Eitan Fishbane on The Art of Mystical Narrative: A Poetics of the Zohar

For admirers of the Zohar, the work is a delight to study. What is the attraction of this work?  It opens the reader into a Judaism of great possibilities- possibilities of mysticism, of visions, of the afterlife, of prayer, and of creatively reworked midrashim. Much of the joy of reading comes from following the band of mystics as they wander the countryside encountering supernal beings and revealing a hidden reality. Many have noted in passing the medieval courtly background to these stories- the maiden in the tower, the heroic suitor, spending a night in a secluded castle, or an unexpected teller of tales-, which provides vivid color and richness to the drama. We now have to thank Eitan Fishbane for writing a guide to reading the Zohar as medieval literature, as a mystical narrative.

Eitan Fishbane is associate professor of Jewish thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS). His earlier book As Light Before Dawn: The Inner World of a Medieval Kabbalist (Stanford University Press, 2009 ) explored the mystical thought of Isaac ben Samuel of Akko especially prayer, meditative concentration, mental intention and chains of authority. His recent book, The Art of Mystical Narrative: A Poetics of the Zohar (Oxford University Press, 2018) is a masterpiece of opening up the Zohar to literary analysis including characterization, dramatic speech, structural framing.

fishbane- book

The 2017-2018 academic year was a bumper crop for Zohar studies producing ten serious studies on the Zohar, each one making a significant innovative contribution. Future studies of the Zohar will never be the same and the field will now start from a very different place than before. The works are so extensive that I have still not gone through this new shelf of books; actually not a shelf but a guilt inducing pile on my floor. Among the recent books are  Melila Hellner-Eshed’s Seekers of the Face : the Secrets of the Idra-Rabba (The Great Assembly) of the Zohar [Hebrew] (2017), Ronit Meroz’s The Spiritual Biography of Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai–An Analysis of the Zohar’s Textual Components [Hebrew] (2018), Oded Yisraeli, Temple Portals: Studies in Aggadah and Midrash in the Zohar [English edition], and Yonatan Benarroch’s Sava and Yanuka : God, the Son, and the Messiah in Zoharic Narratives [Hebrew] (2018). (For my 2016 interviews with Joel Hecker and Daniel C. Matt on translating the Pritzker edition of the Zohar, see here and here.)

Nevertheless, Fishbane’s study stands out for the moving of the study of the Zohar from the provincial realm of Jewish thought to the wider realm of medieval literature and Andalusian history. The book is innovative for letting us see what we always knew, that the Zohar tells a good story. Fishbane contextualizes the Zohar in its Castilian  milieu showing influence and parallel with Jewish and non-Jewish works such as Yehudah Al-Harizi’s Takhkemoni, Yitzhak Ibn Sahulah’s Meshal Kadmonim , Alfanso X of Castille’s sponsoring of the collection Cantigas de Santa Maria and Juan Ruiz’s Libro se Buen Amor.

Treating the Zohar as literature was already implicit in Peter Cole’s amazing anthology The Poetry of Kabbalah (Yale University Press, 2014) and in David Stern & Mark Jay Minsky’s Rabbinic Fantasies (1990). However, Fishbane sets it forth as a sustained study of literary criticism.

The book’s topics include: Zohar as a classical work, the role of performance and theatricality in the Zohar, as well as gestures and drama. This drama relies on a magic realism of sheltering trees, astounding cave discoveries, spirit birds, and magical herbs. In each of these, Fishbane analyses structural flow, rhetorical devices, and time sequence. He also used the method of narrative ethics to explain the role of ethics in the Zohar in which the ethic comes from the narrative and not from Kabbalistic symbolism. The book’s chapters have a clear, and sometimes heavy, didactic element in which he explains the literary term and quotes from literary critics who define the term before applying the terms to the Zohar.

The highlight of the book are the last two chapters correlating the poetics of the Zohar with both Jewish and Christian Spanish literature. He relied on this context earlier in the book when he compares the theatricality of the Zohar to the symbolic importance of gestures in medieval Christian liturgical drama and when he discussed the symbolism of the rose. I do however wonder whether the last chapters should have been placed in the beginning. First, give me the Spanish context and then show how each stylistic trait fits into this context, rather than detailing many stylistic traits and then surprising the reader by showing that is a medieval Spanish style.

Fishbane’s book is limited to the section of the Zohar that scholars colloquially called “guf haZohar.” This section is the product of a few circles of kabbalists working over a period of several decades in the late thirteenth century, possibly as a Castilian fellowship. His analysis does not include the over thirty other parts of the Zoharic corpus including the heihhalot, matnitin, Tikkune Zohar, Sitrei Otiot, or Idra. Fishbane says that he hopes to treat some of these other sections in a possible sequel.

The book deserves big congratulations. It is a well-done important book, a significant piece of scholarship, a game changer in Zohar studies. The book will change the manner in which Zohar will be taught in American universities and in adult education classes. I enjoyed reading it, so will your students. Woe to those who think this book is a mere monograph, happy are those who seen the great value in this book.

  1. Why do you like the Zohar? 

I find the Zohar to be endlessly fascinating, intellectually exciting, aesthetically and spiritually alluring. Like so many others, I have been drawn to this magnetic text since the earliest days of my studies and continue to return to it as a great work that reflects the summit of Jewish spiritual creativity and theological imagination.

There is much depth and beauty in these philosophical texts, but the Zohar speaks to the spiritual and theological yearnings of the poetic soul. Just as those of a certain artistic and spiritual bent turn to poetry instead of the more analytic nature of prose, so too does the Zohar beat with the pulse of spiritual artistry, brushing against the borders of the ineffable and the sublime in religious thought and experience.

2) Where are you differing from prior scholarship on the Zohar as literature?

This book is the first full-scale attempt to study the Zohar through methodologies inspired by literary and aesthetic criticism, notable — in part — as an effort to elucidate the text as a work of literary art. I think it is fair to say that no one has attempted or accomplished this prior to The Art of Mystical Narrative.

To be sure, there have been article-length efforts in this direction, and the work of Yehudah Liebes certainly pioneered the emphasis upon the crucial importance of the story of R. Shimon and his circle as the heart of the Zohar.

However, there is a great difference between work that explores the zoharic story and doing for the Zohar what Alter and Sternberg did for the Hebrew Bible, or what Kugel, Stern, Rubenstein (or Hasan-Rokem, Levinson, and Wimpfheimer) did for rabbinic literature.  I developed a multifaceted literary studies methodology for reading the Zohar and this, I suggest, is the innovative contribution of my work.

3) How does the Zohar compare to the Hebrew literature of its time?

One of the key new contributions of the book is my attempt to locate zoharic narrative within the broader landscape of medieval Iberian fiction and poetry, both Jewish and Christian. I specifically focus on the structural form of the frame-tale as a literary device in this time and place.

Isaac Ibn Sahula (b. 1244) wrote two separate works which embody the twin literary concerns of the Zohar, prose narrative and kabbalah. The first was his rhymed prose narrative, entitled Meshal ha-Kadmoni, and the other an explicitly kabbalistic commentary on the Song of Songs. But other key Jewish works compared in the book that seem similar to the Zohar include the Tahkemoni of Yehudah Al-Harizi and the Sefer Sha’ashuim of Joseph Ibn Zabara.

Though consideration of various thematic and structural criteria, I show how our understanding of the Zohar is enriched by considering it as a literary work that employs techniques and conventions of related contemporary non-mystical texts.

4) How does the Zohar compare to the general literature of its time?

Two non-Jewish parallels that I consider as influences on the Zohar are the Libro de Buen Amor (The Book of Good Love) of Juan Ruiz, and the Cantigas de Santa Maria of King Alfonso X El Sabio. Based on my literary analysis of select passages and parallels in the Zohar, I argue that the Zohar appears to have absorbed key features that were part of the larger folkloric and textual culture of this time and place.

One striking example is the source of the famous zoharic advocating against accepting the pure literalism of the Torah (where the wise are advised to look beneath the garments of Torah, and even within her body to the mystical soul of Torah). The source is the the prologue of Juan Ruiz to the Libro de Buen Amor, wherein the author exhorts his reader not to think that his book, which tells tales of seemingly crude lust and debauchery is truly only about the literal kind of lust that it appears to be. In truth the book is meant to teach figuratively about the mystery of divine love.

Ruiz puts it in the following way (The Art of Mystical Narrative, pp. 400-401):

Do not think that this is a book of foolish nonsense (Non cuidedes que es libro de necio devaneo), and do not take as a joke anything that I recite in it, for, just as good money can be stowed in a worthless purse, so in an ugly-looking book lies wisdom that is not uncomely (assí en feo libro yaze saber non feo).

The fennel seed, on the outside blacker than a cooking pot, is very white inside, whiter than ermine; white meal lies within black covering (blanca farina yaze so negra cobertera); sweet white sugar lies inside the humble sugarcane.

Under the thorn lies the rose (So la espina yaze la rosa), a noble flower; in ugly letters lies the wisdom of a great teacher (en fea letra yaze saber de grand dotor)…, under a bad cloak lies good love (assí so mal tabardo yaze el buen amor).

Because the beginning and root of all good is the Holy Virgin Mary, therefore I, Juan Ruiz, Archpriest of Hita, first of all composed a song about her seven Joys…” (Willis, ed., Juan Ruiz, Libro de Buen Amor, pp. 14–15)

In Chapter 6 (The Art of Mystical Narrative, p. 403), I compare these remarks with the much discussed zoharic passage about literalism and mystical meaning in interpreting the Torah. These include lines such as:

“Those fools, when they see someone in a good-looking garment, look no further”;

“Fools of the world look only at that garment, the story of Torah”; and

“Whoever thinks that the garment is the real Torah and not something else, may his spirit expire! He will have no share in the world that is coming!” (Zohar 3:152a)

5) What is the role of dramatization in the Zohar?

One of my core arguments in the book is that the stories of the Zohar are a kind of dramatic literature. In the process of speaking mystical secrets and encountering one another, the characters enact a near-theatrical mode of expression, performing their deep ambivalence and excitement over the disclosure of hidden matters.

The Zohar depicts performative fictional scenes as the context in which the homiletical mysticism is delivered and received. This dramatic element should be seen in the larger context of medieval frame-narratives—a convention of the intersecting literary worlds into which the Zohar was born.

6) What is the role of gestures?

A key aspect of this performative literature is the varied use of physical gestures to express emotion as well as to mark the rhythm and boundaries of different scenes and moments in the narrative. Such gestures include weeping, prostration, kissing, the raising and laying on of hands, sitting, standing, and walking.

Moshe Barasch studied “the language of gesture” among medieval visual artists— particularly in the paintings of the late thirteenth- and early fourteenth- century Italian master Giotto di Bondone (1266/7–1337). Barasch considered the ways in which medieval painters and sculptors utilized similar types of dramatic gesture that were employed in the Christian mystery plays of the period: forms of physical movement that often had to substitute for the spoken word, given that the majority of audience members would view the performance from a significant distance and without a set stage. This gave rise to a cluster of well-established, even stereotypical, gestures that could be interpreted by the audience from afar. Barasch develops the argument that Giotto is representative of dominant sociocultural views, around the year 1300, regarding the potent meaning of gestures in several intersecting realms of social relations, ritual performance, and literary imagination.

Perhaps most applicable to our present inquiry into the zoharic use of gesture, however, is Barasch’s observation— filtered somewhat through later Renaissance characterizations of Giotto’s work—that what “is striking about Giotto’s gestures is not only the aesthetic quality of variety, but their ability to show the figure’s inner life.”

Gestures in the Zohar frequently signify and dramatize interior emotional states; the authors of the Zohar utilize physical expression in their characters to communicate or reveal some inner thought or feeling that the narrators typically will not articulate in an omniscient fashion.” (86) And consider the following representative passage from the Zohar itself:

“R. Elazar came forth, placed his head between the knees of his father and told the story. R. Shimon became afraid and wept. R. Shimon wept and said: “From what I have heard, I too fear the Holy One blessed be He!” He raised his hands to his head and exclaimed: “How is it that you have merited to see R. Hamnuna Sava, Light of the Torah, face to face, and yet I have not merited it!” He fell on his face and saw [R. Hamnuna] uprooting mountains and lighting candles in the palace of the King Messiah.”(Zohar 1:7b)

7) How does soliloquy, embedded performance, and setting replace narration?

Like other literary dramatists the authors of the Zohar use the rhetorical device of dramatic monologue or soliloquy to convey the interiority of thought and emotion without inserting omniscient narration. More common than hearing a third-person narrator say, “character so-and-so felt or thought…,” a character will erupt in a monologue — much like a Shakespearean soliloquy uttered as audible interior thought — to communicate his own inner process and feeling.

The theatrics of disclosure, relations among the disciples, as well as the rhetoric of reverence for the master—all of these are realized by the narrator through a cluster of compositional techniques, each of which is effected through the use of dramatic monologue and dialogue. As the disciples encounter one another on their pedestrian journeys through the Galilean roads, and even more so, when they come before the master (R. Shimon) to receive the disclosure of kabbalistic wisdom, they exclaim about the overwhelming character of these secrets, the elevating and terrifying power involved in hearing their revelation.

Through the representation of dramatic speech, the zoharic narrators construct character intent; the modalities of monologue and dialogue serve as indirect methods for the authors to convey subtext and the interiority of emotion to the reader. (p57)

8) What is the role of encounters on the road?

Most of the Zohar’s narrative action takes place on the road of the characters’ journey through a fictionalized ancient Galilee in quest of mystical wisdom. Along this path, Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai and his disciples will often encounter a person whom they hastily judge to be a simpleton and devoid of any mystical wisdom that they might receive. This expectation is generally turned on its head in a narrative process that I refer to as the poetics of recognition. This dramatic uncovering of true character locates the Zohar in the literary landscape of its time and place, where non-mystical storytellers also frequently utilize this literary motif.

As we see in the following passage from the Zohar:

“R. Hiyya and R. Yosi were walking in the desert. . . . After a while, they saw a man who was approaching with a load in front of him. R. Hiyya said: “Let’s walk on. Perhaps this man is a Gentile or an ignoramus, and it is forbidden to join with him on the way.” R. Yosi said: “Let’s sit here and see if perhaps he is a great man.”

After a while he passed before them and said: “In roughness of crossing, the cluster of this companionship is essential!9 I know another way—let’s turn away from this one. I must tell you so that I am not guilty before you, so that I do not violate what is written (Lev. 19:14): Before the blind you shall not place a stumbling block. For you are like blind men on the road, and you shouldn’t endanger your lives.” R. Yosi said: “Blessed is the Compassionate One that we waited here!” (Zohar 2:49a–49b)

In this instance, R. Hiyya’s initial skepticism is proven to be hasty and inaccurate, for the mysterious stranger turns out to be a wise man who is also able to save the mystical companions from danger on the road. As the text continues in the voice of R. Yosi:

“Didn’t I tell you that he is a great man?”

He opened and said (Prov. 3:13): “Happy is the person who finds wisdom, the person who attains understanding. Happy is the person who finds wisdom—like me, who found you and came to know a word of wisdom from you.

The person who attains understanding— like me, who waited for you, to join with you. This is the person for whom the Holy One blessed be He prepares, on the road, the face of Shekhinah. About this it is written (Prov. 4:18): The path of the righteous is like gleaming light, shining ever brighter until full day.”

9) What is the role of the rose in the Zohar? How does that compare to medieval literature?

The rose in the Zohar typically symbolizes Shekhinah, the tenth of the divine sefirot. In the Zohar characters encounter roses in their travels, leading to theological reflections. In the book, I discuss evocative comparative correlations to the symbolism of the rose in broader medieval literature, including in the class work, Roman de la Rose. One textual case from the Zohar is particularly instructive (Art of Mystical Narrative, p. 173):

He who wanders among the roses. (Song 2:!6) Just as this rose is red and its waters are white, so too does the Holy One blessed be He conduct His world from the Attribute of Judgment to the Attribute of Compassion. And it is written (Is. 1:18): If your sins are like crimson, they can turn white as snow.

Abba was walking along the road, and with him was R. Yizḥaq. As they were walking, they happened upon some roses. Abba took one in his hands and walked on. R. Yosi met them, and said: “Surely Shekhinah is here, and I see that what is in R. Abba’s hands [is there] to teach great wisdom. For I know that R. Abba did not take this [rose] but for to show wisdom.” Abba said: “Sit, my son. Sit.” They sat. R. Abba inhaled the smell from that rose and said: “Surely the world’s existence depends upon scent! For we have seen that the soul’s existence [also] depends upon scent. And this [is the reason for the inhalation of the aroma of ] the myrtle [leaves] at the departure of Shabbat.”

He opened and said (Song 2:16): “My beloved is mine, and I am his—he who wanders among the roses. Who caused it to be that I am my beloved’s and that my beloved is mine? It is because He conducts His world through roses.

Just as the rose has a scent—it is red, and when it is distilled it turns to white, and still its scent never alters—so too does the Holy One blessed be He conduct His world in this way. For was this not the case, the sinner could not endure. The sinner is called ‘red,’ as it is said (Is. 1:18): If your sins are like crimson, they can turn white as snow.” (Zohar 2:20a)

As I note in my analysis of this passage:

The characters who are presented in this passage serve to dramatize the process of metaphysical discovery within the structures and forms of the physical realm—through their interaction and speech they theatricalize the hermeneutical claims made in a homiletical voice on either side of the narrative piece. In this respect, the con- tents of the fiction and the exegesis are clearly integrated; R. Abba’s reflection on the cosmic meaning latent in the color and aroma of the rose fleshes out and clarifies the interpretive argument.

10) How is Zohar magical realism and personified nature?

Supernatural happenings in the world are represented as though they are perfectly normal and even realistic phenomena. At the very least, however, the authors of the Zohar believed that the world inhabited by R. Shimon and his disciples was an enchanted one — where, for example, a character wandering in the desert happens upon a gargantuan tree with a cave opening at its base. This opening reveals steps leading into a mysterious underworld overseen by a magical guardian, leading into a pathway of countless trees where souls fly on their way to the Garden of Eden.

The Zohar is indeed populated with such supernatural realia- magic, magic birds, especially eagles, spirit guides, magic herbs, creating an ambience of enchanted and mysterious spirituality and otherworldly sensation

Encounters with nature play a key role in the literary and mystical imagination of the zoharic authors. For the Zohar, the natural elements of the earthly realm refract higher mysteries about Divinity, and the wandering movement of the text is situated in the outdoor setting of the natural world.

For example, R. Shimon and his disciples are located beneath the shade of a tree on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and through a series of associations this mundane experience leads to rumination upon the supernal tree of life in the Divine Garden of Eden, to a sefirah represented by the royal pavilion (Apiryon) built by King Solomon from the cedars of Lebanon. Nature functions as a symbolic allusion to the supernatural; the physical points the mystic to the metaphysical.

11) What is the tension of road/cave or quests/stability?

The narratives of the Zohar are marked by the ongoing quest of the road, by the recurrent motif of mobility. This is interspersed with moments of pause and stillness, whether sitting in a field to pray or study, or entering a cave only to discover a hidden mystical manuscript therein.

In some cases, this newly discovered manuscript is imbued with heavenly magic and secrecy, erupting into fire and flying away from their hands upon reading it.

We also see several scenes where the zoharic characters stop for the night in a roadside inn — a phenomenon that was relatively widespread in late thirteenth century Spain, especially in light of recent royal edicts to provide such lodging to travelers. These nights spent at an inn also often prove to be times of mystical discovery in the depths of the night.

12)   If this is the Zohar, then why read Zohar instead of Lord of Rings, Harry Potter, or Game of Thrones?

Certainly, it is a unique literary world unto itself, which is not reducible to these later instances of fantastic storytelling. But it does share certain features with the magical classics you mention here, the creation of a paranormal universe in which characters are transported beyond the bounds of our normal expectations within natural law.

13)      How is forgiveness portrayed? How is it a form of narrative ethics?

The Zohar gives the theme of idealized forgiveness is given a prominent place. The authors of the Zohar tell the tale of a character who experiences miraculous divine intervention, saving his life, because of his high virtue in always forgiving others for any wrong they may have committed against him. The Zohar compares this character to the biblical persona of Joseph who was called a righteous man precisely because of his ability to forgive his brothers for the grievous wrong they committed against him. Through this exemplum narrative, the reader of the text is guided toward the virtue of radical empathy and love, modalities of artistic evocation that the philosopher Martha Nussbaum has shown to be the foundations of moral instruction. In the language of the Zohar (The Art of Mystical Narrative, pp. 287-290):

“Rabbi Abba was sitting at the gateway of the gate of Lod. He saw a man come and sit in a dugout in a mound of earth. He was weary from the road, so he sat and fell asleep there. Meanwhile, [Rabbi Abba] saw a snake that was moving toward [the man].

Out came a honey badger, oozing an excretion, and killed it. When the man awoke, he saw that snake dead before him. He stood up, just as that dugout collapsed into the depths below, and he was saved.

Rabbi Abba came forward to him and said: “Tell me what you do, for behold the Holy Blessed One has performed these two miracles for you! It wasn’t for nothing !” The man said to him: “All my days, no person in the world ever did me evil without my reconciling with him and forgiving him.

And if I could not reconcile with him, I would not climb into bed until I forgave him and all those who hurt me. All of my days I never cared about the evil that they did to me. Not only that, but from that day on, I strive to do good to them.”

Rabbi Abba wept and said: “The deeds of this one are even greater than those of Joseph! As for Joseph, they were surely his brothers, and he had to have compassion for them. But what this one has done is greater than Joseph! It is fitting that the Holy Blessed One performs miracle upon miracle for him!” (Zohar 1:201b)

Narrative ethics is a mode of discourse in which a moral ideal is portrayed through story, often serving to stir understanding and compassion in the reader, helping her to realize how she ought to behave. As Martha Nussbaum has argued, art holds the power to evoke such ethical guidance in a way that philosophical analysis cannot. Art may move us to regard our fellow human beings with love and empathy. The Zohar too partakes of this widespread genre, and it is through its storytelling that the mystics often convey their highest moral ideals — conceptions of value and virtue that are, for them anyway, inextricable from mystical theology.

14)      How is hospitality portrayed?

Hospitality is a revered virtue, dramatized in the Zohar through exemplary narratives and then textured with homilies of mystical-moral midrash. In one remarkable instance (The Art of Mystical Narrative, pp. 317-321), which is actually the source of our contemporary use of the term ushpizin (guests) for the sukkah, the Zohar tells the story of R. Hamnuna Sava who would invoke the presence of the divine sefirot into his sukkah.

Rav Hamnuna Sava, when he would enter the sukkah, he would rejoice and stand inside at the opening, and say: ‘Let us invite the Guests!’ He would set the table, stand on his feet, recite a blessing, and say: In sukkot you shall dwell, O seven days. Sit, exalted Guests, sit! Sit, Guests of faith, sit!

He would raise his hands in joy and say: ‘Happy is our portion, happy is the portion of Israel!’ For YHVH’s portion is His people, Jacob His own allotment (Deut. 32:9). Then he would sit.” (Zohar 3:103b)

The narrator adds, however, that it is imperative that one who invites these divine forces into his sukkah must give their portion of physical food to the actual human poor in his community, that he must provide a place for the hungry at his own sukkah table. The impoverished person here serves as the embodied form of divine presence, and the Zohar is clear that such charity and hospitality is necessary for the divine guests to remain in his sukkah.

For one who has a portion in the holy seed sits in the shade of faith to receive guests; to rejoice in this world and in the world that is coming. Nevertheless, he must bring joy to the poor. And what is the reason for this? Because the portion of those Guests whom he has invited belongs to the poor.

And he who sits in this shade of faith, inviting those supernal Guests, Guests of Faith, but doesn’t give [the poor] their portion, [the supernal Guests] all get up and leave him, saying (Prov. 23:6): Do not eat the bread of a stingy man, do not crave his delicacies.

It follows that the table he has set is his own, and not that of the Holy One blessed be He. About him it is written (Malachi 2:3): I will strew dung upon your faces, the dung of your festivals. Your festivals, and not My festivals. Woe to that person when those Guests of Faith get up from his table!” (Zohar 3:103b–104a)


Comments are closed.