Giving Voice to Kabbalah Masters

Peter Cole Explores Poetry of Mystical Thought

By Eitan Fishbane

Published April 17, 2012, issue of April 20, 2012.
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The Poetry of Kabbalah: Mystical Verse From the Jewish Tradition
Translated and annotated by Peter Cole
Co-edited and with an afterword by Aminadav Dykman
Yale University Press, 544 pages, $30

Peter Cole
adina hoffman
Peter Cole

‘There among the trees of God / … I’d enter the sacred shrine of the woods / … And as I sat at the edge of the pool / … my head bowed beneath the blessing / of the ancient grove, the play of shadow / and light as one, of resin and song — / I’d feel, palpably, the silent flow / of a certain freshness entering my soul, / and my heart, thirsty for sacred mystery, / would slowly fill with quiet longing, / as though it wanted more, and more, / and awaited the epiphany of His Presence.”

Rendered with grace and with a keen ear for the poet’s ethereal music, Peter Cole offers these lines in translation of Hayyim Nahman Bialik’s classic Hebrew poem, “Ha-Breikhah,” “The Pool,” to conclude his new, elegant and wide-ranging collection. In a sense, the translation and inclusion of Bialik’s master lyric at the end of this volume functions much like the natural and metaphorical pool of the poem. It reflects the images and devotional yearning of the Jewish mystical tradition from the distance of modern secularism, albeit one imbued with a strong spiritual and romantically pastoral energy.

Cole anticipates this characterization in his commentary: “‘The Pool ’… shows the poet at the traditional site of power but removed from that power’s tradition…. And like the clearing in which the pool is found, artistic consciousness, in complex fashion, is a realm unto itself, and yet one that might lead to an understanding of the mysteries of existence.” Cole notes this almost Wordsworthian representation of nature as the site of devotion in Bialik’s verse, the context for the discovery of Divinity and the sacred.

In bringing together a remarkable range of material — from the Merkavah hymns of talmudic Late Antiquity to 19th-century Hasidism and then to the poetry of Bialik — Cole has underscored the fundamentally poetic character of mystical thought, a dimension that has not been sufficiently appreciated and analyzed by scholars. Indeed, Cole’s multifaceted elucidation of these jewels shows that he recognizes mystical composition to be a kind of theological poetry. It’s a lyric art form that seeks to express the abiding mystery and revelatory quest of the spiritual life. As Bialik communicates in “The Pool,” the mystic has much in common with the artist, seeking as he does to give voice to the intuition of “sacred mystery,” the illuminative experience of divine presence. The associative and lush imagination of mystical authors, the network of symbolic language, far more resembles the process of lyric expression than it does that of logic and philosophy.

The literary character of Jewish mysticism, and specifically the ways in which Kabbalah can and should be studied through the multiple lenses of poetics, has begun to gain some prominence in contemporary scholarship. Researchers, myself included, have made progress of late in the effort to understand kabbalistic creativity — and particularly that of the Zohar, the masterwork of late 13th-century Spain — through the frameworks of literary analysis.


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