Jewish Mystical Literature
Dr. John C. Reeves
Office hours: WF 2:00-3:00; or by appointment
‘R. ‘Aqiva said: Anyone who wants to study this teaching … if they talk about it to their companion, let them tell them (only) a single letter from the beginning and (only) a single letter from the end, and do not connect this (letter) to that (letter), lest they screw up and destroy the universe ….’ Hekhalot Zutrati, Ms. Oxford 1531 (Schäfer, Synopse §424).
‘Reveal to me all the secrets of the universe!’ T.-S. K 1.128, in a magical spell conjuring the angel Metatron.
This course provides an introduction to select esoteric writings produced by Jewish authors during late antiquity and the European Middle Ages, an allegedly ancient tradition of secret doctrines commonly referred to as the Kabbalah. This series of texts, arranged roughly chronologically and all of which we will study together in English translation, include several early liturgical and speculative texts, the Sefer Yetzirah, the Sefer ha-Bahir, and the Zoharic library. We may also peruse a wide variety of briefer tracts focusing upon the anatomy of God, cosmogony and cosmography, rituals for world-making, world-maintenance, and world-destroying, and the keys to the ultimate redemption of Israel and the universe.
The following textbooks are required for this course:
Peter Schäfer, The Origins of Jewish Mysticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).
Alan Unterman, ed., The Kabbalistic Tradition: An Anthology of Jewish Mysticism (London & New York: Penguin Books, 2008).
Arthur Green, A Guide to the Zohar (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004).
Daniel Chanan Matt, Zohar: The Book of Enlightenment (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1983).
Any responsible western language translation of Bible, including the so-called Apocrypha. Web links to the KJV and RSV versions are available on the course website.
Some translations, secondary essays, and articles (to be electronically distributed or assigned by the instructor).
a. Research project. One (1) formal research project to be presented in oral and written form (at least 15 double-spaced pages, exclusive of notes and list of sources) that focuses upon a particular topic relevant to the study of Jewish mystical literature. In consultation with the instructor, the student should select a topic of individual interest that permits such an extended exposition, analysis and/or evaluation. The project will be expounded orally at the final class meeting (Wednesday, December 7); the written papers are due by 12:00 PM on Monday, December 12. The research project accounts for 50% of the course grade.
b. Individual involvement. Almost perfect attendance (see below) is an essential requirement for this course. Each class meeting builds upon the knowledge gained during previous meetings. Moreover, in-class discussion, close reading, and analysis by both the instructor and class members comprise the bulk of every class meeting. Preparation for every class usually involves the completion of a series of assigned readings and/or written assignment(s), and individual students may be asked to initiate our collective examination and discussion of the weekly topics. Students are expected to contribute in an informed manner to the public analysis and discussion of any assigned topic. The instructor’s collective assessment of one’s attendance, general class preparation, written assignments, and oral contributions will constitute 50% of the final course grade.
c. Zakhor (Remember!): Mastery of the assigned readings, completion of written assignments, and diligent class attendance are necessary prerequisites for the successful completion of this course. Each student is responsible for all lectures, class discussions, hand-outs, assignments, and announcements, whether or not he/she is present when they occur. N.B.: there will be no class on Wednesday, October 12 (Yom Kippur).
a. The grading scale used in this course is as follows:
91-95+ A = demonstrable mastery of material; can creatively synthesize
81-90 B = some proficiency in control of material & analysis
71-80 C = satisfactory performance of assignments; little or no analysis
61-70 D = inadequate and/or faulty understanding of material
0-60 F = unacceptable work
Graduate students are graded using a scale of A, B, C, and U. A grade of ‘C’ for a graduate student is equivalent to that of a ‘D’ for undergraduates; ‘U’ signals unacceptable graduate-level work.
b. One of the requirements of this course is to complete the work of the course on time. Sometimes there are legitimate reasons for late work—an illness or other emergency. ‘Emergency,’ however, does not include your social involvements, travel plans, job schedule, disk and/or printer failures, the state of your love life, your obligations to other courses, or general malaise over the state of the world. The world has been in a mess as long as anyone can remember, and most of the world’s work is done by people whose lives are a mass of futility and discontent. If you haven’t learned yet, you had better learn now to work under the conditions of the world as it is. Therefore:
1) All examinations (if so required) will take place only upon their announced dates and times. In other words (and please note well!), there will be NO MAKEUP EXAMS scheduled. All missed exams, quizzes, unwritten reports, and neglected homework exercises are averaged as a 0 in the computation of the course grade. There is no such thing as a ‘make-up pop quiz.’ No exceptions will be considered or granted.
2) All written exercises are due on the dates scheduled in the syllabus, or on the date announced by the instructor in class (usually, the following class meeting). ‘Late’ submissions of papers (except for homework exercises—see below) bear the following penalties: one day late/one letter grade; two days late/two letter grades; three or more days late/F. Please note: these ‘days’ are calendar days, not class meeting days. For accounting purposes, letter grades bear the following values: A=95; A-=92; B=85; C+=78; C=75; D=65; F=30. An untyped submission automatically receives the grade F, as do those typed papers which violate the required parameters or which the instructor deems physically unacceptable and/or grammatically incomprehensible.
3) Homework exercises (if required) are due on the date announced by the instructor in class. Since we will normally discuss these exercises together in class on that date, it would clearly be unfair to those who submitted their work on time for me to accept ‘late’ work from those who were privy to our in-class discussion. Hence I will not accept ‘late’ homework submissions; however, ‘early’ submissions are always welcome and will receive full credit.
4) Attendance at class meetings will be monitored by the instructor. One or two absences, while regrettable, are unexceptional; three (3) is the limit of tolerability. Each successive absence lowers the Individual Involvement component of your assessment by one letter grade; seven (7) or more earns an automatic F in that component of your final grade. Please note that the instructor does not distinguish ‘excused’ from ‘unexcused’ absences. Unsanctioned late arrivals and early departures will be tallied as absences.
c. Assistance and solicitation of criticism is your right as a member of the class. It is not a privilege to be granted or withheld. Do not hesitate to request it nor wait too late in the course for it to be of help.
Rough course outline
1. The historical study of ‘Jewish mysticism’
2. Scriptural and parascriptural antecedents
3. Hekhalot literature and Jewish gnosis
Translation of Re’uyyot Yeḥezq’el (Reeves, unpublished).
4. Sefer Yeṣirah and linguistic ontology
Translation of Sefer Yeṣirah (Reeves, unpublished).
5. Proto-kabbalah: the Sefer ha-Bahir
Translation of Sefer ha-Bahir (Reeves, unpublished).
6. The Zoharic library
a. Historical and editorial introduction
Green, 28-98; 159-87.
b. God and creation
Green, 101-108; 122-25.
c. The ‘Other Side’
R. Isaac b. Jacob ha-Kohen, Treatise on the Left Emanation (Reeves, unpublished).
Unterman, 131-97; 235-67.
e. Ritual life
f. Redeeming God and cosmos
Jewish Mystical Literature
As you might imagine, the critical literature devoted to this topic is immense. The bibliographies provided by Schäfer and Green are especially helpful. I therefore limit myself to identifying some titles which are of fundamental importance for navigating the study of Jewish mysticism and its literature.
Daniel Abrams, “Critical and Post-Critical Textual Scholarship of Jewish Mystical Literature: Notes on the History and Development of Modern Editing Techniques,” Kabbalah 1 (1996): 17-71.
______, Kabbalistic Manuscripts and Textual Theory: Methodologies of Textual Scholarship and Editorial Practice in the Study of Jewish Mysticism (2d ed.; Jerusalem & Los Angeles: The Magnes Press and Cherub Press, 2013).
Philip S. Alexander, “Mysticism,” in Martin Goodman, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 705-32.
______, Mystical Texts (London & New York: T. & T. Clark International, 2006).
Ra‘anan S. Boustan, “Rabbinization and the Making of Early Jewish Mysticism,” Jewish Quarterly Review 101 (2011): 482-501.
______, “The Study of Heikhalot Literature: Between Mystical Experience and Textual Artifact,” Currents in Biblical Research 6 (2007): 130-60.
Pinchas Giller, Reading the Zohar: The Sacred Text of the Kabbalah (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).
Frederick E. Greenspahn, ed., Jewish Mysticism and Kabbalah: New Insights and Scholarship (New York: New York University Press, 2011).
David J. Halperin, The Faces of the Chariot: Early Jewish Responses to Ezekiel’s Vision (TSAJ 16; Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1988).
Boaz Huss, The Zohar: Reception and Impact (trans. Yudith Nave; The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2016).
Moshe Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988).
Yehuda Liebes, Studies in the Zohar (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993).
Daniel C. Matt, The Zohar: Pritzker Edition (11 vols. to date; Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004- ).
Peter Schäfer, The Hidden and Manifest God: Some Major Themes in Early Jewish Mysticism (trans. Aubrey Pomerance; Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992).
Gershom G. Scholem, Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition (2d ed.; New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1965).
______, Kabbalah (Jerusalem: Keter, 1974).
______, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (3d ed.; New York: Schocken, 1961).
______, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism (trans. Ralph Manheim; New York: Schocken, 1965).
______, On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead: Basic Concepts in the Kabbalah (trans. Joachim Neugroschel; New York: Schocken, 1991).
______, Origins of the Kabbalah (trans. Allan Arkush; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987).
Isaiah Tishby, The Wisdom of the Zohar: An Anthology of Texts (3 vols.; trans. David Goldstein; Portland, Or.: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1989).
Mark Verman, The Books of Contemplation: Medieval Mystical Jewish Sources (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992).
Elliot R. Wolfson, Along the Path: Studies in Kabbalistic Myth, Symbolism, and Hermeneutics (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995).
______, Circle in the Square: Studies in the Use of Gender in Kabbalistic Symbolism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995).
______, Luminous Darkness: Imaginal Gleanings from Zoharic Literature (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2007).
______, Through a Speculum That Shines: Vision and Imagination in Medieval Jewish Mysticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).
Nathan Wolski, A Journey into the Zohar: An Introduction to the Book of Radiance (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010).