Remarks on Eitan Fishbane

Gershom Scholem once joked that the best novel ever written about Shabbetai Zvi the false messiah was Scholem’s own two-volume historical biography. But it is no joke to say that The Art of Mystical Narrative is a novel about the making of the Zohar, the central repository of Jewish messianic dreams. On one level, it’s a novel about a band of brothers who are feverishly engaged in time travel, their Diasporic gaze fixed on a time and place of great antiquity; with intense yearning they reimagine themselves as ancient sages speaking the vernacular of 2nd-century Galilee, a place where miracles were wrought not just for the People Israel, but also, as others claim, for Christendom.

At the same time, it is a novel firmly situated in the Iberian landscape, where Arabic and Spanish are the languages spoken and read, and most startling of all, where there is an enlightened monarch called King Alfonso X, whose cameo appearances keep driving the plot. At one point it is King Alfonso who appoints the great kabbalist Todros Abulafia as “supreme elder” of his court, which translates into chief rabbi, and later on, we learn of the bold hypothesis that it was Abraham Abulafia’s failed messianic strivings in 1290 that endowed the character of Shimon bar Yohai, the hero of the Zohar, with such messianic urgency. So the reader must follow not one, but multiple plots:

Plot # 1 is about Shimon bar Yohai, fondly known as RaSHBY, a saintly, messianic, semi-divine preacher, wandering about the ancient Galilee with his band of disciples, and whose dramatic death is presented as the theatrical climax of a sacred narrative. If this sounds suspiciously like the Christian Gospels, then you are the Ideal Reader, already alive to the second plotline.

Plot # 2 is about the visionary landscape of the medieval Castilian kabbalists, how they commune with the spirits of the dead saints, their impulse to reveal kabbalistic secrets, their own desire to forge a hevraya, a mystical fraternity, and about their Christian surroundings, similarly populated by saints, sinners, pilgrims, hermits, mystics and holy men.

The two plots run parallel and also intersect with one another. Inasmuch as the plot of the Zohar is highly episodic, meandering, and pastoral, set in the ancient Galilee, so the plot pieced together in The Art of Mystical Narrative is a quest for visionary secrets, set in the ancient peaks and underground caves of northern Castile. By default and by design, these two narratives mirror one other, with the same castles, roadside inns and itinerant beggars mounted on donkeys appearing in both.

But there is more. In addition to the dialogue that the medieval kabbalists conducted with the rabbis of old, and the dialogue that the same kabbalists conducted amongst themselves, there is a third, metadiscursive, dialogue that runs through The Art of Mystical Narrative. For the contemporary reader, it is arguably the most exciting of all, because it engages us in a dialogue with the world of Zohar scholarship. Reading this book I was reminded of the Intro. to Biology for non-science majors in my freshman year at Brandeis. The field of biology was changing so rapidly in the late ‘60s that there was no textbook the professor could assign. So her whole syllabus consisted of articles from Scientific American and other popular science magazines. So, too, virtually on every page of The Art of Mystical Narrative, the reader learns about yet another discovery, hypothesis, critical breakthrough in the study of the Zohar, beginning, of course, with the epic-making publication of the Pritzker Edition of the Zohar under the editorship of Danny Matt. Until the Pritzker Edition, the Zohar was a closed book. I know this from personal experience. When Larry Fine, Danny Matt and I were in Havurat Shalom, the Zohar was studied only early in the morning by a tight group of initiates, and I was not one of them. But in The Art of Mystical Narrative Eitan Fishbane’s approach is to be very inclusive.  Early on he reviews the scholarly debate over the admissibility of the Pritzker Edition into the Zoharic canon. On a practical level, he asks, can a composite of the best reading possible of the Zohar replace the canonical, badly-edited editions? On a methodological level, are we finally ready to jettison the historical positivism of the Wissenschaft des Judentums? Invoking the authority of Danny Matt, the author rules as follows: Just as the Zohar itself is a new-ancient text, so it is permissible to produce a copy that is better than the original, which in turn becomes our new-improved sefer ha-Zohar. Where variant readings are relevant to understanding a given passage, they are given in the footnotes.

Danny Matt is only one of literally a hundred names of scholars young and old, living and dead, male and female, Israeli and American, who populate the pages of this book. The book is alive with their voices. And don’t think they are shunted aside to the footnotes, because they are not. Eitan is a master of what I call “the politics of citation:” deciding who is mentioned in the body of the text and who is relegated to the footnotes. Eitan is generous to a fault. They appear both above and below. Of course, he rounds up the usual suspects: Gershom Scholem, Yitshak Baer, Moshe Idel, whose scholarship is still indispensable. But he adds to their number the New Critic of modern Hebrew literature Matti Meged, whom he discovers to have pioneered the literary approach to the Zohar. Then the fun begins. The reader experiences the dramatic unfolding of Zohar studies in the 21st century through the drama of Eitan Fishbane engaging the thought of Jonatan Benarrosch, Yehudah Liebes, Ronit Meroz, Haviva Pedaya, Elliot Wolfson, and many, many more.

Is the Zohar a roman-à-clef?  It was the Israeli scholar Haviva Pedaya who came up with the bold hypothesis that Abraham Abulafia’s failed messianic strivings in 1290 gave rise to the messianic urgency in the character of Shimon bar Yohai.  Her colleague Ronit Meroz likewise suggested that the fictional figures of Hamnuna Sava and his son the yenuqa, the original child prodigy, were based on real-life figures in 13th-14th cent. Iberia. Meanwhile, Ellen Haskell wrote a whole book on the Zohar’s “conversations with Christianity,” in which she read Shimon bar Yohai as a counterpoint to Jesus of Nazareth. Relegated to a brief footnote, it would seem that Eitan is not sanguine about this reading.  A roman-à-clef – maybe.  A systematic counternarrative – probably not.

What came first? The epic-narrative stratum of the Zohar, its master-plot of the teacher-disciple relationship, or the exegetical-mystical passages?  By the time he poses this question it is no longer theoretical, because with a firm and patient hand Eitan Fishbane has already guided us through numerous pericopes (a word we at Havurat Shalom first learned from his father, Michael Fishbane). Eitan has already taught us to identify when narrative ends and exegesis begins, and when there is a “threshold utterance on the border between narrative and exegesis.” So he redirects the question of what came first into an intimate conversation with Ronit Meroz, who put this question on the scholarly agenda. Conducted in a lengthy footnote, the conversation ends with Meroz admitting that she doesn’t know the answer either. In this way, the huge scholarly apparatus of this book, rather than weigh it down, evolves into a dynamic, open-ended conversation, as unfinalizable as the Zohar itself.

What is the intentionality of a particular literary form? Did the Iberian kabbalists know what they were doing? Does it conform to our western notions of plot, character, drama, realism? How does Eitan Fishbane even come to be asking such questions?

Eitan makes no secret of the fact that he is a student of the new school of literary analysis that came to fruition in the journal Prooftexts: A Journal of Jewish Literary History, founded here at JTS by Alan Mintz and myself in 1981. Prooftexts was a utopian project, to map the Jewish literary imagination from ancient times until the present. From the outset, Prooftexts took on Big Tent Topics that represented Jewish culture as continuous, cumulative, and renewable: Jewish responses to catastrophe, medieval Jewish literature, images of women in Jewish literature, the theory and practice of translation, reading through the lens of gender, and most capaciously, the Jewish anthological imagination, guest edited by David Stern. And so it was, when Alan and I stepped down as editors-in-chief and a younger cohort took over that Prooftexts published the first collection of essays on Jewish Mystical Text as Literature in which Eitan Fishbane’s “The Scent of the Rose” was the centerpiece.  It was subtitled “Drama, Fiction and Narrative Form in the Zohar.” Here was a scholarly agenda as revolutionary as it was restorative. If the classics of Jewish culture were to yield their mystical secrets then the first step was to subject them to the tools of modern literary analysis. The first step was to read from the inside / out.

As late as 1963, Saul Bellow opened his paperback collection of Great Jewish Short Stories with the Book of Tobit from the Apocrypha. This is because he was still reading from the outside / in.  He needed to prove that ancient Jews could write fiction as terse and sexually charged as the stories of Guy de Maupassant. But when a rose is not a rose; when it is a symbolic referent for the female Shekhinah, then something very different is at stake. What’s at stake, according to Eitan Fishbane, is “a restless search for refractions of divine wisdom in the earthly realm.” (173) Then it becomes the task of literary-historical analysis to help train the eye of spiritual sight. It becomes the task of the modern scholar to restore the sacred immediacy of the Zohar. This is the spiritually charged language used by Eitan Fishbane himself.

Then what is the Zohar’s particular literary form? Shall we rest our case with “fragmentary epic”? Magic realism? As you can tell from my remarks, reading The Art of Mystical Narrative has awakened a whole array of associations in my mind and allowed all kinds of synapses to snap into place. The more I read, the more I was reminded of a brilliant synoptic essay by the late Marshall Berman, a Marxist critic who once lived just above Alan Mintz on West End Avenue. The title says it all:  “’A Little Child Shall Lead Them’: The Jewish Family Romance from Samuel to Call It Sleep.”[1] Let me be clear: He meant the Biblical Book of Samuel and the modernist classic by Henry Roth. By “Jewish family romance” Berman meant “a story in which basic family relationships are loaded with metaphysical intensity, and are felt to form the ultimate core of being.” Or in simpler terms: “Jewish happiness is typically family happiness.” To be sure, the mystical fellowship described in the Zohar is androcentric. Except for the Shekhinah, an innkeeper’s daughter and the Shunemite woman from I Kings 4, it is a world devoid of women, and Eitan is none too happy about this. Yet The Art of Mystical Narrative is alive with father-son, master-disciple relationships that are nothing if not fraught with passion and eros, abiding love, and acts of bonding. “This word is a secret, but I will tell it to you my beloved sons—my sons, the love of my soul,” exclaims R. Shimon to his disciples (105). It is also a story of adoptive families. “Now sirs, I am from Babylon, and I am the son of Rav Safra. But I was not privileged to know my father, and I was banished here. I was afraid that the inhabitants of this land were lions of Torah, and so I resolved not to say words of Torah in front of anyone until two months passed. Today they are completed. Happy is my portion that you appeared here” (149). In the mystical family constellation, the most marginalized figures are the most valued: the yenuqa, the baby in his cradle, who is the source of ultimate wisdom, and the grandfather-figures, like R. Hamnuna Sava, who reveals himself to be the inner-zoharic memory bank. One grandfather, the Sabba de-Mishpatim, has a whole book named after him.

So let me leave you with this thought. When read through a particular literary lens, The Art of Mystical Narrative is a Jewish family romance twice over. Just as the mystical fellowship of the RaSHBY and his disciples, of the fathers and sons, the yenukas and sabbas, is one messianically happy family, so too are the generations of scholars, both living and dead, whom Eitan Fishbane has assembled in this capacious, magnificent book which, by no coincidence, he has dedicated to his own father.

[1] Marshall Berman, “’A Little Child Shall Lead Them’: The Jewish Family Romance from Samuel to Call It Sleep,” The Jew in the Text: Modernity and the Construction of Identity,” ed. Linda Nochlin & Tamar Garb (Thames & Hudson, 1991), chap. 14.


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