Tag Archives: Gershom Scholem

Was the Zohar ever a book?

Daniel Abrams, “The Invention of the Zohar as a Book” Kabbalah 19 (2009) 7-142

I just finished a very long (135 pages) rambling article by Daniel Abrams with many topics and looks to be the core of a forthcoming book. The article is a seminal one for Abram’s approach and the vast literature review of the field that it contains will make it required reading in the field.

The Zohar was neither written, nor edited, nor distributed as a book by the various figures who produced the various literary units which were later known by the name Zohar. (10)

The Zohar is not a Book – Nor does it have an author (105)

I have tried to express my theoretical discomfort, indeed a perceived dissonance, concerning published methodologies for evaluating the literary quality and forms of the texts known by the name Zohar. (127)

No satisfactory evidence has yet been offered in the relevant scholarship proving that the zoharic writings were intentionally composed, edited, or copied as a book. Not only can ‘the’ Book of the Zohar not be restored to its full form, but there was no single original moment that is recoverable amidst the disparate writings and unstable text(s). (142)

Abrams claims the  idea of the Zohar as a preexisting book was created in the 16th century by the printers- before that point there were only various unconnected manuscripts of esotericism. The production of the Zohar as ideas, texts, and isolated units, has little to do with consumption of the product as a book. He notes that books of esotericism had continuous reworkings.  Then in  the 16th century there arose the idea of a single book, The Zohar.

He spends much of the article reviewing statements of what this work is, from the 13th century to the 16th century printers to 20th century  and then all 20th and 21st century academic studies on what they thought about the nature of the Zohar as a book and whether they imagined that there was such an original lost book to be recovered

Abrams rejects Scholem’s theory of a single author and he rejects Yehuda Liebes’ theory of circle of Zohar authors- hug haZohar. The Zohar contains variety of styles and diverse literature, hence Abrams is sympathetic to Moshe Idel’s reclamation of the theory of Moses Gaster, who considered the work a collection of diverse sources.

He accepts parts of Ronit Meroz’s articles that claim that the texts of the Zohar originated between the  11-14th centuries. But he demurs from her suggestion that there are 14th century imitators of the Zohar’s style Abrams asks: Who says there was ever a fixed thing called the Zohar to imitate?And form criticism does not work if you do not know that the text existed as we have it in these earlier centuries.

With a bit of overkill, he cites Walter Benjamin that in an age of reproduction the book is different than in the era of production. (He does not know Stephen Greenblatt on how a printed book can have ever more aura). He uses Foucault’s “What is an Author” mentioning that author is a constructed idea. But he does not mention that in the middle ages philosophy was authorless while science had an author. Now, in the modern era, we treat science as authorless and give philosophy an author. Abrams does not state why he should think esotericsm should be different than philosophy. He might have been between off citing the shelf of books on authorship in medieval literature- Foucualt may not be proving his point. He has a nice use of Brian Stock on textual communities that have an interplay of textuality and orality.

Abrams suggests that the field needs to go back to manuscripts and first edoitions, and especially colophons  – every text must be treated in its context of production of the manuscript.

He notes:  Danny Matt is creating a synthetic text that does not correspond to any text out there.  Meroz is creating a synoptic edition but that already assumes a whole to be recreated or an original text to retrieve Abrams compares the Zohar to Rabbinic works. Zohar is like the tannaic collections that existed before the Bavli was edited.

He is glad to substantiate Meroz’s finding that some of the texts of the Zohar were originally circulating in Hebrew and then later editors translated them into Aramaic because they thought they were returning the text to its original language of Rashbi which was lost.

He is perturbed by the new book on the Zohar by Melila Heller-Eshed. There is no proof for a hevraya around the Rashbi nor is there any proof that the texts joined as the Zohar have anything in common in the original formation. Abrams is against the literary and thematic studies produced by the students of Yehudah Liebes. (I have a forthcoming review of Melila Heller-Eshed’s book)

Finally Abrams notes the phenomena of hyper-animation of the text where there is an assumed personal authorship. He notes that this started in the 16th century with the poem to Bar Yohai and continues with Liebes’ poem to Rashbi and the invocationof the spirit of Rashbi By Heller-Eshed. He asks rhetorically why doesn’t anyone ask for the spirit of the author of Sefer Yetzirah to descend on them?

The Angel of History: Rosenzweig, Benjamin, Scholem

Good review in Notre Dame Philosophic Review. It shows how we currently read these thinkers and the importance of Rosenzweig for that generation. The book focuses on how they all reject the linear approach to progress-redemption.
It is interesting to note how Benjamin calls all human acts for redemption as “theurgy” I always wondered where Moshe Idel got the phrase since his was not a big Iamblichus reader. And important for the literature of Scholem, Idel and onto Halbertal, Benjamin calls the chain of interpretation “a weak messianic force.”
Here are selections from the review.
Stéphane Mosès, The Angel of History: Rosenzweig, Benjamin, Scholem, Barbara Harshav (tr.), Stanford UP, 2009, Reviewed by Eric Jacobson, Roehampton University

Stéphane Mosès’s The Angel of History is a classic in modern Jewish philosophy

The Angel of History is one of the few studies in twentieth century Jewish thought and philosophy to draw out a common tradition and render the comparative notions of temporality and causation accessible. This comparison is achieved by coalescing all three thinkers around a bifurcated notion of history: one that makes its appearance in worldly affairs, guided by the hand of the conquerors, and another based on an indelible thread that links this generation to a history to come. All three partook of this view to varying degrees and its final resolution in a Messianic redemption.

Since the first publication of this pioneering study in 1992, it is surprising to note how much has changed in the scholarship on Franz Rosenzweig, Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem. For one, it is no longer common to place Benjamin under the lens of Marxism. Equally, Rosenzweig is more commonly viewed in the light of Levinas , Expressionism and Heidegger today than in the shadow of Martin Buber. But perhaps even more, our picture of Scholem has considerably changed with the ongoing scholarship of the Kabbalah.

An exchange of letters from 1921 establishes the influence of The Star of Redemption on Benjamin and Scholem. There is evidence to suggest that Benjamin shapes his early Messianism in relation to The Star. Scholem’s debt to Rosenzweig is evident in many places, not least in a 1930 lecture delivered in Rosenzweig’s memory.

A common approach to history, which Mosès understands as a revolt against the idea of progress, a history leading to greater forms of reason that finds an epiphany in Hegel. As he remarks: “Past suffering is not abolished even by a triumphant future, which claims to give them meaning, and more than thwarted hopes are refuted by the failures that seem to sanction them” (11).

Mosès speaks of a model in Benjamin’s thought which is anti-sequential, exemplified by the conclusions to the Origins of German Tragic Drama that “a work of art can never be deduced from those that precede it”. There is no history that follows unwaveringly from one advancing moment to the next, and no experience that is reducible to mere sequence, generalization, even totalization. Rather than a progression, history lies below layers of stratification (85). Redemption at any moment meant for Benjamin the search for a historical site between the incessant return of the unremarkable and an infinitely new that anticipates a complete and final end. Redemption was on no absolute course, symbolized by the last line of his On the Concept of History, which understands the immediacy of redemption as the door through which the Messiah may enter at any time.

In the early years, he was indeed attracted to the systematic nature of The Star of Redemption, yet he would ultimately follow a course that was intrinsically methodical. He sought to avoid any theurgical impulse, favoring notions such as the “unintentional” of human acts which advances redemption without active causation. In the later years, the tightrope is spanned across the interpretation of history, where each generation participates in a “weak messianic force” through the act of interpretation
Full Review Here