Tishby, I., The Wisdom of the Zohar

READING AS INITIATION*

 

 

The Wisdom of the Zohar. Arranged by F. Lachower and I. Tishby. Introductions and explanations by I. Tishby. Translated by D. Goldstein. Oxford: Oxford University Press for The Littman Library, 1989. 3 volumes. $95.00 ppbk., from Bnai Brith 1640 Rhode Island Ave. Washington, DC 20036-3278.

To speak of the mystical stream of a religious tradition is to evoke some of the most profound expressions of that tradition. It is to evoke the numinous in one of its most intense forms. It is to confront some of the most powerful literary symbols and texts. To study the various streams of the Jewish mystical tradition, therefore, is to confront the holy at one of its most intense moments in Judaism; it is to come face to Face with the Godhead as Jewish tradition understands it . The most holy and the most powerful of the mystical texts, the Bible of Jewish mysticism, is the Zohar.[1] To have a grasp on the Zohar is to have a grasp on one of the most profound understandings of Judaism. The problem is that the Zohar cannot be read; it is a deeply symbolic text and, hence, it must be deciphered, decoded. Translations do exist into Hebrew, German, French, and English, and a poetic power is palpable even in the unexplained translations; but the inner, esoteric, theological, and mystical meaning of the Zohar is not captured by the translations alone.

For three generations, the key to the Zohar was Tishby’s masterful Hebrew work, Mishnat ha-Zohar.[2] Those of us who could read it had our eyes opened. We thought we had understood the Zohar but Tishby showed us the mystical level and we never read the Zohar the same way again. In 1978, at the urging of Jacob Neusner, I tried to make the Zohar more accessible to English readers by writing a chapter called “Deciphering the Zohar.” It was based on Tishby’s approach but it was only a short précis of his two volumes. I also followed Tishby in giving translated texts of the Zohar with explanation, that is, with the decipherment that yielded the mystical, theosophical meaning. Published in Understanding Jewish Mysticism (New York, KTAV Publishing: 1978) vol. 1, unit two, the attempt was quite successful. Readers could look at a text, analyze it until they understood it, then decipher and analyze it again realizing what they had missed and marveling at the double-speak of the text.[3] In addition, the explanations to the text and the introductions to each chapter set forth the mystical theology of the Zohar in a contextual and direct way which only needed to be supplemented by the classic but difficult essays of Scholem.

Now the splendor of the Book of Splendor is available for all to see. The masterful work of Tishby has been complemented by a masterful translation by Goldstein and the whole work has been set with closing material (much of it lacking in Tishby’s original). Whatever the faults of Tishby or Goldstein, the flower is out from its wrapping.

The work begins with an extended General Introduction (225 pages) which sets forth the literary analysis of the Zohar, the strange history of its composition and diffusion, the history of scholarship on the Zohar, the afterlife of the Zohar, and the basic events and personalities that form the framework of the Zohar. One could not ask for more, even where one disagrees with some of Tishby’s analysis. The rest of the book is structured so that each topic starts with a thematic introduction and continues with Zoharic texts; these latter are accompanied by footnotes which decipher the theosophical meaning of the text. The method is unusually clear, and is slowly and methodically carried out. The pages are numbered consecutively through all three volumes (hence, 1300 pages of topical analysis and explicated text). There are six topics (called “Parts”), each of which contains several chapters (called “Sections”); each of the latter contains a topical introduction (often subdivided for clarity) and upwards of a dozen explicated texts. The whole concludes with bibliography, glossary, and indexes (67 pages).

Part One deals with the first of four mysteries of the Zohar, the Godhead. Traditionally one does not study this material until later in life, nor does one disclose it to the uninitiated; yet here it is for all to read and be initiated into. I particularly recommend the sections on the “Sefirot” [4] and the “Shekhinah.”[5] If the reader penetrates these sections, she or he will have understood the heart of the Zohar and its mystical-theosophical teaching; the rest is commentary.

Part Two deals with another mystery, the demonic dimension of reality, called “the Other Side.” This is hard for moderns to grasp yet it is an important part of the system. I recommend “The Forces of Uncleanness”[6] and “The Activitiy of the `Other Side.'”[7] Part Three deals with creation and I think it can be safely skipped.

Part Four deals with the doctrine of man,[8] setting forth the doctrine of the soul, its descent into the body, and its ascent to the realm of the sefirot in sleep and death. I recommend “Body and Soul.”[9]

Part Five deals with two other mysteries, humankind’s effect on the Godhead and the place and use of ritual. I strongly recommend “Prayer and Devotion,”[10] “Commandments — Positive and Negative,”[11] and “Sabbath and Festivals.”[12] Part Six continues the theme of human action and its effect on the Godhead. The section on “Conjugal Life” is without peer; if the strange theosophical truths of the Zohar have not struck the reader after this, she or he needs to start again from the beginning (or give up).[13]

In addition to puzzling over the strange mystical theology of the Zohar, the reader of these texts must become familiar with the literary form known as midrash. Itself a multi-faceted form, midrash involves two steps: first, the juxtaposing of sacred texts which are in contradiction, in tension, or at the very least, do not seem to go together (the texts are usually biblical but sometimes rabbinic) and second, the intertextual, creative cross-reading of these texts within the framework of some ideological, religious, or spiritual worldview (in the case of these texts, within the theosophical worldview of the Zohar). The result of this intertextual act is a new reading of each of the original texts, a reading which sees them in the light of the new worldview and which, at the same time, generates new insights for the worldview. Thus, two texts from different parts of the Bible which seem to have nothing to do with one another or with the Zohar, when read within the worldview of the Zohar, yield new understandings of the texts as well as new insights into the theology of the Zohar. It takes a while for the reader to get used to this style but it is a powerful tool for use on all texts once mastered.

Does God have “parts,” “aspects” and are they real and not just figments of our analytic abilities? Does God have a “passional,” psychological side and, if so, what are the outlines of God’s “personality”? If God is person, can God’s personality become destabilized; how; how and who would re-stabilize it? If the universe is a flux of divine energy, can that flux be tapped; how, and what effect would tapping that energy have? If humankind is part of the recycling of divine energy in the universe, how does one do that; what is the effect of sin on the recycling process? If God is person, can God’s personality include some sense of sexuality and, if humankind is linked with God in the flux of divine energy in this world, is human sexuality linked to God’s sexuality? These questions are answered in the Zohar and Tishby is as clear a statement as one can find.

I am often asked about the relevance (or recoverability) of this material for contemporary spirituality. Much of it is beyond current religious imagination yet some of its basic insights bear an uncanny resemblance to psychoanalytic theory. In any case, reading is initiation. Studying the Zohar, now that it can be done intelligently, opens the mind and the imagination in a way that classical rationalist theology and bourgeois praxis does not. This work is a solid step into a substantial and new view of what religion is about; it should be a part of every scholarly library, in religion as well as in Jewish Studies.

 


* Appeared in Journal of the American Academy of Religion 63:3 (summer 1995) 385-87.

[1] Although the Zohar is the title of a book, it is so common (like Bible or Torah or Talmud) that I shall not italicize it.

[2] The book was widely reviewed; cf., e.g., G. Vajda’s review in Revue des études juives 121 (1962) 447-50.

[3] The following passages from UJM were translated from the following passages in Tishby: 121 = 391; 130-31 = 265-56; 134-37 = 322-24; 149-53 = 1042-44; 146-48 = 1018-19. There are two passages in UJM which are not in Tishby.

[4] Introduction and readings 1, 4, 5, 18, 27, 31, 32, and 34. I have taught the Zohar using Tishby for a whole semester and found it useful to provide questions to guide the reading of the introductions; they are available on request though I hope to publish a teachers’ guide to Tishby. For the short version, cf. UJM, vol. 1, unit 2.

[5] Introduction and readings 2-5, 18, 21, 26, and 27.

[6] Introduction and readings 8, 9, 11, and 16.

[7] Introduction and readings 1 and 7.

[8] The Zohar really means males; on women, see Shekhinah and the texts on Lilith and sexuality. This issue of the place of women in the Zohar and its recoverability (if any) for modern spirituality is one that needs full exploration.

[9] Introduction and readings from “The Three Souls,” 8-9; “Sleep and Dreams,” 2-3; and “Death,” 7-9.

[10] Introduction and readings 4-6 and 10. Some knowledge of Jewish praxis is necessary to understand this section.

[11] Introduction and readings 1, 10-11, especially 10. Some knowledge of Jewish praxis is necessary to understand this section.

[12] Readings 4 and 11.

[13] Introduction and readings 1, 2, 5, and 7-8, especially 7.

return to head of document

David Blumenthal’s HomePage