The Torah Codes

Dan Brown Meets the Shekinah

By: - May 23, 2011

The surreal journey of The Torah Codes, Ezra Barany’s overtly mystical homage to Dan Brown, takes us by a series of entertaining and idiosyncratic turns through the San Francisco Bay area to an out-of-the-way piece of real estate in Israel. I won't name that geographical feature here, but most readers from the Judeo-Christian tradition will recognize it upon arrival.

The journey, and the characters who accompany us on it, are more interesting than the destination, anyway. Superficially, the tale is suspense-driven, but as it is with Brown, so also with Barany: the visceral suspense is a framework from which the writer dangles a far more intriguing intellectual, even spiritual, carrot.

The real problem of the novel is never whether Nathan Yirmorshy will survive, but whether he will discover the existential truth of his own identity, as encoded in Chapter 36 of the Book of Genesis, and also whether the premise of the story will prove valid and, if so, what that means in practical terms to Yirmorshy and, by extension, to the rest of us. Is the Bible—that is to say, are the first five books of it—prophetically encoded?

Barany has collected a series of essays that grapple with the notion that such codes are literally embedded in the scriptures. These essays follow the story, shedding light into the space it opens in the reader's mind.

The implications that arise from such a question ought to (although they won’t; we all know they won’t) provoke far more widespread spiritual introspection and serious religious debate than the rather more tabloid-style speculations about whether Jesus of Nazareth lived to a ripe old age in the South of France, making babies with Mary Magdalene.  

Let me put this quite baldly: the question before us is not a fictional one. If The Torah Codes describes a real phenomenon, then we are talking about statistical evidence that the scriptures are indeed supernatural—that is to say, holy, inspired by a force with, at the very least, a god’s-eye-view of history. Including, one might presume, future history.

Such a big idea for a novel.  And yet, I say, the journey is far more interesting than the destination. By that I mean the apparent destination, which is a kind of false close. In story terms, we arrive ill-prepared for a confrontation with religious zealotry that ends a bit too easily by means of a deux-ex-shekinah. (more about that in a moment.) The climactic scene fails to make sense of the elaborate plotting that has brought us to it. Such a flaw ought to be fatal to a suspense novel, a devastating head wound.

Oddly, that’s not the case with The Torah Codes.

The novel survives the demise of its own thriller trappings to emerge in its truer form as a kind of dialectic on the nature of right living, on what it means to “save the world.”  We have not been tricked so much as we come to realize that the plot against Nathan Yirmorshy, once he survives it, has been a kind of novelistic red herring.

The very title of the book begs comparison with Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Codes, so let’s go there.  Barany’s characters are as quirky as Brown’s are straight. His protagonist, Yirmorshy, is either manic-depressive or schizo-affective. He has "episodes" and is never quite sure that he can trust his own visual perceptions, much less his mental processes.

He is a fictional incarnation of the old joke, “Just because you're paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.” They are. And if anything, “they” are more delusional in their collective way than Yirmorshy is. Yirmorshy at least possesses the capacity for self-doubt. A quality that, for better or worse, we find altogether lacking in the likes of Brown's perennial hero Robert Langdon.

This self-doubt--or let's say, the living space within which faith and doubt perform their indivisible functions--along with a gentle capacity to embrace the “Shekinah,” provide Yirmorshy with his saving graces. They also provide the saving graces of the novel. It is Nathan Yirmorshy, after all, the most unreliable of narrators, who relates the climactic events for which we are so ill-prepared as to want toss the book against the wall in frustration.

But let me amend that, please. We would be so unprepared, so frustrated, except for the fact that Nathan has gone off his meds. Barany doesn't remind us of that, but we are left with room to wonder whether we have witnessed a miracle or merely another hallucination. We don’t put the book down, because a ticklish sense at the nape of the neck tells us that Nathan’s story is not over. (Well, there’s that, plus the fact that another 25 pages of the story remain before we get to the rabbinical essays appended to the novel.)

A word about the concept of the Shekinah in Jewish mysticism. I’ll refer you to those essays, particularly the one from Rabbi Shefa Gold, and the much more personal evocation by Tania Schweig, for a richer understanding than I can provide, but let me offer, as a kind of crib note, that the Shekinah is to Judaism as the Yin is to Taoism or Shakti to Hinduism, a feminine expression of the great I Am, the beauty side of the Keatsian equation.

It is in the solving for, not of, this equation (the truth is beauty, beauty truth one or--to dare a far more controversial take on the subject--the science is religion, religion science equation) in the life of one, after all, rather ordinary fruitcake who doesn’t know how to relate all that well that we find the question that turns the pages and the tension that thrums throughout The Torah Codes. Where is it written, after all, that a man must learn how to live a meaningful life? What is the code that must be cracked before a man can learn how, and whom, to love?

The answers reside both within and without the goddess-in-a-box that opens Nathan Yirmorshy to his own human nature.