Once upon a time, a man was wandering in the desert when he came upon a gargantuan tree. At the foot of the tree he found a cave.
Venturing into the cave, he found a pathway that led down. He forged ahead and went lower, until he arrived at a doorway. There he found a mysterious stranger holding a staff.
“On this path, the spirits of the righteous travel on their way to enter the Garden of Eden,” the stranger told the man.
The man was Rabbi Yossi. The stranger is left unnamed and unknowable. The story is told in the Zohar — the “Book of Splendor” often described as the central book of the Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism but generally left unread.
What is this tale doing in a book that often presents itself as a dense commentary on the Torah? And what is the meaning of the tale for the Zohar’s author? Or authors?
These are among the questions Dr. Eitan Fishbane of Teaneck sets out to answer in his new book, “The Art of Mystical Narrative: A Poetics of the Zohar,” which has just been published by the University of Oxford Press and will launch at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in Manhattan on November 27. (See box.)
Dr. Fishbane traces the roots of his book to his freshman year at Brandeis. In one formative course, he studied major American poets, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. In another, he studied works of Jewish mysticism with Arthur Green. Together, these two illuminating encounters with literature “grew into an interest and fascination in the deep similarities between mystical and poetic creativity,” he said.
He found in both the poets and the mystics “a drive to capture the mysterious, almost ineffable dimension of being and feeling, the sense that this world and all of life, all of existence, is alive with pulsating mystery, an expression of the Divine revealed in this world,” he said.
For most American Jews, the Zohar is far less familiar than 19th century American poetry. Dr. Fishbane explains that “it seeks to uncover the spiritual depths of Divine light that the mystics believe hovers beneath the surface of perception in our world and in Torah. The mystics of the Zohar constantly speak of releasing the light of the mysteries of the secrets of the Torah that are nothing less than the inner gates of Divine reality.”
Some of that happens in the manner of classic Torah interpretation. “Huge amounts of the text are in the form of a kind of midrash,” Dr. Fishbane said. “It’s modeled on ancient midrashic forms, speaking about the mystical secrets of the universe and of God as the kabbalists understood them.”
But that is interspersed “with what some have called the great epic tale, or at least the episodic tale, of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his disciples wandering about the ancient Galilee in quest of mystical wisdom.” The Zohar represents itself as the story of Rabbi Bar Yochai, who lived in the second century, “but modern scholarship has shown that the Zohar was actually written by late 13th and early 14th century Castilian Jewish mystics and kabbalists who essentially invented and reimagined the figure of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai to become this master kabalistic sage.”
The result, Dr. Fishbane says, is “one of the greatest works of Jewish fiction to ever emerge.”
As fiction goes, the story of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai gets high marks for creativity, but falls a bit short when it comes to plotting.
“You have this relatively episodic and fragmentary story of the great sage and his disciples wandering about the ancient Galilee, and then they’ll pause to give a mystical midrashic discourse,” he said. “Or they’ll encounter a stranger along the way who will often appear to be a simpleton of some sort or other, such as a wandering donkey driver, who they’ll at first assume is not necessarily worth their time, but then they’ll discover this seeming simpleton is actually one of the greatest mystical sages. Then that character will go on to deliver a mystical midrashic discourse.”
Earlier scholarship on the Zohar has focused on analyzing its doctrines and the history of its composition. Dr. Fishbane’s work is groundbreaking because it looks instead at questions of storytelling and narrative.
He contextualizes the storytelling in the Zohar and in the larger genre of Jewish literature of its time. Framing narratives of the wandering sages, which seem innovative compared to earlier classic Jewish texts like the Talmud and Midrash, turn out to have antecedents in both Jewish and non-Jewish contemporary literature.
As for the story of the cave beneath the tree — Dr. Fishbane discusses it in a chapter he devotes to magical realism and the fantastic in the Zohar, “the ways in which the Zohar narrates and represents the fluidity between the natural and the supernatural in the experience of the human characters.” He compares that fluidity to what readers find in the work of Gabriel García Márquez.
Another chapter looks at the ethical implications of the narratives. “The virtue of forgiveness, the restraint of anger, compassion for the poor are represented through the fiction of the Zohar,” Dr. Fishbane said.
Dr. Fishbane said the study of Zohar and other kabbalistic texts “has had a decisive and powerful impact on my own spiritual life. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m a kabbalist by any stretch of the imagination, but I would say the texts and ideas I’ve spent so long studying in academic contexts have absolutely impacted my own personal and theological language. There is quite a bit in the Zohar and related literature that I think is deeply moving to us in the contemporary spiritual moment.”
One example: “The idea that God is not necessarily a personified, kingly judge in the highest heavens, but a dynamic force of life that courses like a river of energy through all of the universe, and which manifests to me in my own particular ways as a Jew who seeks to live the life of the mitzvot. I find the imagery of the Zohar moving. I wouldn’t necessarily subscribe to it in the exact way the kabbalists understand it, but it certainly has inspired me to think differently about faith and about God and about contemporary spirituality.”
On a theological level, he said, “the great resounding voice of Divinity is expressed through the brilliant creativity of the great minds and writers and teachers in each generation.” Studying the Zohar “is a way we reclaim the great heritage of the Jewish people and hear the voices of those great spiritual masters and teachers of old. We thereby once again are able to hear the resonant and Divine voice singing through the ages of the Jewish people, and are able to behold the great light of Divine revelation as it manifests through the words of the sages of Judaism.”
What: The Art of Mystical Narrative: A Zohar Symposium
Where: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 3080 Broadway, Manhattan
When: Tuesday, November 27, 7:30 to 9 p.m.
How much: Free, but advance registration required at jtsa.edu/mystical-narrative