Why Read The Zohar?

Demystifying Kabbalah For English Readers

Looking for a Lucky Star: Madonna in Israel at a Kabbalah convention: in vogue in 2004.
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Looking for a Lucky Star: Madonna in Israel at a Kabbalah convention: in vogue in 2004.

By Alan Brill

Published January 13, 2010, issue of January 22, 2010.
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The Pritzker translation of the Zohar into English by Daniel Matt — the fifth volume of which has just appeared — should be greeted as a major cultural event. Yet, the publication of each volume has typically produced tiresome book reviews on the ownership of the word Kabbalah, comparing the academic approach of Gershom Scholem to Madonna’s New Age approach. The reviews do not answer the basic question: Why read parts of Kabbalah like the Zohar? Nor do they explain why the Zohar speaks to our age more than the myriad other kabbalistic works.

The Zohar corpus as published in the 16th century contains many reworked texts of ancient and medieval materials; a large chunk of the Zohar portrays the epic story of Rabbi Shimon and his companions, but there are many segments that do not.

Melila Hellner-Eshed, in her book, “A River Flows From Eden: The Language of Mystical Experience in the Zohar,” provides an indispensible work that, finally, explains why the Zohar is an important and alluring work for our time. Susan Sontag taught readers to ask not what the art means, but rather “how it is what it is.” Hellner-Eshed follows Sontag and seeks to offer an experiential aesthetic of the Zohar.

Hellner-Eshed’s book is comparatively easy to read, despite being a scholarly work that assumes the reader has already read the terse prose of Scholem. Her work nevertheless does offer the nonacademic a chance to see the current state of Kabbalah study at Hebrew University among the students of Yehuda Liebes and Moshe Idel.

Liebes, who was Hellner-Eshed’s dissertation supervisor, claims that the Zohar was produced by a group similar to the group of mystics described in it. Accepting this approach, she muses “Who is this Rabbi Shimon who emerges from the quill of the Zohar’s composers?” Is he fictitious, or a legendary embellishment of a real historical person? Or maybe he represents the authors’ ideal figure? To these questions, she concludes: “There are of course no easy answers to these questions and perhaps this is as it ought to be.”

Hellner-Eshed’s book seeks to capture the life of the group of companions around Shimon, the stories of their wanderings and journeys, their study of Torah as a mystical quest and, finally, a description of their mystical experience. The book needs to be read cover to cover and then reread to integrate the concluding descriptions of mysticism back into the stories. This is because stories, experience and wisdom are not separate commodities for the kabbalists.

In Hellner-Eshed’s presentation, the companions around Shimon spend their time revealing the secrets of the Torah to each other as a collective form of mysticism. Instead of the usual reductionist discussion of sefirot (emanations of God), we are shown how the Holy Spirit pulsates within the companions of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai. We also meet wondrous characters — old man, young child, donkey driver — who reveal ancient secrets to the companions.

The Zohar’s name originates in the biblical verse: “The enlightened will shine like the brilliance (zohar) of the sky….” (Daniel 12:3) Hellner-Eshed shows how the image of light is used to indicate the presence of a God in the Bible and in rabbinic literature. The Zohar, in turn, expands the metaphor to include variegated colors and mixings of shades, and combines light metaphors with those of fragrance and fluidity. Her own book draws its title from another of the Zohar’s central images, the superabundant divine plenty portrayed as “a river [that] flows from Eden.” Hellner-Eshed does not treat this imagery as mere metaphor, rather as a description of the mystic life of the companions engaged in nocturnal entrance into the Garden of Eden. When there is an awakening by the mystics below, then there is a parallel awakening from above, shown as a river of divine plenty.

The Zohar portrays the experience of God as ecstatic delight through kissing, embracing and even intercourse. Hellner-Eshed’s original conclusion is that the mysticism of the Zohar describes the experience to be like a wave of water or a scent, where one enters into a period of heightened consciousness, sensuous pleasure, altered time frame and intuition of the secrets. According to Hellner-Eshed, there are three mystical states in the Zohar: when one drifts in and out; when one is “in the zone,” like a dancer or sprinter, and white light — a deep mythic level in which one enters into being itself. One can — using the terminology of less poetic scholars — call them shekhinah, tiferet and keter, but after Hellner-Eshed’s evocative exposition, that would show a tin ear for the drama.

Hellner-Eshed claims that the Zohar’s style is deliberately exaggerated and rhythmic to capture the experiential mood through trails of sensations and emotions. The rhythm of the Zohar offers many voices in which each sage continues and further develops the thought of the prior speaker. Hellner-Eshed compares the Zohar narrative to a jazz jam session, where a common melodic theme performed by the ensemble branches into solo improvisations that build to greater surprise, complexity and crescendo — the more virtuosity, the more wonderful and surprising the innovations.

One of her conclusions is, “The genius of the Zohar as a book lies precisely in its ability to capture the life of the experiences in Rabbi Shimon’s circle.” And thereby, according to Hellner-Eshed, it draws the reader into the mystical journey. She boldly claims that an academic attempt to understand the text should coincide properly with the attempt to induce a mystical experience.

What percentage of the Zohar fits Hellner-Eshed’s description? For that, we have to turn to the actual text of the Zohar.

The fourth volume of the Pritzker edition of the Zohar (2007) was a diverse volume containing many texts that do not fit the model. It included a paraphrase of Philo of Alexandria’s ban on abortion, a Shi’ite-style apocalypse of a messiah who is hidden in heaven, citations of 12th-century Ashkenazic theology and selections from the rewritten biblical narrative of late antiquity.

The newly published fifth volume of the Pritzker Zohar exemplifies Hellner-Eshed’s thesis in the delightful story of the Old Man of Mishpatim, who teaches through riddles and paradoxes and then explains them with a chivalrous story of a damsel in the castle who reveals herself only to the worthy kabbalist. But it also contains the terse and bombastic Book of Concealment, which describes the primordial world before emanation. Hellner-Eshed does not explain how the latter gnomic work fits with her selections. In addition, Hellner-Eshed’s biggest lack is that her work does not discuss the huge number of Zohar passages about mitzvahs, Halacha, rituals or pietistic life, all of which are admirably represented in Matt’s new volume.

Armed with these books, one can now begin to appreciate a cultural and religious treasure of Judaism. No journalist or book reviewer should write about Kabbalah again without first reading Hellner-Eshed. Her work steers the English reader between the Scylla of Kabbalah as technical knowledge of sefirot and the Charybdis of Kabbalah as personalized New Age spirituality. Hellner-Eshed’s work treats the Zohar as a mystical fantasy in which the Knights of the Round Table are rabbis living in an eroticized Middle Earth and spurred to great deeds by their love of the damsel Shechinah. Then, the beautifully edited Pritzker translation allows the interested reader to travel on these mystical journeys, yet still return home safely.

Alan Brill is the Cooperman/Ross Endowed Professor in honor of Sister Rose Thering, Seton Hall University.


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