The Art of Mystical Narrative

A Poetics of the Zohar

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Eitan P. Fishbane
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , December
     536 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The timing of this literary analysis of the Zohar, a 13th to 14th-century Iberian canonical text of Jewish mysticism, could not have been more propitious since this book was published in the same year that Stanford University Press published Daniel Matt’s monumental nine volume The Zohar: Pritzker Edition, the most comprehensive English translation ever available. Eitan P. Fishbane’s book, The Art of Mystical Narrative: A Poetics of the Zohar, relies strongly on Matt’s translation while also offering the author’s own translations from the Aramaic original. And it might be fair to state that the considerable value of Fishbane’s text depends on a reader’s familiarity with some portion of Matt’s heavily annotated scholarly translation. For readers completely unfamiliar with any of the key ideas comprising Jewish mysticism, these are not books for beginners. Matt himself compiled a concise introductory text of small portions of the key texts of the Jewish mystical tradition (including Zohar portions sans scholarly annotations) that was published as the Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism (HarperCollins, 1995).

The Zohar, the object of a lifelong scholarly devotion by both Fishbane and Matt, is a work of enormous religious and literary importance to contemporary readers worldwide. Written some seven centuries ago in Aramaic by multiple obscure authors in a variety of literary forms, it has been interpreted as a spiritual guidebook to various schools of orthodox as well as unorthodox Judaism, has served as the basis for various “New Age” and theosophical practices, and has inspired a variety of modern novelists and poets interested in mining its sometimes surrealistic imagery and apocalyptically poetic parables. Scholars with a comparative religions perspective have written copiously about possible parallels operating between ideas in this medieval Jewish mystical masterwork common to key Islamic Sufi texts, as well as Christian metaphysical poetry.

Fishbane tackles the Zohar through the perspective of a literary critic particularly sensitive to what the Zohar reveals about the poetic art of sacred Jewish storytelling. His book, on one level, is a scholarly celebration of “the allure of its [Zohar’s] imaginative, lyrical, and exegetical craft” (4). He is a tireless searcher for the kinds of artistic techniques that catalyze the vividly dramatic and theologically poetic passages of this extraordinarily complex work. Perhaps the critic Robert Alter, the author of The Art of Biblical Narrative (1981, Basic Books), largely inspired Fishbane to analyze the Zohar in terms of literary techniques. Whatever the sources of his inspiration, Fishbane’s approach opens up a variety of invaluable ways to read the Zohar.

Central to Fishbane’s zoharic analysis is the concept of the “frame-story,” a story embedded within a story. Put simply: the Zohar is a mammoth fictional narration about spiritual wanderers in an imaginary second century CE who come under the spell of a divinely inspired rabbi, Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai. The rabbi—a prolific storyteller—and fellow wanderers come across a variety of archetypal figures that are familiar to readers of world literature and folklore. There are simpletons who turn out to be sages, children mouthing the wisdom of aged rabbis, and talking animals. And there are archetypal landscapes: mysterious caves and pastoral fields holding sparks of divine energy and wisdom. Most significantly, the Zohar’s writing offers plentiful examples of transformation motifs where images of everyday “real life” suddenly metamorphize into what Fishbane astutely labels as “magical realism,” making keen reference to contemporary Latin American novelists, like Gabriel Marquez, who have been categorized under that label. Yet as that term of “magical realism” paradoxically indicates, there is an ineffable gap, a discontinuity between quotidian reality and magical (or sacred) reality. The zoharic authors constantly proclaim that they are disclosing God’s deepest secrets through their poetic storytelling, but as much as the zoharic narratives claim the power of revealing God’s mysteries, they likewise remind its readers that there is a constant concealment of God’s power simultaneously happening. This dialectical push-pull in the wanderers’ stories Fishbane analyzes with meticulous care.

The Art of the Mystical Narrative is one of several pioneering studies taking a literary approach to the Zohar, but I think it is invaluably distinctive in this regard. Although the Zohar is commonly interpreted as overwhelmingly a mystical metaphysical theological story, one highlighting such unorthodox ideas as a feminine side of God, Fishbane also interprets it as a book of ethically didactic tales. His “Narrative Ethics” chapter reveals an often overlooked practical aspect of its stories, one without exotic esoteric flavors but with more pragmatic moral intent.

The one minor shortcoming of Fishbane’s book concerns his curious omission of two major world literary figures who strongly embodied zoharic poetic storytelling: Jorge Luis Borges and Edmond Jabes. Their fiction and poetry might have offered powerful examples of the Zohar’s literary techniques reformulated in ways amplifying Fishbane’s central themes. But it is churlish to demand more from a book that offers such substantial insights into what makes the Zohar an enduring masterpiece of world literature as well as the keystone text of Jewish mysticism.


About the Reviewer(s): 

Norman Weinstein is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
November 30, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Eitan P. Fishbane is Associate Professor of Jewish Thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary. His previous works include As Light Before Dawn: The Inner World of a Medieval Kabbalist (2009).


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