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New-Ancient Homelands:
Zohar, Diaspora,
and the Construction
of Place

Jesse Noily

February 26, 2024

The physical charms of Spain are those of an Eastern land ... It is not surprising that here the exiles from Judæa felt at home.

Ariel Bension [1]

exo3.jpg

Exodus 3. /Rosabel Rosalind/ 

1. Being there

Having spent the past year studying at a yeshiva in Jerusalem I had occasion, more than once, to get on a northbound bus and hike around the hills of the Galilee. I felt miserably alien and uncomfortable in the holy city and had discovered that the farther north I traveled the more respite I found from my homesickness. It took me until my third hike to realize consciously what was inspiring this sense of comfort: the climate and geography of the Galilee is a clear approximation of that of Northern California and the San Francisco Bay Area—my home.

Once this occurred to me I was shocked I hadn't sooner noticed the similarities in flora, the similar mountain ranges and valleys, the shared density of fog, all of which colluded to mimic the impression of walking on a trail in Redwood Regional Park a short drive from my family's Oakland apartment. It was in the remote hills of the Upper Galilee (not in Jerusalem, not in Eilat or Tel Aviv) that I, an American Jew, felt least like a foreigner. 

To be in diaspora necessitates a negotiation between experiences of alienation and place. This was a balance struck in the thirteenth century by a circle of kabbalists living in Castile, and it's a balance expressed in their central literary output. Sefer ha-Zohar, the Book of Splendor, represents the centerpiece of Jewish mystical literature in the middle ages— not as much a single book as it is a bouquet of kabbalistic myth and exegesis. These texts anthologized in the Zohar feature narrative elements set in late antique Galilee among the students of the great tanna Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai. We witness this mystical chevraya (group of “comrades” or “companions”) as they wander, as I did, around the trails of northern Palestine, encountering strange characters—a precocious child, an old donkey driver—communing with the Shekhinah, and revealing mysteries of Torah. 

The Zohar is complex, beautiful, and thematically sundry. For those of us motivated by an interest in the hermeneutics of Zohar it is read primarily as an exegetical work devoted to the development of a uniquely kabbalistic mode of scriptural interpretation. The present essay, by contrast, will look closest at the narrative and formal elements of Zohar, and explore how the descriptions of ancient Galilee may be read through the historical context of the authors’ lives as Jews in medieval Castile. [2]

The circle that composed or compiled the book of Zohar in late thirteenth-century Castile was made up of men living in diaspora—and yet these were uniquely well-rooted exiles, whose families had likely been living in Spain for all of the three hundred generations since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. In other words, the kabbalists of Castile understood themselves to be part of a community who had lived in the same location for over a millennium—a notion utterly foreign to the family history of nearly every Jew alive today. The Jewish communities of pre-1492 Spain were "at home" in their culture, their language, their land, and geography. The poetry that forms the foundation of zoharic literature is not a poetics of exile, but instead a poetics of place. [3] 

I seek, then, to advance a reading that casts the Zohar as a spiritual invitation for Jews living in the diaspora to understand themselves to be completely and emphatically where they are; further, we should take it as license to imagine a non-nationalist model for thinking about the sanctity of one's own diasporic (home)land. The Zohar's writing of space evinces a unique poetic capacity to invoke the ancient and the novel in the same breath, and to enchant lived experience with a sense of the eternally sacred. Rather than flinging us into the limit-realms of arcane cosmic dimensions, I want to read the Zohar as a model for being exactly where one is—and nowhere else. To borrow from an anachronistic source: what would it mean to receive this as a text which privileges hereness (doikeit, in Yiddish) over thereness (daheit)?

Gershom Scholem gestures at this idea when describing how the “main parts of the Zohar were composed in Spain by a kabbalist [Moshe de Leon] who had not seen Palestine.” [4] Rather than locating the Zohar’s source material in the land of Spain itself, however, Scholem fills the void created by de Leon’s distance from Palestine by suggesting that the impetus for the Zohar’s creation should be attributed solely to its author’s “conversion to kabbalism.” The narrative aspects of this text according to this reading are the immaterial fantasy of a man detached from the land he lives on, and thus “the whole Galilean landscape” quickly “dissolves into unreality.” 

Against Scholem, I want to suggest that the Zohar is a text rooted deeply in the geographic context of its creation. To further raise the stakes, I contend that this is a work of literature which betrays the diasporic condition of its authors and, as such, can serve as a model for what it means at present to exist as a Jew in diaspora living in relationship with the land one inhabits.

Despite its celestial mood, then, the Zohar was and remains a collection of texts meant specifically for those who dwell in the world. Rabbi Joey Rosenfeld has said as much in his powerful interpretation of why the Zohar was written in Aramaic, the language of humanity, as opposed to that angelic dialect called Hebrew (indeed: “the malachim [angels] can’t understand targum [vernacular language]”). [5] We might ask what it means, this being the case, for the narrative sections of this anthology to be set in the Land of Israel—a land that probably felt even more foreign to Moses de Leon than it does to me. 

Implied in my question is a nagging suspicion that despite knowing, as a matter of simple philology, that the Zohar "comes from Spain," we have yet to fully reconcile with the fact that it doesn't come from anywhere other than Spain; in other words, this text is the record of a Jewish author expressing the inherited and generated wisdom of his community specifically within the landscape of his home, and that this landscape is as much a character in this narrative as any donkey driver the companions may encounter on their way. 

This detail matters especially given that the protagonists of the Zohar are almost always pictured outdoors, walking on a trail, and experiencing all the phenomena of the natural world. The "Upper Galilee" that is depicted here is encoded with the geography of medieval Spain—the only landscape with which de Leon and his comrades were familiar. More than any other text in the tradition of Jewish mystical literature, perhaps, the Zohar provides a model of diasporic Jews existing exactly where they are. The projection of the Galilee onto this landscape is not an exercise in otherworldly disassociation; it is, rather, a poetic function that grants the authors of Zohar license to write about their world as they experience it. As the Zohar is in the world, it is likewise about the experience of being a Jew in the world—that is, of being in diaspora. 

 

2. New antiquity

Reflecting on the herculean process of producing first the comprehensive, twelve-volume English translation of Zohar for Stanford University Press in 2018, Daniel Matt describes the difficulty of rendering what he terms “new-ancient words” out of zoharic Aramaic. A new-ancient word in the Zohar is an atemporal oxymoron, a neologism combining elements borrowed from a received Jewish Aramaic literary past and a medieval Spanish present. 

 

One can see the hands of the Zohar’s authors in the invention of these words and the veneer of antiquity lacquered over them. Matt’s description of a new antiquity alludes to “the dual nature of the Zohar’s secrets, recently composed yet ascribed to ancient sources.” [6] Reflected in this, I suggest, is the dual nature of the Jewish subject who exists simultaneously in the textual landscape of late antique Galilee and the lived present of his (their) Castilian surroundings. 

 

As Matt offers, the hybridity of the kabbalist’s identity reflects itself in the language of the Zohar. The construction we call “zoharic Aramaic” is native to Castilian kabbalah; Charles Mopsik describes it as an “independent idiolect” particular to the movement. [7] This form exists in our hands like a haunted house crowded with the barely concealed ghosts of classical Mediterranean language and their contemporaneous Iberian dialects, a multiplicity which invites the literary critic of Zohar to become a kind of archaeologist. Gershom Scholem points to the use of Arabic and medieval Spanish loanwords in the Zohar—including the “highly un-Midrashic” influence of the Spanish verb endulzar (=”to sweeten”). [8] Similarly, Moshe and Dalia Hoshen have identified the Greek and Latin provenance of a number of the Zohar’s “supposed neologisms,” [9] including the suggestion of the Greek κάστρα (castra) at origin of the zoharic קוסטרין.

 

Scholem, with a thoroughly German hatred of imprecision, criticizes the careless and “often quite preposterous” nature of the Zohar’s Aramaic. [10] This view is motivated by an assumption that the authors of the Zohar aspired toward the credibility lent by an aura of antiquity. My suggestion—diverting from academic orthodoxy—is that we imagine for a moment that the kabbalists of Castile had no intention to hide the many “un-Midrashic” languages which influenced their composition. This is not to suggest that the Zohar’s authors were actively interested in creating a multiglossic text but, instead, that multiglossia was inextricable from the lives of these men and their literary activity; as Jews living in the diaspora, it would have been utterly unnatural for them to conceive of writing a text which spoke in only one language.

This interpretation is informed by Daniel Boyarin’s approach to the “mixture of genres and mixture of languages” at play in the Babylonian Talmud. [11] For Boyarin, it is precisely the doubled (multiplied) orientation implied in the multiglossic nature of this text which marks the Talmud as the product of “the doubled consciousness and doubled locale that I call ‘diaspora’.” [12] Like the Talmud, the Zohar is a collection of texts which emerges out of the diaspora and documents the experience of diasporic Jewish life—an experience which includes the negotiation of multiple languages. Both the Zohar and the Babylonian Talmud can be represented by the image of a textile (textus, text) weaved from the strands of many cultural and linguistic influences. 

 

Approaching the Zohar through Boyarin’s reading of Talmudic multiglossia allows us to position this later, more opaque text as a similar representation, if not necessarily “theorization,” of Jewish diaspora. While perhaps not a self-conscious “diasporist manifesto” (per Boyarin’s description of the Talmud), then, the Zohar’s reflection of its Spanish context represents a model for Jews living in diaspora of what it means to be in relationship with one’s geographic context and the dual (multiple) identities this experience implies. 


 

3. A Rose By Any Other Name

Let’s think, then, about how the textual landscape of the Zohar is informed by the actual landscape of medieval Spain as experienced by its authors. I propose in this section to consider the geographic features of the zoharic universe through the lens of the linguistic method offered by Matt, as cited above. I will also factor into this calculus the centrality of a “dual consciousness” to the experience and expression of diaspora, as emphasized by Boyarin. Put differently: the physical properties of this fantastic world—its natural phenomena, its signifiers of place—exist per my reading as syntheses of two forms, (i) a constructed ancient Galilean literary inheritance and (ii) a contemporary Spanish reality. 

 

As in the discussion of the neologisms offered in the previous section, I do not mean to suggest here that one category of experience (the study of Jewish texts, particularly Talmud) should be understood as purely symbolic or virtual, and thus as subordinate to the “real,” “lived” experience of daily life in Castile. On the contrary, I offer that neither mode of experience—should we remain comfortable with such a delineation—can be neatly described as purely imaginary or purely phenomenological. Thirteenth-century Castile exerted a powerful symbolic influence on its Jewish habitants, who in turn borrowed much from the geographic descriptions of ancient Galilee offered by the Talmud in their construction of the zoharic universe. I think, alongside Matt and Boyarin, that this blending of the textual-historical and contemporary domains of Jewish life is an essential quality to diasporic subjectivity, and can be read out of the descriptions of the natural world offered by the diasporic authors of Zohar.

 

The “red and white rose” mentioned in the first page of the introduction to Zohar is a case in point: 

Just as a rose among thorns is colored red and white, so Assembly of Israel includes judgment and compassion. Just as a rose has thirteen petals, so Assembly of Israel has thirteen qualities of compassion surrounding Her on every side. [13]

 

On the one hand, the comparison of the assembly of Israel in this section to a shoshana [rose, lily, crocus, lotus?] reflects a longstanding literary tradition rooted in the classical rabbinic reception of the Song of Songs. [14] On the other hand, as Matt points out in his note to this verse, the introduction of the multicolored rose reflects a lived natural and social experience of medieval Spain. [15] The rosa gallica versicolor is a variety of striped red-white roses which were imported to Europe in the 12th century and favored by European aristocracy; its colloquial name “rosa mundi” is popularly connected with Rosamund Clifford, the legendary mistress of the English King Henry II. Whether or not the authors of Zohar ever personally saw this cultivated rose variation in the gardens of Spanish nobility— it’s unlikely — Matt here gestures at the idea that the image of a red and white rose was ubiquitous enough in the imagination of thirteenth-century Western Europeans to merit its introduction as a symbol on the first page of the Zohar. Similarly ubiquitous, the medical use of rosewater and rose oil in the Spanish middle ages exerts an analogous influence on the symbolic register of the Zohar.

 

A confluence of textual and geographical motifs can also be found in the caves of Zohar. The kabbalists frequently rely on the literary value of the cave as a site where mysteries are revealed; it is here, in the cavernous darkness, that “the Supernal Mother is crowned and the lights radiate from Her.” (Zohar 3:150a) In considering why caves are favored as a locus of mystery in the Zohar we must, of course, appreciate the importance of the cave to the talmudic account of Rabbi Shimon and his son Elazar (see BT Shabbat 33b). But we would be remiss if we failed to appreciate both the predominance of caverns in northern Spanish geography and their reflected pride of place in non-Jewish Spanish literature. Indeed, Nathan Wolski answers this question by turning our attention to “the prevalence of caves in Spanish legends and literature throughout the medieval period, no doubt influenced by the many caves found throughout the Spanish landscape.” [16]

 

I’ve chosen these two examples as a means of illustrating the manner within which the two modes of experience which combine to produce the “new-ancient” words, worlds, and geographies of Zohar function concurrently and inextricably in the diasporic subject. It is impossible to say that here the authors of Zohar describe a cave borrowed from the pages of the Talmud, whereas in another case they describe a cave based on their experience of the Spanish landscape. Instead, the rose—as red as it is white—is as much a reflection of rabbinic religious-literary influence as it is a product of European poetic influence. For the Jew writing in diaspora a symbol cannot be otherwise than numerous.

 

 Indeed, we should resist the impulse to split the psyche of the Zohar into two. In Boyarin’s words: 

It would be extremely misleading were we to speak of Islamic or Spanish influences on [their] work…. They are Spaniards contributing to and participating in Ibero-Arabian culture as fully and as importantly as any other figures in medieval Spanish history. At the same time, much of their cultural practice is specifically Jewish in content. … In order for us to see the one part of their work as authentic and Spanish and the other part as Jewish work influenced by Spanish culture, we have to schizophrenize them, split them into two distinct personalities. [17]

 

Rather, the authors of the Zohar have written the world as they experienced it: at once a reproduction of his textual inheritance and a reflection of his lived, contemporary reality. Rather than splitting the literary psyche of the Zohar into two parts—Jewish and Spanish—we should celebrate this work as a faithful expression of Jewish-Spanish culture, that is: an experienced reality which is at once entirely Jewish and entirely Spanish, which is to say entirely diasporic. 

 

The natural features of the Spanish landscape explored in the section served as a medium through which the kabbalists negotiated the symbols of their rabbinic legacy and onto which they projected their novel interpretations of Torah. The Zohar in this sense can serve as a model for those living in diaspora today for how to exist in relationship with land as Jews: rather than denying the possibility of a diasporic sense of place or positioning it against our “homeland in the text,” the Zohar understands our rootedness in the land to be completely coterminous with our rootedness in Torah. There are no clear boundaries between where our sense of belonging in Torah ends and where our place in Spain—in Cairo, in Baghdad, in Brooklyn, in Oakland—begins. Indeed, inversely, it would appear that to lose our relationship with the land we live on would imply, for the Zohar, “losing our place” in the secrets of Torah altogether.


 

4. Wherever We Are

 

Have we lost our place? 

 

On December 13 of last year, President Joe Biden addressed concerns amid a skyrocketing civilian death toll in Gaza that the tens of billions of dollars of American aid to the Israeli military (including the sale of $106 million worth of tank ammunition on December 9) would continue to be granted unconditionally. [18] Two days earlier, Biden said the following at a Hanukkah reception at the White House: 

 

My commitment to the safety of the Jewish people and the security of the state of Israel and its right to exist as an independent Jewish state is unshakable. Folks, were there no Israel there wouldn’t be a Jew in the world who is safe. [19]

 

Biden’s statement was widely condemned, but it remains a concise expression of the beliefs legitimizing the war in American political discourse. Writing in early January of 2024, during the escalation of “one of the most intense civilian punishment campaigns in history,” [20] it is clear to me that those who hold a stake in the continued bombardment of a captive Gaza and resist the increasingly popular calls for ceasefire do so while relying on the myth that nationalism (that young, strange ideology) is essential to the soul of a Jew, and that a flourishing Jewish existence somehow depends on the maintenance of a nation-state and the scale of violence required therein. 

 

It is an existential imperative that we (“we”—Jews, believers in the divine image of humanity) reject this lie. Our project, I offer, is one of memory. Imagining a Judaism beyond the state and its ideology depends on remembering the millennia of diasporic Jewish lives that preceded it and mourning the erasure of this memory in the preceding handful of generations. As the French-Algerian critic Houria Bouteldja has expressed eloquently, the destruction of Palestinian life and livelihood is premised on an initial dispossession of Jews from their place in diaspora: “[the West] managed to make you trade your religion, your history, and your memories for a colonial ideology … it is as if sorcerers had put a spell on you.” [21] What the Bundists called doikeit, I offer as the silent modus operandi of our history. The hereness of Zohar reminds of our stake in the world, in our homelands, and invites us to reclaim it. 

 

Have I lost my place? I’m reminded of a Sefardic sage’s parody of Isaiah 2:3: “For out of Tzarefat [France] will go out the Torah, and the Word of the Lord from Ashkenaz.” [22] For the authors of Zohar, these sacred loci might have been further localized to Castile and Aragaon; for myself, I’ve never been able to imagine a place more holy than Yosemite. Indeed, were I to narrativize my life—maybe in a California English-inflected Aramaic—I would write about picking leaves from the bay laurel trees as a kid to dry out and use as bsamim, spices for the Saturday evening havdalah rite. I would record how on Sukkot my family collects fallen redwood branches to use as s’chach, the roof material for our sukkah. I would hope that the generations would know where I come from and recognize that—in my idiomatic, ephemeral circumstance—my place in Oakland was also my place in Torah. 

Endnotes:

[1] Ariel Bension, The Zohar in Moslem and Christian Spain (London: Routledge, 1932), 3.

[2] Against early assumptions that Moshe de Leon wrote the main sections of the Zohar between 1270-1300, the scholarly consensus today considers the Zohar to be an anthology of texts written by a number of authors. For this reason I refer throughout this paper to the “authors” rather than the “author” of the Zohar. For an excellent recent review of the scholarship on this subject see Leore Sachs-Shmueli, "The Porous Boundaries of the Zohar in the Age of Print: A Zoharic Homily on the Sinew of the Thigh as a Signifier of Sexual Threat" AJS Review: The Journal of the Association for Jewish Studies 47, no. 2 (2023): 368-369, n. 1.

[3] This anticipates the exilic poetry of Sephardi authors like Grace Aguilar, who lamented the 1492 expulsion from Spain. For an example of Sephardi poetry's expression of the trauma of exile from the Spanish "homeland," see Aguilar's "The Edict: A Tale of 1492"; Grace Aguilar Records of Israel (J. Mortimer, 1844), 79. This is not to discount the fact that a number of poems written by Jews in pre-1942 Andalusia dealt with the theme of exile, including notable examples by Yehuda Halevi and Abraham ibn Ezra. As Peter Cole points out, however, these often express the pain of an intra-Spanish exile rather than a longing for the Land of Israel proper. See Cole, Peter. The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 444. Regardless, it would seem self-apparent that the Zohar is more interested in the mechanisms of redemption than the experience of exile. For more on this theme see David Wacks, Double Diaspora in Sephardic Literature: Jewish Cultural Production Before and After 1492 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015).

[4] Gershom Scholem, Zohar, The Book of Splendor: Basic Readings from the Kabbalah (New York: Schocken, 1995), xvi.

[5] Podcast available here, 35:30.

[6] Daniel C. Matt (May 22, 2018), “A New-Ancient Zohar,” Stanford University Blog. Retrieved January 12, 2024, from [https://stanfordpress.typepad.com/blog/2018/05/a-new-ancient-zohar.html.

[7] Charles Mopsik, “Late Judeo-Aramaic: The Language of Theosophic Kabbalah”, trans. Ariel Klein, Aramaic Studies 4, no. 1 (2006): 25–26,

[8] Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York: Schocken, 1995), 165.  See also 388, n. 44.

[9] M. and D. Hoshen, הזוהר בספר לשונות מספר לבירור, Sinai 110 (1992), pp. 274–77. Cited in Alinda Damsma, “Aramaic of the Zohar: The Status Quaestionis,” in Jewish Languages in HIstorical Perspective, ed. Lily Kahn (Leiden: Brill, 2018), 13.

[10] Scholem, Major Trends, 165.

[11]  Daniel Boyarin, Traveling Homeland: The Babylonian Talmud as Diaspora (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 54. Readers are also encouraged to return to Laynie Soloman’s excellent piece “Holiness Beyond the State: Diasporic Halakha,” published in Gashmius Vol. 1, which also deals explicitly with the role of Talmud study relative to the formation of diasporic identity.

[12] Boyarin, Traveling Homeland, ibid.

[13] (Zohar 1:1a, trans. Matt)

[14] See Michael Fishbane, The JPS Bible Commentary: Song of Songs (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2015), 55.

[15] Daniel Matt, The Zohar: Pritzker Edition, Vol. 1 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 1.

[16] Nathan Wolski, A Journey Into the Zohar: An Introduction to the Book of Radiance (Albany: SUNY Press, 2010), 38.

[17] Boyarin, Traveling Homeland, 107.

[18]  Natasha Bertrand, Katie Bo Lillis, and MJ Lee, “Biden Administration Makes Clear It Has No Plans to Place Conditions on Military Aid to Israel despite Pressure from Lawmakers | CNN Politics,” CNN, December 13, 2023, https://www.cnn.com/2023/12/13/politics/us-conditions-military-aid-israel/index.html

[19]  Rob Eshman, “Israel Is No Safe Haven. So Why Are Jews Defending Biden’s Comments?,” The Forward, December 12, 2023, https://forward.com/opinion/573254/biden-israel-safe-haven-jews/

[20] Historian Robert Pape remarks in Julia Frankel, “Israel’s Military Campaign in Gaza Seen as among the Most Destructive in Recent History, Experts Say,” AP News, January 11, 2024, https://apnews.com/article/israel-gaza-bombs-destruction-death-toll-scope-419488c511f83c85baea22458472a796 

[21]  Houria Bouteldja, Whites, Jews, and Us: Toward a Politics of Revolutionary Love (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016), 57.

[22] Teshuvot HaRiva”sh, no. 376. Accessed via Boyarin, Traveling Homeland, 50.

Jesse Noily

Jesse Noily (he/him) is a master's student at the University of Chicago Divinity School with a focus in medieval Jewish studies. His research interests include the Zohar, Hebrew manuscript culture, and Jewish and Christian hermeneutics.

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