Secret History of the Zohar

The Secret History of the Zohar at the Hebrew Union College

I sat in the library. I stayed late. I loved the open stacks and the easy access to my particular interest the kabbalistic texts. I stacked them on my desk by the window that faced the back parking lot where I studied. I stayed until closing, almost every night, trying to make sense.

One evening I went out for something to eat at Pop’s Lebanese on Calhoun Street. When I returned, there was an older gentleman standing at my desk, paging through the books I had left there. I startled him. It was as if I had caught him going through my dresser.

Oh, excuse me, he said, please, I’m sorry, but – are you interested in these texts?

Yes, I said.

They are beautiful, aren’t they. Come, I’ll show you some things.

He took me into the stacks and pulled down text after text, also took me to the reference shelves where he introduced me to resources.

I have to go back to work now, he said. He padded quietly in and out of the adjacent wing to the library where the rare books were stored.

Who is that man? I asked at the desk.

Dr. Lehman. He works for the library.

Dr. Lehman was Israel O. (Otto, he used his middle name only as initial) Lehman, a manuscripts expert who spent almost all his time cataloging the many manuscripts in the rare book room of the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. He often worked late into the night.

I sat at my desk in the library. I watched him come quietly through the corridor to and from the rare books. Sometimes he stopped at my desk, said hello, introduced me to other texts and reference resources, helping me to penetrate the texts I had taken to my desk. He always wore a suit, tie, his pants were too short and he often wore bright red socks. In winter, he carried Altoids in his jacket pocket that he offered me. I had never seen Altoids before.

We spoke often. Always about the texts: Zohar, Bahir, Yetzirah, he loved the classical Kabbalah. He often mentioned several names well known to me who were his former students. I taught these texts for many years, he said, in Europe. Not here.

Dr. Lehman was a student at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums founded in Berlin by Abraham Geiger in 1872 and closed down in 1942, from where he graduated in 1936. He often cited his teacher Dr. Baeck. Dr. Lehman called himself a Semiticist. He stayed in Germany until 1939. From there he went to England where he told us he learned to tend a proper English garden and raised up a few students.

He curated the Hebrew manuscripts at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. He taught liturgy and Medieval Jewish philosophy at the Leo Baeck College in London. He offered to teach Arabic (Arabic was part of the curriculum at the Hochshule) but the College elected not to offer it. He was vague about his English experience but he brought with him to America an English affectation that was laid on top of his more central European roots.

I introduced Dr. Lehman to my girlfriend (we would later marry). She had dinner with him one night and asked him if he would take on students.

The next time I saw him, I asked again. Would you teach us?

Yes, of course, but – I work for the library.

Ah.

I went to the Dean.

I’ve been speaking with Dr. Lehman. He has some background in kabbalistic texts. I wonder if we could set up a course.

Mmm, the Dean said, well, you know, he works for the library. No, I don’t think it would be possible.

I returned to Dr. Lehman. If I can secure a room, would you begin teaching us?

Certainly.

My friend’s mother supervised the dorm. Could I get a key to a room in the dorm where we could hold an, er, informal class? No one needs to know.

No problem honey.

In the beginning, there were four of us. We sat with Dr. Lehman every Tuesday evening and learned. We began with the Zohar. Dr. Lehman pointed out which elements of the text had a Spanish feel and which a Palestinian feel. He moved between languages – Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Spanish, French, German, Greek – untangling texts that would have been impossible without his background. We learned that a knowledge of some combination of half a dozen languages was often the key in unlocking these texts.

The first piece in the Zohar Dr. Lehman taught us was a midrash on Mishpatim (Exodus 24:18), responding to the question — what did Moses see — when he arrives at a certain place.

So holy we must not speak about it. Up to a certain place – we have arrived at the limits of language, said Dr. Lehman. Here Moses enjoys the pleroma – a sense of Everything – about which we can say too much.

We later went through much of the Zohar, sometimes in the Aramaic, sometimes the Hebrew of the Mishnat HaZohar, and then the Sefer Yetzirah and Sefer Bahir.

We sat with him for three years. There were sometimes three, sometimes four, never more than five of us. We read commentaries as well as the texts, Dr. Lehman unlocked all sources for us. He suggested we learn Arabic as some of the commentaries that would be useful to us had not been translated.

I took a year of Arabic with Dr. Yerushalmi and soon we were reading Saadya ben Yosef (known in Arabic as Sa’id ‘ibn Yusuf al-Fayyumi, tenth century) commentary on Yetzirah in the original Arabic. Dr. Lehman brought us copies of the texts. We went deep.

Often the pieces were mysterious and lost to interpretation from the various versions of the texts. One of the Mishnahs of the Bahir, for example, was impenetrable until we unraveled the paronomasia from an Arabic cognate to the Hebrew that was the missing element to our understanding.

Paronomasia, Dr. Lehman explained, drawing out every syllable from a word I was not accustomed to hearing but like that and pleonastic, pleroma, pericope, they entered my vocabulary through my teacher. I often hear myself describing a pericope, a text a word a phrase as pleonastic, or an example of paronomasia and I explain it, citing my teacher Dr. Lehman who was precise and elevated with language.

He always began with the text. He prepared the texts carefully for us, sometimes bringing samples from several sources when a critical text of a certain piece had not yet been assembled. He repeated this often: You have to promise that when you leave here, you will teach what you have learned. He reminded us that the material we studied should only be approached with the greatest respect.

He was especially keen on the Zoharic sense of interpretation. The pericopes we studied from the Zohar always reflected a careful reading of the source text. He taught us that the imagination of the Zohar began with a clever reading of the Biblical text and a reluctance to reveal too much. It was written in half tones, he called it.

He also taught us from the beginning that the kabbalistic literature was a colorful, lively, as well as a visionary literature. This was imaginative material, but not at all unapproachable, and he was certain people would be hungry for it. He reiterated that we were entrusted now to be its teachers.

We all nodded our heads and promised him that we would teach what he had given us. We met weekly and though I tried to draw other students into our circle, no one was as committed as the core group of four or five and there was something in the secret nature of our meeting that contributed to the enchantment of the lessons.

That’s as much as has been written of the secret history of the Zohar at the Hebrew Union College. I often tell this story, the story of Dr. Lehman and our secret class, when I teach Kabbalah, the classical Kabbalah, as revealed to me by Dr. Lehman of blessed memory.

I have a picture of Dr. Lehman and our little class at ordination. He looks proud.

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