Dan. J. The Heart and the Fountain: An Anthology of Jewish Mystical Experiences

J. Dan, The Heart and the Fountain: An Anthology of Jewish Mystical Experiences (Oxford University Press 2002) pp. vii + 326. *

Every possible analytic tool except history is missing from this book &endash; which is a pity since few people know as much about Jewish mysticism as Joseph Dan. Magical and mystical texts tumble over one another pell mell. Dreams and legends float like figures in a Chagall painting. Theological texts and instruction manuals rub shoulders. Modern poetry and apocalyptic visions hold hands. This is a supermarket arranged by the date of arrival of goods. One has no sense at all of the issues. Furthermore, the truly theological texts are given with nothing but the briefest of introductions, leaving the reader wondering what makes them so profound &endash; and they are.

Joseph Dan comes from, indeed embodies, the classical Wissenschaft school of analysis which implies ‘the acceptance of textual evidence as the dominant source of understanding and [the] rejection of imposition of concepts and definitions derived from theology, ideology, or philosophy of religion’ (277, n. 3). The only thing this approach to mysticism can do, then, is accurately to edit, translate, and explain the historical context of mystical texts: ‘The mystical text, for the nonmystical reader (e.g., the historian) is a set of signifiers without signifieds’ (6, italics Dan’s). Further, the only proper order of texts is chronological. But what of such questions as: What is the difference between mystical and nonmystical spirituality? What are the shadings between myth, legend, magic, dream, vision, and mysticism? Is it possible to group types of mystical texts, to develop a typology of mysticism? These are questions that require more than Wissenschaft. Dan knows this and attempts some distinctions in his Introduction but the anthology does not reflect even this.

Dan begins by distinguishing between the religious and the mystics &endash; the former believe the language of sacred texts is accessible to all and that, when something is explained, it should be comprehensible while the latter deny that language can ever reveal the truth, which is ineffable, and that, therefore, the real truth can never be articulated much less explained. This division is, however, wholly artificial; one need only look at Isaiah, chapter 40, and the Zohar to realize that both approaches to language characterize religious and mystical writing. Dan then goes on to a very subtle analysis of midrash as an exegetical process that is ‘an infinite process, and no new discovery negates the previous ones. Different, or even contradictory interpretations have equal validity’ (12). Yet, ruling that mystical midrash refers to a realm that only the author and his fellow initiates can validate, Dan accuses mystics who use midrash &endash; and there are a lot of them &endash; of ‘pretending’ to be midrashic exegetes (15). By contrast with his history-of-religions analysis, Dan’s historical presentation (15-48) is very competent except that he omitted Maimonidean philosophic mysticsm, post-Maimonidean Jewish Sufic mysticism, and M. Idel’s critique of some of Scholem’s historical conclusions.

Some of the texts themselves are just midrash, that is, extensions of the biblical text. Others include ‘a sense of elevation, excitement, and a feeling of touching, however remotely, the hidden essence of God’ (103). Some are clearly magical, in the sense that prescribed, meticulously executed procedures are said to induce specific results. Others are instructions to the reader on the state of mind he (not she) should have while reciting certain liturgical texts. Some allude to being united with the divine, though the variety of what constitutes the divine is amazing. And some are frankly dreams, visions, and popular legends.

Since the book is an all-encompassing historical anthology, it does not distinguish between texts which are theologically profound and those which are theologically insignificant. Thus, the reader cannot tell that the Zohar is the third bible of Judaism but the rantings of Della Reina are a brief and irrelevant episode. Nor can the reader know that Bahya was probably the most widely read author in medieval Judaism (after Rashi) while Abulafia was kept in manuscript form and reserved only for the elite of the elite. This, in turn, means that the reader also does not have a deepened view of the few truly important texts. Thus, the three chapters from the Zohar are the most disappointing of the book. The first, which is a genuinely profound theological and mystical text, is completely occluded from the reader because there is no extensive commentary and no thoughtful reflection on the text or the experience behind it. The other two texts, while central (as Dan notes), are part of the narrative frame of the Zohar and their importance as narrative, and not theological texts, needs to be explained.

The inclusion of modern Israeli poets was a very fine idea though, as Dan comments, most of them would be more than surprised to find themselves in an anthology of mystical texts. Some, particularly those of Yona Wollach, are stunning in their use of erotic imagery. But the reader would want to know more about how and why Dan chose these poems.

Finally, for a book printed by Oxford University Press, there are an unusually large number of spelling errors.

It seems to me that, to introduce readers into the rich world of the Jewish mystical tradition, one needs to group texts together. One can assemble them by type (visionary, manual, theosophical, etc.) or one can order them by historical / theological importance. I tried the former some years back (Understanding Jewish Mysticism, Ktav Publishing, 1978, 1982) though I would certainly agglomerate texts differently today. Alternately, one needs to take one text and do a full historical, linguistic, but also theological and phenomenological study of it. Tishby did that for the Zohar (The Wisdom of the Zohar, Oxford, 1989). Either of these is a better way for those curious about Jewish mysticism to enter that world.

* Appeared in Reviews on Religion and Theology, April 2003, 133-35.

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