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

(page 2 of 2)

The Zohar is, without question, the masterpiece of Jewish mystical poetics. In its vast pages we encounter a crystallization of the lyric and narrative heartbeat of the kabbalistic imagination. Among others, scholars such as Daniel Matt and Haviva Pedaya have displayed the inner poetry of kabbalistic prose in their important translations and analyses; to paraphrase the Zohar itself, we have entered into a rediscovery of the musical verse concealed within the outer garments of mystical writing.

Cole clearly has a feel for the incantatory texture of the Zohar and other prose works of Jewish mysticism (a few zoharic pieces are translated in the book as prose poems), though his explicit aim is to engage poems that reflect the distinct shape and boundaries of verse, not (as a general rule) prose that might be excerpted and recast as poetry. His collection — which reveals the poetic mastery of mystics throughout the ages — may be seen as a major step forward in our appreciation of the lyric pulse so powerful within mystical creativity, both of formal verse and of prose brimming with poetic verve.

Cole includes fresh renditions of classic poems by Shelomo ibn Gabirol and Yehuda Halevi, alongside translations of beloved hymns composed by Eliezer Kallir and Yehudah he-Hasid. Crossing that linguistic bridge — where the molten substance of meaning is crafted into new form — Cole artfully conveys the acoustic rhythm and imaginative vision of these medieval poets. In “The Poetry of Kabbalah,” readers will encounter poetic excerpts from the influential pre-kabbalistic work, “Sefer Yetzirah” (“The Book of Creation”) as well as the liturgically canonized hymn of medieval Ashkenazi piety, “Shir haKavod” (“The Hymn of Divine Glory”). Further classics of kabbalistic lyricism that will be intimately familiar to readers include the masterpieces of 16th-century Tzfat: Elazar Azikri’s “Yedid Nefesh” and Shelomo Alkabetz’s “Lekha Dodi.”

These widely loved hymns are gracefully retranslated and are accompanied by extensive notes and commentary explaining the kabbalistic ideas and allusions latent in their lines. Of course, as Cole intimates in his introduction, absorbing all this material under the term “Kabbalah” or even “mysticism” is inherently problematic, as Kabbalah properly refers to specific systems of thought that arose in the European Middle Ages. Perhaps one can legitimately include all this poetry under a very loose definition of mysticism (the intense yearning of the soul for God); perhaps “spiritual verse” would have been more accurate. Such quibbles aside, however, the reader is the happy beneficiary of a veritable banquet of poetry that gives resonant voice to the depths of religious longing and passionate devotion.

Cole displays a wide and deep reading in the scholarship on these poems, often paraphrasing and summarizing the extensive research that has been composed on the subject (and ranging through the terrain of multiple subfields). The flaw in this accomplishment (and in the striking breadth of material) is that much of the commentary, especially the historical-contextual reflections, derives explicitly from the scholarship of others. This is, however, understandable, given the broad nature of synthesis at play in the book, and Cole certainly offers many innovative and penetrating insights of his own. The translations and commentary on Isaac Luria’s influential Sabbath hymns are a particularly valuable addition to the collection — poems that adapt and rework the sonorous and lyrical spirituality of the Zohar; pieces that are wrapped in the majestic tapestry of the Zohar’s signature and mysterious Aramaic voice.

Readers will also appreciate the inclusion of the original Hebrew, Aramaic and (in one case) Yiddish texts at the back of the volume, providing a welcome resource for study and reflection. With its combination of poetic beauty, learned commentary and short introductory essays, “The Poetry of Kabbalah” offers the reader a substantial survey of Jewish mystical history and thought through the channel of richly textured lyric voices.

Eitan Fishbane is assistant professor of Jewish thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary. His most recent book is “The Sabbath Soul: Mystical Reflections on the Transformative Power of Holy Time” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2011).


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!
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • 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.
  • 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.