‘R. ‘Aqiva said: Anyone who wants to study this teaching … if they talk about it to their companion, let them tell them (only) a single letter from the beginning and (only) a single letter from the end, but do not connect this (letter) to that (letter), lest they screw up and destroy the universe ….’ – Hekhalot Zuṭarti, Ms. Oxford 1531 (Schäfer, Synopse §424).
‘Reveal to me all the secrets of the universe!’ – Ms. T.-S. K 1.128, in a magical spell conjuring the angel Metatron.
Course description: An introduction to select Jewish secret teachings about God, language, and the ritual repair of the created order (tiqqun ‘olam). Many of these circulate under the generic label of Kabbalah (i.e., ‘tradition’; or more literally ‘stuff you have gotten face-to-face from a teacher’). YOU MUST PROMISE NOT TO REVEAL WHAT WE DISCUSS OUTSIDE OF THIS CLASS; otherwise, you risk dissolving the universe (along with all of us) into nothingness.
Texts: The following textbook is required for this course:
Alan Unterman, ed., The Kabbalistic Tradition: An Anthology of Jewish Mysticism (London & New York: Penguin Books, 2008).
Other primary texts and/or secondary readings will be distributed on Canvas as needed.
a. Readings. The nature of this course entails a significant amount of close reading and reflection. Students are responsible for anticipating and completing the reading assignments (outlined below) in a timely manner. Every student is expected to read and to be prepared to critically expound the work assigned for each class meeting.
b. Seminar presentations/papers. At almost every class meeting, one or more students will be responsible for leading the first part of our collective discussion of that week’s reading assignment from our required readings. Students can use the template found later in this syllabus as a rough guide for their presentation. All students (including that week’s discussion leader(s)) will prepare and electronically submit to the instructor before the beginning of class a written summary of the primary points which emerge from that week’s reading assignment (maximum length of five  pages). The instructor’s evaluation of the student’s collective written summaries and oral presentations (based on the scale √+ = A-; √ = C+; √- = D) will comprise 75% of the course grade.
c. Final take-home essay. Instead of an in-class three-hour final examination, you will prepare a final essay wherein you will be expected to synthesize many of the major issues and themes discussed in class and in the required readings, as well as to demonstrate your knowledge of the specific source materials and facts which pertain to those issues and themes. Once its topic is assigned (on the final class meeting day), this essay will be delivered to the instructor before the date and time officially mandated for the final examination of this course by the UNC Charlotte administration. The final essay is worth 15% of the course grade.
d. Individual involvement. Almost perfect attendance (see below) is an essential requirement for this course. Each class meeting builds upon the knowledge gained during previous meetings. Moreover, in-class discussion, close reading, and analysis by both the instructor and class members comprises a significant portion of every class meeting. Preparation for every class usually involves the completion of a series of assigned readings and/or written assignment(s), and individual students initiate our collective examination and discussion of the weekly topics. Students are expected to contribute in an informed manner to the public analysis and discussion of any assigned topic. The instructor’s assessment of one’s attendance, apparent class preparation, presentations, and informed oral contributions, will constitute 10% of the final course grade.
e. Zakhor (Remember!): Mastery of the assigned readings and diligent class attendance are necessary prerequisites for the successful completion of this course. Each student is responsible for all lectures, class discussions, assignments, and announcements, whether or not he/she is present when they occur.
a. The grading scale used in this course is as follows:
91-95+ A = demonstrable mastery of material; can creatively synthesize
81-90 B = some demonstrable proficiency in control of material & analysis
71-80 C = satisfactory performance of assignments; little or no analysis
61-70 D = inadequate and/or faulty understanding of material
0-60 F = unacceptable work
b. One of the requirements of this course is to complete the work of the course on time. Sometimes there are legitimate reasons for late work—an illness or other emergency. ‘Emergency,’ however, does not include your social involvements, travel plans, job schedule, disk, wi-fi, and/or printer failures, the state of your love life, your obligations to other courses, or general malaise over the state of the world. The world has been in a mess as long as anyone can remember, and most of the world’s work is done by people whose lives are a mass of futility and discontent. If you haven’t learned yet, you had better learn now to work under the conditions of the world as it is. Therefore:
1) All unwritten papers and unsubmitted written assignments will be averaged as a 0 in the computation of the course grade. No exceptions will be considered or granted.
2) Seminar papers fall due on the date announced by the instructor in class. They must be typed and submitted by email to me in either Microsoft Word or Adobe format prior to the start of the class for which they have been assigned. No physical copies of homework will be accepted or returned. Since we will normally discuss these exercises together in class on that date, it would clearly be unfair to those who submitted their work on time for me to accept ‘late’ work from those who were privy to our in-class discussion. Hence I will not accept ‘late’ homework submissions (even from those of you who were physically absent during our discussion); however, ‘early’ submissions (i.e., before the start of class) are always welcome and will receive full credit. These exercises are graded using a scale √+ = A-; √ = C+; √- = D; failure to submit = 0.
3) For accounting purposes, letter grades bear the following values: A=95; A-=92; B=85; C+=78; C=75; D=65; F=30.
4) Since your diligent physical participation is critical for the success of this course, attendance at class meetings will be monitored by the instructor. One or two absences are regrettable; three absences are the limit of tolerability. Four (4) or more absences will result in an automatic F for the course. Please note that—with the exception of religious holidays—the instructor does not distinguish ‘excused’ from ‘unexcused’ absences. Unsanctioned late arrivals and early departures will be tallied as absences.
5) Policy regarding Audits: the instructor expects auditors (whether formally enrolled as such or not) to meet the same attendance, preparation, and oral participation standards as those students who are taking the course for credit. The instructor does not expect auditors to prepare and submit any written assignments.
6) I do not post grades on Canvas or use it for grading. You can easily determine your own course progress (or lack thereof) by paying attention to number and quality of the grades you earn and performing the arithmetic required (using the equivalency tables listed above) to generate a ‘rough’ grade average.
c. There will be no class meetings on the following days:
Wednesday, October 25 (extended fall recess)
Wednesday, November 22 (Thanksgiving break)
d. Assistance and solicitation of criticism is your right as a member of the class. It is not a privilege to be granted or withheld. Do not hesitate to request it nor wait too late in the course for it to be of help.
e. The standards, requirements, and procedures set forth in this syllabus are subject to modification at any time by the course instructor. Notice of such changes will be by announcement in class, or by email, or by changes to this syllabus posted on Canvas or on my course website at https://pages.charlotte.edu/john-reeves/course-materials/.
ROUGH COURSE OUTLINE
Introduction to the class (abbreviated)
Types of Jewish esoteric literature
Probing ‘secrecy’ and ‘secretism’
Unterman, The Kabbalistic Tradition, xxv-xlv.
Ronald C. Kiener, “Lost in Translation: The Improbable Task of Rendering Esoteric Jewish Mystical Works into English,” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 45 (2018): 140-49.
Hugh B. Urban, “The Third Wall of Fire: Scientology and the Study of Religious Secrecy,” Nova Religio 20 (2016-17): 13-36.
Paul Christopher Johnson, “Secretism and the Apotheosis of Duvalier,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 74 (2006): 420-45.
Natural and supernatural worlds
Unterman, The Kabbalistic Tradition, 102-130.
Seminar paper #1 due
Unterman, The Kabbalistic Tradition, 3-43.
Seminar paper #2 due
Unterman, The Kabbalistic Tradition, 44-65.
Seminar paper #3 due
Unterman, The Kabbalistic Tradition, 66-76.
Seminar paper #4 due
Holy scriptures: Bible characters and themes
Unterman, The Kabbalistic Tradition, 77-101.
Seminar paper #5 due
Unterman, The Kabbalistic Tradition, 131-153.
Seminar paper #6 due
The ‘dark side’
Unterman, The Kabbalistic Tradition, 268-315.
Seminar paper #7 due
No class – creating equity with the Monday and Tuesday classes of this week.
Unterman, The Kabbalistic Tradition, 198-227.
Seminar paper #8 due
Death and afterlife
Unterman, The Kabbalistic Tradition, 235-267.
Seminar paper #9 due
Unterman, The Kabbalistic Tradition, 316-333.
Seminar paper #10 due
Thanksgiving break (no class).
Men and women
Unterman, The Kabbalistic Tradition, 154-197.
Seminar paper #11 due
Sacred space and sacred time
Unterman, The Kabbalistic Tradition, 228-234.
Seminar paper #12 due
TEMPLATE FOR WEEKLY DISCUSSION LEADERS
Discussion leaders can use the following template as a rough guideline for their seminar presentations:
a. Begin promptly.
b. Present to the class an initial consideration of the assigned topic. Summarize your section’s main arguments and points. DO NOT JUST READ ALOUD LENGTHY PASSAGES FROM THE ASSIGNMENT. Isolate and put your section’s main ideas and train of thought in your own words. Certain key vocabulary, primary texts, or institutions may need to be identified and analyzed in view of their importance for the larger argument(s). I would suggest spending about thirty to forty-five minutes on this.
c. Open the floor for questions and discussion:
Plan A. Invite discussion of any issue of interest pertaining to the assignment.
Plan B. Raise an important issue which you have seen in the text(s) and invite response.
Plan C. Elicit comment on how the text(s) relate to points made in earlier classes and/or other passages from required or supplementary readings.
Plan D. Ask a series of pointed questions deliberately designed to provoke a response.
d. Be prepared to put Plans B-D into operation if Plan A falters.
e. Conclude by pointing to one or two aspects of the class discussion that you consider to have been particularly valuable or productive for further work and consideration.
SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING
As you might imagine, the critical literature devoted to this topic is immense. I therefore limit myself to identifying some titles which are of fundamental importance for navigating the study of Jewish mysticism and its literature.
Daniel Abrams, “Critical and Post-Critical Textual Scholarship of Jewish Mystical Literature: Notes on the History and Development of Modern Editing Techniques,” Kabbalah 1 (1996): 17-71.
______, Kabbalistic Manuscripts and Textual Theory: Methodologies of Textual Scholarship and Editorial Practice in the Study of Jewish Mysticism (2d ed.; Jerusalem & Los Angeles: The Magnes Press and Cherub Press, 2013).
Philip S. Alexander, “Mysticism,” in Martin Goodman, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 705-32.
______, Mystical Texts (London & New York: T. & T. Clark International, 2006).
Ra‘anan S. Boustan, “Rabbinization and the Making of Early Jewish Mysticism,” Jewish Quarterly Review 101 (2011): 482-501.
______, “The Study of Heikhalot Literature: Between Mystical Experience and Textual Artifact,” Currents in Biblical Research 6 (2007): 130-60.
Joseph Dan and Ronald C. Kiener, The Early Kabbalah (New York: Paulist Press, 1986).
Pinchas Giller, Reading the Zohar: The Sacred Text of the Kabbalah (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).
Arthur Green, A Guide to the Zohar (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004).
Frederick E. Greenspahn, ed., Jewish Mysticism and Kabbalah: New Insights and Scholarship (New York: New York University Press, 2011).
Moshe Halbertal, Concealment and Revelation: Esotericism in Jewish Thought and its Philosophical Implications (trans. Jackie Feldman; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).
David J. Halperin, The Faces of the Chariot: Early Jewish Responses to Ezekiel’s Vision (TSAJ 16; Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1988).
Boaz Huss, The Zohar: Reception and Impact (trans. Yudith Nave; The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2016).
Moshe Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988).
Hartley Lachter, Kabbalistic Revolution: Reimagining Judaism in Medieval Spain (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2014).
Yehuda Liebes, Studies in the Zohar (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993).
Daniel C. Matt, The Zohar: Pritzker Edition (12 vols.; Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004-17).
Peter Schäfer, The Hidden and Manifest God: Some Major Themes in Early Jewish Mysticism (trans. Aubrey Pomerance; Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992).
______, The Origins of Jewish Mysticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).
Gershom G. Scholem, Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition (2d ed.; New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1965).
______, Kabbalah (Jerusalem: Keter, 1974).
______, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (3d ed.; New York: Schocken, 1961).
______, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism (trans. Ralph Manheim; New York: Schocken, 1965).
______, On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead: Basic Concepts in the Kabbalah (trans. Joachim Neugroschel; New York: Schocken, 1991).
______, Origins of the Kabbalah (trans. Allan Arkush; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987).
Michael E. Stone, “Esoterica Iudaica Antiqua: Some Reflections,” Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 31 (2022): 165-83.
______, Secret Groups in Ancient Judaism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).
Michael D. Swartz, “Jewish Visionary Tradition in Rabbinic Literature,” in Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert and Martin S. Jaffee, eds., The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 198-221.
Isaiah Tishby, The Wisdom of the Zohar: An Anthology of Texts (3 vols.; trans. David Goldstein; Portland, Or.: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1989).
Mark Verman, The Books of Contemplation: Medieval Mystical Jewish Sources (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992).
Elliot R. Wolfson, Along the Path: Studies in Kabbalistic Myth, Symbolism, and Hermeneutics (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995).
______, Circle in the Square: Studies in the Use of Gender in Kabbalistic Symbolism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995).
______, Luminous Darkness: Imaginal Gleanings from Zoharic Literature (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2007).
______, “Mysticism,” in Robert Chazon, ed., The Cambridge History of Judaism, Volume Six: The Middle Ages, The Christian World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 742-86.
______, Through a Speculum That Shines: Vision and Imagination in Medieval Jewish Mysticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).
Nathan Wolski, A Journey into the Zohar: An Introduction to the Book of Radiance (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010).
 Note Prov 15:28: לב צדיק יהגה לענות ופי רשעים יביע רעות, which I’m inclined to render as ‘the mind of the devoted (student) contemplates before answering, whereas the mouth of the clueless spews forth worthless nonsense.’