Daniel Abrams, “The Invention of the Zohar as a Book” Kabbalah 19 (2009) 7-142
I just finished a very long (135 pages) rambling article by Daniel Abrams with many topics and looks to be the core of a forthcoming book. The article is a seminal one for Abram’s approach and the vast literature review of the field that it contains will make it required reading in the field.
The Zohar was neither written, nor edited, nor distributed as a book by the various figures who produced the various literary units which were later known by the name Zohar. (10)
The Zohar is not a Book – Nor does it have an author (105)
I have tried to express my theoretical discomfort, indeed a perceived dissonance, concerning published methodologies for evaluating the literary quality and forms of the texts known by the name Zohar. (127)
No satisfactory evidence has yet been offered in the relevant scholarship proving that the zoharic writings were intentionally composed, edited, or copied as a book. Not only can ‘the’ Book of the Zohar not be restored to its full form, but there was no single original moment that is recoverable amidst the disparate writings and unstable text(s). (142)
Abrams claims the idea of the Zohar as a preexisting book was created in the 16th century by the printers- before that point there were only various unconnected manuscripts of esotericism. The production of the Zohar as ideas, texts, and isolated units, has little to do with consumption of the product as a book. He notes that books of esotericism had continuous reworkings. Then in the 16th century there arose the idea of a single book, The Zohar.
He spends much of the article reviewing statements of what this work is, from the 13th century to the 16th century printers to 20th century and then all 20th and 21st century academic studies on what they thought about the nature of the Zohar as a book and whether they imagined that there was such an original lost book to be recovered
Abrams rejects Scholem’s theory of a single author and he rejects Yehuda Liebes’ theory of circle of Zohar authors- hug haZohar. The Zohar contains variety of styles and diverse literature, hence Abrams is sympathetic to Moshe Idel’s reclamation of the theory of Moses Gaster, who considered the work a collection of diverse sources.
He accepts parts of Ronit Meroz’s articles that claim that the texts of the Zohar originated between the 11-14th centuries. But he demurs from her suggestion that there are 14th century imitators of the Zohar’s style Abrams asks: Who says there was ever a fixed thing called the Zohar to imitate?And form criticism does not work if you do not know that the text existed as we have it in these earlier centuries.
With a bit of overkill, he cites Walter Benjamin that in an age of reproduction the book is different than in the era of production. (He does not know Stephen Greenblatt on how a printed book can have ever more aura). He uses Foucault’s “What is an Author” mentioning that author is a constructed idea. But he does not mention that in the middle ages philosophy was authorless while science had an author. Now, in the modern era, we treat science as authorless and give philosophy an author. Abrams does not state why he should think esotericsm should be different than philosophy. He might have been between off citing the shelf of books on authorship in medieval literature- Foucualt may not be proving his point. He has a nice use of Brian Stock on textual communities that have an interplay of textuality and orality.
Abrams suggests that the field needs to go back to manuscripts and first edoitions, and especially colophons – every text must be treated in its context of production of the manuscript.
He notes: Danny Matt is creating a synthetic text that does not correspond to any text out there. Meroz is creating a synoptic edition but that already assumes a whole to be recreated or an original text to retrieve Abrams compares the Zohar to Rabbinic works. Zohar is like the tannaic collections that existed before the Bavli was edited.
He is glad to substantiate Meroz’s finding that some of the texts of the Zohar were originally circulating in Hebrew and then later editors translated them into Aramaic because they thought they were returning the text to its original language of Rashbi which was lost.
He is perturbed by the new book on the Zohar by Melila Heller-Eshed. There is no proof for a hevraya around the Rashbi nor is there any proof that the texts joined as the Zohar have anything in common in the original formation. Abrams is against the literary and thematic studies produced by the students of Yehudah Liebes. (I have a forthcoming review of Melila Heller-Eshed’s book)
Finally Abrams notes the phenomena of hyper-animation of the text where there is an assumed personal authorship. He notes that this started in the 16th century with the poem to Bar Yohai and continues with Liebes’ poem to Rashbi and the invocationof the spirit of Rashbi By Heller-Eshed. He asks rhetorically why doesn’t anyone ask for the spirit of the author of Sefer Yetzirah to descend on them?