Fall from grace

What happens when a charismatic Orthodox rabbi has an affair with a male pupil?

fall from grace 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
fall from grace 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Light Fell By Evan Fallenberg Soho Press 240 pages; $22 Evan Fallenberg's debut novel, Light Fell, is an unflinching and compassionate depiction of a provocative issue that is something of a bone of contention in the Orthodox Jewish community, which in recent years has begun to publicly grapple with the subject of homosexuality. The novel relates the story of Joseph Licht, a once-Orthodox father of five boys who has left his wife and sons in order to pursue a homosexual relationship. The "present" of the narrative is 20 years after the fact, with Joseph painstakingly preparing for a Shabbat with his five variously embittered and vastly dissimilar sons that will hopefully lead to a reconciliation of sorts. The narrative oscillates between epochs and perspectives, taking the reader back to its epicenter, the fateful meeting that precipitates Joseph's break with his family, and revealing some of the aftershocks of that meeting through the eyes of Joseph and his family members. The subject of Joseph's affection is the compelling Rabbi Yoel Rosenzweig, a rising star of the rabbinic world who many consider the greatest illui, or Torah genius, of his day. When Joseph seeks out Rabbi Yoel to ask his advice on a book he is writing the two form a powerful intellectual bond that gradually becomes physical. Fallenberg's depiction of the love they share is subtly beautiful and there is a spark of the sublime generated by the meeting of these two refined, spiritually seeking minds. Their relationship borrows from some of the ideas propounded in Plato's Symposium by Pausanias, whose seminal monologue associates the intellectual and physical bond between a male tutor and his pupil with a higher, "heavenly," Aphrodite. Here Yoel is clearly the tutor figure, quenching a parched and eager Joseph with his immense erudition and finely honed acumen. Joseph's latent femininity is conjured to the surface by the earth-rending magnetism of the rabbi, a point that generates some irony in the "present" of the narrative, where Joseph has become an aging hausfrau in a golden cage, consigned to a role similar to the one he had once subjected his own wife to. Fallenberg's master achievement is probably the portrait of Rabbi Yoel, whose immense power and honesty are impressed upon the reader with a sense of urgency and authenticity that make Joseph's lingering obsession with him credible years after his departure. The charismatic scholar is a divided figure, constantly trying to reconcile his desire for Joseph with the moral and intellectual codes he has devoted his life to. In order to survive, he must justify his deviant inclinations by desperately reaching out to his bedrock texts. Thus Joseph and Yoel are transmuted into the talmudic Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish, whose encounter on the River Jordan, a mythical confrontation between beauty and strength, generates two distinct paradigms of sublimation through study. Tragically, the famed talmudic fable cannot retain the complexities of the relationship that the rabbi tries to force upon it. Yoel is neither Resh Lakish nor Rabbi Yochanan. He embodies the herculean strength of the former but is already submerged in the waters of Torah like the latter. Joseph, on the other hand, is "in over his head," overwhelmed by Yoel's power and partaking only in Rabbi Yochanan's beauty. Yoel's inability to reconcile the Torah with his love of Joseph is emblematic of the problem of sin in the Orthodox world, where an unwavering quest for perfection leaves many of those who aspire to great heights by the wayside, overtaken by guilt because they cannot harmonize their flawed efforts with the humbling heroics of the sages. Indeed, a truly tragic aspect of the narrative is that Joseph Licht can only evade Rabbi Yoel's fate by relinquishing his religious roots and yielding to the cold embrace of secularism and a gentile lover. In this the novel perhaps reflects the dilemmas of many present-day Orthodox youth with such tendencies, who feel that they must make the brutal choice between what are essentially various forms of self-mutilation: violent repression, a double life or the abandonment of Orthodoxy. Besides the wealth of references to biblical and talmudic narrative and several ambiguous Jewish poems of medieval times, Fallenberg's narrative also undertakes several subtly subversive intertextual nods. The most patent of these is the playful reversal of the biblical story and ensuing rabbinic and kabbalistic myth of Joseph the Tzadik, a pillar of sublimation and a paragon of sexual morality, who resists the overtures of Potiphar's alluring wife and, according to Midrash, is also rescued from the coveting clutches of Potiphar himself. Fallenberg affords another such reversal during a love scene between Joseph and Yoel: "At one point Joseph thought he felt tectonic plates clicking into place beneath him and the alignment of the stars and planets above him, as if the whole universe were falling into its rightful place." The allusion to the biblical Joseph's dream aside, this excerpt also subverts an already controversial talmudic passage, recently infamized by Shas MK Shlomo Benizri, which states that earthquakes are a measure-for-measure punishment for homosexual acts. The title of the novel is a translation of the talmudic expression nafal nehora, which refers to a mysterious light that suddenly illuminates overpowering physical beauty. The expression appears in several instances, one of which tells of Rabbi Amram's "Josephesque" struggle with carnal desire, while another relates a sudden revelation of Rabbi Yochanan's legendary beauty. The unexpected illumination of beauty, however, can precede a precipitous plummet into darkness, an idea manifested by the ambiguous title, which also makes an oblique reference to the fall of Joseph Licht, "light" in German. These playful reversals demarcate the complexities of the subject matter and shed light on the paradox of forbidden beauty, with its upsweeping onrush of intimacy that already harbors the germ of an inevitable fall from grace. One weakness of the narrative lies in the portrayal of Joseph's sons, who, gathered together for the first time in many years to celebrate their father's 50th, become archetypes of all of present-day Israel's tribes. This works as an allusion to the biblical Joseph's reunion with his brothers but also generates something of a morality-play atmosphere where, surrounded by stock embodiments of his various traits, Joseph is forced to face up to his past and pay a price for his sins before he can be redeemed. The ending is also a bit abrupt, leaving this reader wondering what the end result would have been had Fallenberg sustained the narrative for another hundred pages or so. Nonetheless, Light Fell resounds with vibrant prose and lush imagery and handles its controversial subject matter with elegance, honesty and grace.