Roads to Utopia: The Walking Stories of the Zohar

Roads to Utopia: The Walking Stories of the Zohar

by David Greenstein

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As the greatest book of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar is a revered and much-studied work. Yet, surprisingly, scholarship on the Zohar has yet to pay attention to its most unique literary device—the presentation of its insights while its teachers walk on the road. In these pages, rabbi and scholar David Greenstein offers the first examination of…  See more details below


As the greatest book of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar is a revered and much-studied work. Yet, surprisingly, scholarship on the Zohar has yet to pay attention to its most unique literary device—the presentation of its insights while its teachers walk on the road. In these pages, rabbi and scholar David Greenstein offers the first examination of the "walking on the road" motif.

Greenstein's original approach hones in on how this motif expresses the struggles with spatiality and the everyday presented in the Zohar. He argues that the walking theme is not a metaphor for realms to be collapsed into or transcended by the holy, as conventional interpretations would have it. Rather, it conveys us into those quotidian spaces that are obdurately present alongside the realm of the sacred. By embracing the reality of mundane existence, and recognizing the prosaic dimensions of the worldly path, the Zohar is an especially exceptional mystical treatise. In this volume, Greenstein makes visible a singular, though previously unstudied, achievement of the Zohar.

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"This thoughtful study adds another learned piece to readers' understanding of the Zohar, the most famous work in the history of Jewish mysticism . . . Recommended."—S. T. Katz, CHOICE

"'Rabbi Hiyya and Rabbi Yose were walking on the road.' Traditional commentators ignore the Zohar's narrative framework; in this fascinating book, David Greenstein refocuses our attention on this vital element. He demonstrates how the 'walking motif' enables the Zohar to address the mundane, to explore not just the 'sacred center,' but also its everyday periphery."—Daniel Matt, Editor and Translator of The Zohar, Pritzker Edition

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The Walking Stories of the Zohar

By David Greenstein

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-8833-5


The Dregs of Tar

Rabbi Shim'on was traveling to Tiberias, and with him were Rabbi Yose, Rabbi Yehudah, and Rabbi Hiyya. Meanwhile, they noticed Rabbi Pinhas, who was approaching. Once they joined as one, they came down and sat under [one of] the mountain trees.

Rabbi Pinhas said, "Now that we are seated, I wish to hear some of the excellent words that you say every day."

Rabbi Shim'on opened and said: "And he [Abraham] went on his journeys from the south to Bethel, until the place where his tent had been originally, between Bethel and the Ai" [Gen. 13:3]. 'And he went on his journeys,'—it should have been 'on his journey.' What [is the meaning of] 'on his journeys'? Rather, there are two journeys, one that is his and one of the Shekhinah."

Thus begins one of the first of the many "walking stories" of the Zohar. It calls for examination both on its own merits and in terms of what it may teach about the use of walking stories in the entire zoharic corpus. Such an examination should focus on the story's content and stylistic elements, of course, and, also, on its literary context or placement within the preceding and following zoharic texts.

As presently constituted, the Zohar goes on for many pages and adopts a number of literary approaches to presenting its teachings before offering a walking story. In one long stretch, its teachings are successfully presented by the anonymous authorial voice. It also couches them as lessons taught by named sages. Why the resort to a story about walking comrades to introduce more such statements? Furthermore, it may be asked whether the Zohar understands itself as shifting gears when it adopts this motif as the container for its teachings. But these questions of authorial choice will have to wait until after the walking story itself is studied.

The story begins by picturing Rabbi Shim'on bar Yohai (Rashbi) traveling with a few of his disciples. They encounter another sage of their acquaintance, Rabbi Pinhas. They halt their journeying and come to sit together under a tree. At the invitation of Rabbi Pinhas, Rashbi begins a discourse whose topic is the very activity that these sages were just engaged in—traveling on the road.

The discourse follows the standard pattern: a biblical verse is highlighted (thereby apparently rendering its contextual meaning irrelevant), a textual curiosity is noticed in the verse and this apparently surprising textual feature serves as the platform for a new teaching.

Rashbi's chosen text depicts the wealthy and prosperous Abraham traveling from his encampment in the south to an earlier place of encampment, Bethel, a place where Abraham had originally set up an altar to worship God. Rashbi "opens up" the verse by explaining that referring to Abraham's journeys in the plural tells us that his trip was not a solitary one, but constituted two journeys, in that he was accompanied by the Shekhinah. Similarly, Rashbi teaches, every Jewish man, when he leaves his wife and home, should make sure that the Shekhinah will accompany him on the way. "Every person must be found male and female so as to strengthen the faith. And then Shekhinah will never depart from him." In order to guarantee the continuous presence of Shekhinah, the man should, while still at home with his wife, and they are thus still found as both male and female together, pray to the Holy Blessed One so as to draw God's Shekhinah upon him before he sets forth on the road.

This is vitally necessary because the union of the Upper Male and Female aspects of God depends on the male's faithfully maintaining his connection to his wife below. Indeed, it is crucial for the husband to return home

to make his wife happy, for it is his wife who has caused that Upper coupling. As soon as he comes to her he must make her happy because of two aspects: one, because the joy of that coupling is the joy of mitzvah, and the joy of a mitzvah is the Shekhinah's joy. And not only that, but he also simply increases joy below, as it is written, "Then you will know that your tent is at peace, when you visit your home and you will not sin" [Job 5:24]. Can it be that if one does not visit one's wife that one has sinned? That is so, indeed! Because one has lessened the honor of the Upper coupling to which she has joined, for it is his wife who has brought it about.

Later in the same discussion Rashbi will boldly describe the dynamic of divine forces activated by this human union as one of "the passion of the heights of Eternity—ta'avat giv'ot 'olam" [Gen. 49:26]. As he and his disciples and Rabbi Pinhas sit "under mountain trees," Rabbi Shim'on describes the divine potencies of the Upper and Lower Mothers as passion-filled "heights."

The theurgic power of the conjugal coupling of the earthly husband and wife is seen as paradigmatic of the power inherent in performing any mitzvah. Every mitzvah effects joyful union above. To know this is itself a source of joy, "the joy of a mitzvah." This is the Zohar's understanding of this classic rabbinic phrase: "the joy of that coupling is 'the joy of mitzvah.'" Such joy is made possible by the presence of one's wife in the home.

The associative and referential web in this zoharic text is thickly woven, with threads of theosophical claims, domestic instructions, and biblical explications all combined together. We may begin, as does Rashbi, with the Zohar's scriptural reading. Though the Zohar has begun its teaching by focusing on a seemingly slight, solitary, textual peculiarity in a biblical verse, there are significant implications to be drawn from its discussion that go beyond that textual "trigger," opening up new understandings of the broader biblical story. The Abraham story is used to teach that a husband, when going on a journey and leaving his wife behind, should make sure to draw Shekhinah's accompaniment to him. Abraham's "journeys" were doubled because they were traveled together with Shekhinah. We must infer, therefore, that they were made without Sarah. Yet the previous verse tells us that "Abraham went up from Egypt, he and his wife and all that was his, with Lot accompanying him, to the Negev" (Gen. 13:1). We are led to conclude that Sarah stayed put once they reached the Negev. This was taken by the Zohar to constitute a return home, for Abraham had traveled to the Negev before, as related in verse 9 of the previous chapter.

The two verses that mention Abraham's travels to the Negev bracket the story of Abram and Sarai's descent to Egypt, during which Sarai was abducted by Pharaoh. While the first of the Negev verses mentions Abram, but not Sarai, it is clear from the Egypt story that Abram and Sarai were traveling together, as they had been doing since leaving Haran. Yet Sarai is put at great risk once they arrive in Egypt. Elsewhere the Zohar would see this event as a foreshadowing of the Egyptian bondage of the Israelites. And it would see Abram's emergence from Egypt as a great spiritual victory, with Abram struggling with the forces of darkness and overcoming them. Yet the discussion in this text gives a sharper point to a question that has plagued generations of readers regarding Abram's apparent willingness to sacrifice Sarai for his own safety. Besides the ethical issues raised by others, the Zohar implicitly faults Abram with a spiritual failure of major import. Upon descending to Egypt, Abram violates the fundamental injunction: "Every person must be found male and female so as to strengthen the faith." In denying his wedded relationship to Sarai, Abram denies that he is "male and female" together. In so doing he has sundered the divine conjugal bond. This denial necessitated divine intervention, both to save Sarai from Pharaoh's intentions and to reinstate the relationship between Abram and Sarai. Therefore God told Pharaoh that he was being afflicted "because of Sarai, the wife of Abram."

Thus, in leaving Egypt, Abram must restore Sarai to their earlier home and settle her there, in the Negev (v. 1). This will also restore Shekhinah to their home. When he embarks on his "journeys" in verse 3, it is clear to the Zohar that he is no longer traveling with her. While she stays in their house, he goes toward the "house" of God—Beit El—without her, but with the journeying Shekhinah alongside him—making two journeys out of one.

Careful consideration of this midrashic point should help us better understand the relationship between Shekhinah and her traveling companion. Strictly speaking, the journey traveled by Abram and Shekhinah is one and the same. The path is identical. Yet the Zohar understands the Torah to be teaching that there are two journeys—masa'av. Thus, Shekhinah's accompanying Abraham adds a second "journey," even though they are going on the same path. The journey is not the abstract tracing of the route, a single path, whether traveled by one traveler or many. Rather, it is the actual traversal of space. Each traveler occupies and moves through space separately. Each, as it were, leaves a separate set of footprints, and it is they that constitute the "journeys." In that sense, Abram and Shekhinah are on parallel tracks; they are not united as one.

As this text proceeds, it again and again sets out alternating scenes of union and separation. With regard to one's wife, it presents the tension between joyous copulation and periods of refraining from intimacy. Examples of times of separation include times away from the house, whether on the road or in the House of Study. But even inside the home, there are times of separation or of waiting. These include, for Torah scholars, the days of the week between Sabbaths. Then there are the days following the onset of one's wife's menstrual period. During these times, so that the man shall not suffer loneliness, "Shekhinah comes with you and dwells in your home."

If the constant presence of Shekhinah is necessary, even in the home, where coupling with one's wife is only a sporadic practice, then why not avail oneself of continuous, pure, spiritual conjunction by abandoning the physical and domestic realm for the open road? As the Zohar puts it: "And if you should say, 'If this is the case, then it is preferable for a person to go out on the road rather that stay at home, for the sake of the supernal coupling that joins with him!'" But the Zohar answers: "Come see: When a person is at home, his wife is the essence of his home, for Shekhinah never leaves the home on account of his wife, as it is written: 'And Isaac brought her into Sarah's tent' [Gen. 24:67]—for the candle was burning. For what reason? Because Shekhinah had entered the home." While the Zohar explicitly discusses Shekhinah's accompaniment of the man on his travels, this last phrase, applied to the biblical episode of Rebecca entering Sarah's old tent, actually indicates that Shekhinah has been accompanying Rebecca in her journey to become Isaac's wife, for it is her entrance into the tent that restores to it Shekhinah's presence. The presence of Shekhinah in the home is not dependent on the conjugal relations enacted between husband and wife. It depends entirely on the presence of the wife in the home.

Thus there is a fundamental difference between the presence of Shekhinah in the home and Her presence as the man's traveling companion. While he is on the road, the man is challenged to exercise great restraint, since, because he is separated from his wife and also exposed to others, he is subject to numerous opportunities for sexual transgression. "Come, see: As long as a person is detained on the road, he must guard his actions so that the supernal coupling not depart from him." The role of Shekhinah is to help protect him from giving in to temptation "until he returns home." The constant presence of Shekhinah is in the negative role of "sh'mirat ha-derekh—the safeguarding of the road," to use Rabbi Moshe Cordovero's phrase.

But the positive role of Shekhinah in the home is celebrated by the Zohar: "When the home is properly arrayed and the male comes upon the female and they join as one, then the Lower Mother pours out blessings to bless them." The divine paradigm is thus replicated below: "Thus it is that the male is adorned with two females when he is in his home, just as it is above." When the male places himself between two females below as the Divine Male is between two Females above, setting the house in order, then, just as Rebecca was able to replicate the illuminating role of Sarah, so Shekhinah is able to replicate the beneficent role of the Upper Mother and shower them with blessings. But, "when he goes out on the road, it is not like that. The Upper Mother joins with him and the lower remains [alone]."

Rabbi Shim'on therefore insists that the husband must return to his wife who "remains alone," "in order to be crowned [l'it'atra] with two females, as we have said." The focus seems to be solely on the male, yet the implication of the previous phrases is that the loneliness of the female, the wife, is equally important. The implication is only glancingly made visible and is then covered over by the redirection of the lesson to its standard object, the male. Nevertheless, for a moment, the Zohar has reread the Torah's famous dictum "It is not good for the human to be alone" (Gen. 2:18) so as to apply it to the female. This verse has just served as the backdrop for the zoharic text immediately preceding this teaching on the road. In this second text, the verse is faintly alluded to so that its import may be shifted. In the Torah, it is necessary to address the evil of the male's loneliness by bringing the female to him. Now the Zohar compels the male to come home to the female so as to prevent her loneliness.

In subtle ways, the Zohar has developed a cluster of associations and instructions that go against our expectations of how a mystical reader might read the Torah, and about what a mystical approach to human and divine relationships might entail. A rich cluster of dualities is set up by this teaching: physical/spiritual, male/female, Upper/Lower, home/road, union/ separation, blessing/protection. But the valorization of each term in these dualities, and their connective arrangement, is somewhat surprising.

Where we might expect to find a celebration of mystical union, or of the transcendence of the physical for the sake of the spiritual, Rabbi Shim'on insists, instead, that the spiritual is found most fully in the physical realm of domesticity. The quest for spiritual conjunction with the Divine, free from material constraints of physical being and material obligations, that is, the spiritual quest of the road, leads to an impaired spiritual state, while the full flow of blessed union is only found at home.

The Zohar privileges staying home over going on the road with respect to the quality of Shekhinah's presence that one may expect to merit. Nevertheless, staying home is not an option for the man, although it is required of the woman. The man may need to travel outside the home, but the woman's role requires her presence inside the house. She does not travel. Indeed, she must not travel. According to the Zohar's scheme of things a man is caught between two women—one who must stay at home and one who may travel with him. Surely the man will be tempted to go with the woman who is "freer" to roam with him, and whose companionship can be constant. Yet according to this teaching, a man's union with Shekhinah can be experienced only at home; if he travels on the road, the accompaniment of Shekhinah is merely to protect him from the temptations of the road, so that he can keep faith with his housebound wife. Conjunction with Shekhinah happens in the marriage domicile. It is here that the man is enveloped in the passionate desire of the Divine Female, both Upper and Lower. These are the yearnings for divine union felt, as it were, by "the 'Hills of Eternity,' the Upper Female, so as to adorn Him and crown Him and bless Him, and the Lower Female, to unite with Him and be nourished from Him." By contrast, the Shekhinah's presence on the road is only prophylactic.

Thus Rashbi's initial point is that the path of the traveler and the path of Shekhinah by his side are not one, united path, but two. They run parallel, but are not united. Moreover, ascribing the two paths to the traveler, as they are ascribed to Abram (masa'av—"his journeys"), does not have to mean that the traveler takes possession and unites with that other path. On the contrary, in the sense that these two journeys both belong to the traveler, the second journey, created through the accompaniment of Shekhinah, can be seen as the journey not taken—the path of temptation that is blocked to the traveler by Shekhinah in her role as the Protector of the Road.


Excerpted from ROADS TO UTOPIA by David Greenstein. Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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