A few years later, I stayed at Mitch's home in Miami. He's the rabbi of a fascinating organization, Havurot of South Florida. Havurot--or havurah in the singular--are small, informal lay-led prayer and study groups that generally meet in members' homes. Mitch's organization is a set of interlocking havurah groups that formed, in part, around Mitch's teachings after he left a more conventional Reform synagogue.
Mitch is a tall, lean man with a graying beard and a neat black yarmulke who enjoys riding around on a motorcycle. He told me once that mystical experience should give a person more courage to take risks. He knows risk. In addition to being a rabbi, he's spent time as a commodities trader. And now he's taken a new on a new risk and a new role: novelist.
His new book, his first novel, is called "The Seventh Telling: The Kabbalah of Moshe Katan." It is as unlike the conventional novel as Mitch is unlike the conventional rabbi. At one level, it's the story of Stephanie and Sidney, students of the fictional kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Katan, who meet with a group of their students to tell a sequence of stories. Encoded in the stories are teachings from Kabbalah and Hasidism, and signaled in the variations of the stories are clues and hints about the relationship between Stephanie and Sidney. Behind this storytelling is the biography of Rabbi Moshe Katan himself, and at stake is the fate of his relationship with his wife, Rivkah.
I caught up with Mitch during his book tour and asked him a few questions about his new book.
RK: At this stage of your life, why did you decide to write a novel, and how did you go about learning to do such a complex work of fiction?
The Kabbalah is romantic, even sexy. Powerful, even terrifying. I thought a novel could express that, if I could only learn to write one. I began writing not so much what I teach but the nature of the interactions between the teacher and the students. That was an improvement. When I enclosed that within the story of a romance between the teacher and his wife, and the teacher's desperate attempt to save his wife when her life hung in the balance, that became a compelling enough story to find an agent and a publisher. Then still one more rewriting, enclosing the teaching and the relationships and the romance within a storytelling discipline that becomes the real story. How I knew to do that I don't know.
Reading what you were doing, I recalled that Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, whom we know as Reb Zalman, once called the Zohar (the chief kabbalistic text) a kind of novel, the "romance of the Jewish people's love affair with God." And also that Reb Nachman, a major kabbalistic figure, used folk tales to both reveal and conceal Kabbalah. Do you see yourself in that tradition?
I see myself within the Jewish spiritual tradition. To compare myself to Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi or Reb Nachman of Bratslav would be chutzpah of the highest order. Reb Zalman has been my teacher; the teachings and stories of Reb Nahman, part of my Torah. Surely each has informed what I do, but my wrestling is ultimately between myself and God. Mostly God wins.
www.mitchellchefitz.com--includes information about how to form a havurah, and it seems that you have a specific agenda beyond what's the norm for fiction, in terms of trying to create change in the Jewish community. Why is the havurah model so important to you? How would your book help people initiate change in the intensity of their Jewish experience?
The havurah provides the liberal Jewish community with the framework for primary Jewish experience. Kabbalah is ultimately a primary Jewish experience. The havurah is the best way to it. What is a primary Jewish experience? Teaching, not sitting in a class. Study in the havurah is done in hevruta--in pairs--so each person becomes a teacher, leading prayer, not sitting in a congregation. In the havurah, each person becomes responsible for leading a community in prayer. With the confidence that comes from such primary experience, one might become willing to risk going one on One with God.
Is Kabbalah complicated and arcane, or is it essentially simple? What do you think of the various presentations of Kabbalah on the market today?
Kabbalah is received tradition. It is received in two ways--from teachers and teachings, and directly from whatever it is God transmits into space and time. How complicated and arcane the first part is depends upon where one finds teachers and teachings. Reb Zalman makes it simple. Others make it complex. As for becoming sensitive enough to hear, with minimum distortion, what God transmits--words don't describe that adequately. It is neither simple nor complex. It just is.
I know that you were also, like Moshe Katan, a successful commodities trader. What other resemblance is there between your life and his? Specifically, did you ever write a diet book based on Maimonides?
The very first line of the introduction to the novel cautions the reader not to confuse Moshe Katan with me. I did trade commodities, but not so successfully. I did study, practice, and teach the "Maimonidean Diet," but I never seriously tried to write a book about it.. The nature of a novel is hyperbole and time compression. I made good use of both tools.
Is there a little Moshe in each of us? [Moshe Katan means literally "little Moses."]
If there is one important thing about your book you'd like people to know, what would it be?
I wrote a novel. Don't worry about the Kabbalah. "The Seventh Telling" is above all a novel. Narrative, romance, sex, suspense. Fun. Concentrate on that, and the Kabbalah and discipline will come along with it.
How do you account for the growing interest in Kabbalah over the past 10 years?
We are about two generations after the Holocaust. After every major catastrophe has settled down, there has been an explosion of interest in spirituality. Ezekiel and Isaiah after the destruction of the first Temple in 586 B.C.E.; Isaac Luria and his school [of kabbalists] after the expulsion from Spain in 1492. And now this, after the Holocaust. People want, down deep, to know if God is still in relationship with us. She is.
The old method of teaching Kabbalah required a certain vetting of adept by teacher. In presenting Kabbalah through the medium of fiction, how do you deal with the need for screening out those who might not be ready for such material--or is that still a problem in our time?
Fiction is safer. Most will read it for the story. Those who want to study it on a deeper level will find they will need to do so in hevruta--with a study partner, and the study partner provides a safety net.
Who were your most important teachers? There appears to be a teacher who resembles Shlomo Carlebach in your book; was he one of your teachers?
I consider Reb Shlomo among my teachers. And Reb Zalman. The wonderful thing about Miami is that all the teachers, including you, come through here. All I have to do is sit still. They come through our house and teach me. Such a miracle. Reb Hayim, the fictional rebbe in the book, is a composite of all of my teachers. Such a blessing, to have so many.