Book Review: Searching for the soul

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

There are several ways to review books that ask readers to take a leap of faith. You can be a skeptical reviewer – asking that the author prove her beliefs in concrete terms. Or, as a clergy person, you can look at the work from a professional point of view – seeing if it suggests insights that can be used for chaplaincy or spiritual guidance. Or you can regard the book as offering a personal journey that might increase your own spirituality. Since, for me, it’s impossible for someone to prove their religious beliefs – that’s why they are called beliefs, not facts – it usually matters less that I agree with the spiritual ideas offered than if they describe concrete ways to better the world and/or my life.
So my focus when reading Naomi Levy’s new work “Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul” (Flatiron Books) wasn’t on the question of whether or not the soul exists, but on the lessons the author teaches about how to live our lives. The inspiration for her work was reading a letter written by Albert Einstein. She was surprised to learn Einstein was answering a question from Rabbi Robert S. Marcus, who wrote to the scientist after the death of his young son. This exchange took place shortly after World War II when Marcus served as a chaplain in the U.S. Army and later helped Jews who had been imprisoned in concentration camps. Levy wonders what Marcus wrote that triggered Einstein’s answer. The scientist was not known as a religious man, but he wrote about freeing oneself from the delusion that one is separate from the rest of the universe – a description that Levy recognized as the way she feels about the soul. Levy’s work takes her on a journey to learn more about the correspondence between the two men, while at the same time offering readers a way to better connect with their own souls.
Levy believes that the soul is not a metaphor, but something real, even if we can’t see it. This idea leads her to ask several questions: “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?” Levy also feels that a person’s soul lives on after their death and remains part of our world, if only we are open to appreciate and experience that connection. 
Most of “Einstein and the Rabbi” is organized around what Levy calls the three levels of the soul: 
Nefesh – “the foundational level of the soul... The greatest gift of the Life Force is the power to act, to rise above our own paralysis and to transform intention into achievement.”
Ruach – “the wisdom of the heart, the realm of emotion and particularly love... that helps us let down our defenses so we can experience intimacy. It is also the aspect of the soul that opens us to our calling.”
Neshamah – “opens our eyes to glimpses of heaven here. Time melts and gives way to eternity. Death becomes less frightening and less final. We may begin to realize that our deceased loved ones are never far from us, or perhaps that they never left us.”
While her explanations about the three levels of soul did not resonate with me, Levy’s description of her search to learn more about Marcus, including the people he helped and who still remember him, were beautifully written and very moving. Levy also describes her own life lessons – what occurred after the loss of her father, who was murdered when she was 15, and her battle with disfiguring skin cancer. Woven within the chapters are heart-warming stories and impressive life lessons about others she’s met along the way. Levy uses specific examples to teach about her soul-changing activities, including a wonderful chapter on how Shabbat can be “a free trip to paradise and you don’t have to travel anywhere to get there. All you have to do is rest.” She reminds someone who comes to her for counseling that “the Sabbath teaches us to take back our lives, to balance work and home, prose and poetry, ego and soul. On the Sabbath the present gives way to the eternal. Time releases its stranglehold over us. We’re no longer ruled by the clock. We can stop rushing and stressing.”
Early in her work, Levy offers readers four questions to ponder – questions that speak to the direction their lives are taking. Even those who don’t believe in the soul may find the questions useful if they ask them from a psychological viewpoint: 
“1. What has my soul been trying to tell me that I’ve been ignoring?”
“2. What activities and experiences nourish my soul that I don’t do enough of?
“3. What does my soul want me to repair that my ego is too stubborn or too fearful to repair?
“4. What does my soul want me to reach for?”
Whether speaking about soul, mind or body, these are excellent question that anyone dissatisfied with their lives should consider. Readers willing to suspend their disbelief will be inspired by “Einstein and the Rabbi.” Even if those who can’t may still find it helpful in discovering a path to a more grounded and meaningful life.