By Melila Hellner-Eshed, A River Flows From Eden reads with a very light touch. I’d recommend it as a basic introduction to anyone interested in the Zohar and the phenomenon of mystical consciousness. Unlike studies by Scholem, Idel, and Wolfson, this one pays more attention to the narrative character of the Zohar. With an eye on zoharic story-telling, we’re introduced not just to ideas and concepts, but to mystical personae, forms of awareness, and affective states.
As presented by the text, who were the Zoharic companions and their leader, Shimon bar Yohai (part I), what was their mystical practice (part II), why did they do it (part III), and what did they experience (part IV)? Socially marginal figures closely bound to each other, they wander about on roads, they study at night, they conceal and reveal and conceal, they arouse mystical flow, they are washed in hot white light at the highest pitch of “radiant” (i.e. zoharic) experience.
Conceptually, Hellner-Eshed’s study is phenomenological, focused on mystical experience and consciousness. By consciousness she means dimensions that are experiential and sensorial (p.9), expanded vision and awareness (pp147-8, 152). Hellner-Eshed makes some too strong claims about “unmediated” experience (p.3), which are quickly qualified and even undermined by mention of the term “figure” (pp.3-4). Alas we’re still at work with the “experience” “generates” “expression” model of religious consciousness and symbolic form (p.5).
Having said that, Hellner-Eshed is keenly aware of the zoharic authors’ acute self-consciousness. Not naive, they are aware of being immersed in mystical experience as it occurs (pp.40, 46, 201, 247). Mystical experience in the Zohar (and probably writ large) is not simple, direct, or unmediated. It’s marked by deep double awareness (p.127).
Flow and form are the basic structure to zoharic consciousness. “A river flows from Eden.” The experience is crowning, mingling, saturating, binding (pp.131). Light, radiance, delight, pleasure, embrace, kiss, intercourse, fragrance, fire, radiant face, altered sense of time, softened boundaries –these are the recognizable hallmarks of mystical experience in the Zohar. But that experience is also structured and contained and formed (pp.321-37). Hellner-Eshed observes that zoharic mysticism works in waves. The energy of revelation –i.e. the revelation of secrets, the revelation of flux—is finally tapped by concealing garbs and form (p.333).
I’m guessing that it’s that final act of closure in the turn back to concealment that is responsible for the intense (form of) self-awareness observed by Hellner-Eshed in the Zohar, and that it is this concealment that accounts for the intensely figurative character of the Zohar as both text and mystical experience. Critical readers might complain about what some might perceive to be Hellner-Eshed’s naïve style as a writer or scholar. But I think the whole “thing” has been carefully set up, both in her own presentation of the material and in the material itself.
One last word –the decision by the author (?) and publisher to put And God breathed into Adam the breath of life, an Symbolist-Art Nouveau work by Abel Pann from the 1920s was itself a work of radiant genius. That’s kind of like what the Zohar “looks” like through Hellner-Eshed’s reading. Pann is described this way on an excellent wiki site devoted to him. “For many years, Pann was considered an important artist in Israel, and had even greater success among Jewish art consumers abroad, but he ‘outlived his artistic times,’ fading in importance beside the new, modernist painters.” I’m wondering if one might think of this as a coda to the mystical tradition –the more one steps back from it as an object of study.