Mystical Burlesque (Reading Zohar with Gershom Scholem)


Re-reading Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1941) perhaps more systemically than I did many years ago when I read it for the first time. While most of the main lines of argument have been assimilated and critically sifted in Jewish Studies-Jewish thought and culture, what I’m noting for the first time about Scholem’s study relates to Kabbalah as an aesthetic artifact. I’m restring my comments here to his first chapter on the Zohar, although I will note that about Lurianic Kabbalah, he calls “the architecture” of its “mystical structure” “baroque” (p.271).

About the Zohar, I would draw attention to Scholem’s use of the word “fancy,” which appears twice (pp.157, 169) when talking about the Zohar as a “mystical” novel and narrative figures. The term is associated with “delight” and skillful working, and elaborate detail (p.157).

What a weird elaboration. As a platform, Scholem notes how the Zohar builds up an “artificial language” based on “misunderstandings and grammatical miscontructions,” “confused verb-stems,” and “wrong metaphrases.” The Zoharic author “stretches the meaning of ancient words” and he does so in an “entirely arbitrary fashion” (pp.163-4).

The phraseology is described by Scholem “elliptic,” “oracular,” verbose” and circumstantial.” The author’s predilection is for “oxymora” and “paradoxes” (p.166).

What strange existence. Scholem calls it “pseudo-realism” (p.170). The location of the novel in Palestine is purely “imaginary.” “Localities which owe their existence in literature to misreading of medieval Talmudic manuscripts are selected as the stage of mystical revelation.”  “Whole villages are set up on the authority of some Talmudic passage the meaning of which has eluded the author” (pp.168-9).

As presented by Scholem, the Zohar stands out as more burlesque imagination than mystical novel. Scholem refers to its “humor.” “The whole book is full of fictitious quotations and other bogus references to imaginary writings.” It is only in very rare cases that these references do actually refer to an existing book, and whenever that happens the document in question is the very reverse of a text of hoary antiquity.” Concluding this line of inquiry, Scholem notes the zoharic author’s “sovereign contempt for the literal text, using it freely as plastic material for his own constructive purposes and giving free reign to his imagination on making vital changes, emendations and reinterpretations of the original.” The source or authority for this “architecture” and these “dramatizations” is “simply the author’s own imagination” (p.174).

My takeaway from and perhaps with Scholem –this is the peculiar stuff, the artifice out of which is made the illumination of mystical consciousness in zoharic Jewish thought and philosophy. The keywords that stand out to me in Scholem’s treatment are “fictitious, bogus, mis-constructed, pseudo-real, creative autonomy, plastic material and sovereign power of imagination. What I draw from Scholem is the importance of humor and its combination with the sublime and the ridiculous as a key with which to make critical sense of religious consciousness, or rather to make sense of the way that this form of religious-mystical consciousness is presented here for us in the Zohar as its reader.

While the term is associated with striptease, by burlesque I mean something more like “an absurd or comically exaggerated imitation of something” (Oxford Dictionary Online).

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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4 Responses to Mystical Burlesque (Reading Zohar with Gershom Scholem)

  1. mfeuer2012 says:

    Reblogged this on The Home of Schlemiel Theory and commented:
    Please take a look at this wonderful blog-essay on Gerschom Scholem’s reading of the mystical vis-a-vis the words he used which combine the ridiculous and the religous. Brilliant reading! Enjoy!

  2. dmf says:

    was he celebrating this sort of free-association or calling it out?

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