An excerpt from Daniel Torday’s novel The 12th Commandment, available January 17 from St. Martin’s Press.
By Daniel Torday
::From Shivhei ha-Natan, the Prison Notebooks of Natan of Flatbush::
On the Eternal Present
There is no present moment:: There is no now:: EinSofism as theoretical physicists tell us that as it has always been will always be there are multiple presents one present for each perceiver as there are infinite Torahs a different Torah for each reader selah:: As there are different sets of halakhic guidelines one guideline for every follower.: There is no causation: There is no time:: Only events::
In the early days of late summer it will be nearly one hundred degrees by 10am every day, Ohio sun bearing down. It will take more than a week to find our way to the Cave of the Dragon. I know the area will be called The Caves because the area has been called The Caves. There must be caves somewhere. When we arrive our land will be nothing more than an overgrown field. I go into Mt. Izmir. In a small hardware shop I buy first a scythe, then a lawnmower, and later rent a groundhog to level the field where the Dönme will pray. And a small canvas tent where Yael, Osman and I sleep after on the first night keeping the U-Haul a day and sleeping in a space in the rear::
The rest of our fellow Dönme will arrive in central Ohio from Crown Heights and Williamsburg in the first two weeks. Soon we will be a dozen. Soon we will be Ben Gurion in Palestine. My best friend then went by the name David Levin. His wife Chana. Levin is the most effective of us—the strongest, the most full of rectitude as he would be for all his years.
“We are Ben Gurions in the Land of Israel, clearing swamp to make way for kibbutzim!” Levin will say. While the rest of us are sweltering with the summer humidity bearing down on us, he will lead the way. Before we know it there’s a small tent city at the center of the field. Levin is exactly right—we feel as if we were Ben Gurion clearing the muck of the valley, planting orange groves, setting down the soil to grow Jaffa. We’re all at once Zionists and settlers, the first goyische settlers of this country of America, taking steps westward from New England. Levin tells us that first we need resources. He’s had the full American experience, Levin—grown up in a Modern Orthodox family in Brooklyn, learned the sciences at Stuyvesant, and even studied in a university to become a medical doctor. He longs to be a surgeon and what could stop David Levin from any goal no matter how imposing! But he has fallen back in with the Lubavitchers he knew as a boy, and he is always torn between secularism and an intense desire to lead the life of narrow piety. Every day of his life—he knows he has the life and the opportunity to live a comfortable life of a qelippa. He also feels more intensely the calling to the Tzaddik, to the learning, than any of us. Were I not the prophet, he might even imagine he was.
Each of the early settlers of our Mt. Izmir ummah finds a job waiting tables in Mt. Izmir, in Dayton, in Columbus, in Mt. Vernon, in Gahanna— until in a year we will accrue enough money for a trailer. A single trailer, with an air conditioning unit in the window to keep our sacred texts dry. And on occasion our bodies after a long day in the field. By then Osman will begin to walk, and every day Yael takes him to the Bosperous to wash, until a path is padded down and in her washing herself in the Creek, Levin and I decide this will be our mikveh, used equally by our women and by our men, in summer as well as winter.
When the field is cleared and the second summer upon us, the Prophet of the Dönme, Prophet of Shebbtai Tzvi, Natan of Flatbush, I perceive the flock as it wilts in the hot summer sun. The field is cleared but there will be need of a room for our sheep, a space for our shtibl, a place for worship. But clearing more land, renting another groundhog, doing that work has left a dull paleness in the eyes of all, even Levin. So on a clear hot day a week since rain, I take to the middle of the cleared field and to all those out at work and say, “The time has come for the performance of one of the meshiach’s miracles!” Levin hands out water all around. Work ceases. Even without labor, at the height of the sun sweat rises on brows. And I will perceive it, I understand there are needs and I say, “Tomorrow at noon I will stop the sun in the sky.”
There is new energy among them now, but it is immediately the wrong energy, a suspicious energy. “You all read the Prophet Amos just as I have. ‘And it shall come to pass in that day that I will cause the sun to go down at noon, and I will darken the earth at the clear day.’ Tomorrow. But for today! Today we will wash in the mikveh and we will prepare.”
With Levin behind me we will tromp through the woods and down to the crossing on the other bank from the Cave of the Dragon and now all fifty of us disrobe, bodies smeared in sweat and grass and dirt from the work, and cool in the cool cool Bosperous creek the sun is so hot not one among them can imagine how the sun will darken in the noonday sky and neither can I but there are smiles at last::
Night. Late late after Yael and Osman have gone to sleep, I creep out of my tent and find Levin. He is asleep next to Chana and wakes easily when called. We get into the F-150 and head into town where only the Kroger is open, and with money stashed for the coming frigid winter we purchase cases of beer. Pabst Blue Ribbon, Genesee Cream Ale. We sneak them into the river, hundreds of them planted with their bottoms cooling in the chill of the summer night the Bosperous Creek.
Next morning we repair to work as every summer morning, knowing winter is only ever a season away, but with a newfound energy from the cooling creek and the beer they do not know will be there, and their skeptical anticipation of the miracle to come. I will spend the morning in the trailer, the window air conditioner in off position, reading Zohar in preparation. To shed the qelippot, to shed the worldly vision, to sit in the space of redemption through sin.
By this time the community will discover the mystical powers of the smoke of the plant and the fungus of the pasture, and with a long plastic pipe I prepare. Then I arise from my trailer, smoke in hand, and pass the smoke around to the Dönme all through the field. “Shebbtai Tzvi, esparamos a ti!” The Prophet will speak the words. And with the congregants around him, his face to the bright hot sun, the Prophet of the Meshiach, Natan of Flatbush, with all the power of the fallen sparks again raised, will open his eyes, gaze upon that flame in the sky, and he will recite Psalm after Psalm as the congregation watches him & in the height of its noonday blaze the sun will stop, a single star in the midday Ohio summer sky. The sun has not dimmed, but is blazing at its height.
“And now we stop our work for the day,” and again the maaminim will tromp through the woods, mothers fathers children and all, and the mothers and fathers and even the eldest children find the cold drink there and rejoice, and while you would not believe it and we hardly will believe it ourselves, with the sun barely a notch further along in the sky directly above, dark clouds heavy with rain closed in. For a day so bright and a sun so hot, just the dull grayness of them is enough to darken the river. I look over at Levin and see a dimness in his face below this newfound shade, a miracle performed, the prophecy of Amos fulfilled. Until he looks up and sees me looking, and then he smiles, tips his Pabst Blue Ribbon can to me and then down his gullet. And with great joy the maaminim will spend hours in the Bosperous Creek, the darkened frozen sun in the frozen Ohio sky covering over them as they cool in the waters and until I see that there is flagging energy I’ll point it out, the sun in the sky with no movement at all, until the day is done and I say, “And now the sun will return to its path,” and along the far bank of the creek the community in its entirety would cram in through the mouth of the cave of the dragon with smoke in their hands and the drink in their gullets and smoke in their lungs and upon their exit just moments later they will watch the sun soar across the far horizon and down below the trees, cloud covered over as it moves darkly set again in its movement until evening falls upon them in the space of a moment, and then again in the sky the stars of night::
You’ll note I have come often to adopt the future tense for use in my writings. And the freedom of dropping it. The Ten Commandments of Moses, the Eighteen Commandments of Shebbtai Tzvi, are commands formulated in the future tense. Secular philosophers claim the Jewish people are a people too wholly mired in the past, who allow themselves to live through what has come before: Moses receiving the tablets, reliving the Exodus every Passover, reliving Abraham’s covenant with the Lord at every Bris. But that doesn’t define the Commandments, which are as central as any text and which will apply to every Dönme not only on the holidays but on every day. That in our communications with the Yakubi who still worship in Istanbul, who have added us to their tree of life, and have advised with documents, we would learn just how the Yakubi have worshipped since 1690. Like the initial devarim, the Eighteen Commandments of Shebbtai Tzvi set out in the 1660’s appear in the future tense.
They do not tell you what not to do.
They dictate what you will do, in a time after now, a time you cannot remember because— remember!—the second rule of time:
- Thou shalt set forth that God is One and Shebbtai Tzvi his Prophet, and Natan of Flatbush will be his prophet in the days of days. Adam, Abraham, Moses, Ester, Natan and others will be only parts of Shebbtai’s soul. The maaminim shalt maintain that Shebbtai came to this world eighteen times under the names of Adam, Abraham, Natan, etc. The world shall be created for the maaminim. The Muslims shalt protect only this. From that shall come the saying of maaminim: There will be no egg without a shell.
- The non-Israelites shall be qelippot.
- A believer shalt not marry a qelippa or to a Jewess, until the Israelites recognize Shebbtai was the Messiah, and Natan of Flatbush will become his Prophet.
- Paradise shalt be created for the maaminim and for the Israelites.
- The souls of the qelippot shall sink to the lower world with the body.
- The Israelites shall not be deemed maaminim, but shall one day arrive at the truth and confess that Jacob, Moses, etc. will be only sparks of Shebbtai’s soul.
- What concerns your rights, duties, and business, thou shalt subject yourself to the Laws of Moses!
- Thou shalt not hate the Israelites, for they shall be your brethren.
- Thou shall be punished if thou speak of thy religion to a qelippa or an Israelite, unless compelled to do so by law, or the Israelite has been deemed a scribe of the Prophet.
- The Israelites shall be inspired by the creator. Thou shalt not to show them the way to paradise.
- Thou shalt simulate the quality of being a Muslim, and to be entirely Jewish in your innermost world.
- It shalt not be a sin in the eyes of God to kill a maamin who reveals the secrets of his religion. Thou shalt hate these traitors. Even kill him, if he is dangerous for the community.
- The maaminim shall obey the government of Islam, be they Muslims or otherwise, the government of the culture. The Muslims shall protect, even wage war for you. Always assert that thou are of Islam. Thou shalt defend Islam, simulate reading Qur’an, etc. But thou shalt never take refuge in the Islamic court; the Law of Moses may serve as thy law in all thine quarrels. Remain obedient to the Muslims, do not seek to substitute them.
- Thou shalt not imbibe intoxicating drinks.
- Thou shalt have two names, one for the world, the other for paradise.
- Thou shalt bring the name of the Creator to mind twice every day!
- Thou shalt have among you no thieves.
- Thou shalt study privately every day the Book of Psalms.
Daniel Torday is the author of The 12th Commandment,The Last Flight of Poxl West, and Boomer1. A two-time winner of the National Jewish Book Award for fiction and the Sami Rohr Choice Prize, Torday’s stories and essays have appeared in Tin House, The Paris Review, The Kenyon Review, and n+1, and have been honored by the Best American Short Stories and Best American Essays series. Torday is a Professor of Creative Writing at Bryn Mawr College.