for this book was a letter she accidentally found written by Albert Einstein to a grieving father, Rabbi Robert Marcus. In the letter, he wrote: “A human being is part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thought and feelings as something separate from the rest, a kind of optical illusion of his consciousness.
The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the issue of true religion. Not to nourish the delusion but to try and overcome it is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind.”
She became convinced that Einstein’s words confirmed her own view of the world. She believes Einstein was saying that we are all inextricably tied to one another and that our separateness is a delusion.
She became consumed with finding out as much as she could about Rabbi Robert Marcus and the lives of the people he touched.
It turns out that Marcus, a US Army chaplain, saved hundreds of Jewish children from the liberated death camps and brought them to safety. Among those he saved were Elie Wiesel and Dr. Ruth Westheimer. When he returned home to his family, he found out that his eldest son had died at age 11 from polio, and for some reason, felt prompted to write to Einstein for an explanation.
We can almost hear Levy praying her investigation into Marcus’s heroic life will bring her news that he somehow found the solace he sought from Einstein. We can feel her hope that he was able to continue living a life that had purpose and meaning even after such senseless tragedy – just like the tragedy that took Levy’s father so many decades ago.
I have always had trouble finding God.
I was brought up in a secular Jewish home by well-meaning parents who offered little in the way of spiritual guidance or hope. Life had drained them before my arrival. So I found myself surprised by how moved I felt by Levy’s meditations and her unbridled optimism.
My own copy of her book is now filled with lengthy passages underlined in red that I plan to read to my family members.
And I’m going to continue to think to myself: “What would Rabbi Naomi Levy say?”