Rabbi Greenstein: Roads to Utopia

Roads to Utopia
Note: News of the publication of Rabbi Greenstein’s book, Roads to Utopia: The Walking Stories of the Zohar, reached Shomrei hours before KE’s publication. The long anticipated book focuses on a motif unique to the Zohar. Eager to have something in KE about this auspicious occasion, I conducted a brief interview with the Rabbi about the book and how it came to be.

Nick Levitin: How long have you been working on the book?

David Greenstein: I have been working on the book on and off for years. The book is a revision and rewriting of my doctoral dissertation, which took me a few years to write. I got my doctorate at NYU eleven years ago and wanted to have it published, but it need to be edited. I never had the time. I tried to get someone else to edit it, but it didn’t work out. As the years went by, I also had to revise it because the world of scholarship keeps on going. Over the last two years, I have given it more intensive attention when I could, and finally a year ago, it was accepted for publication.

NL: A critical idea that you develop about the Zohar, is that most of its teaching takes place while its teachers are “walking on the road.”

DG: Walking is pretty fundamental to human existence. Before we had cars, we actually walked. So walking is a pretty basic human experience. I think probably in all cultures, but certainly Jewishly, and in the Torah, walking can be a metaphor for many things. I mean even in English we say, “a way of life.” So, the idea of a path, a journey––that kind of concept, is something we often relate to. “Walking on the path” is definitely all over the place in biblical literature and the following literature as a metaphor for making one’s way through one’s life. It’s a clear and very powerful image. What the Zohar does with it though, is I think not just that, and that is what the exploration in the book is. It acknowledges all the different levels we all can think of: in terms of God’s ways, the ways of the Torah, Paths of Wisdom, Paths of Righteousness––all of those things are true and meaningful, but my contention was that the Zohar is unique in the way that it uses the motif. Just factually speaking, it’s unique. It’s the only mystical book that is shot through with setting up all of its teachings by having the personae, the dramatis personae, walking on the road. It is the only book that does that, and it does it again, and again, and again, and again. It hasn’t really been noticed or considered for its uniqueness, so it was always just taken for granted––yes, this is the metaphor of life, and the path, and the way to God, and the spiritual journey toward enlightenment, and towards mystical fulfillment. But my sense was that if that’s what it was, it wouldn’t have been so insistent an obsession of the Zohar to keep on putting it out like that. Because everybody uses that metaphor, and everybody finds that metaphor meaningful. As I said, that metaphor is known. If the Zohar––and no other book before or after––kept on insisting that it wants to put the format of its teachings in that framework, there was something bothering the Zohar, there was something, some itch that it was scratching, about that kind of concept of walking on the road that it needed to keep on coming back to. The study asks, what could that be?

NL: You are a walker.

DG: Right, I am a walker. I like walking and when I was writing about this, when I started really delving into it almost fifteen years ago, it took me a while, but then I finally saw the obvious, that from the time I was young, some of my most meaningful time spent, was time spent walking with my grandfather who was my first teacher of Torah. My father really wanted me to bond with his father and he understood that his father had something to give me that was very special. So my grandfather, when I got to know him as a little kid, ran a candy store––one of my earliest, earliest memories––was sitting in the back room of his candy store. I remember very vividly, this kind of rough wooden table, and there were boxes of candy all over the place. His real passion was studying Torah. He had been an educator, he had lived in Israel for years and never became a rabbi, but he knew more than all the other rabbis he came in contact with over the years. The community rabbi where he lived in Queens was always calling him up with questions. So he was a very, very learned man. A little guy, he had a little bit of a hunch back, and I was put under his charge. We would study… I would spend weekends and in the summer I would spend extended time with him and we would study first thing in the morning, he got up much earlier than I did, and then we would study together. Then we would go for a walk and we would review what we studied, along with just taking in the world. It took me forever, but I finally realized, “oh, that’s the root of my being able to connect to this.” When I discovered that, I was very, very happy.

NL: To whom did you dedicate the book?

DG: I dedicated the book to Zelda. I dedicated my doctoral dissertation to my grandfather.

Roads to Utopia: The Walking Stories of the Zohar

by David Greenstein

As the greatest book of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar is a revered and much-studied work. Yet, surprisingly, scholarship on the Zohar has yet to pay attention to its most unique literary device—the presentation of its insights while its teachers walk on the road. In these pages, rabbi and scholar David Greenstein offers the first examination of the “walking on the road” motif.

Greenstein’s original approach hones in on how this motif expresses the struggles with spatiality and the everyday presented in the Zohar. He argues that the walking theme is not a metaphor for realms to be collapsed into or transcended by the holy, as conventional interpretations would have it. Rather, it conveys us into those quotidian spaces that are obdurately present alongside the realm of the sacred. By embracing the reality of mundane existence, and recognizing the prosaic dimensions of the worldly path, the Zohar is an especially exceptional mystical treatise. In this volume, Greenstein makes visible a singular, though previously unstudied, achievement of the Zohar.

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