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Zohar Commentary

A Journey into the Zohar: An Introduction to the Book of Radiance by Nathan Wolski (State University of New York Press: SUNY) The crowning work of medieval Kabbalah, the Zohar is unlike any other work in the Jewish canon. Written in Aramaic, the Zohar contains complex mystical exegesis as well as a delightful epic narrative about the Companions--a group of sages who wander through second-century Israel discussing the Torah while encountering children, donkey drivers, and other surprising figures who reveal profound mysteries to them. Nathan Wolski offers original translations of episodes involving this mystical fellowship and goes on to provide a sustained reading of each. With particular emphasis on the literary and performative dimensions of the composition, Wolski takes the reader on a journey through the central themes and motifs of the zoharic world: kabbalistic hermeneutics, the structure of divinity, the nature of the soul, and, above all, the experiential core of the Zohar--the desire to be saturated and intoxicated with the flowing fluids of divinity. A Journey into the Zohar opens the mysterious, wondrous, and at times bewildering universe of one of the masterpieces of world mystical literature to a wider community of scholars, students, and general readers alike.


The Zohar is a work of great beauty, of spiritual subtlety, depth, and abiding relevance, yet it remains largely unknown and inaccessible beyond the confines of the academic world. There are good reasons for this. The Zohar is, as we have begun to see, an extremely complex work, written in a specialized symbolic language that treats of the greatest mysteries of God and the Torah. Deciphering a Zohar passage requires a deep familiarity with the Bible, rabbinic literature, and medieval Jewish thought, not to mention an intuitive and hard-won familiarity with kabbalistic language. That the Zohar's teachings should remain solely in the scholarly domain is a great shame, as the Zohar offers us today, as it has to its readers for more than seven hundred years, a view of religious life unrivaled (at least in the Jewish canon) in its imagination, daring, and insight. Although the Zohar has been blessed with an awesome cadre of commentators—both medieval and modern—the general reader has nearly no way of accessing this mystical classic, despite some notable exceptions. Zohar scholarship, which has attracted some of the greatest minds in Jewish studies, has not concerned itself with making its insights and discoveries amenable to a general readership and has been concerned instead with the kinds of questions that are quite properly the focus of academic work. This book seeks to redress this void and aims to open the mysterious, wondrous, and at times bewildering universe of one of the masterpieces of world mystical literature. Given the great luminaries who have explicated the world of the Zohar, it is not the intention of this study to present any radically new thesis about the Zohar. My aim, rather, is to mediate the

Zohar itself, as well as the body of fascinating scholarship surrounding it—a body of literature beginning with the pioneering works of Gershorn Scholem and Isaiah Tishby and continuing in our days with the works of Moshe Idel, Yehuda Liebes, Elliot Wolfson, and my teacher Melila Hellner-Eshed. My focus on zoharic exegetical narrative with particular emphasis on the literary and performative elements of the composition does, however, offer a new mode of Zohar analysis and has the additional advantage of providing nonspecialists a much clearer view into the world of the Zohar than is currently available.

That spiritual seeking ought to be mediated by critical scholarship might seem puzzling to some. Religion is often hostile to such scholarship, which tends to historicize, categorize, and relativize religious texts, often at the expense of the wonder that lies at the heart of the spiritual life. We are, as Nietzsche said, "by nature winged creatures and honey-gatherers of the spirit,"  and we need spiritual guides and spiritual works. Spiritual heights, however, especially when they border on the super-rational, must be mediated by responsible and critical scholarship. Religious life need not be naive but can and ought to be informed by the best of scholarly research, just as the wonder of the cosmos is intensified by the dazzling discoveries of scientific research. Of course, scholarship can get in the way and religious insights—philosophical and mystical—are all too often hidden and buried in scholarly literature. Yet the attempt to produce readings informed by critical-historical scholarship, but which seek, nevertheless, to access the profound teachings found in religious texts strikes me as more important now than ever before. It is this sense of a mystery without mystification that this book seeks to present.

More than fifty years ago the great scholar-mystic-activist Abraham Joshua Heschel reminded us, as Plato already said, that everything begins or ought to begin in wonder. To be authentic and alive religious life must, he argued, find its way back to the sense of mystery and radical amazement at being. According to Heschel, modern man is in a state slumber—"sleep is in their sockets," as the Zohar says—and the need of the hour is to awaken and arouse to the primal mystery of reality. For many Jews, and I suspect for many non-Jews raised with traditional religious upbringings, religion, at least the way we encounter it in school, the synagogue, church, or mosque, is devoid of wonder and mystery. Religions tend to present themselves as ready-made truths, static statements of belief, and inflexible codes of action. But religious life is a journey, full of surprise and wonder. More than any Jewish work I know, the Zohar has the capacity to open us to these dimensions of experience. As the Zohar says repeatedly, "the world abides because of the mystery."

The last decade has, as is well known, seen an explosion of Kabbalah into popular culture. One cannot go into a bookstore today without encountering dozens of books on the Kabbalah. Kabbalah, it has been said, is to the first decade of the twenty-first century what Tibetan Buddhism was to the eighties and nineties of the last century. I certainly do not wish to criticize this New Age Kabbalah. I know that there are both traditionalists and scholars who scoff at this movement. And while I understand their reservations and am yet to be convinced of the depth and profundity of these New Age kabbalistic fusions, I see no reason why people of all faiths and backgrounds should not find what they can in the kabbalistic tradition. For more than five hundred years, ever since the first Christian kabbalists and the Hermetic Qabbalists who succeeded them, people of all kinds have turned to the Kabbalah for inspiration to create their own contemporary Kabbalahs. But this is best done by going back to the source—and the Zohar is most definitely the source of sources, the root of roots—which outshines and outdazzles all contemporary distillations. The Zohar is much more than a work of kabbalistic doctrine, and the experience of reading the Zohar cannot be reduced to teachings, concepts, or spiritual guidebooks, however well intentioned.

Each chapter of this book presents an extended zoharic narrative followed by a discursive commentary. Zoharic narratives are rarely presented as integral literary units (scholars tend to examine isolated themes, motifs, and principles), yet it is precisely in the zoharic narrative flow, as story and exegesis fuse, that the charm of the Zohar is most apparent. It is this flow that I have sought to present. The narratives were all selected primarily because of their beauty as well as their capacity to demonstrate the diversity of the zoharic world. I have also chosen short to mid-length zoharic units; the longer and more complex narratives in the Zohar, some of which extend for dozens of folio pages, too unwieldy for a work of this kind. The commentary is intended as a step-by-step guide through the labyrinth of these passages, pointing out the subtle moves of the text, its exegetical strategies, symbolic terms, enigmatic turns of phrase, and thematic connections. While the chapters do, to a degree, flow on from one another and build on themes encountered earlier, one need not read them in sequence. Each chapter may be considered a stand alone mystical meditation. It is, however, important to read each narrative carefully and slowly. The Zohar is a literary delight and beyond its specific teachings, ought to read by savoring its brilliant and diverse images and subtle insights. Zohar texts do not yield their secrets easily and the reader must persevere, patiently encountering their multiple levels of meaning.

The translations presented here are all my own and are based on standard printed editions of the Zohar. Two of the narratives are, as far as I know, appearing in English for the first time, while the remainder have only been partially or inadequately rendered in the past. As anyone who has ever tried to translate the Zohar can attest, one does so only with considerable trepidation. The Zohar has its own unique cadence and rhythm, a special feel, which one fears is lost in translation. I am reminded of Cervantes' wonderful observation in Don Quixote, another and in some sense similar Spanish book of journeys, where el caballero andante, the wandering knight, beautifully captures our problem:

It seems to me that translating from one language to another . . . is like viewing Flemish tapestries from the wrong side, when, although one can make out the figures, they are covered by threads that obscure them, and one cannot appreciate the smooth finish of the right side.

The difficulties in translating the Zohar are made all the more acute in light of the wonderful English translation that is now emerging, volume by volume, by Daniel C. Matt. Matt's poetic translations, about which we can only say, "the voice of the turtledove is now heard in our land" (Song of Songs 2:12), are unparalleled, and will surely become canonical in the English-speaking world. However, the completion of Matt's project is still some ten or more years off and at present only the first third of the Zohar has been translated. My own translations follow many of Matt's innovations and novel solutions to particular zoharic problems and I am heavily indebted to him. In these translations I have not tried to smooth out some of the curious, odd, and sometimes downright bizarre verbal and syntactical constructions often encountered in the Zohar. While the Zohar should be accessible, it should also be strange and foreign—other-worldly—as befits a work of great mystery and enigma.

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement, once commented that the original radiance of creation, the light concealed by God for the righteous in the world to come, is actually hidden within the pages of the Zohar. While we read the Zohar for many different reasons—to learn, to be challenged intellectually, to be amused, and to be delighted—we read it above all because it has the capacity to generate within us an experience of something wonderful and profound, that original radiance of creation.

Let us now begin to walk on the way . . .

A River Flows from Eden: The Language of Mystical Experience in the Zohar by Melila Hellner-Eshed (Stanford University Press) In the Zohar, the jewel in the crown of Jewish mystical literature, the verse "A river flows from Eden to water the garden" (Genesis 2:10) symbolizes the river of divine plenty that unceasingly flows from the depths of divinity into the garden of reality.

Hellner-Eshed's book investigates the flow of this river in the world of the Zoharic heroes, Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai and his disciples, as they embark upon their wondrous spiritual adventures. By focusing on the Zohar's language of mystical experience and its unique features, the author is able to provide remarkable scholarly insight into the mystical dimensions of the Zohar, namely the human quest for an enhanced experience of the living presence of the divine and the Zohar's great call to awaken human consciousness.

Excerpt: When I was twenty years old I received as a gift, in honor of my forthcoming overseas trip, a copy of Gershom Scholem's Zohar, The Book of Splendor: Basic Readings from the Kabbalah. Sitting in distant Norway, I read in English a passage from the Zohar's opening to Genesis. I did not even know then in what language the Zohar had been composed. All I knew was that I wanted more. Since then—and now for many years, both within the gates of the Hebrew University and without—I have been blessed with the opportunity to study the Zohar with wonderful teachers and students alike. Like many other readers across the generations, I too have been seduced by the charm of this book. Indeed, as the years go by, I have become more and more at-tuned to the music of the wondrous world that emerges from its pages.

The Zohar is the jewel in the crown of Jewish mystical literature. It is unparalleled in terms of its acceptance, sanctity, and influence on the consciousness of generations of Jews—and all this despite its apparently sudden appearance toward the end of the thirteenth century. Its mysterious style, and the unique mystical-religious dimension it offered Jewish life, quickly captured the hearts and minds of its readers. The mythical-erotic creativity that burst forth from its pages turned the Zohar into a world unto itself. Its surprising interpretations of biblical verses resonated in the souls of many, along with its deep insights into the human psyche—in both joy and grief.

Yet perhaps above all else, it was the worldview of the Zohar—through its establishing a reciprocal relationship between the world of humanity and the world of divinity—that left an indelible impression on the hearts of its readers. In this ever-changing, constantly evolving relationship, the divine flow seeks to be revealed and to saturate the world of humanity; and humanity, for its part, seeks to attain, to take part in, and to cleave to the divine world. Indeed, the Zohar created a view of reality that bestows upon humanity the ability and the responsibility to rectify, constitute, and beautify over and over again the figure of the Godhead—and in so doing, itself and the world.

The Zohar invites the reader on a journey through diverse secret worlds, a complicated game of hide-and-seek—pleasurable to be sure, yet requiring from the reader great effort to reveal its moves. Indeed, this invitation accounts in no small part for the Zohar's charm.The hero of the composition—Rabbi Shim'on barYohai—became, both in the consciousness of the Zohar's readers and in Jewish popular consciousness, a mythological figure. His image as the great teacher, the mysterious man of God who reveals the light of secrets to the world, has served as a source of inspiration for creative minds, and for lovers of Torah and God alike.

The Structure of This Book

This book seeks to understand the special mystical dimension of the Zohar. Mysticism is a general term used for phenomena found in all the world's religions (and indeed outside of them). It refers to the human endeavor to develop ways of life and special practices in order to make present in one's life the unmediated experience of the holy or of God. In mystical documents from different religions, we encounter the conscious effort to experience dimensions of reality unattainable through the ordinary states of consciousness in everyday life. These modes, and the experiences that accompany them, are not usually the norm in the religious culture to which the mystic belongs. Jews who live according to the norms of their religion—like Moslems, Christians, or Hindus—are not obligated by this more intensive form of religious life; the decision to adopt this life has been the heritage of individuals alone. In the Jewish tradition, this trend is known as the "secret way," the "way of truth," and it is hidden under the shroud of mystery. Yet Jewish literature has bequeathed us testimonies, from the Bible to our own day, about special people who in their lives fulfilled the desire for a special intimacy with the divine, and who left us accounts of their experiences.

The Zohar is not a theoretical book about the essence of Jewish mysticism. Rather, the Zohar is a mystical composition, parts of which were surely written in heightened states of consciousness, and parts of which seek, to my mind, to awaken the reader to a change in consciousness. The Zohar does not present us with a systematic presentation of mystical consciousness and mystical language. No invisible hand appears to guide the reader systematically through the chambers of divine wisdom. Nor can a teacher direct the new reader to a particular page of the zoharic text so as to learn "the mystical teaching of the Zohar." The mystical aspect of the Zohar is made manifest among a collection of literary forms and expressions. It shines among them. In order to enter gently into the zoharic world—un-paralleled in its richness and complexity—this book is divided into four parts, each of which endeavors to answer one of the following questions:

  1. Who are the heroes of the Zohar?
  2. What do they do?
  3. Why do they do it?
  4. What is the nature of their mystical experience?

Part I presents the world of the heroes of the Zohar—the great teacher Rabbi Shim'on bar Yohai and the circle of students around him. Together they are known as the Companions—in Aramaic, Hevraya. These chapters explore the way in which the Zohar depicts them, and also the way that they understand themselves as figures who together constitute the ideal mystical society.

Part II describes the life of the Companions and explores their distinctive lifestyle. Here we encounter the fact that in the Zohar the mystical dimension transpires and is experienced in the context of a group—not of a lone individual. We also analyze the Companions' two main spiritual practices: walking together on their way, with the special scriptural exegesis that accompanies such travels; and also the creative Torah study undertaken from midnight to dawn. Additionally, we explore the meaning of the appearance of wondrous characters as a means of generating mystical experience, and the collective journey of the entire mystical circle into different dimensions of reality and consciousness.

These first two parts, taken together, familiarize us with the heroes of the Zohar and with their unique life-style and practices. Only then will it be possible to turn to the major questions that this work seeks to explore.

Part III deals with the heart of the zoharic enterprise and with its essential aims. Three main issues are discussed here:

1. The "secret" and its diverse meanings in the zoharic world. Here we explore the structure of the zoharic homily that grants access to the "secret" dimension, and the nature of creativity from within this dimension.

2. Awakening and arousal. The greatest wish of the Zohar is to awaken the sleeping consciousness of humanity, and to arouse it to a more expansive and divine perception of reality. Such awakening in the Zohar is presented in various terms: as erotic arousal, as a longing to know the divine reality and to take part in (and to influence) this reality, and as the founding logic of the interrelationship between the human and divine worlds. Here we describe the means employed by the Zohar, both implicit and explicit, to call the reader to awaken.

3. The zoharic understanding and interpretation of one biblical verse, "A river flows from Eden to water the Garden . . ." (Genesis 2:10). This verse, I suggest, is a zoharic code, encapsulating a conception of the dynamic structure of divinity and consciousness. The purpose of this code is to signify to the reader how to awaken the special consciousness that the Zohar seeks to generate.

Part IV focuses on mystical experience itself and the language of its expression in the Zohar. Here I offer a detailed exposition of the language of mystical experience, the emotional and physical phenomena accompanying such experiences, as well as powerful testimonies of these extraordinary events. I discuss the main forms, metaphors, and symbols employed by the Zohar to describe mystical experience, the sources of this descriptive language, and their place and function within this experience. This analysis focuses on the expression of the experience as well as a discussion of its essence, out of the assumption that language and experience influence each other in a dynamic way.'

This part builds to a climax: a model of the three main states of consciousness that underwrite zoharic mysticism and language, and that consttute the building blocks for the Zohar's experiential world.

I conclude the book with two chapters on related themes. One chapter explores the (im)possibility of expressing in language a personal encounter with aspects of divinity. The last chapter engages the zoharic dialectics around the question of writing, and on the constraints when moving from an oral world of mysteries into writing.

Methodological and Personal Reflections

The Zohar's literary style shuns systematic and didactic presentation. The authors of the Zohar chose to take existing kabbalistic ideas and experiences, already crystallized by their time into stable concepts and terms, and to melt them down anew—through a special mystical poetics—into a multivalent, flowing state. My exploring the mystical language of the Zohar, however, necessitated a process of isolation, classification, and definition of the different, categories within this language. At times, this process aroused within me a sense of betrayal vis-a-vis the unique qualities of my subject matter. If indeed this flowing quality of mystical poetics characterized the Zohar (and it was this quality that aroused my deep fascination with the Zohar), then this research was likely to find itself working against the grain of the text! In order to avoid this pitfall, the words of Michel de Certeau, the well-known researcher of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Christian mysticism, were never far from my mind:

"The color overflows its designated space ... [and] mocks my efforts to de-lineate, in the thicket of our data and analytic apparatus, the sequence of a narrative account whose subject is Christian mystics in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Nevertheless, a demarcation is necessary, if only so that what overflows its borders may become visible. ...The organization of a space, though necessary, will be seen to be unable to "stop" the subject mat-ter. It places mystic speech within a set of codifications that cannot contain it. It is a form whose matter overflows."

In this work, I have indeed isolated sparks and crystals from the zoharic river, but only to then allow them to be reintegrated into this river's flow, hopefully without losing their original vitality. I hope that I have succeeded in this endeavor.

My attempt to explore the mystical language of the Zohar required that I pay particular attention to the way in which the Zohar expresses its daring world of religious experience in its own unique language, and without the use of terms from the fields of religion and philosophy—such as mysticism, theosophy, theurgy, phenomenology, and ecstasy. I present the results of my research both in terms of the internal language of the Zohar and in terms of the language of the critical research of mysticism, both Jewish and general.

From a methodological perspective, I have been aided by phenomenological and historical models in translating the concealed concepts and encoded language of the Zohar. In so doing, however, I have sought to maintain a level of caution so as not to fall into the trap of reductionism by imposing existing models on my subject matter.3 The difficult task before me, therefore, was to find the appropriate language, which on the one hand would illuminate the text using conceptual tools derived from critical research, yet on the other hand would neither violate nor conceal the Zohar's unique language—whose power is derived precisely from its enigmatic form.

An additional task that lay before me arose from my desire to mediate the zoharic text—not merely to engage in interpretation. The Zohar invites mediation; its structure frustrates any who would seek out a coherent teaching. Further, Aramaic, the language of its composition, is unknown to most people. Even with the help of Hebrew translations, the reader still finds her-self before a complex structure of expressions and difficult-to-decipher symbols. One who is well versed in reading the Zohar knows that it speaks in a coherent manner, yet this is often concealed from the unseasoned reader.

In much of this book, I have sought merely to translate into contemporary language that which the Zohar conveys in its own words much better than I ever could. It was by no means easy to mediate the Zohar without adding description or interpretation to excess, especially considering the Zohar's invitation to taste—and drown in—its honey This book reflects my attempt to understand and describe the zoharic text not merely as the carrier of ideas, but also as a work of art. In my endeavor to convey that which is hidden in the Zohar, the words of the essayist Susan Sontag were particularly inspiring:

"The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art—and by analogy our own experiences—more, rather than less real to us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.... In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of arts."

The desire to mediate the Zohar also informed my decision to quote many zoharic texts in the body of this work, and to present them so that the reader may encounter them in a clearer fashion than via the Zohar's standard printed editions.

Years of careful Zohar study have led me to be amazed at the manner in which its heroes read the Torah. The complex and subtle play between the close reading of verses on the one hand, and an unbridled mystical, interpretive creativity that knows no bounds on the other, has no peer in the Jewish tradition. Sometimes, after reading a zoharic interpretation of a particular biblical verse, my understanding of that verse—even in its original biblical context—changes completely

The question of how the Companions read the Torah, what they saw in it, what they heard from among its pages, and perhaps above all, how they gave themselves the freedom to interpret from its verses the ever-changing world of divinity, was always before me. In order to better understand the zoharic art of reading Scripture, one must develop a broad and deep familiarity with the storehouse of Jewish literature preceding the Zohar: with the philosophical and kabbalistic thought of the Middle Ages, and more importantly with classical rabbinic literature—in whose form the Zohar is writ-ten, and which the heroes of the Zohar seamlessly assimilate into their own world. The reader of the Zohar must, however, be able to identify when the Companions are creating a standard kind of rabbinic midrash, and when they are boldly opening new paths of their own, in order to return afresh to view the words of Scripture from within their own unique horizon.

My desire to mediate the Zohar raised a particular problem with the syntax of my work. In addressing the density of Zoharic style, Moshe Idel has pointed out that the Zohar is a symbolic composition rather than merely a work that uses symbols,' and Yehuda Liebes has shown how the relatively limited vocabulary of zoharic Aramaic contains a vast range of meanings functioning in diverse ways in different interpretive registers.' I often found myself writing long sentences filled with secondary clauses, as I sought to highlight and explain the multiple realities represented by a given zoharic symbol. The endeavor to unfurl the zoharic map of symbols and referents revealed itself as nearly impossible. Perhaps this is how it should be. The syntactical awkwardness of parts of this work, therefore, reflects the inherent difficulty in clearly articulating the simultaneous multiple fields of meaning encoded in the Zohar's words.

My analysis of the self-reflexive dimensions of the Zohar, and the search for clues that might shed light on the world of its authors, necessitated a hypercritical reading of the text. If at times I may have looked for hints where none were to be found, I did so with a view to exploring one of the Zohar's most seductive aspects, its self-reflexivity. It seems to me that more was gained in this endeavor than was lost.

All researchers have a personal and intellectual biography and cannot but speak from within their own horizon—a horizon that greatly influences their relationship to the subject matter. The history of academic research in the field of Jewish Thought attests to this fact.' Not only do I not assume the possibility of a "pure objectivity" between researchers and their subject matter, but rather I am deeply interested in the way in which researchers' personal and intellectual worlds are revealed between the lines of their scholarship. I therefore feel compelled to outline some of my premises regarding my object of study.

I have a deep, personal interest in mystical experience and the hidden potential of human consciousness. The extraordinary endeavor of mystics across the generations to seek out an enhanced human consciousness—experientially, sensorially, and emotionally—has long inspired me. I am particularly interested in the attempt to document mystical consciousness as it is expressed in the language of the Jewish tradition. The Zohar is a spiritually inspired work of the highest order, and to my mind the world it describes is neither closed nor lost nor confined to the Middle Ages. I experience its insights as a living invitation to a special religious consciousness as well as to exegetical, cultural, and religious creativity. In the Zohar I find spiritual possibilities that are capable of redeeming aspects of the Jewish tradition—of which I am a part—from fossilization.

Both as a woman and as a Jew who does not live according to halakhah (traditional religious practice and law as interpreted by Orthodox rabbis), I am excluded from the possibility of harmoniously—and uncritically—integrating into the world of the kabbalists. I am aware that this prevents me from hearing aspects of the Zohar's musical rhythm, yet I have found this "limitation" to be fruitful in important ways. My stance vis-à-vis the text enables me to choose those elements of the Zohar with which I identify and reject others entirely. The texts I research are not authoritative in the sense that they require me to adopt a particular ideological position or necessitate any particular action on my part. In other words, I stand outside the boundaries of the "traditional participant" in this body of knowledge. I am free from having to submit to the power of the Zohar's traditional authority.

I am well aware that the Zohar was written—as most Jewish cultural documents have been—by Jewish men for Jewish men. Yet, I find in it deep human wisdom that transcends boundaries of time, religion, and gender. I have tried to approach the world of the Zohar on its own terms. That is, I give precedence to its voice over what I, from the standpoint of my con-temporary worldview, might sometimes wish it would say Only then have I wished to draw out, and carefully so, its contemporary relevance.

I engage the Zohar with great love and respect, yet I acknowledge that the historical-cultural horizons within which it was created are not my own. I come to the flowing river of the Zohar; and to use a biblical expression, I hope that I am bringing forth "living waters."

The Basic Structures of the Composition and Its Performative Aspects

An essential feature of the Zohar is its desire to awaken a mystical-religious consciousness, more intense and different in kind from ordinary religious-spiritual experience. Even in those parts of the Zohar where we encoun-ter detailed theosophical expositions on the structure of divinity and its dynamic being, such knowledge is not presented as theory alone. Rather, it is intended to enrich the life of the mystic.' The desire to awaken such a mystical-religious consciousness is not directed solely at human beings for their own sake; rather the broader purpose of this awakening is to affect readers' influence on the divine world, and to increase within this world the qualities of harmony and peace. This theurgic tendency—namely the conscious intention of the human being to influence the world of the divinity through deeds and consciousness—works for the mystic in several ways at once:

  • to satisfy a personal longing to actualize unmediated experiential contact with the divine;
  • to fulfill a desire to participate in the great work of rectification (tikkun) (In the Zohar, the abstract Hebrew noun tikkun spans a range of meanings: adorning, arraying, garbing, installing, healing, rectifying, and restoring. The Companions' expositions are often referred to as tikkunim [plural of tikkun]) of the world of humanity, and its redemption through the rectification of the divine world;
  • and to satisfy an ambition to increase the fullness of divine light in the world.

Indeed, in the Zohar the language of experience invites the reader to join the way of life that enables the mystical-religious experience described in its pages.

The Zohar is unique in terms of its complex literary structure. On any single page the reader will find a number of different styles, structures, and schemes interwoven with one another. Familiarity with the main features of the composition, therefore, enables an orientation vis-a-vis the text and assists in its illumination.' It is possible to identify four channels, interlaced and juxtaposed, that constitute the Zohar's fundamental structure:

Scriptural exegesis (midrash) The printed edition of the Zohar, as it is presented to the reader, has been edited according to the order of the weekly Torah portions* and is essentially a midrash on the Torah.'" The Zohar's authors view the Torah as divine revelation, and in that light they interpret its portions, verses, words, and even letters. Their relationship with the Torah is the relationship of one subject to another subject, or perhaps more accurately the relationship between lover and beloved; it is not merely the relationship of an interpreter with a text. For the Zohar's authors, the Torah is the object of desire, and its interpretation the mutual courting of the Torah and her lovers. According to the Zohar, it is through studying the Torah and interpreting its verses that one discovers the secrets of divinity, attains the secret of mystical faith, and encounter the divine dimensions that radiate within the Torah.

The zoharic epic: The story of Rabbi Shim'on barYohai and the Companions On nearly every page of the Zohar one can find the stories of the adventures, experiences, and hiddushei Torah (innovations of Torah) of the mishnaic sage Rabbi Shim'on bar Yohai and his circle of admiring disciples. All ten companions are named. Some of them—like Rabbi El'azar (the son of Rabbi Shim'on), Rabbi Abba, the most senior of the disciples, and the young Rabbi tliyya (perhaps the heir of Rabbi Shim'on)—are portrayed as complex figures whose personality and viewpoints are broadly discern-able, while others are presented in only the most schematic way In many of the stories, a wondrous figure—old man, child, or donkey-driver—appears as a bearer of profound divine wisdom. Some of them are known to us by name; others are anonymous, marginal, and eccentric.

The stories present an intense mystical circle centered on a remarkable teacher. It is the intensity of the group's spirit that enables daring innovations of Torah. The existence of this group, with Rabbi Shim'on at its center, radiates blessings to the world and heals the generation in which it dwells.

Zoharic stories come in many forms: short stories of only a few lines, story fragments, and long units spanning more than ten pages with complex development that requires detailed analysis. These stories have their own internal language and poetics, as well as structural, linguistic, and stylistic coherence; the seasoned Zohar reader has no difficulty identifying the world of the zoharic story upon encountering it.

This epic layer, however, has no apparent linear, narrative development in the usual sense of the term. In the different printed editions as well as in the Zohar's manuscripts, stories are interlaced throughout all the different parts of the composition. Nevertheless, the stories contain many intertextual references among them. For example, some of the Companions die during the course of events, and their deaths are referenced in other accounts. And in the printed editions, and perhaps earlier as well, the Zohar culminates in the story of the death of Rabbi Shim'on barYohai, which is interwoven with interpretations of the story of the death of Moses near the end of Deuteronomy.

The stories of the Zohar are the literary space in which mystical language and ambience are constituted, in which mystical experience transpires, and through which we readers gain access to that experience. The Zohar's stories are, therefore, crucial for accessing its mystical-experiential world. As Yehuda Liebes has shown, they are not merely a frame for the teachings expounded therein. They are rather the Zohar's heart and bestow upon the composition its unique character."

Kabbalistic interpretation and reading strategies

The Zohar is filled with interpretations of biblical verses employing the assumptions, concepts, and exegetical techniques drawn from kabbalistic literature, as they had developed up to the time of the Zohar's composition. The Zohar assumes that its reader is familiar with descriptions of the structure of the divine world as they had crystallized in the circles of the first kabbalists in Provence and Gerona, beginning at the end of the twelfth century These teachings assume the existence of an infinite, abstract divinity termed Ein Sof. From it emanate ten sefirot, constituting the world of active divinity. (In Kabbalah, each "sefirah" (singular of "sefirot") is a particular expression or face of the divine as it operates in reality.) They are able to be comprehended in different ways. The sefirot are qualities or modes of operation of the divine outside its incomprehensible and indescribable mysteriousness. They are characterized as masculine or feminine, and the relationships between them are dynamic and (hetero)sexual.

The kabbalistic myth depicts the active divine world, the world of emanations, as dynamic. Its interactive qualities are described in human terms such as jealousy, rejection, sexual union, and love. In the Zohar, these teachings about the world of divinity and this picture of reality are wholly internalized. Also taken as givens are kabbalistic conceptions of the Torah, the structure of the soul, evil, and the power of the human being to influence the divine world. Interestingly, in the Zohar, we do not find the wide-spread use of kabbalistic technical terms. In fact, the words "sefirot"and "Kabbalah" never appear in the main corpus of the Zohar. This, it seems, was the authors' conscious choice. There is no doubt, however, that kabbalistic language is thoroughly embedded in the Zohar's poetics and mysticism. We have before us a work that draws upon a great reservoir of prior kabbalistic interpretations. It should be stressed, though, that the Zohar is also an innovative composition.

Strategies of awakening and performative aspects The Zohar employs a variety of structures, forms, and strategies whose purpose is to awaken the reader to mystical consciousness—to transform everyday, regular consciousness to an enhanced state, so as to access otherwise unreachable dimensions of reality. Specific conceptual, stylistic, and linguistic forms recur in different contexts throughout the Zohar, especially in the narrative layers that describe the adventures of Rabbi Shim'on and his circle, as well as in the Idrot (the accounts of the two mystical assemblies), perhaps the Zohar's literary and mystical climax.

Analysis of these forms and their specific contexts, both within the Zohar's narrative units and in zoharic homilies, has led me to conclude that we have here a specialized language displaying a high level of internal coherence, even though it may be the creative fruit of a number of writers. This specialized language is the medium for imparting the Zohar's most fundamental motivations and interpretive meta-assumptions. In my opinion, it serves to awaken the reader to a change in consciousness and as an invitation to mystical-conscious activity.

The Zohar's call to the reader, and the implied assumption that it is indeed possible to awaken human consciousness, is directly connected to some of the Zohar's fundamental attitudes regarding human consciousness, its limits, and its hidden potential. The Zohar repeatedly states in different ways that most human beings exist in a state of slumber. As a consequence, people do not see the ultimate being of reality—infinite and divine. Meanwhile, the Zohar also repeatedly presents its view that human beings are created in the image of God, and are in possession of a divine soul, and therefore all of them are potentially able to perfect their divine essence. The person who longs for such perfection can develop these abilities so as to be exposed to the flowing dimensions within reality usually concealed from beings of flesh and blood. In the language of the Zohar, the human being has the capacity "to inherit the earth," namely to experience the divine dimension termed "earth."

The most prevalent metaphor employed by the Zohar for human consciousness is sight. The Zohar invites the readers—sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly, sometimes subtly and sometimes boldly—to enhance their visionary capacity and to look deeply into reality and into the narratives of the Torah to discover the divine light concealed within. This intensification of vision allows the viewers to see hidden lights and causes them to shine with a great radiance. The verse from which the Zohar's title is taken attests to this desire: "And the enlightened will shine like the radiance (Heb. zohar) of the sky, and those who lead the many to righteousness will be like the stars forever and ever" (Daniel 12:3).13

The Zohar's main strategy for strengthening this visionary capacity is through the use of special hermeneutical practices for reading Scripture. These include an intensive reading of the biblical text with two central foci: on the one hand, a reading directed at the text as an object to be interpreted, and on the other hand, an interpretive stance that seeks to develop forms of reading capable of leading the reader from text to experience. These two foci are nourished by the rich reservoir of exegetical tools of the ancient Rabbis as well as those from medieval interpreters—philosophers and mystics alike.

The reading practices of the Zohar, however, are mainly fueled by the authors' intense longing to touch the divine through the Torah's words. This longing to enhance the capacity of sight and the desire to touch the divine are perhaps the fire that melts the biblical text. Such fire transforms it from a frozen picture that captures one conception of reality into a window through which one glimpses fluid dimensions of being—profound dimensions that one can experience, participate in, and influence.

The uniqueness of the Zohar lies in the fact that the different structures or channels outlined above are not presented one after the other or side by side, but rather are interwoven one with another without separation. It is this interweaving, as opposed to the formal structures themselves, that makes the Zohar dazzle. In this interwoven structure, the Zohar reenacts the practice attributed to the sage Ben Azzai; in the words of the midrash, he would "bead" the words of the Torah to those of the Prophets, and the words of the Prophets to those of the Writings. Through this beading, the midrash continues, the words of Torah became "as joyful as in the moment of their being given" and the divine fire descended from heaven. Indeed, when the Companions gather for the special study vigil on the eve of the festival of Shavuot that marks the celestial bride's adornment prior to the wedding ceremony of revelation at Sinai, they explicitly state their intention to decorate the bride with adornments created by their beading words of Torah, Prophets, Writings, Midrash, and mystical teachings.

It is this beaded finery that shines on the bride (the Assembly of Israel), the Companions, and throughout the entire Zohar. The stories of Rashbi's Circle and the homilies expounded within them are masterfully linked one with another. Together they create and constitute the zoharic texture. The biblical verses expounded by the Companions become part of their stories and shape them, and the Companions' associative interpretations draw on aspects of their adventures. Different images are juxtaposed as the Zohar displays an array of allusions to stories and interpretations scattered throughout the composition.

As a literary, religious, and mystical composition, the Zohar is characterized by its daring ars poetica reflexivity. It is not uncommon for the Zohar's protagonists to pause from time to time and reflect on their own hermeneutical acts. They characterize, evaluate, and compare their own interpretive efforts, both explicitly and implicitly, with the worldviews and interpretive forms that preceded them, from the Bible to the rationalist philosophers of the Middle Ages. This self-reflexive gaze is directed toward their own mystical ends, as well as to the very fact of the Zohar's composition as a written work. The Zohar reflects on its own enterprise, offers evaluative comments on this enterprise, and compares itself with other spiritual endeavors.

Both in terms of its reflexivity and literary composition, the Zohar, it would seem, has no peer in the Jewish tradition. Analysis of the self-image of the Zohar is therefore crucial for understanding the meaning of a com-position that chooses to present itself as the product of the tannaitic world of the Land of Israel, while at the same time being saturated with the distinct world of the Middle Ages. This new world, which shines through the guise of the old, reveals new concepts about divinity, theology, and interpretation. The Zohar engages with what may be termed a renaissance consciousness, while displaying clues, both explicit and implicit, about the circle from which it emerged. On nearly every page, the reader encounters comments—sometimes subtly absorbed into the body of the interpreted scriptural verses—whose focus is self-reflection or comparison between the companions of the Zohar with the world of the Bible, the world of medieval Spanish Jewry, and perhaps even the world of other mystical groups.

The Internal Coherence of the Zohar's Language

Familiarity with the Zohar's key structures and assumptions is critical in order for the reader to distinguish how the composition imparts its pro-fundity. A systematic analysis of that kind is one of the aims of this book. However, at no point does the Zohar offer the reader a systematic intro-duction to its own meta-assumptions. It is only through the act of reading the text and exploring all its layers that these begin to emerge. The zoharic text is neither systematic nor didactic, which seems to have been the conscious choice of the authors. Rather, it is associative, impenetrable, surprising, multivocal, and polysemic. These characteristics bestow upon the text its unique power and quality.

Thus the analysis of individual passages, in order to draw out specific teachings and conceptions, would seem to run counter to the Zohar's unique style. After all, in the Zohar we encounter the reverse process: systematic ideas that had already crystallized in earlier kabbalistic circles are rendered into raw poetic-religious material, becoming a dynamic force in a daring literary-religious world.

The absence of a systematic, didactic approach does not, however, imply chaos or the absence of internal syntax and grammar. The act of reading the Zohar, especially the literary or narrative layer known as the main corpus of the Zohar or the epic layer, reveals a high degree of internal coherence in terms of the deep structures of the composition. Despite the great array of diverse forms of expression, there is no arbitrariness or chaos, as may seem at first glance. Rather, the Zohar is characterized by a deep order, a total language unfolding in its myriad forms before the reader. Well-versed Zohar readers who, like me, have passed through the frustration of the inaccessibility of the Zohar's Aramaic, and through the confusion of the Zohar's intricate symbolic structure, who have navigated the difficulty of understanding the complex interconnections between the stories and the scriptural interpretations, and who know and love the zoharic text, find themselves in a complex, rich, mysterious, and intriguing world. Through this thicket, at least occasionally, is revealed a unique clarity. The symbols, which at first seemed impenetrable, reveal their meaning—and even the impenetrability itself becomes a familiar part of the soul-syntax of the composition. The ear identifies the tones, the eye learns to observe the images, and the soul accedes to the spirit and wisdom that arise from the Zohar's pages.

In order to account for the linguistic coherence, we turn briefly to the question that fascinates all Zohar researchers, namely, how the Zohar was composed." (The comments presented here are merely footnotes to those researchers who have thoroughly explored this grand question, and whose insights appear in this book.)

The poetics, the musical imagination, as well as the intricate symbolic I network and the unique religious spirit that resonates among the zoharic texts I have studied, have led me to discern in it the hand of a single author. At the same time, the world of the Zohar is clearly dialogical and group-centered, so it is difficult not to believe in the "actual" existence of the Companions. Furthermore, the structure of zoharic stories, which in many cases is fixed and formal, tips the scales in favor of the proposition of a single author, even if different hands later edited his words. Following my teacher Yehuda Liebes, we can, I believe, posit the existence of a circle of mystics in Castile in the second half of the thirteenth century, which gathered around the figure of a charismatic teacher who attracted a diverse group of creative students. There is no historical evidence for the existence of this circle, nor do we have any idea how often the members of this group might have met. As Liebes has shown, however, we can identify via their own writings some likely members of this circle, such as R. Moses de Leon, R. Joseph Gikatilla, and R.Yosef ben Shalom Ashkenazi. Liebes even posits the possible historical identity of the teacher upon whom the character Rabbi Shim'on bar Yohai is based: the kabbalist Rabbi Todros Halevi Abulafia." It is possible that the author of the main corpus of the Zohar was a member of this group, or perhaps another similar group—in which transpired something original, fascinating, and exciting, unlike anything before. The magic perhaps lay in the new creativity generated by the innovative Torah study of the group, and perhaps also in the spiritual character of the mystical experience within the circle. It should be stressed once again, though, that we possess no testimonies or evidence about the meetings of this group.' However, even if the members of this group did not meet many times, the intensity of the experience of meeting others in whom the mystical spirit resonated, and the intensity of the experience of creativity within the group furnished the impulse to create a literary framework (perhaps not originally connected to Rabbi Shim'on and his disciples) in order to describe via narrative and exegesis something of the life of this circle. It is possible that one person, whose historical identity today cannot be determined with certainty, is the unique genius whose hand is found throughout the epic layer of the Zohar.2" This great writer took upon himself the monumental task to narrate, perhaps from a distance of many years, through the power of memory and artistic imagination, and with literary-mystical sensitivity, the life of this group. The Zohar is then a gift of memory to those moments in which the wellsprings of the heart were open to the world of the circle, and when the world sparkled with secrets revealed.

The Zohar is, to be sure, not a historical record of the life of this group. It is rather a free, literary reworking of its spirit, a spirit that left its indelible imprint on the author's soul. In the words of Hayyim Nahman Bialik: "How much does the inspired artist need to enable him to create? Merely a little raw material, enough for the spirit to lay hold on. If the material is poor, he will enrich it from his own store; if it is dead, he will quicken it from the fountain of his own life." It is this unique interweaving of the memory of the real mystical group with the force of the creative imagination of a master-mystic that perhaps accounts for the high level of coherence of the deep language of the Zohar. This special language is characterized by dialogical intensity, extraordinary eros, and a "realistic" quality that has served as a source of inspiration and model of imitation for later groups of Jewish mystics.

Definitions of Mysticism

Before delving into the Zohar's experiential-mystical world, we need first to clarify whether it is indeed appropriate to define the Zohar as a mystical work, and to reflect on which definitions of mysticism best suit our subject matter. In his lectures on the origins of the Kabbalah and on the book Bahir, Gershom Scholem began his attempt to define mysticism with the following words:

In coming to define the concept mysticism, I should say that no one knows what mysticism is. The number of definitions for the concept mysticism in philosophy or comparative religion is like the number of sages who have written about it. Everyone has their own definition. . . . Even so I will say how I use the term mysticism or mystery in Hebrew. Mysticism is knowledge through which the human being comes into contact with God or foundational knowledge of the world. . . . Not every foundational knowledge is mysticism: mysticism is an experiential endeavor pertaining to God and the foundations of ultimate reality to which the human being connects. Some-times this endeavor includes knowledge, and other times it exists beyond knowledge in the rational sense of the term.

Scholem's caution is pertinent, as are his remarks that all who engage in the study of "mystical" phenomena ought to explain their use of the term. In this study I adopt a broad definition of "mysticism" that includes not only experiences of mystical union, but also all religious phenomena in all I forms and expressions whose aim is to bring the human being into contact with the divine—a contact, in the words of Moshe Idel, "differing from the common religious experiences cultivated in a certain religion both in its intensity and in its spiritual impact." Following this definition, there is no doubt in my mind that it is appropriate to define what is found in the Zohar—its collection of experiences, techniques, forms of expression, and type of Torah study—as mysticism.

In seeking to elucidate the Zohar's mystical characteristics, it is important to be familiar with the state of research in the academic study of mysticism in general. At present, two conceptual approaches can be found, each with their own explanations for the variations apparent in mystical experiences as reported in different cultures and religions. The first school comprises those scholars who view mystical experience as a universal phenomenon, essential to the human qua human. These scholars understand the differences in reported mystical experiences as due to culturally determined linguis tic and ideological "garments" that clothe (mediate) personal experience. The foundations of this approach were laid by William James and Mircea Eliade. In his classic work The Varieties of Religious Experience, James sought to present a phenomenology of mystical experience as an essential human phenomenon. Eliade later drew on Jungian assumptions concerning the universality of key symbols and archetypal structures of the unconscious. To this school might be added Robert Foreman, who has investigated the concept of "pure consciousness," assuming the universal existence of such consciousness.

On the other side of the spectrum are those scholars who adopt a contextual approach to mystical phenomena. These scholars oppose the idea of an independent existence of mystical experience as a universal phenomenon, and emphasize instead the culturally constructed and contextually dependent aspects of the experience. The most extreme advocate of this view is Steven Katz, who claims that those aspects of mystical experience that are determined by culture, place, and context are not "outer garments" of the experience, but rather constitute its very essence.

Between these two poles are many scholars espousing different intermediate positions. In this work, I have drawn in the main on the approach of Jess Hollenback, who`argues against the existence of pure mystical experience disconnected from the cultural and religious context of the mystic. The interpretive and cultural dimensions, he argues, accompany the experience from the very beginning. Indeed, they color the experience. At the same time, I have been greatly influenced by the intermediate position out-lined by Elliot Wolfson in the context of Jewish mysticism. Wolfson highlights the particular intertextual nature of the Jewish tradition, in which readers actively live out texts from earlier historical periods and engage in dialogue with them. The texts thus shape their consciousness, beliefs, language, and experience. Wolfson presents a model of mutual dependence and fertilization between Jewish mystics' experience and the cultural texts they interpret.'

In his comprehensive book on mysticism, Hollenback outlines characteristics that in his opinion define mystical experience. These distinctions, gathered from a range of religious cultures, greatly enriched my endeavor to define the mystical dimensions of the Zohar's religious experience. Hollenback established seven features that, when found together, distinguish mystical experience from other human experiences:

  • A radical change in the state of consciousness of the individual occur-ring in a state of wakefulness.
  • A state of consciousness enabling the individual access to knowledge of those things considered as ultimate truth in the cultural context to which he or she belongs.
  • An experience granting access to special knowledge of soteriological significance (that is, pertaining to redemption).
  • An emotionally charged experience.
  • An experience of enlightenment, both sensorial and meta-sensorial, as well as metaphorical.
  • An experience that is amorphous by nature and whose content is historically and culturally determined."
  • A prior conscious act of heightened concentration on a particular subject, causing a quieting of the continuum of thought characteristic of ordinary consciousness.

Hollenback established these characteristics based on analysis of sources documenting mystical experiences in monotheistic faiths, Eastern, and tribal religions, and they serve as a successful diagnostic tool for comparison with the mystical experience found in the Zohar. His decision to base his definition on a broad range of characteristics, rather than to offer a narrow and radical characterization of mysticism (like those who restrict mysticism to the experience of union with the divine) seems to me appropriate for the diverse world of the Zohar—a world that as we have seen is not based on systematic or univocal teachings.28 This model thus furnishes us with an array of descriptive characteristics appropriate to our endeavor to characterize the mystical experience in the Zohar, without having to adopt one of the polarized stances that characterize scholarship of mystical experience today.

PART I: THE ZOHAR'S HEROES, Rabbi Shim'on barYohai and the Companions

The world of mystical experience in the Zohar transpires amid the ad-ventures of its heroes: Rabbi Shim'on bar Yobai and his circle of students. Through these figures and their stories, we are acquainted with the religious-emotional spirit that motivates and arouses them to create, ex-pound, and act. In order to understand this world of experience, we first need to be familiar with the composition's heroes, and with the way they understand themselves and their destiny. This is the subject of Part I.

Chapter 1 focuses on the radiant star of the Zohar, Rabbi Shim'on bar Yobai "the holy luminary," who reveals the secrets of divinity found in the Torah and in the world. We examine his persona as portrayed in the composition, his self-image, and the way in which he is described by his students. In this context, we compare the figure of Rabbi Shim'on with the figures of Moses (the hero of the written Torah) and of Rabbi Akiva (one of the great heroes of the oral Torah). We also explore his role as the master teacher, the experience of being in his presence, and the sense of terror and loss surrounding his death.

Chapter 2 focuses on Rabbi Shim'on's circle of students, the Companions, the manner in which they are portrayed in the composition, and the different epithets they use to describe themselves—through which we learn about their self-perception as a circle of mystics.

Chapter 3 examines the three generations in Jewish history whom the Companions view as possessing a special religious-spiritual consciousness, and with whom they identify.


The focus of the following four chapters is the life of the zoharic circle and its main modes of activity—in which, and through which, mystical experience transpires.

The mysticism of the Zohar is a mysticism of the group (Chapter 4); that is to say, the mystical life of the circle takes place through a special encounter among human beings and not through the seclusion of the individual. The circle lives its life amid a multidimensional reality, whose spiritual-imaginary-soul aspects are stronger than its realistic aspects.

This reality of the zoharic world serves as a live platform for mystical occurrence, which transpires through a unique exegetical activity that takes place in two key arenas: the Companions' journeys while walking on the way (Chapter 5), and the nocturnal delight—the special engagement with Torah, undertaken in a group with other companions from midnight till dawn (Chapter 6).These ways of life are in fact practices that function to promote the spiritual-mystical aims of the circle. The last chapter in this part (Chapter 7) will explore the appearance of wondrous characters, and the journeys of the Companions in the upper worlds.


Methods of Generating Mystical Experience

So far we have met the Companions and their characteristic way of life. In this part, we penetrate to the core of the composition and acquaint our-selves with the deep quest of the zoharic world through an understanding of the forces that motivate its heroes. What is the purpose of their religious service? What do they seek on their journeys, in their nocturnal awakening, and in the intense life of the circle centered around the teacher? Focusing on these questions also illuminates the world of the composition's authors.

This part explores, in turn, three aspects connected to the very heart of the existence of the zoharic circle and the quests that motivate its members:

The mystery and its homilies—The Companions seek to reach, through special modes of interpreting biblical verses, the dynamic layer of reality, which in the Zohar is called "the mystery" (or "the secret"). In this layer, human beings can participate (in different ways) in the dynamic life of divinity, and they can even influence it. This dimension of reality is mainly hidden from the eye, the heart, and the intellect; yet according to the Zohar, the world abides by virtue of "the mystery" Chapter 8 examines the meanings of this crucial zoharic concept and the ways to attain this dynamic dimension of reality. Chapter 9 explores Zoharic hermeneutics, that is, the way in which the protagonists of the Zohar read meaning into the verses of Torah, and the way that they use both classical and innovative forms of midrash to bring about and enhance mystical consciousness.

Awakening (Chapter 10)—The language of arousal is central to the Zoha, It comprises many aspects of the fundamental quest to arouse in human consciousness a more expansive, enhanced, and stimulated state than that which exists in ordinary states of wakefulness. The purpose of such awakening is to enable the fuller realization of humanity's existence and destiny as having been created in the divine image. The desired awakening relates to all dimensions of the human being; and the erotic, intellectual, sensorial, and emotional aspects of this awakening, as well as those pertaining to consciousness, are intertwined.

Verses of awakening and arousal—In the Zohar's language of experience, the verse "A river flows from Eden to water the garden ..." (Genesis 2:10) functions as a concentrated expression, or kind of code, comprising the dynamic structure of reality in all its different dimensions. Chapter II explores the extraordinary array of this verse's symbolic meanings, and the ways it is employed as the central verse of awakening.


Having acquainted ourselves with the heroes of the Zohar and their way of life, and having examined the deep desires and aims of the composition, we now turn to mystical experience as conveyed in the Zohar's unique language. Part IV focuses on numerous aspects of the experience:

Description of the experience—Chapter 12 examines the different modes and images in which mystical experience in the Zohar is expressed, for example: light, water, cleaving, radiant face, and their contexts in Jewish culture and mystical traditions from around the world.

Chapter 13 treats the general qualities that characterize mystical experience in the Zohar: a multifaceted experience; a dynamic, internal structure full of pleasure and delight; a softening of the boundaries be-tween the human and the divine; and moderation and containment.

Mystical states of consciousness—Chapter 14 brings the discussion to a climax, outlining the three main mystical states of consciousness that underlie the Zohar's mysticism.

The book concludes with a discussion of the Zohar's diverse and complex views regarding the very possibility of expressing in language the personal experience of the encounter with the divine (Chapter is), as well as the way in which the Zohar engages the question of the possibility, permission, and appropriate means of giving written expression to the world of mysteries (Chapter 16).

Concluding Remarks

In the Zohar's parable of the beloved in the palace, we readers follow the lover's exhilarating journey, during which the lover's veils and coverings are piece-by-piece removed, until the lover reaches the realm of the beloved's secrets. After the Zohar reveals that this parable of desire, courtship, and love alludes to the ideal relationship between the scholar ofTorah and the Torah herself, we find the following surprising ending:

[The Old Man said:]

"Now he sees that nothing should be added to those words and nothing taken away.
Now the peshat of the verse, just like it is!
Not even a single letter should be added or deleted. Human beings must become aware! They must pursue Torah to become her lovers!" ~Zohar 2:99b; Matt 1983, pp. 123, 125

The lover of Torah acknowledges that only after the different dimensions of Torah have been revealed, only then can he stand in astonishment, wonder, and appreciation of her form, "just like it is."

This is no longer the simplicity of Torah that the simpleton might experience standing for the first time at her gate. It is, rather, a newly discovered appreciation of the way in which deep and profound secrets of Torah are present within the simple meaning of Torah, subtly illuminating their ra-diance unto her knowers and lovers. The long voyage into her mysteries allows us to stand filled with awe at the perfection of form that contains endless worlds of meaning.

Such is the experience of seasoned lovers of Torah, and like them the lovers of the Zohar stand in wonder and appreciation at the beauty of the Zohar's stories, homilies, and parables, for they have delved into—and have been touched by—the secrets and profound insight that are embedded in them, and which shine through them.

May we merit the joy of experiencing deep simplicity.



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