- A River Flows From Eden: The Language of Mystical Experience in the Zohar
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 [End Page 197] 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...