A Journey into the Zohar: Nathan Wolski

Nathan Wolski, who gained his PhD in Aboriginal Archaeology from the University of Melbourne in 2000, sets out to give an introduction to the Zohar as a great work of literature. He translated Melila Hellner-Eshed’s wonderful work on the Zohar into English and he wants to capture some of that literary drama of the mystical adventure for the novice reader of the Zohar. This book is, as the title tells us, to help us Journey into the Zohar.

From his own blurb.

The crowning work of medieval Kabbalah, the Zohar is unlike any other work in the Jewish canon. Written in Aramaic, the Zohar contains complex mystical exegesis as well as a delightful epic narrative about the Companions—a group of sages who wander through second-century Israel discussing the Torah while encountering children, donkey drivers, and other surprising figures who reveal profound mysteries to them. Nathan Wolski offers original translations of episodes involving this mystical fellowship and goes on to provide a sustained reading of each. With particular emphasis on the literary and performative dimensions of the composition, Wolski takes the reader on a journey through the central themes and motifs of the zoharic world: kabbalistic hermeneutics, the structure of divinity, the nature of the soul, and, above all, the experiential core of the Zohar—the desire to be saturated and intoxicated with the flowing fluids of divinity. A Journey into the Zohar opens the mysterious, wondrous, and at times bewildering universe of one of the masterpieces of world mystical literature to a wider community of scholars, students, and general readers alike.

His method is to translate a long passage of the Zohar at the start of each of the ten chapters and then free associate similar passages in the Zohar, in midrash, and in mystical literature. These additional passages of the Zohar are not really explained, at least not enough for a reader like me to understand.

In a chapter on “the world of separation” he introduces the role of Neo-Platonism and Plotinus. In a chapter on secrets, he introduces Gnosticism. In other chapters, he freely contextualizes Zohar in Spanish love poetry, and Maimonidean thought, a passage on midnight in the Zohar leads to a discussion of the Islamic mystical poetry of Ibn Arabi and Rumi, a Chain of Being passage leads to a discussion of in ibn Gabirol, and he accepts Fritz Baer’s presentation of the dangers of Averroism.

Wolski talks of the great poetics of the Zohar but does not actually show any. As an English teacher that I knew used to say “show me don’t tell me.” He claims the book has great literary technique but he only shows a little drama such as the bold and delayed entrance of the protagonist of a passage. He claims that the book requires great detective work to catch all the explicit and not so explicit allusions but he does not show any rather he settles for giving a broad cultural context. He does not try to explicate and pin down any proximal sources or allusions. Does the book have greater literary merit than Alfonso X of Castile’s magical tales or the tales in Yehudah Al-Harizi’s Takhkemoni? We cannot know from this volume.

At points he is not sure if he is writing an introduction to a medieval work or offering a 21st century presentation.For examples, he writes that even if we don’t relate to Plotinus or Zohar metaphysics, nevertheless the ideas still resonate with the new age. Or even if don’t relate to Maimonides or Zohar on providence, here is a piece of Yeshaya Leibowitz to ponder. It seems like the book is an outgrowth of an adult education course, or a non-critical undergraduate course on translations of Zohar passages.

The translations in the volume are predominately from Book III of the Zohar, the section Matt wont get to for a while. The grapevine tells me that Wolski will be translating Midrash Ha-Neelam of the Pritzker Zohar, maybe he will also have his hand in volume III.

The book reminds me of the 1940’s books on Maimonides that discussed Plato, Aristotle, Saadyah, Ralbag, and Spinoza and then they discussed the role of rationality in Judaism. The goal was not to pin down what Maimonides’ position was by comparison to Farabi and ibn Sina, rather to explain the reader the Maimonidean project of rationality. Those of you with less background than I, please let me know if you find this book clear or useful for an introductory course.

In the meantime- here is a complete copy of the book in pdf to download, he has a fan who uploaded it in Croatia.

One response to “A Journey into the Zohar: Nathan Wolski

  1. I just got to spend some time with this book today. You’re analysis is spot-on; I would not recommend it for an intro. course. Though you said it in other words it should be said outright that the book rambles and uses too many adverbs and adjectives (“astoundingly”, “dramatically”, etc.) to claim rather than underscore.

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