Giving Voice to Kabbalah Masters

Peter Cole Explores Poetry of Mystical Thought

By Eitan Fishbane

Published April 17, 2012, issue of April 20, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.