Students eager to uncover

roots of Jewish mysticism

The Zohar is the most secret and central of Jewish mystical texts. According to tradition, a person must be 40 years of age and married before studying this mysterious commentary on the Bible.

Traditionally, the Zohar is studied by those who are older and married because the text is very serious and uses strong sexual imagery, said David Blumenthal, professor of Judaic studies. "The concept of God in the Zohar is a very personal and interactive understanding of the relationship that we have with God, and you have to have a certain kind of maturity to grasp that," he said.

Nevertheless, the Zohar-which means "radiance"-is the focus of Blumenthal's popular undergraduate course, "Jewish Mystical Tradition." In this course, students devote an entire semester to reading this text and considering the nature of religious and mystical beliefs.

Course materials include the Bible and the three-volume anthology, The Wisdom of Zohar, which is organized by topics. Each topic includes an introductory essay plus selections from the Zohar. Because of the size of the anthology, Blumenthal chooses key selections or passages to be studied.

The course covers a variety of topics, including God, the sefirot (dimensions of God's personality), and the Shekhina (the aspect of God's personality that relates to the world). Other subjects covered include evil, humanity, sin, death, mystical conjugal life, mystical prayer and repairing the universe.

Although the authorship of the Zohar is still hotly disputed by some Jewish scholars, it's generally believed to have been written around 1293 by a man named Moses de Leon, who lived in the city of Leon in Northern Spain. The text, which was originally written in Aramaic, is a commentary to the Torah-the first five books of the Bible.

The Zohar represents one of four or five cycles of Jewish mysticism known as "Kabbalah," which means "tradition." In a legal sense, the word also means "receipt," said Blumenthal, explaining that "a tradition is something that you receive and pass on."

Since this course requires a lot of discussion, enrollment is limited to about 25 students, primarily juniors and seniors. The students like the course because the Zohar is very profound, spiritual and theological text, Blumenthal observed. "Of course, this is a self-selecting class," he said, acknowledging that he only gets students who are interested in the subject matter. "This is always a group of kids who have come on some kind of spiritual quest."

Blumenthal taught a survey course on Jewish mysticism even before coming to Emory in 1975. He began teaching the course on the Zohar about five years ago, when The Wisdom of Zohar was published in English. Prior to that, the anthology was available only in Hebrew.

Blumenthal describes his area of expertise as Jewish spirituality "in a broad sense, which has a lot to do with various forms that God and holiness take in Jewish tradition." He has written several books and articles on the spiritual side of Jewish philosophy, as well as two books on understanding Jewish mysticism.

God at the Center, now in its second printing, "is a book clearly in Jewish mystical spiritual theology," Blumenthal said. Facing the Abusing God-a book on the Holocaust-has very definite mystical and Zoharic dimensions, he said, "but you have to follow the footnotes in the index in order to find them."

-Linda Klein


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