- Book Review Index
A River Flows From Eden: The Language of Mystical Experience in the Zohar, by Melila Hellner-Eshed, trans. Nathan Wolski. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009. 469 pp. $60.00.
A River Flows From Eden is replete with insights and delights. It is without a doubt one of the most engaging books on Jewish mysticism in general, and the Zohar, in particular. Melila Hellner-Eshed is an accomplished scholar of kabbalistic literature and an excellent guide into the intricacies of one of its most challenging works. A River Flows From Eden is truly rewarding for the novice and expert alike.
The book is divided into five parts: a general introduction, followed by sections on “The Zohar’s Heroes,” “The Companions’ Way of Life,” the Zohar’s “Methods of Generating Mystical Experience,” and finally “Mystical Experience in the Zohar.” In the Introduction Hellner-Eshed lays out her game plan. She then discusses basic methodological issues, such as reading strategies for understanding kabbalistic texts and current research on the Zohar. She also offers various definitions of mysticism and the ways they are applicable to her subject. In so doing, she highlights Jess Hollenback’s Mysticism: Experience, Response and Empowerment, and its updating of William James’ classic study on religious experience.
The Zohar is a ponderous, multi-volumed theosophical midrash on the Torah and other texts of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is not a homogenous work, but rather a composite of some two dozen compositions that are frequently interwoven. Hellner-Eshed does not attempt to dissect and analyze all of its parts, instead she focuses on major themes. The title, A River Flows From Eden, is taken from Gen. 3:1. Like a constantly flowing river, this verse courses throughout both the Zohar and Hellner-Eshed’s monograph. It is a multivariate zoharic code that Hellner-Eshed deciphers for the reader: sometimes referring to the intra-Divine realm of the Sefirot and at other times to the protean figure of R. Shimon bar Yohai.
One of Hellner-Eshed’s interesting contentions is that the Zohar is not promoting radically innovative biblical interpretations. Instead, one is presented with creative variations on a theme. To illustrate this point she offers an intriguing analogy: “An artistic form from which it is possible to learn a great deal about the artistry of the zoharic homily is the jazz jam session. . . . Similarly in the art of zoharic midrash: All the companions are familiar with the “theme” of the verse, all must embark on a solo to create a new and innovative homily” (pp. 202–203).
Elsewhere, she associates this imaginative undertaking with the eros of the Song of Songs, in which the lovers create new forms of expression for their passionate longing for each other. “Within the world of the zoharic homily, the Companions expend great effort in attuning themselves to the process of exposing the world of mystery. . . . They do so in order to generate union between the human and the divine, as well as between the masculine and feminine within the divinity” (p. 191). She characterizes this process with the felicitous phrasing: “the grand divine story hidden within the interpreted text.” The union sought by the Zohar’s companions is not merely theosophical and transcendental; instead, its primary focus is with the Torah as a corporeal entity. Hellner-Eshed graphically asserts: “Amid his desire to unite with the body of the Torah, the speaker must find a way to express his love differently, with a new or surprising focus” (p. 195).
Importantly, Hellner-Eshed insists that the ultimate goal of the zoharic enterprise is not to impress the reader with the hermeneutical virtuosity of R. Shimon and his disciples. Rather, the zoharic discourses and stories function as a guide, leading the committed reader on the path of mystical experience. Thus R. Shimon is seen as not only the leader of an ancient circle of Jewish mystics, but the perennial mentor of all subsequent seekers. The reader is thereby invited to join this trans-historical process.
Having studied for years in Jerusalem under the tutelage of Professor Yehuda Liebes, it is not surprising that Hellner-Eshed constantly refers to Liebes’ trenchant analyses of the Zohar. Contrary to Gershom Scholem, who contended that the Zohar was the product of a solitary kabbalist, R. Moses de Leon, Liebes cogently argued that the Zohar bears the imprint of an entire group of late thirteenth-century Spanish mystics. “Liebes even posits the possible historical identity of the teacher upon whom the character Rabbi Shim’on bar Yohai is based: the kabbalist Rabbi Todros Halevi Abulafia” (p. 18). Hellner-Eshed goes on to develop Liebes’ hypothesis in interesting ways. In so doing, she utilizes an insightful essay by another of her mentors, Moshe Idel, who contended that there were two distinct groupings of pre-zoharic kabbalists, a primary elite constituting the Rabbinic leadership of Spain, centered around R. Moses b. Nachman and his successors, and a secondary elite. It is this latter group that was responsible for the Zohar. Hellner-Eshed argues that it is owing to the fact that zoharic mystics did not represent the Rabbinic establishment of the time that they are not depicted as functioning in the formal institutions of the synagogues and study halls. Instead, throughout the Zohar they are portrayed as walking through the countryside—discussing Torah passages and encountering unusual characters along the way. Their somewhat peripheral status afforded them the latitude to inaugurate new forms of Jewish spirituality. For example, they developed nocturnal rituals, such as a special Shavuot nighttime study session, which has since become institutionalized in the tikkun leil Shavuot.
Hellner-Eshed presents another intriguing theory in the final chapter of the book entitled “On Books and Writing.” Therein she suggests that the figure of R. Abba, who is characterized in the Zohar as R. Shimon’s senior disciple, is really a cipher for R. Moses de Leon. In support she offers numerous passages, such as R. Abba being designated as the “scribe” in the seminal Idra Zuta section, which chronicles the death of R. Shimon. R. Abba is also the one who expounds upon the manna, the quintessential, celestial spiritual sustenance. “Rabbi Abba’s exposition about the jar of manna in fact relates to the question of the recording—the rendering into writing—of the world of the Companions and the teacher, a world that inspired the Zohar’s composition” (p. 369).
There is, however, some irony in the effectiveness of Hellner-Eshed’s argumentation. By positing that R. Abba, the designated scribe of the Zohar, is really R. Moses de Leon, she is implicitly supporting Scholem’s theory of de Leon’s authorship of the Zohar. In fact, throughout her book Hellner-Eshed offers numerous, substantial parallels between the writings of de Leon and zoharic passages. Only rarely, and then in passing, does she note similarities between the Zohar and de Leon’s contemporaries, such as R. Joseph Gikatilla or R. Joseph b. Shalom Ashkenazi. Surprisingly, there is not a single reference to the writings of R. Todros b. Joseph Abulafia, even though several of his kabbalistic treatises have been preserved and could have been cited. For example, in Abulafia’s Shaar ha-Razim, ed. M. Oron, pp. 61–63, one finds an extensive discussion of the symbolic significance of nighttime, specifically associating darkness with keter (crown), the highest of the sefirot.
A River Flows From Eden was originally published in Hebrew in 2005. One would be remiss without complementing the translator, Nathan Wolski, on the superb rendering of Hellner-Eshed’s engrossing study and the innumerable, kabbalistic texts that are quoted within. Wolski is a scholar of this literature in his own right and it is a real boon to have a translator, who has true expertise in the kabbalah. Where possible, the book incorporated Daniel Matt’s monumental translation of the Zohar.
In conclusion, there is so much to recommend A River Flows from Eden. By exploring the Zohar’s central themes and modes of expression, Melila Hellner-Eshed has revealed to any reader the beauty and artistry of its mystical heart.
Department of Religion
Wright State University