“Rabbi Hizkiah opened with the verse, ‘Like a rose among thorns’ [Song of Songs 2:2]. What is this ‘rose’? The Community of Israel …”
That’s the way the Zohar starts off.
The Zohar, which first began to trickle into Jewish communal awareness around the year 1300, became over the next few centuries the classic text of the Jewish mystical system called Kabbalah. I’ve studied it, piecemeal and intermittently, for the past 26 years. I’ve always wanted to read it straight through. Now, thanks to a Facebook group dedicated to reading “a daily page of the Zohar,” I may get my chance.
The group was created by Rod Borghese, to whom I owe the wonderful photographs of roses that I’ll post next week. Daniel Matt, a leading scholar of the Zohar and the author of a not yet completed multi-volume translation, joined the group and, several months ago, suggested (in collaboration with Rabbi Elie Spitz) that it be made into a page-a-day study group. Judy Barret has been an active group administrator. Other administrators include the distinguished Kabbalah scholars Pinchas Giller and Joel Hecker.
A page a day is a pretty stiff pace, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to keep up. The exciting group discussions of what we’ve read so far have spurred me to do my best.
The kickoff was this past Monday night, with Rabbi Hizkiah’s discourse on the rose that’s more than a rose.
“Just as the ‘rose among thorns’ is tinctured with red and white, so the Community of Israel is tinctured with Judgment and Mercy …”
The Zohar is written in Aramaic, a language akin to Hebrew which was a common language, usually of the less educated, in ancient Palestine. It purports to record the conversations of mystically inclined rabbis of the second century, clustering around the figure of the master of the divine secrets, Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai. It actually seems to have been written in Spain around the end of the 13th century, when Aramaic had become an arcane tongue ideally suited for half-revealing, half-concealing the mysteries of the Scriptures.
“Just as the rose has thirteen petals, so the Community of Israel has thirteen measures of mercy surrounding her on all sides. So the word Elohim [“God”] here, having been mentioned, emits thirteen words to surround the Community of Israel and protect her. Then it is mentioned a second time …”
The Zohar is structured as a commentary on the Five Books of Moses, and when it says “here” it means the first verse of Genesis. “In the beginning Elohim created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was unformed and void, with darkness over the face of the abyss and the spirit of Elohim hovering …” In the English translation there are 25 words between the first and the second Elohim; in Hebrew there are 13. These 13 words correlate, the Zohar tells us, with the (alleged) botanical fact that a rose has 13 petals.
What possible link can there be, between a rose and the first verse of the Bible?
To answer this question, I need to add one more complexity. Just as the Zohar’s “rose” is something more than a rose, so the “Community of Israel” is vastly more than the earthly Jewish community. It’s Kabbalistic code for the Shechinah, the female aspect of God, who has within herself the potentialities (derived from the male elements whose juices flow into her) for Divine Mercy and Divine Judgment. These are manifested in the physical world by the rose’s sometimes being red (= Judgment), sometimes white (= Mercy).
(The Zohar’s imagery, though drawn from the Bible, also bears traces of the medieval world in which the Zohar was created. The armies of York and Lancaster in 15th-century England would have well understood the power of the Red Rose and the White; and the poem “Roman de la Rose,” written on the other side of the Pyrenees in the decades before the Zohar, uses the rose as “a symbol of female sexuality.”)
The cornerstone of Kabbalah: Like the white light that’s a fusion of all the rainbow’s colors, the Unity of God can be analyzed by the Kabbalistic prism into a range of different aspects and potentialities–some gracious and some severe, some male and some female. (God is both sexes, as we learn from a close reading of Genesis 1:27.) The interactions of these several aspects, their conflicts and couplings and separations, is the secret story of the Holy Scriptures.
“Why is [Elohim] mentioned a second time? So as to emit five stiff leaves that surround the rose. These five are called “salvations,” and they are five gates. Of this mystery Scripture says: “I will lift up the cup of salvation” [Psalm 116:13]. This is the cup of blessing [over the meal]. The cup of blessing needs to rest on five fingers and no more, like the rose that sits on five stiff leaves …”
The inner processes of God are reflected in the human body, the world of nature, the sacred words of Scripture and the equally sacred acts of Jewish ritual. All these mirrors confirm and reinforce each other–naturally, since all are manifestations of the same Divinity. So the cup = the rose (= the female genital, though this is left implicit). The rose’s 13 petals = the 13 words from the Bible’s first Elohim to its second. The rose’s 5 sepals = the 5 fingers holding the “cup of blessing” = the 5 words from the second Elohim to the third. (“And Elohim said, Let there be light …”)
So the world, everything about you and within you, is suffused with Divinity. Walk through a rose garden, as I did 26 years ago after first reading the opening passage of the Zohar. The divine Feminine surrounds you on all sides, in red and white splendor. This ubiquitous, perpetual immanence of the sacred, everywhere you turn, is what’s “mystical” about Kabbalah. It’s also eerily, breathtakingly beautiful.
No wonder the Zohar captured the Jewish heart and imagination. No wonder generations of Jews, and since the 15th century also non-Jews, fell under the Kabbalah’s spell.
But there’s also a reason why Kabbalah is a very, very bad idea. Which does not cancel out Kabbalah’s beauty and profundity, but provides a sober perspective from which to view it.
by David Halperin
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