Five questions with scholar Nan Goodman
Nan Goodman doesn’t spend much time wondering what Madonna, Mick Jagger or Ashton Kutcher may have gotten from dabbling in the “Kabbalah trend” of the early 2000s. What concerns Goodman are what people are searching for—and what might be offered to them in return—when they approach Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah.
Goodman, a professor in the University of Colorado Boulder’s Department of English and the director of the Program in Jewish Studies, explores this and other topics in her unusual course “Mysticism and the Jewish American Literary Tradition,” which she will teach again in fall 2018.
She uses medieval literature, modern and contemporary literature and history to examine such questions as, “What are we doing?,” “How are we all connected?” and “Why are we here?” as well as the history and tradition of examining those timeless, universal matters.
I love teaching about Shabbtai Sevi because I’m obsessed with him. Obsessed!"
Identifying herself as “an early Americanist by training,” Goodman was first introduced to Jewish mysticism through her research in covenant theology, Christian Hebraism and the 17th century puritans, who “truly believed themselves to be the surrogate Jews, or the chosen people.”
Using the terms “Jewish mysticism” and “Kabbalah” not quite interchangeably (mysticism is a belief system, Kabbalah a compendium of the written materials that compose that belief system), she explains Kabbalah as “another way of trying to understand what the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, or Torah, are all about.” To do this, she investigates its two most mysterious aspects: the creation story and the story of Ezekiel’s chariot.
With more enthusiasm than can be captured in print, she recently explained her course and its “secret content” and importance.
First, please share what you’d like your students to gain or take away from this course. Why is Jewish mysticism important?
Well, the class is introductory, and that’s a good thing. At a large public university, we’re committed to introducing and exposing students to a wide diversity of knowledge, opinions and cultural traditions. This course is unusual because the content matter is usually not among the courses that are offered at a university, not to mention a large public university.
The idea was a very simple one, to expose students on a basic level to a body of knowledge, namely Jewish mysticism, that has been extremely important on the development of western civilization.
So, is Jewish mysticism basically a synonym on your syllabus for Kabbalah, because everything seems to reference early Kabbalistic work?
Yes! I reference the Kabbalah a lot in class. Contrary to what most people think, the Kabbalah is not a single text, but a series of texts, and one of the joys I get from the class is reminding the students that the texts that make up the Kabbalah were not widely available, even for those who were literate.
There were all kinds of restrictions on who could read the Kabbalah. It was hidden, forbidden information. I take great pleasure, and I think they do, too, in being able to access these texts, like, “Hey, go home. Read the first 30 pages of The Bahir,” which is an early Kabbalistic text. So, I contextualize it like that for them. They like the idea that they’re reading stuff that has secrets.
Would you mind explaining what Kabbalah is?
Well, when most people think about the Jewish hermeneutical tradition, which is the Jewish interpretive tradition, they think about the rabbinical tradition, right? They think about texts like the Mishnah (or Talmud), or the aggadah, which are non-legalistic explanatory texts … So, the rabbis went back to the Hebrew Bible, which is a very rich and confusing text, and they thought, “Let me see whether we can explain this better. Let’s see if there’s a different way of understanding the Hebrew Bible and particularly the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. Let’s see whether we can figure it out,” because on this page it says this and on this page it says that, and there’s either a contradiction between them, or a question that’s left open.
So, in the rabbinic tradition, the impulse was to explain, and we’re more or less familiar with that in our secular understandings of the Jewish tradition.
The Kabbalah is another interpretation of the Torah, of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. It’s another explanation. It’s the explanation that is not rabbinic and doesn’t figure as much in traditional doctrinal Judaism.
In particular, the Kabbalah tried to answer the two most mysterious aspects of the Hebrew Bible, or Torah. The first is the creation story; most people think that there was just one creation story, but in fact, there are two. There’s the first creation, which really doesn’t work. The Kabbalah tells the story of God filling these vessels with light, and the vessels shatter because they cannot contain the light, and then he does it again. But the second time God puts the light into humans. And humans can do something that these inanimate vessels couldn’t, which is to say humans can reflect the light back. And that’s the only way that the light can be contained.
Part of the story the Kabbalah tells is how humans have had to go and retrieve the shards of those broken vessels that shattered when they could not contain the light. Humans are still doing that, and the shards of light are all over, including in really bad places. So, there’s an assumption that if people are really doing their work well, they will have some familiarity with evil on the way toward restoration.
The second most mysterious aspect of the Torah is the story of Ezekiel’s chariot. So, there are two trains of Kabbalistic thought, named for those two stories. One is named for the creation story, known in Hebrew as bereshit and the other is Ezekiel’s chariot known in Hebrew as Merkabah.
Contrary to popular opinion, the Kabbalah is not an ancient text, although there are some who argue that there are ancient versions of it. But most people believe that the Kabbalistic texts, including The Bahir, the Sefer Yetzirah and the Zohar, which are the three major Kabbalistic texts—I read them with the students in class—were written in the Middle Ages. They’re medieval texts, written in Spain and France, for the most part.
Speaking of your reading list, is there anything on your syllabus particularly meaningful to you, something specific that you look forward to teaching?
Well, I love teaching about Shabbtai Sevi because I’m obsessed with him. Obsessed! I’m writing a book about him. He was the false messiah in the 17th century, and he drew an unprecedented number of Jews to his side, who really thought that he was the messiah. In the end, he converted to Islam under threat of death. He was a disseminator of a certain kind of Kabbalistic thought, developed by a man named Isaac Luria.
Was there a lesson or unit that brought you unexpected joy or pleasure this past semester?
So, we just did a unit on the Shekinah. The Shekinah is a Jewish female goddess, or god. We read about her in the Zohar. There are magnificent metaphors about the Shekinah. She is the radiance that does not shine. She’s often thought of as a mother and as the moon. My favorite metaphor for her is “the breath.” And she’s the one who goes with the Jewish people into exile. She’s embodied. She hovers over them. She protects them. The Shekinah is referenced obliquely in the Hebrew Bible, but she’s really central to many of the Kabbalistic writings. She is the feminine divine presence, the feminine emanation of the godhead. And when I say that, most students’ eyes pop out of their heads. They have no idea that Judaism has a concept of a feminine godhead! So, that’s a wonderful place to begin with them.
The week after the class on the Kabbalistic sources for the Shekhinah, we read many contemporaneous poets who write about the Shekinah. So, one of the great things about the class is that students get to see how these ideas are on peoples’ minds now. We read Marge Piercy. We read Alicia Ostriker. We read Joy Ladin. These are contemporaneous poets who are working with this material.
Similarly, when we look at some of the early notions of secrecy within the Kabbalah and the connection of this secrecy to the development of modern psychology, the students flip out. You know, Freud and Jung were very much in touch with Jewish mystical sources. So, the idea of looking for something that is somehow buried or hidden, what we would more familiarly today refer to as the unconscious, runs parallel with mystical knowledge. That’s been a huge amount of fun.
So, the excitement for me is about showing students this whole body of work that is asking these big questions like, “Why are we here?” and “Where are we going?” and “How do we live purposeful lives?”
And maybe they’re used to thinking about those questions in their literature or history classes. But that’s what Jewish mysticism is all about. That’s what it is in its entirety. It’s asking those questions. So that’s really a very high-level order of interest for me, and it’s why I teach the class.