Divine and Demonic inn the Poetic Mythology of the Zohar

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Nathaniel Berman
IJS Studies in Judaica
  • Boston, MA: 
    , October
     326 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Zohar, in digging into the primordiality of the divine, tarries with a scandalous problem that is the germ for its creativity. The infinite divine, in transcending all bounds, cannot be thought of as a “god.” Daringly, the Zohar’s accounts of cosmogenesis serve as accounts of theogenesis as well, as the divine becomes a self in the process of creating a world. The plenitude of the divine must self-limit to allow for a bounded deity that can be related to by the cosmos. The question the reader is left with is: what is left out? What is the excess of the deity, that is both rejected but also necessary, for god to come to be?

In his recent monograph Divine and Demonic in the Poetic Mythology of the Zohar, Nathaniel Berman draws our attention to this excess. The book serves as a robust counter salvo on a number of fronts in the study of Kabbalah and mysticism in general. While many scholars of the Zohar have attended to its literary features, the driving thrust of its study has still tried to corral its linguistic efflorescence into a theological framework, embodying an ideology that can be explicated.

Berman’s book insists that the best way to read the Zohar is to see it as a work of literature and that the best way to read the poetics of the Zohar is as such—as poetry, with all of its attendant ambiguity and polysemy. It is with this approach that we can best attend to the Zohar’s mystical project. Berman writes, “Just as the distinctive Zoharic rhetoric yields an ontology, so does its distinctive ontology require a distinctive set of rhetorical techniques, defying conventional linguistic expectations” (34). To speak of an infinite object and the way it expresses itself in the cosmos requires certain poetic techniques that can both capture that emergence and mark its exceeding of all attempts to define.
Indeed, Berman shows that the emanative process that the Zohar describes is homologous with the very working of language itself. Berman writes: “The emergence of form from a sifting of the inchoate is just as defiant of experience and language as the emergence of the inchoate from plenitude” (164). In the divine’s becoming, it writes itself into being. In a famous Zoharic passage, the deity-in-process avails itself of the botsina de-kardenuta, a “primordial cosmic stylus” to begin the process of self-definition from the indifference of the infinite. Analyzing these narratives of theogenesis, Berman underscores the prosopopoeia, the forming of personae, that is structural to the Zohar’s discourses of becoming, typified most commonly in the sefirotic emanations. These are attempts to form a coherent object out of that which exceeds all description; the hyper-plenitude of the divine co-emerges with a failure of representation.

Berman identifies catachresis, the “coupling of two realities that seem incapable of coupling” (140), as another central rhetorical feature in the Zoharic corpus, which disproves how it is only literature that is able to best express an account of the infinite. In catachresis, we encounter the conjunction of seemingly unfit pairs, bespeaking the freedom of language, the infinite store of permutations it entails. The Zohar is replete with flamboyant imagery that beggars belief and challenges the reader to reimagine how an infinite object would seem. Catachresis, in its excess of association, brings together unrelated elements  to describe something monstrous. It is on this point especially that this book is a much-needed correction. Discourses of mysticism, in treating the unity of being or the transcendence of the infinite, tend to favor resolution and harmony, with all difference dissolving into light. Berman finds in Zoharic literature a much more rigorous discourse of the infinite, one which refuses to deny the darkness. And it is here, in closing, that we arrive at the key to the book and the question with which we began this review: How do we relate to the darkness, realizing that it, too, came from God?

For the divine self to emerge necessitates the excision of that which it is not. This is the excess which the Zohar dares to treat and which Berman insists we do not forget. In analyzing the ambivalent process of self-becoming, Berman applies the insights of Julia Kristeva, from her work The Powers of Horror (Le Seuil, 1980). Mythically speaking, what is seen as alien to the self is not merely left out, but is rather expelled, perceived as intolerable and threatening to its integrity. This is the construction of the Sitra Achra, “the Other Side” that is a perverse mirror of the divine self. This uncanniness explains the fallen, exilic nature of existence, as, scandalously, the divine and the demonic are constantly intertwined. Berman insightfully draws the parallel between the ontology of struggle the Zohar describes with the human experience of confusion. Strikingly, subjectivity is conflicted not because of an error in judgment, but rather as an apt reflection of a confused world (229).

Since it is only through the expulsion of the other that the self can come to form, the two share an inextricable connection. “The divine realm . . . can only be constituted through engagement with the abyss” (256). This is the dark secret of the account of the infinite, which encompasses all: the divine must share an origin with the demonic. And it is this intimacy and likeness that lays the ground for redemption. It is the instantiation of difference, of the Other as such, that initiated the cosmos and divine as we know them. However, that coming-into-being, in becoming something, necessitated an opposition, as the bounds of identity came under threat in confronting difference.

It is here that Berman’s book works not only as a lucid exegesis of Zoharic literature, but also as a constructive work of ontological psychoanalysis, of even mystical politics. He writes that it is only in acknowledging the familiarity between the self and the other, between the demonic and the divine, that one can touch the infinite—that is, the open space that precedes and exceeds definition. As he writes “the Self sees the infinite Other not as a monster to be conquered but as sharing its own primordial source” (270), Berman shows, in his reading, that while the Zohar is best understood as a work of radical poetry, it yields insight of real philosophical and existential import, not merely in the intellectual history of this famously challenging corpus, but for those who insist on attending to that which we are asked to ignore.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joshua Schwartz is an Independent Scholar and rabbi in Toronto.

Date of Review: 
November 19, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nathaniel Berman is Chair in Religious Studies at Brown University.


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