Teaching Zohar through a Progressive Jewish Lens

Sacred and mystical Jewish texts are usually studied at home or in the synagogue. But on a recent evening in Manhattan, a progressive Jewish community read the Zohar, a text of Jewish mysticism written in the 13th century in Spain, while seated around a checkered tablecloth at Cowgirl, a non-kosher, Texas-style restaurant at 519 Hudson Street. They were celebrating the festival of Tu Bishvat, which marks the awakening of the trees of the Holy Land. Eight members of The New Shul celebrated by ordering fruit-laced drinks. 

The New Shul is a progressive Jewish organization founded in 1999 that explores Judaism through a creative, inclusive, and modern lens, said Rabbi Misha Shulman. Tu Bishvat, on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, is a minor festival, more often celebrated by the Orthodox community. But on this Saturday evening, The New Shul community recaptured some of the mystical elements of the faith.  

Zohar is the text of Jewish mysticism, Shulman said. “It is an Aramaic text of Kabbalah written in the 13th century in Spain.”   

The table was filled with sangria, frozen margaritas, red and white wine, a bowl of fried okra, and nachos for everyone to share.  

“I brought a bag of fruit for us too,” Shulman said. He then said a blessing over the fruit, took a sip of his sangria and began to read the first page of the stapled packet of Zohar chapters from the Idra Rabba Qadusha (Greater Holy Assembly): 

And it is written (Ecclesiastes 5.6): Suffer not your mouth to cause thy flesh to sin. 

For neither does the world remain firm, except through secrets. And in worldly affairs there be so great a need for secrets…

One congregant, Susan Meyers, asked: “What is the meaning of secrets here?” 

Shulman slightly grinned at the question. “Remember not to read this text too literally,” he said. “Secrets can be interpreted as knowledge that cannot be fully understood by people — the text continues to say that these secrets are ‘matters not even revealed unto the highest angels.’” 

One congregant nodded, reassured, as another snapped her fingers in agreement. 

It had been nearly 30 minutes of reading and discussing the Zohar. The first round of drinks and appetizers were nearly finished. 

The secret of the Lord YHVH is with them that fear Him… 

Nina Kaufelt leaned forward and turned her body toward Shulman as she asked, “Why is YHVH written here, instead of Adonai?” Shulman responded that this is a literary text, not prayer, so it was fine to read YHVH aloud. 

Those around the table took turns reading aloud, starting to raise their voices as the restaurant filled up. 

“It is often said that you shouldn't read Kabbalah until you are 40,” Shulman said glancing meaningfully at Serena Sarch, 27, and me. 

In two hours, we had made it halfway through the 12-page packet. Groups of people were constantly filtered in and out of the restaurant. The waiters periodically cleared the table and asked if anyone wanted anything else whenever there was a break in teaching. Shulman ordered another sangria. He finished teaching in the wooden booth beneath a warm-yellow chandelier with carved, deer-shaped antlers, a rustic-framed picture of cowgirls, and a horseshoe.

Druze Faith: A Philosophy Carried From Past to Present 

Members of the Druze faith are scattered all over New York City; there is no house of worship where they can meet. Prayer is not central to the Druze religion, which makes a house of worship much less important than for other religions. In the Druze faith, not everyone identifies as religious. There are the initiated, who wear distinct garb and read the holy books, and the uninitiated who do not. 

Still, all Druze are connected by their values and beliefs.

“It is a way of life,” said Wassim Malaeb, owner of Samad’s Gourmet, a small deli at Broadway and 111th Street in Manhattan. Malaeb, 54, will eagerly tell you that he is not religious, but he has become an informal teacher of the religion for many students at the nearby Columbia University who have questions about the Druze. 

Malaeb is a Lebanese Druze; there are also Druze communities in Syria and Israel. There are fewer than one million members of the Druze faith, only 10 percent of whom are initiated in the faith’s religious practices.

Malaeb is always happy to provide over-the-counter wisdom about his faith. While he’s not formally religious, he says he feels more connected to his faith with every passing year. Still, he describes the Druze faith more as a philosophy than a religion — he says it “summarizes everything.”

A foundational principle of the Druze is the belief in reincarnation. The Druze’s holy book: Kitab al-Hikma, the Book of Wisdom, is only available to religious Druze. Thus, teaching holy scriptures or extensive religious services are not central to the community. You learn these principles through your upbringing, or between the vessels filled with nuts and spices in Samad’s Gourmet.

“Those who remember their past life are people who died too young and are still attached to life,” Malaeb said. He knows of one soul that he met twice in his lifetime, which is his proof that people are reincarnated. The moment of reincarnation is most visible within children: babies that cry are dreaming about their past lives; babies who are born dead are examples of souls that did not transfer.

Malaeb believes that God is within him. This is what allows him to move his body; it is the connection between body and soul. He also believes that this life affects the next — if you have been a good person, your next life will be much easier. 

While Malaeb might not remember his own past life; his current life of food service and informal teaching can only mean that he was good in the previous one.