Poetics of the Zohar

Poetics of the Zohar

Dr. Eitan Fishbane of Teaneck talks about his new poems and their old roots

Dr. Eitan Fishbane and his new poetry collection. He will discuss it online on October 19.
Dr. Eitan Fishbane and his new poetry collection. He will discuss it online on October 19.

When last we checked in with Dr. Eitan Fishbane of Teaneck, an associate professor of Jewish thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary, it was after the publication of “The Art of Mystical Narrative: A Poetics of the Zohar,” a 500-page work situating the classic Kabbalistic text in the context of the literary culture of medieval Spain.

In his latest volume, “Embers of Pilgrimage,” published by Panui Publications, Dr. Fishbane take a more personal turn, bringing a love of poetry that began early in life to the printed page with his original poems. Some date back 25 years or more, he said, but most were written in work-at-home covid-era 2020 and 2021.

As a freshman at Brandeis in 1993, Dr. Fishbane encountered two formative teachers. One was Rabbi Dr. Arthur Green, the scholar of Jewish mysticism who introduced him to the Zohar. The other was Dr. John Burt, a professor of English, the literary executor for poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren, and an accomplished poet in his own right.

Together, these two illuminating encounters with literature “grew into an interest and fascination in the deep similarities between mystical and poetic creativity,” Dr. Fishbane said.

Professionally, he followed Rabbi Green, with whom he studied for his doctorate in Jewish mysticism, even as Dr. Burt’s insights into literature imbued his Zohar scholarship. With “Embers of Pilgrimage,” Dr. Fishbane has reversed the polarity, imbuing Dr. Burt’s realm of poetry with imagery from the Zohar and other Jewish mystical works.

“On the one hand, the poetry is accessible,” Dr. Fishbane said. “On the other hand, there are a lot of subsurface elements that not everyone would necessarily get at first glance. Partially for that reason I ended up including the end notes, which kind of gesture toward what some of those lines mean that might seem enigmatic to someone who wasn’t familiar with mystical literature.”

Where the Zohar ostensibly is about ancient rabbis traveling the Land of Israel, discussing Torah, and occasionally meeting interesting strangers, the topics of Dr. Fishbane’s poems are, ostensibly at least, less exotic.

“There’s a lot in there that’s about love and loss and family and friendship and fatherhood; about youth and coming to middle age and aging; about America and elements of the beauty of the natural world,” he said. All of this intertwined, of course, with “Jewish themes and elements of Jewish identity exploration as well.

“There are a couple of examples in the book of exploring images of divine gender and interdivine eros and sexuality” — prominent themes in the Zohar — “and then also seeing that refracted in the very human, finite, mortal experience of being a son, being a father, being a husband and partner.”

Dr. Fishbane continues to explore the Zohar; he has begun work on “what will hopefully be a sequel to ‘The Art of Mystical Narrative,’ which will be on the Zohar’s mystical poetry.

“One of the strong elements in the Zohar is the way in which its reflections about God are fashioned with an intense and vivid lyricism. One of the reasons why the Zohar has been so attractive to readers for centuries really is its theological, mystical poetry, its use of imagery and metaphor, and the music of its Aramaic.

“I would characterize it more as a kind of prose poetry, as there was such a thing as verse poetry among the Jews in the Middle Ages. What makes the Zohar poetry, and what draws me to it in that way, is its ability to evoke that kind of feeling and thought that can’t be fully said in a rational way or in a prose way. The same way that a certain type of painting or a certain type of poetry feels, it captures the ineffable, the mysterious dimension of existence, what can’t be fully expressed in words — that’s part of what the Zohar does, that’s one of the powerful things it has in common with many examples of poetry.”

Similarly, he said, “‘Embers’ tries to bridge the dimensions of what is deeply embodied in human experience and what is unsayable.”

When: Tuesday, October 19, 1 p.m.

What: Mysticism and poetry book talk by Dr. Eitan Fishbane

Where: Online, at MyJewishLearning. Register at http://bit.ly/MJLembers

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