The Mountain of God and the Nations of the World (Universalism in the Zohar)

[Mont St Victoire]

I didn’t see this one coming. I’ve been primed to expect the worst from pre-modern sources when it comes to “the other.” In the Zohar, gentiles are associated with impurity and the demonic. But here you have, in the commentary to Exodus, this image of Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, who according to rabbinic tradition, is the pagan high priest who converts to Judaism after hearing about the miracle performed by God for Israel at the Red Sea. Apparently, the whole story, the whole Zoharic romance between God and God and between God and Israel depends upon the gaze of “a gentile.”

The group of texts that interest me here start off like this:

So I will praise You among the nations, O YHVH, and to Your name I will sing (Psalms 18:50). King David uttered this…when he saw that the glory of the blessed Holy One is exalted above, becoming glorified in the world, only from the aspect of other nations. Now, you migh sa, ‘Look the blessed Holy One is glorified in the world only on account of Israel!’ Certainly so, for Israel is the foundation of the lamp, shining. But when other nations come and acknowledge Him, subjugating themselves to the glory of the Holy One, then the foundation of the lamp is augmented, empowered over all his works in a single bond, and the blessed Holy One reins alone, above and below. (Zohar 2:69a, Pritzker translation)

What this means is that, according to this Zoharic text, the unification of works into the single bond that is the highest good in the Zoharic system is only consummated, not by the action of Israel, which you would have expected, but by the action of the gentile nations.

The Zohar explains:

For all things cleave to one another, pure and impure; there is no purity except through impurity. This s the mystery of Who can produce pure from impure? (Job 14:4). –shell and kernel, arising with one another. This shell is not eliminated or broken until the time when the dead  will rise from the dust. Then the shell will be broken and radiance will shine into the world unconcealedly from the kernel. (Zohar 2:69b, Pritzker translation)

So there you have, Israel the pure versus the impurity of the nations, except that nothing is ever static in the Zohar. The entire system is dynamic and motile. Purity is not self-sufficient. The “pure” depends upon the “impure.” And the entire order of things moves, is supposed to move, wants to move, towards “the mountain of YHVH.”

According to the Zohar:

To the mountain of YHVH –Abraham as is written: as is said to this day, ‘On the mountain of YHVH He will be seen’ (Gen. 22:14). For Abraham called it mountain: just as a mountain is ownerless, open to anyone in the world who wants, so this holy place is ownerless, receiving anyone in the world who wants…”Mountain and house –although all is a single rung, one transcends the other. Mountain for other nations, when they come to enter under Her wings. House  –for Israel, to be with [Israel[ as a wife with her husband, in one dwelling, in joy, crouching over them like a mother over her children.(Zohar, 2:69b-70a, Pritzker translation)

The Zohar is what it is. You expect to find these kinds of statements privileging Israel over the nations, reserving for Israel a special intimacy with God. You also expect the ascription of purity to Israel and impurity to the nations. In this regard, the Zohar never disappoints. This privilege and such associations are the source of a lot of very nasty, political mischief.

What you don’t necessarily anticipate is the way the entire metaphysical value system has been reversed. You expect that that which is “above” will depend upon that which is “below.” You expect purity to be the first term, upon which everything depends, only to learn that this is not the case. In the Zohar, “purity” depends upon “impurity,” just as God, Israel, and the intimacies between them depend upon the turning of the nations towards “the mountain of YHVH,” which is, indeed, ownerless, and open to all who want it.

How do you account for the presence of this expression of welcome? Part of it has to do with the general logic special to the Zohar, according to which that which is “above” always depends upon that which is “below,” especially in relation to God and human persons. Perhaps too the Bible forces a certain recognition upon the Zoharic author-editor(s), maybe against the own dominant strain of their own discourse. Jethro is a sympathetic character, whom the Zohar has to write into their concept, because that’s what the Bible makes them do. I’m just guessing here. I really don’t know.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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2 Responses to The Mountain of God and the Nations of the World (Universalism in the Zohar)

  1. hayyim rothman says:

    i think that what this also means is that on some level or another, the authors of the zohar are acknowledging that it is ultimately up to god alone to decide on the distinction between pure and impure….. to do so, moreover, at some indefinite messianic end of which only god knows, and never within history. this means, of course, that within history, within the sphere of human actions, these distinctions are rather meaningless. it is almost as if the terms are preserved but by deferring their coming into embodied meaning indefinitely.

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