5 essential books on Kabbalah
The Kabbalah, literally “reception” or “tradition” in Hebrew, is a vast and rich body of texts, ideas and practices, dating from antiquity and a living tradition up to the present day.
Although largely esoteric, Kabbalah has played a crucial role in Jewish history and represents an important chapter in the religious history of mankind.
Like halakha (traditional Jewish law) and other traditions of Jewish thought, the Kabbalistic tradition integrates thought and practice in the service of God. He creatively reads and re-reads the Hebrew Bible, traditional Jewish law and practice, and the Talmud (rabbinic commentaries), seeking to gain direct knowledge and intimate communion with divinity itself from our own deeply conflicted and flawed world. .
As always in the world of Jewish texts, the riches are so vast and so intertwined that one no longer knows where to begin. Moreover, drawing inspiration from the book of Genesis, in which the word of God creates the entire cosmos, Kabbalists understand the Hebrew language itself as the very substance of Being.
This may seem like a hurdle to the English reader, but we have to start somewhere. Fortunately, there are now several excellent volumes to start with.
Barry Holtz, editor, Back the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts (Simon & Schuster, 1984)
This volume (almost all of whose authors were Brandeis alumni, professors, or both) is a wonderful introduction to classic Jewish texts, including Kabbalah. Historical investigations, literary analysis, and careful pedagogy inform each essay. Last year I took a reading course on this book with an undergraduate student and was struck by how fresh and illuminating this volume is almost 40 years after it was published.
Arthur Green, A Guide to the Zohar (Stanford University Press, 2003)
This book opens the doors not only to the Zohar – written in the Middle Ages and perhaps the most central kabbalistic work – but also to the centuries of thought and practice that led up to the Zohar. It provides an invaluable introduction to robust scholarly debates about the origins and meaning of the Zohar.
Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, Arthur Green, a leading contemporary Jewish educator and theologian, deftly weaves scholarship, acumen and existential concern into a richly resonant yet still human voice.
Ariel Evan Mayse, ed. From the Depth of the Well: An Anthology of Jewish Mysticism (Paulist Press, 2014)
Mayse is one of the best young Kabbalah scholars today. His work synthesizes erudition, philosophical acuity and marvelous literary sensibility.
This anthology of kabbalistic texts, carefully selected, introduced, translated and annotated, takes the reader through the kabbalistic tradition from its beginnings to the end of the 20th century. It is a pleasure in itself and an invaluable basis for further study.
The poetry of Kabbalah: Mystical Verse from Jewish Tradition, translated and annotated by Peter Cole, co-edited with an afterword by Aminadav Dykman (Yale University Press, 2012)
In many ways, Kabbalah escapes and creatively blurs our usual categories of philosophy, poetry, myth, theology, ritual, etc.
Peter Cole is one of our finest living translators, a wonderful poet and accomplished scholar, and Aminadav Dykman is an eminent scholar of literary translation. Here they present kabbalistic texts from antiquity to the present day in a way that conveys both their theological richness and their sheer expressive and imaginative power.
The translations are elegant, flowing, strikingly beautiful, yet faithful to the originals. They are accompanied by rich endnotes that expose the abundance of scholarly discussion of the texts and of the Hebrew and Aramaic texts themselves, from ancient ascension texts to contemporary Hebrew poetry.
Marcia Falk, editor and translator, The dramatic difference: Selected Zelda Poems (Hebrew Union College Press, 2004)
A lifelong ultra-Orthodox Jerusalemite and member of the dynastic family of Chabad Hasidism, Zelda Shneurson Mishkovsky — worshiped simply as Zelda — wrote poems throughout the 20th century that are a genre unto themselves. Spectacularly beautiful, lyrical, caressing yet inviting, his work weaves the recesses of Biblical, Rabbinic, Kabbalistic and Hasidic Hebrew into a modern idiom that delves deep into the prosaic aspects of everyday life while opening up a kind of transcendence that is its own. own.
Not a rabbi or, God forbid, an academic (although she was a schoolteacher, and one of her students was none other than the Israeli novelist Amos Oz), her poems offer an entry into types of inner lives that propelled kabbalists over the centuries and suggests that these remarkable transcendent poetic experiences and the moral reflection they bring are still possible today.
His translator, Marcia Falk, is an accomplished liturgist and poet; reading his work, even if it is someone else’s translation, is his own reward.
For more on Marcia Falk’s work, see Less God, More Feminism: A New Haggadah from an Acclaimed Poet and New Prayers for Ancient Jewish Holidays.