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Exploring Mystical Texts More With Heart Than Head

DREAMS OF BEING EATEN ALIVE: The Literary Core of the Kabbala; By David Rosenberg; Harmony Books; $24, 192 pages


Nowadays, the Jewish tradition of mysticism known as the cabala has taken on a certain chic, thanks to some of its more celebrated students, including Madonna and Roseanne. But the cabala is something far older and richer than its modern practitioners might suggest, as we are reminded by David Rosenberg in "Dreams of Being Eaten Alive," his remarkable meditation on the cabala and a translation of its key texts.

"The cabala was the most vital aspect of Judaism during a time in medieval and Renaissance Europe when the dominant belief was that Jews had been superseded by Christianity and had to die out," Rosenberg says. "Most people, even among the most cultured, would have been shocked to realize how hard Judaism fought to remain alive and growing, both intellectually and spiritually."

To credit the cabala with the salvation and preservation of Judaism is itself a radical notion--the metaphysical ideas and the magical practices of the cabala have always been regarded with embarrassment and even outright loathing by mainstream Judaism, whose rabbis preferred the legalistic texts of the Talmud over the erotic parables of the cabala. But Rosenberg goes even further, insisting that the best way to understand the cabala's mysteries is to approach them as one would a troubling dream.

"All of great literature was written as if a dream," Rosenberg proposes, and none more so than the cabala. Indeed, he suggests that the "dreamlike core" of the Zohar, a 13th century work that serves as the basic text of the cabala--and, above all, its explicit sexual metaphors--is akin to "an uncertain journey out of the body that the soul takes every night while we dream."

"We are approaching the method of the cabala," he says. "It can only be done if we own up to our dreams, because that is where we learn that the soul has a life of its own but that it can't be separated from sex."

Rosenberg is a distinguished poet, translator, anthologist and critic, and he brings these skills to bear on decoding the meanings hidden away in cabalistic texts. His daring translations of the cabala can be compared to his rendering of biblical texts in "The Book of J," which he wrote with Harold Bloom. Thus, when he suggests that the cabalists, who worked some seven centuries ago, "are our first postmodern writers," we can see what he means.

The lush and provocative imagery of the cabala, as he points out, is never quite what it seems. But he acts as a self-appointed interpreter and guide, bookending his translations with opening and closing essays that allow us to appreciate the complexity of the cabala even if we aren't quite sure of its intended meanings.

"The central metaphor of the cabala itself is that the core of the Bible itself presents a beautiful disguise, right down to each single letter of its alphabet," he says. "The Zohar also demands the curiosity to discover the body beneath the garment of its own text."

The passages that Rosenberg has selected and translated are rich, evocative, sometimes beguiling, sometimes troubling, sometimes both at once. From the pages of the Zohar, for example, he shares a fanciful story about Adam and Eve--Adam shuns Eve in favor of sexual union with "female spirits" who give birth to "ghosts and demons," but Eve insists on approaching him by night and arousing his desire for her. "She was exquisitely clothed, as if an actress in the first drama," goes the passage that describes Eve's act of seduction. "He was beguiled by memory come to life, a light slap in the face, a first kiss."

Ever faithful to the spirit of the cabala, Rosenberg refuses to decode the texts in a straightforward way. Rather, he insists that understanding will come, if it comes at all, through the imaginative act of reading and pondering rather than by any intellectual analysis. The experience of the cabala, he says, is like the experience of listening to the blues or reading a poem. "For access to the cabalistic cosmos, heartbreak is central and essential," he writes. "No matter how much intellectual study is involved, the reader cannot 'understand' the text unless he or she has offered his heart to be broken on the altar of poetry."

At moments, "Dreams of Being Eaten Alive" is as much about Rosenberg's intimate encounter with the cabala as it is about the cabala itself. In that sense, the book is a courageous act of self-revelation. But Rosenberg makes a compelling case for an ecstatic rather than a cerebral approach to these often difficult passages: "The cabala begs for more cabalistic texts themselves," he says, "not footnotes." Anyone who has puzzled over the vast literature about the cabala will be gratified to watch as Rosenberg makes his way into the cabala and then invites the rest of us to follow.


Jonathan Kirsch, a Book Review contributing writer, is the author of, most recently, "Moses: A Life."

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