Mystical Resistance

Uncovering the Zohar's Conversations with Christianity

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Ellen D. Haskell
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , August
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Zohar, the central text of the medieval Jewish kabbalistic tradition, took shape in the second half of the thirteenth century in northern Spain, and was active in the religious polemics between Christianity and Judaism during that era. The Reconquista, and the increasing centralization of Church authority after the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, led to increasing pressure on the Jewish community to convert to Christianity in the second half of the thirteenth century. The Jewish community responded to these missionary efforts with its own corpus of polemical works seeking to strengthen the resistance of Jews to conversion.

In Mystical Resistance: Uncovering the Zohar’s Conversations with Christianity, author Ellen D. Haskell frames her discussion of the Zohar’s participation in these polemics in the context of recent theoretical studies about resistance to coercion by subordinate groups. Many aspects of the Zohar’s composition—its use of Aramaic, its pseudoepigraphic attribution to a rabbi of the second century and constant allusions to secrecy and symbolic language—are seen as part of the strategy to safeguard its subversive ideas from the prying eyes of the Christian authorities. While these strategies were helpful in this regard, there were other considerations at work, including making claims for the authority of antiquity, the aura of esotericism, and elitism. These priorities are not mutually exclusive and may have reinforced each other at times, but the relative weight of each priority needs more consideration.

Following an Introduction that lays out the historical context and theoretical background, there are five chapters that analyze aspects of this theme through specific individuals and symbols. The first chapter shows how the matriarch Rachel was reinvented in the Zohar in order to counter claims made about Jesus and the Passion. The chapter focuses on Rachel’s death as a refutation of Jesus’s status as Messiah and divinity. Rachel, as a feminine figure, also raised questions about symbols and their gender.

The second chapter discusses more traditional symbols of the duality between the realm of the holy—which represented Judaism—and the “Other Side [Sitra Achra]”: the realm of the unholy and demonic, seen as the world of Christianity. The chapter explores the realm of the “Other Side” that was constantly attempting to subvert and destroy the realm of holiness. The Zohar offers many discussions about the ongoing war between the Holy Side and the Other Side, that is an integral part of sacred history beginning with the events surrounding the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden and the beginnings of human history. The Christian Church and its attempts to subvert Judaism was another incarnation of the eternal battle between the holy and the impure.

The third and fourth chapters concentrate on the figure of Balaam as he is presented in the rabbinic tradition and its reinterpretation in the Zohar. The Talmudic rabbis made mockery of Balaam as an explicit refutation of the claims about Jesus made by the New Testament and Christians. It is surely no accident that the rabbis claim that Jesus died at the age of thirty-three [B. Sanhedrin, 106b]. The Zoharic discussions build on familiar ground in their use of Balaam, extending tropes that would have been familiar to their audiences.

The fifth chapter covers the impact of public Christian art, particularly the tympani—sculptures surrounding the portals and fronts of churches—that were visible to passersby, unlike the art in the interior of churches. The tympani became popular with the Romanesque style of architecture and further elaborated in the following Gothic style. Photographs of tympani featured in this book from churches of this time and place illustrate and clarify the concepts analyzed. There have been other studies of Jewish reactions to Christian art in the medieval period, but the relation of this art to kabbalistic concepts in this chapter is innovative.

It would have been helpful if the chapters relating to the biblical figures had offered a fuller discussion of the rabbinic sources that authors of the Zohar were familiar with and used as building blocks in their discussions. Some of these sources are mentioned and discussed in the notes, but inclusion in the body of the text would have helped clarify the Jewish context—particularly for the non-specialist. Similarly, there are a number of extended discussions of particular ideas in the notes that would have enriched the analysis had they been inserted into the main text. These small reservations aside, this monograph adds to our knowledge of the role played by the kabbalists, and brings new methodological perspectives to bear in the area of medieval Jewish-Christian relations.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Morris M. Faierstein is a research associate at the Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Maryland.

Date of Review: 
March 30, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ellen D. Haskell is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Director of Jewish Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.


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