Friday, May 4, 2012

Hugh Nibley and the Wisdom of the Zohar

Hugh Nibley. One the one hand, a brilliant, erudite man. On the other hand, well, let's just say I am far from being uncritical of Hugh Nibley's work. His methodology tends to be outdated now and has been for a while. His greatest weakness to me is what amounts almost to a disregard for historical developement and different cultural significances when choosing his parrallels. He seemed to presuppose an unchanging, universal perspective. The kind of approach heavily indebted to James Frazer's Golden Bough. Carl Jung and Mircea Eliade were probably the best known proponents of that school.
Not that such a universal approach can't yield valuable insights, but a nuanced approach which takes into account the differences as well as historical developments is going to yield far more valuable insights. Sure, one could use Lurianic texts to elucidate Ptolemaic hypocephali,  but unless care is taken with the differences, the results would be skewed.
This being said, Nibley's work was pioneering and important. Much of Mormon scholarship would not exist today if it weren't for his efforts. Nibley's greatest strength was not taking scriptures at face value. Perhaps I should say he looked beyond a Mormon point of view and tried reading them from an Ancient Near Eastern one. He also went into great depth, though not always in the right direction. Lehi as a Bedouin is a classic example. There is and was more to the Middle East than just Bedouins, indeed, there has always been a sharp distinction between them and the settled populations until just recently. I grew up near a Bedouin village in northern Israel and in my childhood the last of the great marauders had just begun dying off. Bedouins raids were a fact of life for farmers until the 1930s and 40s.
There are quite a few passages in 1 Nephi, such as the divine instruction to light no fires, or the panic surrounding the broken bow incident, that make little sense if Lehi were a desert adept.

It is nice to see Nibley referenced by non-LDS scholars.
In the introduction to part V, section I of the third volume of his "The Wisdom of the Zohar", Isaiah Tishby wrote, "These two tendencies: the positing of a Temple in the upper world, and interpretation of the Tabernacle, the Temple, and all their related equipment as symbols of cosmic and supernatural phenomena, are developed and expanded much further in rabbinic aggadah[3] and Christian theology[4]."
Footnote number four references H. Nibley, "Christian Envy of the Temple." Nibley's article is available online in its entirety. Definitely one of his better efforts.
"The Wisdom of the Zohar" is an important work in the study of Jewish mysticism, and won Tishby the Bialik and Nordau Prizes. It made available in accessible, Modern Hebrew important passages from the Zohar. The Zohar was originally written in arcane, obscure Aramaic, making it hard for the lay reader to understand. Even traditionally, many Jewish communities ritually recited the Zohar without an understanding of the text being considered necessary.
While there were other Hebrew translations with commentaries, such as R. Yehudah Ashlag's edition, Tishby's anthology provided scholarly introductions and notes. The essay on the development of Zohar criticism is particularly valuable. If you are looking for a way into the Zohar and Kabbalah in general, I would highly recommend Tishby's three volumes.
Appearing in a footnote like that is not bad for a complete hack and laughing stock of the academic world like Nibley, as some would have it.

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