Monthly Archives: October 2016

Judaism and Post-Modernity –Rabbi Shagar in English Translation

Rabbi Shagar (d. 2007), was a Torah scholar and a contemporary religious thinker left a deep mark on the educators and students of the last generation. Here is one of his major essays Judaism and-Post Modernism, the last essay in the work Luhot ve Shivrei Luhut (Tablets and Broken Tablets: Jewish Thought in the Age of Post-Modernism) (Yediot-Sifrei Hemed, 2013) 440- 428. The talk was given on Nisan 19, 2004 – during the intermediate days of Passover.This essay is translated for the first time into English. It is available below as a blog post and as a Word document. Print this out and read it over the next week.

The translation was done by Rabbi Moshe Simkovich, who was the Founding Head of School and Dean of Judaic Studies at Stern Hebrew High School in Philadelphia (now Kohelet YHS), and taught for many years at Maimonides School in Boston. He also served as a congregational Rabbi in Newton, MA.  A graduate of the University of Chicago. If anyone else has made personal translations of essays by Rav Shagar, I would be glad to post them. (Also if you find errors in this translation, please let me know).


Rabbi Shagar established Yeshivat Siach Yitzchak, in Efrat and was the head of the establishment until his death. Starting in the early 1980’s he was a dominant figure in the Jerusalem rabbinic world, first at Yeshivat HaKotel, then he established the yeshiva “Shefa” together with him Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz and Rabbi Menachem Froman. The yeshivah established the high school yeshiva Makor Haim. He was then head of the Beit Midrash of Beit Morasha.

In my past blog posts, we have discussed his approach to Torah study, his post modernism, watched a TV documentary about his life and his views of a return to traditionalism away from method and ideology. We also looked at how Smadar Cherlow portrayed the post- Rabbi Shagar turn.

Here we return to his post-modernism by looking at his own words, an eight -page essay where he explained what he means by postmodernism.

Before I start, I must note that Rav Shagar described himself for several decades as a Hasidic existentialist approach. And in the recent work by his colleague Rabbi Yair Dreifus, Touching the Heart [Hebrew] (2013) about Shagar’s approach, he also portrays him as a Hasidic existentialist.

Yet, Rav Shagar did read David Gurevitz, Post-Modernism: Culture and Literature at the end of the 20th Century (Dvir, 1997), a general work applying post-modernism to Israeli literature such as Etgar Keret and the Hebrew translation of Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition (Hebrew translation, 1999) and adapted the language as his own to describe the prior twenty years of his thinking.

How does it feel, how does it feel?
To be on your own, with no direction home (Bob Dylan)

And if you want to be free, be free
Cause there’s a million things to be
You know that there are  (Cat Stevens/Yusef Islam)

In the essay below, Rav Shagar celebrates the virtues of autonomy, individualism, choosing one’s own life path and to seek one’s own answers. He sees this as inevitable in that we live in an age where there is a breakdown of the hierarchical and patriarchal society and we encourage kids to be themselves. He encourage the individualism we know from most of the 20th century from John Dewey’s educational works to the TVshow by Marlo Thomas, Free to be You and Me (1972). We now have the freedom the create our own reality, to decide whom we marry and accept to responsibility for our life choices.

This is not post-modernism in which we are socially constructed, or bound by language and epistemic ruptures, or disseminating based on language, or “a religion without religion,” or a religion noted by its absence, or making it immanent in the shopping mall and media. Shagar is good old-fashioned existentialist, pragmatist, and romantic with an emphasis on autonomy.

Yet, he is post-modern in a limited sense of having no grand narrative, no foundations, and no metaphysics.  He writes:

I am of the opinion that postmodernism and deconstructionism constitute a ‘shattering of the vessels’ (שבירת הכלים).  Yet this very shattering grants us wide ranging freedom, and as far as religion goes – freedom to believe, even without absolute proofs and evidence.

For him, “belief is found in life not ideology.” Shagar writes: “the transition from a ‘Religion of Truth’ to a ‘Religion of Belief’ is the most profound point of Post-Modernism.” For Shagar, “the departure from Egypt not just as an historic event, but rather as a paradigm for every generation; a leaving of restraints behind, a breaking of the world’s boundaries and oppression.

There’s nothin’ wrong with lovin’ who you are
She said, ’cause He made you perfect, babe
… I’m beautiful in my way
‘Cause God makes no mistakes
I’m on the right track, baby
I was born this way  (Lady Gaga)

How do we do teshuvah (repentance)? Rabbi Soloveitchik viewed repentance as an existential act of self-creation. For Rabbi Shagar, the first question we need to ask is: to where can we return? There is no direction to return. For us, repentance is the radical acceptance of the self.

We were born this way, and we should accept God’s creation of individual difference.  Shagar lets you accept yourself and your personal turns and struggles and individuality.  Post-moderns deconstruct the self, Rav Shagar like Lady Gaga advocates a total acceptance of the self.  We need to embrace our Freedom, personal choice, and existential choices.

Shagar’s vision is to see this as a constructive moment for exciting new faith options. Just as Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook challenged the status quo with new ideas and new ways of seeing things, we should embrace this opportunity. Tolerance for others and those who challenge us is a good thing for creative encounter.

For most modernists, including The Rebbe, Rav Soloveitchik and Kierkegaard – one comes down from the peak moment of the religious experience and then channel the experience into an acceptance of the yoke of heaven and the ordinary life.

For Rabbi Shagar, however, the peak moment is “authenticity, as readiness to be myself.” One then comes down and accepts “the yoke of Heaven” butit is through the “wholehearted acceptance of this independence as a divine fiat, not as chance.” One understands that “there is no instant of authenticity, and so it is a more difficult freedom.

He advocates a mystical option as a solution of our era. He quotes Rabv Kook and Gershom Scholem that “mysticism is the seed of religion.”  In mysticism, there “is real potential for a religiosity of intimacy, of a strong passionate position in regards to the Infinite, the very position searched for by Rav Kook… This is my religiosity.

“We were born sick”, you heard them say it
My church offers no absolutes (Take Me to Church by Hozier)

Even in this essay, Rabbi Shagar has a strong critique of system. He points to the excesses of Religious Zionism, and to young adults  who give up their religiosity upon discovering that the truths of the yeshiva do not stand up to the university and secular culture.

The fundamentalism of the Religious Zionist position with its fixed answers leads to a breakdown into those who chose the Haredi side by becoming Hardal (haredi leumi) and those who become part of the Conservative movement. Religious Zionism has become downtrodden by its own ideological stances.

Those who went into the Hesder yeshivot overburdened their life’s with ideology- which is a fixed statue and hardened structure. In addition, looking over one’s shoulder at the observance of others is a sign of estrangement and shows an inability to relate to one’s essence.

In the tradition of liberal pluralism of the West, Rabbi Shagar is against religious coercion.

My pluralism does not remain within the walls of the study hall; it is wider.  Yet I hold to it without thereby saying all is acceptable; I am not passive, holding back from opposing things that are off-limits.  At the same time, and I say this deliberately, I have no need to disqualify things that are not within my circle.  I can be true to my faith, live, die, and kill by its authority, and in so doing I do not have a need to create a hierarchy of beliefs crowning mine above all; who is better or worse is a question without substance.

One should not insult or even be patronizing toward non-Orthodox, they are not “captive children” but thinking and informed adults. He distinguishes between his public beliefs and his private personal views, therefore we have to understand the role of Reform conversions and marriages, as well as civil marriage.

I’ve conquered my past
The future is here at last
I stand at the entrance to a new world I can see.
The ruins to the right of me
Will soon have lost sight of me. (U2 –Love, Rescue Me)

This essay ends on a high note looking toward the future.

I am enthusiastic.  I see something deep and great transpiring now.  Amongst the young I see personalities that did not exist when I was young, young men and women with great spiritual devotion, deep religiosity, not empty-headed nor caught in fantasy – rather, individuals who are quite sober, mature, reflective.  They have a form of charisma and religious devotion, very real, that didn’t exist when I was their age.  Neither I nor others amongst my generation had it.  I foresee in the footsteps of Postmodernism and in the ‘New Age Culture’ that comes on its heels, an entry point to a new world, one in which there will occur a real change in human consciousness.  This change will also bring societal changes, greater social justice, and much deeper interpersonal relationships.  A world where the divine presence will be tangible.

Rabbi Shagar, regardless of the philosophic label, allows a generation to accept the complexities of the modern world without looking for a resolution. His thought made space for questioning and the liberating acceptance of the possibility of alternatives. They are not going back to the ideological certainties of the past, but look to create new approaches.



I am concerned that my involvement with Postmodernism may have been unduly delayed, that is, too late to fully realize the opportunity for a real revitalization of our religious world.  Passover, the Jewish Festival of Freedom, teaches us not to force matters, but we also must not push matters off.  From my perspective, one of the problems of the Torah world is that out of concern for forcing matters, all too often we act too late, and the ramifications are tragic.

I do not intend to sanctify Postmodernism, and I do not wish to hide from its problems.  However, the Postmodernism position is not at all marginal; it exerts its influence throughout society.  We must come to terms with it.  One can observe the influence of Postmodernism even in the relationship of children to their parents and teachers – a small child might contact the police if his father beats him, and if his teacher tells him something he will not hesitate to tell him how he thinks differently.  The relativistic mindset is already embedded in the basic personality structures of children.

The influence of Postmodernism is also recognizable in the religious community. It is particularly so in the younger generation, as is readily apparent from the perspective of its popular repercussions.  One could argue that the loss of authority, nihilism, and the instability was due to the ideological excesses that characterize Religious Zionism.

True, seminaries and yeshivot hesder thrive and increase, but are most young adults there?  How many of the young complete army service, skip through the universities, and remain true to Religious Zionism?  What of the phenomena of secularity that apparently is here to stay?  And in general, what of the ‘good youth’ who complete yeshiva and enter university?  More than once I have heard of students, even those who studied in more ‘open’ yeshivot, who complain: ‘They misled me in yeshiva!’  When they came to university they encountered a different worldview, a secular culture that they testify forced them to totally reconsider the worldview as taught in the yeshiva.

Indeed, there were those who foresaw that the confrontation between Torah and Western Culture would tear the religious community up, splitting it into a Conservative camp, and a Haredi or Haredi-Zionist camps (חרד”ל); one could claim we see that very thing before us now.  From my point of view, the problem has not one but two sides, i.e. as evidenced by the Haredi-Zionist phenomena.  In some of the yeshivot, there is missed opportunity – a slide of the Religious Zionist perspective towards inflexible fundamentalism.  This is at variance from the blend that we aspire to; to be rooted in the land in its deepest and simplest manifestation, while at the same time to be rooted in universalistic-modern values.  These Neo-Haredi do not return to the prevailing Haredi stance, which has its own natural flow and whose essence is self-evident to its followers.  It is precisely because these Haredim are of the modern rather than the traditionalist world, and yet are taken aback by the ramifications of their ideology, that their strict reverence creates a new sort of Haredi. I must tell you this form of Haredi scares me.  It seems dangerous because of the identity it creates, not to mention its impact upon the communal and political levels.  I identify this breaking up of Religious Zionism with the impact of Postmodernism. In response to the multi-faceted Postmodernist challenge, some give in to modern culture, and some throw up defenses against it.

In the face of this reality, what I wanted to do is, as Rav Kook said, ‘build a palace of faith beyond apostasy (כפירה)’, i.e. to recognize this situation and not to settle for its mere internalization as is, or its rejection.  I would rather see how it can help build a new level of faith based on our reality, whatever the difficulty.  I will not hide my conviction that in this situation there are exciting faith options, ones that I believe are superior to classical or modern options.

Moreover, and here I make an audacious leap, I see myself like someone grasping the hems of Rav Kook’s cloak in his coming to terms with the era’s movements.  I don’t mean to compare myself to Rav Kook, I am dust under his feet.  But if you wish to follow his path you must learn from his example, have the bravery to clarify and come to terms with modern culture and the times, as well as stand up to the critics of your approach.

Truly, one should not forget that the Rav’s ideas also raised serious challenges.  More than once critics claimed that his way was appropriate for those on his high level, but not for people at large.  For example, the Gerrer Rebbe, the ‘Imrei Emes’, after critiquing Rav Kook, spoke about him in glowing terms, but held that his way was not suited for the general public.  Rav Haim Sonnenfeld criticized Rav Kook’s tolerance and opposed his ‘impatience for the end’ (messianic hopes).

Still and all, these were classic attacks, resisting all who had breakthroughs.  Whenever we have to consider change, we are filled with doubts and fears.  The new portends destruction of the old, and forces us to separate from old good familiar ways.  But if we wish to contend with the questions raised by changing times – modern in Rav Kook’s times, postmodern in ours – we have no alternative.  Even if we don’t want to confront the times, we are forced to do so.  Thus, as Rav Nachman [of Breslov] says, we must adopt a position based on the power of holiness and must say things heretofore deemed unacceptable, even though it contradicts earlier approaches.

Postmodernism does not have a standard definition, and many have written about this.  Many Postmodernists themselves resist a clear definition of their perspective, as in principle they oppose definitions.  For the sake of our discussions Postmodernism can be characterized as a position that holds truth to be a function of societal cultural constructs, and thus denies that certitude is possible, Post-modernism can also be characterized as a radical striving for freedom, i.e. the freedom of the individual to establish himself and his values.

There are educators, perhaps the majority, who denigrate Postmodernism as absolutely worthless, seeing in it dissolution, nihilism, and the breakdown of societal framework.  Others can accept limited aspects – as a critique that awakens us to the falsity and limitations under which we exist, or as it expands the pluralistic horizons of our education- not as negative phenomena, but as an in-house inner critique. Yet, I believe there is a more radical critique here.

I am of the opinion that postmodernism and deconstructionism constitute a ‘shattering of the vessels’ (שבירת הכלים).  Yet this very shattering grants us wide ranging freedom, and as far as religion goes – freedom to believe, even without absolute proofs and evidence.

The Hassidim understood the departure from Egypt not just as an historic event, but rather as a paradigm for every generation; a leaving of restraints behind, a breaking of the world’s boundaries and oppression.  In this sense postmodernism is a departure from these limitations in its most radical sense.

In relationship to this conception I would like to emphasize a few points.

My friend Rabbi Yehuda Brandes opposes the classical and widespread trend to base Jewish Philosophy curricula on the assumption that faith can be rationally demonstrated.  His opposition is based on the premise that a young student who is not philosophically adept, in the framework of the spiritual cultural world in which he exists, will not incorporate these proofs.

In its place he recommends a Hassidic Existentialist position – to attempt to show the student a point which he too can believe in – assuming no one to be a total nihilist.  It is our job to clarify, or to help the student clarify, that point of absolute truth which he too believes.  Once this entry point to belief has been brought to light, one can move on, perhaps expand his domain of belief, and make a place there for additional beliefs.

The reader should be careful not to misunderstand this exposition as a call to no longer attempt philosophical proofs that support faith; the mood of our times must come to terms with any suggested change along these lines. Just as a philosophical or historical proof will hold little interest for our youth, similarly an existential proof will likely not be accepted.  Why?  Because faith, by definition, cannot be conclusively proven.  The very pursuit of a sturdy viewpoint, with reliable support for faith, undermines it.

I attempted to demonstrate this very point in my book “Kelim Nishbarim” (Broken Vessels).  We must free ourselves from seeing discussions of faith as providing reliable support, something to hang on to.  Faith is its own category – I can pray to God, I can be part of the faith, I can identify myself as a believer – but once someone brings ‘proof’ for faith, I am no longer a ‘believer’.  Proof and faith are mutually exclusive.  Bringing a proof to me does not make me a believer.  A proof of that sort is like a gun pointed at my head, and it cannot influence my inner being.

Here is where I see the constructive role of Postmodernism.  Postmodernism typically leads down the road to nihilism, relativism, to a loss of a point of reference, to no longer being able to validate faith; yet it can lead us to discussions of faith (rather than just about faith), and free us to pray.

This postmodernist world, in my humble opinion, opens the door to a much higher level of belief.  What drives my thoughts of God is not the idea of God’s great omnipotence, but rather that God is not ‘a thing’; God is the absolute pure, the fulfilled seeking, the infinite; as Maimonides says ‘the Omnipresent but not of the world’.  The ‘devekut’ (cleaving or intense spirituality) that this recognition generates flows from our understanding that divinity and belief are not truly accessible to language and objects  This understanding releases us from our daily preoccupations, allows us to enter into the world of belief and prayer, and thus brings us to devekut (cleaving to God), deeper faith, and great dedication.  Thus, I contend that we should release faith and religiosity from the objective-philosophical domain of facts, as faith is not something that one can really verbally express.  In this manner Postmodernism can create faith based on freedom, faith that is based on personal choice, on a decision.  Such a freedom is of course terrible and difficult, with a feeling of the earth quaking beneath us.  Thus, Sartre spoke about how the individual is condemned to freedom, but we must overcome this ominous predicament, and train ourselves to a radical freedom that entails deciding to accept the heavenly yoke.

This point is particularly important for adherents of the Religious-Zionist movement, so downtrodden by ideological stances. One could characterize the previous generation as the generation of Baalei-Teshuva (returnees to faith).  In that generation religion was not a given, deeply rooted, as in the Haredi world.  The gap between faith and the Baal-Teshuva was bridged through ideology, which responded to contradictions between traditional Judaism and the values and lifestyle of modern life.  However, ideology and faith are not identical; ideology is like a statue, a picture, a hardened structure, and doesn’t have the sense of the infinite that characterizes faith in the divine.  The Midrash says that God is truth, because God lives.  Belief is found in life, not in ideology or philosophy.

Postmodernism’s sharp opposition to ideologies dispels the Religious-Zionist community’s extreme emphasis on ideology, bringing it back to a Living Torah.  From this perspective one can learn from Haredi, which at its best is built from identity and not ideology, which changes the Jewish world into something self-evident.  We need an education that fosters accepting Heaven’s yoke in its highest conceptualization, reforming our existing religious world into a world that confidently affirms itself without constantly looking over its shoulder.  Ideology often is a sign of estrangement, of an inability to relate to one’s essence and all its ramifications. Thus a sensitive and open pedagogy (that yet maintains certain connections) characteristic of the Haredi world, should be an important central ingredient in our education.

In my opinion, the transition from a ‘Religion of Truth’ to a ‘Religion of Belief’ is the most profound point of Post-Modernism.

From a pedagogical standpoint, instead of speaking about ‘the Truth’, which in the Postmodernist conception has a pejorative connotation, let us speak of ‘accepting the yoke of Heaven’.  This is something altogether different.  Our truest difficulty is to accept the yoke of Heaven; to accept responsibility.  An example from married life:  A man could fall in love with a particular woman, but in order to get married he must do something further – he must (mindfully) decide to get married.  A person can be married many years without coming to the conclusion that this is the woman with whom he wishes to spend his entire life.   It is the same in the domain of faith, and in the domain of values.  In all these domains there are needs to make a decisive move to accept the yoke of Heaven.  This decision is a paradoxical move. It is not based on arguments and proofs, but rather on the readiness of the person to become obligated, and to trust in the values that due to his decision become obligatory and absolute.

Here a beautiful Chabad teaching is worth consideration.  Chabad distinguishes between Passover where the departure from Egypt is at its heart, and the Counting of the Omer.  The departure from Egypt is inspirational, redemptive, and filled with love, as expressed in the Song of Songs which we read on Passover.  But as usually happens, when we descend back into our mundane routine world, enthusiasm dissipates.  An individual cannot base his life on passion, redemption, and inspiration, of the theme of departing Egypt, which Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi indeed recommended to be the anchor for faith.  Thus, we need the ritual of Counting the Omer in which we accept the yoke of Heaven – readiness to serve without such illuminations.

One can explain these two stages; illumination and accepting Heaven’s yoke, in a different way.

The emancipation of leaving Egypt is freedom as independence, authenticity, as readiness to be myself; it is the primary freedom.  The second freedom, accepting the yoke of Heaven, is the wholehearted acceptance of this independence as a divine fiat, not as chance.  In contrast to the first decision, there is no instant of authenticity, and so it is a more difficult freedom.

Indeed, from the pedagogical angle it is difficult to create a sensitivity to independence,  to the divine point within us.  To some of our youth this independence is nothing but chance and relativism.  They will claim that they are faithful, but only because they were brought up that way. If they were brought up somewhere else they would have grown into different people, perhaps not faithful.  Of course such an attitude weakens the possibility to hand down tradition, to enter into the Torah world empowered and with conviction.  This difficulty of having a self-confident identity is an effect of the inability to have confidence in any foundational point outside of oneself.

Besides the claim that Postmodernism can purify and free us to believe, in Broken Vessels I argued that all told, a decision to believe is based on the person himself.  Belief in truly begins with us.  Accepting the yoke of Heaven begins from the point of the absolute incomprehensible void, and this is difficult since this commitment in itself is prone to be understood as nihilistic.  Indeed, it has been said that both the apikorus (non-believer) and faithful refer to the ‘void’, but the believer refers to the ‘holy void’.  The ‘unholy void’ of Postmodernism can flip and become the ‘holy void’ which the Kabbalists speak of, and from which they derived their closeness to the divine. The task I set for myself in my book was a description of this phenomena.  I think that in this manner, the problem itself is potentially the source of its solution.

Emphatically, I do not take lightly the possibility that Postmodernism can lead to nihilism.  It not only disparages the idea of truth and the ability to prove, but also challenges the whole concept of religious norms, values, and ethics, seeing in them societal repression.  It identifies those things which we perceive as givens in our reality as social constructs.  Yet, in so doing it enables radical freedom, and it is this very freedom that scares religious people.  To me, the answer to this fear is the understanding that a construct may be specifically empowered, such as what came into being via the six days of creation, or that descended from Sinai. It all depends upon the ability to accept the yoke, to decide.  We must not fear freedom.  I am not party to the fear that in a world of unlimited possibilities, a world where belief itself is possible, where a decision – and not logical proof nor society – determines belief, that we will abandon religion. I am not party to the fear that without a campaign built on constraints, pressures, and compulsion, our youth will run away.  I myself am not tied into a social network for security – normative or otherwise – in order to fulfill mitzvoth.  We need to believe in ourselves and to believe in the Only One.

I was not surprised by the reactions to my book, neither by the opposition to it, nor its popularity, nor by the intensity of the responses.  I am not interested in the consensus, and there is no doubt that the critiques and stands expressed in the book are likely to shake many convictions.  This was indeed my goal; shaking Religious-Zionist thinking from its dogmatism.

Nevertheless, I was very frustrated because the essential message of the book was missed and misunderstood.  This is the mystical option that Postmodernism enables, precisely because of the deconstruction that comes in its wake and its strong critique of the rationalist position.  As Rav Kook taught in a multitude of places, mysticism is the seed of religion.  Scholars such as Gershom Scholem held the same from their perspectives.  Here is real potential for a religiosity of intimacy, of a strong passionate position in regards to the Infinite, the very position searched for by Rav Kook and his students the Nazir and Rav Charlap.  This is my religiosity.

From here we move on to an additional basic point, with emphasis on the social context.

Does Postmodernism lead to a passive ethical relativism?  I think not.  Here too fine distinctions must be made between tolerance and pluralism (I do not think of these words as pejoratives) of the right sort – a sort of openness; and of an improper sort – one might call it dissoluteness.  Dissoluteness connotes a direction that holds nothing true,  I can accept anything.  In contrast, openness can be a higher perspective – absolute commitment to my truth, but with the capacity to recognize other’s truths.  I need not think my house is the best; it is enough to know it is my house.  The important question, once again, is the question of acceptance of the yoke of Heaven, the question of the integrity of my beliefs, the question of whether I believe absolutely.

Thus, I hold a complex position in regards to distinguishing pluralism from relativism. Even though under certain circumstances I can understand the perspective of one person coming to kill another, I will do what I can to prevent him from sacrificing someone, and if I have no choice I will bring about his death.  That is what God wants of me.  If someone comes and asks me – ‘Why don’t you figure out what God wants from us?’ – I would answer that it is not my problem.  I am not to be held accountable for this question!  The question I do ask myself is not about what is universally true, but rather a more intimate question – ‘What does God want from you?’  This question is in the forefront of my awareness in the here and now, and with this there can also be a strong and deep stand based on my values and faith, one that in extreme situations can go the limit, even risking self-sacrifice, or sacrificing another.

I will provide an example that expresses this pluralistic position in regards to the relationship of religion and state.  I am not in favor of Reform conversion nor civil marriage.  However, when we wish to lead a state, there is a great difference between a personal position and a public stance; and the question of whether to impose one’s faith upon others is inevitable.  I do not have to denigrate all other positions in order to promulgate my own.  My pluralism allows me sensitivity to diverse cultures.  I believe the Messiah will come and that everyone one will return, but from my point of view this conviction is not relevant to the state’s laws.  In the same way, I cannot establish the relationship to secular Jews on the basis of the paternalistic principle of ‘tinok shenishba’ (“a captive child” without Jewish connection is given the benefit of the doubt in regards to culpability) – the secular person would not accept such a characterization, and truth be told I do not see him as a ‘tinok shenishba’ in the classical understanding of the term.  On the contrary, it seems to me that if we want to retain some measure of religious character in the state, some minimal unifying national force, and no less important – the opening up of the religious community, we must begin with a pluralistic perspective.  This approach should be considered in regards to the proposals about the issues above as of late, such as the proposal for couples in regards to civil marriage.

Is it legitimate to bring such complex positions before the public?  When we first established Yeshivat Mekor Haim, there were those who said that students should first undergo the regular course of yeshiva studies, and only then should be taught the more complex approaches we were bringing.  They claimed: ‘If you present them to a young student, without yeshiva preparation, you will destroy him.’  No doubt, there is some truth to this claim.  Certainly a student must be taught in a conducive relatable manner, and it is a challenge to teach a student to grasp matters this way.  Pedagogy according to the belief system of the Rishonim, who grasped such matters via metaphysics, gives an initial degree of protection, creates a house.  Only after that is taught does it make sense to introduce the approach I am suggesting.  Parenthetically, I would like to say that I by no means endorse the Postmodernist claim that one should forego the house, forego being at home.  On the contrary!  I would like to see how one could build a house in a landless world, how one could come to being at home in a world of (unstructured) freedom.

Withal, I do not think we should hold off the Postmodernist critique for only the mature; beyond any doubt a good pedagogy for youth will enable the building of a home base for him/her along with an independent identity.  This indeed is our pedagogical goal; but its basis must be, once again, a basis built on life and not on ideology.  Seder night is a model for this; the experiences of seder night are in-depth experiences that create a youth’s identity; augmented by its smells and flavors, by the aura that passes amongst everyone.  It is there that the deep foundational structure of religious identity exists.  If one does not have that, it is very difficult to build deep and flowing belief.

How you educate a young person determines his/her possibilities later. If you teach him/her like the Griz (הגרי”ז סולובייציק), who stood with his son at the window and pointed at the people who stood in line at the Edison Theater saying: “They are asses, camels…” you cannot impose on such an outlook another outlook that is more pluralistic.  Therefore it is all important to continue the discussion of the best education for the young.  One might begin with a relatively conservative education, even Haredi in some aspects along the lines which we have discussed, but one must carefully cultivate openness, and build a structure of faith on the basis of identity, of life, of a natural flow, and not on the basis of self-estrangement and ideology.  One must start training early towards religious responsibility, towards acceptance of the yoke of Heaven by choice and self-recognition, and not rely on compulsion and authority.

I have not given up.  On the contrary, I am enthusiastic.  I see something deep and great transpiring now.  Amongst the young I see personalities that did not exist when I was young, young men and women with great spiritual devotion, deep religiosity, not empty-headed nor caught in fantasy – rather, individuals who are quite sober, mature, reflective.  They have a form of charisma and religious devotion, very real, that didn’t exist when I was their age.  Neither I nor others amongst my generation had it.  I foresee in the footsteps of Postmodernism and in the ‘New Age Culture’ that comes on its heels, an entry point to a new world, one in which there will occur a real change in human consciousness.  This change will also bring societal changes, greater social justice, and much deeper interpersonal relationships.  A world where the divine presence will be tangible.

© Alan Brill & Moshe Simkovitch 2016. All Rights Reserved. Do not use or republish in part or whole without prior permission.

Interview with Joel Hecker- Pritzker Zohar volume 11

The Zohar is a collection of over 32 different works with slightly different theologies and literary styles. Volume 11 of the new Pritzker editions is a collection of smaller works, including later pieces of Midrash ha-Neelam, and the Matnitin.

The new volume, Volume 11 was translated, edited and annotated by Joel Hecker, Professor of Jewish Mysticism at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, who was ordained by RIETS and a PhD from NYU.  Professor Hecker said that his approach to annotation is toward greater annotation, an arc already started in the latter volumes by Daniel C. Matt. Hecker also offers greater discussion of halakhic issues in his annotations.

Hecker’s approach to translation was to follow Matt’s lead, but to my ear he placed more emphasis on the poetics of retaining alliteration, use of synonyms, and the general sound and feel of the texts. The volume is a hefty 800 pages, so I have not yet worked though the translation- -it only arrived yesterday—however, even from the sample of passages that I looked at, they were marvelous in their capturing the original.

joel Hecker.jpg
(Photo Credit: Philadelphia Inquirer)

Come and See: There is an Aramaic Zohar above and a Pritzker English Zohar below.  The Zohar above and the Zohar below are perfectly balanced. When the Zohar descends into American Jewish culture, it needs to put on the garment of this world. If the Zohar did not put on a garment befitting this culture, the work could not endure in this world and the world could not endure them. Happy are they who look at Zohar properly! As wine must sit in a jar, so Zohar must sit in this garment. Hecker’s translation and annotation allows one to reference back to original text, allowing one to remember that these words are garments for the original printed Zohar.

My interview with the translator of the first nine volumes- Daniel C. Matt is here. For my review of one of the volumes and Melila Heller-Eshed’s work, see here. For a general interview with Joel Hecker in the  Philadelphia Inquirer  see here.

A little historical background will help in reading this volume. This volume contains several sections of the Zohar called Midrash ha-Neelam, which are separate in language and theology than the main body of the Zohar. They have a Hebrew core and an Aramaic overlay, they mainly concern the soul and other allegorical topics, rather than sefirot, and the named scholars are unlike the Zohar. The works use Neoplatonic philosophic language and philosophic terminology. The Midrash ha-Neelam offer a sense of how 13th century Castilian Jews integrated the Heikhalot and early esotericism with the scholastic philosophic traditions.

In the eighteenth century, Rabbi Yaakov Emden considered these sections separate and earlier than the rest of the corpus. In 1926, Gershom Scholem speculated in his inaugural lecture at Hebrew University, that these texts were earlier than the rest of the Zohar. Scholem completely buried this article and never referred to it; he considered these sections from Moses deLeon. Samuel Belkin, (1957) argued that there were Philonic elements in the work, which received a long critique from R.J. Z. Werblowsky (1960).

Current range for the origin of the Midrash ha-Neelam is between 1250 as an allegorical precursor to the Zohar to 1280 as part of De Leon’s large oeuvre, the opposite positions of belong to Ronit Meroz and  Nathan Wolski.

Ah… but all this is only background. Pritzker Zohar Volume 11 contains a selection of later texts that are modeled on Midrash ha-Neelam. They are post-Zohar and before the 14th century Tikkune Zohar, and combine philosophic allegory with kabbalistic sefirot. They also have significant amounts of reworked later Midrash such as Eichah Rabbah or the short works of Batei Midrashot.

What is the origin of these later texts?  1250 and then additions in 1280? All 1280? How many strata? Was there an Aramaic overlay on Hebrew original or mixed language right from the start. Were they written by several people? Who were they? What did they think they were doing? Did they relate to one another?

Current Hebrew University thinking is to speak of an “intermediate layer” or a “middle layer” of the Zohar corpus written between the Zohar and the Tikkunim. They can currently fudge the issue by placing many short works that have no clear category into this basket.

An example of one of these works included in the volume is Midrash haNeelam on the book of Ruth. It was originally published as a separate volume independently of the Zohar and then was added later to the printed edition of the Zohar Hadash, which was extra material not included in the first printing.  Elimelekh, Naomi, Ruth, & Orpah, are mapped onto four different aspects of soul (as often happens in Midrash ha-Ne’lam al ha-Torah). However, here those identifications were simultaneously mapped onto the tetragrammaton, with explicit reference to Father, Mother, Son, Daughter.

 “Corresponding to this: Naomi—נשמה (neshamah), holy soul. Elimelech—נשמתא לנשמתא (nishmeta le-nishmeta), soul of soul. Mahlon—רוח השכלית (ruah ha-sikhlit), intellectual spirit. Ruth—נפש השכלית (nefesh ha-sikhlit), intellectual soul. Chilion—רוח הבהמיות (ruah ha-behemi’ut), animal spirit.

“Of this Solomon said Who knows if רוח (ruah), the spirit, of man ascends on high and רוח (ruah), the spirit, of a beast descends into earth? (Ecclesiastes 3:21). Ruah of man—Mahlon. Bestial ruah—Chilion, from the left side. Bestial nefesh—Orpah, stiff-necked, from the left side. Thus Chilion—his name was not remembered in Israel.” (Zohar Hadash 78b).

Others works in this volume are the Matnitin and the Tosefta which present themselves as an earlier strata corresponding to the Talmudic Mishnah. In these works, we have a reworking of an ethos of the Heikhalot into a dramatic heightened style, almost poetic, awakening the reader to the visionary and hidden. I have always been quite fond of these sections and have always thought they would make a good volume of visionary poetry.  They echo Sefer Yetzirah and other early works. Rabbi Moses Cordovero considered these works as primary keys to opening up the rest of the Zohar and that they may be the earliest part of the Idrot texts.

Try reading this passage aloud:

Matnitin. “Will of the deed, clusters of faith! A voice—voice of voices—arousing above and below. Open-eyed we were. Sphere above, rotating toward diverse sides. A voice intones, arousing, “Awaken sleepy, slumbering ones, with sleep in their sockets, who do not know to look and do not see! Stopped-up ears, lethargic hearts, they sleep and do not know. The Torah stands before them, yet they pay no heed, and do not know upon what they gaze; who look but do not see. The Torah sends forth voices, ‘Look, foolish ones! Open your eyes and understand!’ Yet none pays heed, and none inclines his ear! How long shall you remain in the darkness of your desires? Look and understand, and the shining light will be revealed to you!” Zohar 1:161b (Vol. 11, pp. 542-43)

If you read it aloud then you saw the contribution of Hecker’s concern with poetics and the sound of the text. Here is a section of Tosefta to read aloud:

We were close by, heard a voice concatenating above, downward, spreading throughout the world. A voice smashing mountains, shattering mighty rocks, gargantuan whirlwinds ascending, our ears patulous. Proclaiming in undulations: “Thorn-prick to slumberers, torpor in their sockets, subsisting in their subsistence.

The King speaks! Avoid inebriation, gatekeepers! The ruler of numerous troops is stationed in his place! All are insensate, unaware that the book is open, names recorded. Zohar 1:121a (Vol. 11, pp. 608-9).

This project will be finished with a final volume in a few months. The Pritzker Zohar will be known in future decades as one of the great Judaica projects of our era, whose immense contribution with be evident in the upcoming years as rabbis start to teach and integrate these texts.

Several decades ago, Prof. Rivka Shatz-Uffenheimer of Hebrew University envisioned a Zohar project of dividing the corpus between many scholars to analyze its content. Maybe the completion of these volumes would be good time to renew the project in the United States and divide the 12 volumes among 40-50 scholars who would elucidate its meanings and treasures. However this time, since the volumes are in English, maybe invite poets, theologians, cultural theorists, and comparative students of mysticism, along with midrash, and Jewish thought scholars to open up the text.

1) What is Midrash ha-Ne’lam?

Midrash ha-Ne’lam is from the earliest stratum of Zoharic writing, first appearing in the early 1280’s.  Midrash ha-Ne’lam is written in a mix of Hebrew and Aramaic, and those two different languages reflect greater interests in allegory and kabbalistic symbolism, respectively.  The allegorical readings here are often spiritualized readings of biblical characters as stand-ins for different parts of the human soul and psyche.

Shifra Asulin has argued that the kabbalistically-inflected Aramaic material was written and woven in to an older allegorical Hebrew text of Midrash ha-Ne’lam.

Scribes and printers sometimes attached the title Midrash ha-Ne’lam to other texts. Rabbi Yaakov Emden, the first person to engage in extensive critical analysis of the Zohar, tried to delineate its parameters using careful methodological criteria; he refers to one Zoharic section as “not from the true Zohar, but rather typical of formulations from the Midrash ha-Ne’lam” (Mitpahat Sefarim, 21).

Volume 11 contains sections that have received the label Midrash ha-Ne’lamShir ha-Shirim, Rut, and Eikhah—but they do not necessarily match the model of Midrash ha-Ne’lam on the Torah.

Midrash ha-Ne’lam on Shir ha-Shirim may be a fragment of a larger work, now lost, and it bears some of the characteristics typical of Midrash ha-Ne’lam on the Torah: multiple rabbinic figures; mix of Hebrew and Aramaic; allegorical interpretations; and with only slight use of kabbalistic symbolism.

  1. How does Midrash ha-Ne’lam fit into the formation of the Zohar?

Gershom Scholem argued that the entire Zohar was written by Moshe de Leon, a prolific 13th century kabbalist, including the earliest strata of the Zohar to the latest—from the work called Midrash ha-Ne’lam through the sections called the Idrot—even though many difficulties remained with this broad-brush thesis.

In the late 1980’s Yehudah Liebes, one of our generation’s foremost academic Zohar experts concluded that while Moshe de Leon may have been the primary author of the Zoharic compendium, he also served as editor, incorporating the works of others with whom he did not necessarily agree.

And for some time this new approach was adopted by scholarly consensus. Over the last decade there have been three primary responses to Liebes’ thesis.

Some scholars, many of them Liebes’ Hebrew University students, fine-tuned his argument, suggesting that there is another stratum of Zoharic literature. While the old topography of the Zohar’s textual composition had three stages—1. Midrash ha-Ne’lam; 2. Epic Layer of the Zohar (Zohar on the Torah); 3. Tiqqunei Zohar & Ra’aya Mehemna—according to the new scheme another layer intervened between numbers 2 & 3, and this came to be called the mediating or middle layer, i.e. the stratum written after most of the Zohar had been written.

To speak historically, we currently use a basic four-part scheme of authorship:

  1. Midrash ha-Ne’lam on the Torah;
  2. Epic Layer of the Zohar (Meroz’s name for guf ha-Zohar);
  3. a mediating period before Tiqqunei Zohar and Raya Mehemna, containing parts of Saba of Mishpatim, Yanoqa, Zohar Shir ha-Shirim, Idrot, Sifra di-Tseni’uta, Matnitin, Tosefta (and more);
  4. Tiqqunei Zohar and Raya Mehemna.

A second response to Liebes’ thesis has been pushed primarily by Ronit Meroz through careful study of Zoharic manuscripts in comparison with other contemporary (14th century) kabbalists. She has suggested that Sitrei Torah came from the pen of Rabbi Yaakov Shatz, and that large sections of Zohar Hadash came from Rabbi Yosef Angelet. These assignations are intriguing but probably require further investigation. The possibility remains that the Zohar texts and their “sister” texts may have had a source in common rather than originating from the same author.

A third response has been that of Daniel Abrams who argues that the Zohar is more a collection of literary phenomena bearing accretions and losses evolving over centuries into the anthology now called Zohar. For Abrams, Zoharic authorship is chimerical, and the best we can hope for is to observe trends of development over time through assiduous examination of the manuscripts.

The scholarship of Yehuda Liebes and Ronit Meroz has been very helpful in tracking down textual affinities between texts that appear in the printed Zohar and works written by kabbalists living in the late 13th-early 14th century.

Affinities may not prove authorship, however, and may demonstrate a relationship of source and target, or perhaps only that these authors and the Zohar as it emerges both drew on similar sources.

Even then, since the earliest identified manuscript that contains substantial Zoharic material was written at the beginning of the 15th century (and owned by Sabbatai Zevi!), there is at least 100 years of redaction before we have substantial amounts of Zoharic texts.

While there is little doubt that much of the conceptual and literary work would have been written in the decades between, say, 1280 and 1310, what existed at that time is like a black box buried at the bottom of the sea, or a rumored lost train carrying a fortune in gold lost in mountainous regions of Eastern Europe.

3) How was Midrash ha-Ne’lam Ruth originally considered a separate book?

Midrash ha-Ne’lam on Rut was first printed under the titles Yesod Shirim and Tapuhei Zahav (Thiengen 1559) without any reference to the Zoharic corpus. While the frontispiece of one of the first two printings (Cremona 1558) referred to Midrash Rut, only small parts of the work appear there. Ultimately it was published in 1658 in Zohar Hadash under the title Midrash ha-Ne’lam Rut.

MhN Rut is a shaggy dog of a text. I have often thought of it as a duffle bag into which all kinds of materials could be stuffed; indeed, this says something about the nature of redaction of kabbalistic texts in general.

MhN Rut cannot be said to have a clear message, per se. Many rabbis are quoted in it, which is a feature of Midrash ha-Ne’lam in general, without the central figure of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai and his cohort. It has stories about dreams, long passages about the various compartments of hell and the details of the tortures that go on there; it contains one of the versions of the popular story of the Tanna and the Restless Dead, a story that inspired the practice of children reciting Kaddish (and other parts of the liturgy) after a parent’s death.

The story enjoyed wide circulation in over forty versions in medieval folktales, liturgical works, midrash, ethical literature, and Kabbalah, but its best known source is from medieval Ashkenaz, where dreams and the fear of hell are frequent tropes.

It is interested in the nature of the soul. And, of course, there is a fair amount of allegorical and kabbalistic interpretation of the story of Ruth.

Noteworthy in Midrash ha-Ne’lam on Rut is the reliance on late, small midrashim published by Jellinek and Eisenstein. Much of the material regarding Geihinnom draws upon Masekhet Geihinnom, Masekhet Hibbut ha-Qever; on the fetus it gleans from Seder Yetsirat ha-Vlad; and on the martyrology from Heikhalot literature, but also from Elleh Ezkerah.

It is one of the ironies of Midrash ha-Ne’lam on Rut that while the biblical Book of Ruth is classically treated as a story of conversion and of a non-Jewish woman’s dedication to the people of Israel and their God, this section of the Zohar demonstrates its ambivalence and hostility toward non-Jews, and Christians and Muslims in particular. The Zohar’s ethnocentrism and xenophobia is prominently on display here.

4)      Describe Midrash ha-Ne’lam Lamentations.

Midrash ha-Ne’lam on Eikhah is a beautiful, pathos-filled work that stands alone, but it was not published independently as was the case with MhN, Rut. The first part of the work is structured as dueling claims to greater suffering between the residents of Jerusalem and the residents of Bavel. The debate follows a trope established in a piyyut written by Solomon ibn Gabirol between two fictional wives of Israel, each suffering neglect. Here the winner will claim the right to offer a eulogy for Jerusalem after Her destruction.

The work draws on Eikhah Rabbah, but has a light overlay of kabbalistic symbolism, focusing on the absence of both the blessed Holy One, signifying Tif’eret, who abandoned the people of Israel, but Shekhinah too is absent.

It draws upon Eikhah Rabbah’s famous midrash that describes Rachel crying from her tomb in Bethlehem, refusing to be consoled over her children’s exile and suffering. While MhN, Eikhah strikes the same emotional tones as Eikhah Rabbah, the artistic skill of the authorship lies in the rereading of rabbinic midrash that seamlessly retrojects kabbalistic myth into the earlier material; or, put differently, elaborates literarily the mythos that is quietly embedded within the rabbinic texts.

5)   What are your differences in translation from those of Daniel Matt?

One of the aims of The Zohar: Pritzker Edition was to maintain stylistic consistency throughout the 12 volumes and, indeed, originally Daniel Matt was originally hired to do all twelve—but Nathan Wolski and I were hired so that the project would be completed before 2022. While the careful reader can detect stylistic changes over the course of the nine volumes written by Daniel Matt, there is impressive consistency. Nathan and I were charged with the task of trying to sustain that consistency and I found little temptation to fiddle with a winning formula. That said, here and there one can find idiosyncratic divergences, particularly in my commentary.

I received rabbinical training at Yeshiva University and, as a result, there were times where I chased down halakhic issues that were of interest to me.

For example, I was interested in the issue of the three words that are repeated at the end of the Shema, as treated in Midrash ha-Ne’lam on Rut. Midrash Tanhuma on Tazri’a teaches that there are 248 words in the liturgical Shema, corresponding to the 248 limbs of the human body.

Bracketing the anatomical question, any brash 5th grader would challenge this teaching, noting that there are in fact only 245 words contained in the Shema’s three paragraphs. Hasidei Ashkenaz were deeply interested in numerical aspects of the liturgy and, confronted by this apparent contradiction, suggested that one could say the three words El Melekh Ne’eman, a putative expansion of the word Amen, after the blessing before the Shema and immediately preceding the Shema. Thus is the numerical discrepancy resolved.

We do not know about the pervasiveness of this innovative practice, but both Ramban and Rashba felt called upon to object, emphasizing that reciting these words, even if they are only an expansion of the “acronym Amen” constitute an impermissible interruption between the blessing before the Shema and the recital act itself. They did not propose any other solution to the problem, apparently indicating a lack of concern for the midrash’s inaccuracy.

The battle over this issue did not subside, however, and a passage in the printed version of Midrash ha-Ne’lam on Rut offered a unique solution: repeat the last two words of the Shema (Adonai Eloheikhem) plus the first word of the subsequent blessing (Emet). Yet another solution had been offered, however, and that was to repeat the last three words of the Shema (Ani Adonai Eloheikhem).

Medieval Spanish Talmud commentators and poskim in the late 13th and early 14th centuries quarreled over this issue (as documented by Israel Ta-Shma). From my examination of Zohar manuscripts and consideration of variants in the different works of Moses de León that dealt with the same issue, I concluded that the Zohar’s original position was to repeat the words ani YHVH Eloheikhem (the “losing” position in halakhic history), and that scribes subsequently “corrected” the Zohar in light of the emerging halakhah.

I believe that I have also differed slightly from Matt in terms of some key word choices and emphases. Thus I was more likely to translate yir’ah as “fear” rather than “awe.” Similarly, I often characterized kabbalistic interests as “pious” rather than “spiritual.”

6)      What Poetic principles do you follow in your translation?

Following Danny Matt’s model for the series, I have tried to produce a translation that is both “literal yet poetic.” The translator’s line between replicating the feel of a foreign language and rebirthing the text in a different vernacular is inevitably individual and sometimes fuzzy. One of the problems in creating a translation is that there is no such thing as a word-for-word translation. No two languages correspond so neatly that one could pull off this feat.

A recent estimate puts the numbers of words and roots in the Zohar at roughly 6,000, while the average North American with a graduate school education has close to ten times that number in her vocabulary. Indeed, Gershom Scholem wrote that “It remains to be added that the author’s vocabulary is extremely limited, so that one never escapes a feeling of surprise at his ability to express so much with the aid of so little” (Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, 163–65).

While the Zohar does not feel flat-footed, if one were to reproduce its iterative quality in English, the result would feel pedestrian. Many words are repeated but with subtle (and not-so-subtle) nuances and variations; the richness of English can reproduce these distinctions using different words.

Thus in Daniel Matt’s working dictionary for his volumes of the translation (an enormously helpful tool), he lists almost forty words or phrases to translate the root ahd (or ahid, itahid) whose simple meaning is “grasp” or “hold.” Similarly, the root qym (“exist, stand, abide”) in its various forms has well over one hundred possible entries, as does slq (“rise, ascend, depart, disappear”).

7) Can you give examples of your poetics?

Some of the poetic moves that I have adopted include the following:

  1. Dash—Often replaces words such as אינון (“they”) or  דא(“this”) or אלין (“these”). This move compresses and tightens the English text, providing more punch.
  1. Exclamation marks—The dialogue of the Zohar’s fictional kabbalists is frequently punctuated with expressions of astonishment, delight, and dismay. The addition of this simple punctuation mark accentuates the literary experience and emphasizes the affective tone of the text’s characters.
  1. Elimination of the definite article yields compactness, poetry, personification, and mythicization.
  1. An attempt to reproduce alliteration or patterns of repetition where possible.

Alliteration and repetition are frequent literary features in the Zohar. Sometimes there is a greater literary payoff by mimicking the Aramaic repetitions in English, and sometimes a better effect is achieved through varying the terms. Using alliteration in the English (“power and potency”) is a poetic act that provides some of the feel of the text even if it is not a precise echo of the specific sounds.

Commenting on Ezekiel’s vision (Ezekiel 1:16), the author of Zohar Shir ha-Shirim (63b) writes: “Its flame flares momentarily, flickering. Sparkles revolve, one shimmer entering the other.”

Sometimes a term carries two possible meanings and I opted to use two terms rather than simply one to convey the meaning. Thus (Zohar Hadash, Shir ha-Shirim 63c) as “When he approached her later and Seth was born, the world became stabilized and fragrant with the righteous and saintly ones who came into the world afterward.” The root bsm carries both senses of “stabilized” or “established” and “fragrant.” Danny Matt has translated this term as “fragrantly firm,” but that didn’t work for me.

As to repetition, sometimes I opted to translate the same term with multiple words as a way of enhancing the experience. I translated a passage in Zohar Hadash, Shir ha-Shirim 62c as follows: “Come and see. When Israel are righteous, the supernal Throne of Glory ascends in teeming delight, in an abundance of love, higher and higher… All worlds are saturated, blessed, and sanctified with a profusion of blessings, brimming with sanctities. Then the blessed Holy One rejoices with them in total rapture.” Here, I have translated the word kamah in four different ways (teeming, abundant, profusion, brimming) as a way of capturing the plenitude that the language itself suggests.

And yet at other times the repetition works well: “In this manner, The Song of Songs of Solomon, ascending in bliss, descending in bliss, joining in bliss—all the worlds in bliss.” Repeating the word “bliss” (bliss, bliss, bliss, bliss) has its own sensual qualities.

8)      Why is Zohar Song of Songs important and special?

Following Rabbi Akiva’s famous statement in Mishnah Yadayim (3:5) that “All of scripture is holy, but Song of Songs is holy of holies,” Jewish traditions have treated the love song as an allegory for love that transcends the love of young lovers, as an allegory for the love between God and Israel; love between the individual soul and God; and in kabbalah, as a symbol for the love between the masculine and feminine potencies of Divinity. It is hard to overstate the pervasive influence of the Song of Songs on the Zohar as a whole, as the Song’s themes suffuse the Zoharic corpus.

The Zohar on the Song of Songs represents the Zoharic authorship in its most mature phase—masterful in exegetical craft, soaring in its rhetoric. As noted above, the Zohar on the Song of Songs contains material that is similar to the interests of the later strata of the Zohar, Raya Mehemna and Tiqqunei Zohar (specifically the letter mysticism). It also appears to be familiar with some of the Zohar’s favorite themes, and re-renders them skillfully.

The literary framework for much of the text is an exchange of mystical homilies between Rabbi Shimon son of Yohai and the prophet Elijah, running a sustained commentary on Song of Songs 1:1–11. For many of the first homilies, each speaker demonstrates a thematic consistency: Rabbi Shim’on’s teachings are about ascent (within the sefirot or of the individual soul), while Elijah’s deal with the ruptures caused by the presence of the demonic Other Side, human transgression, and the ways in which evil is overcome and harmony restored.

Much of the latter part of this large work transposes the romance of the Song onto the exalted plane of masculine and feminine letters that are the fundaments of reality, with an overarching theme in both speakers concerning the restoration of linguistic and divine harmony.

In this text, as in much of the Zohar, the demonic Other Side is a personification of the current of evil and judgment that runs through humanity and the world. Evil is understood (in strong contrast to Maimonides) as a real force in humanity, but also as a celestial force, corresponding to Divinity though inferior in stature. This modified dualism has anthropological consequences, raising the stakes that appear in Bahya ibn Paquda’s Hovot ha-Levavot, in which every human action is a step toward holiness or sin. For the Zohar, these fateful steps result in one abiding in one dimension of reality or another—the holy or the demonic. This dualism has metaphysical significance as well, inasmuch as it calls for a recasting of the Neoplatonic approaches that were popular at the time.

9)   What are the Matnitin and Tosefta?

The Matnitin (“Our Mishnah”) and Tosefta (“Addenda”) sections of the Zohar corpus consist mostly of anonymous enigmatic revelations. These two sections have different names, but are identical in style, imagery, and tone. Their primary interests are the process of emanation; the development of the soul; and the role of the forces of judgment and evil.

These striking, compact passages, often have oracular, hortatory voices that call upon sleeping humanity to awaken from their spiritual slumber in order to learn the esoteric truths of Torah and God’s inner being. Their style is terse, dramatic, and at times rhythmic, suggesting that some of them may have been chanted to induce mystical consciousness.

Matnitin and Tosefta show strong familiarity with a range of Zoharic themes, and this led R. Yaakov Emden first, and then later Scholem and Tishby to characterize them as early compositions—just as the terse style of the Mishnah leads to the expansive discussions of the Gemara. I agree with Daniel Abrams’ position that it is more likely that the authors wrote them with many Zoharic texts before them.

The use of neologisms in these sections heightens their sense of mystery and allure—often derived from Greek, Latin, Persian, or Arabic—and made these sections the most fun to translate. Several examples:

  1. “Glow of ten flowing streams” renders קוזטיפא דהרדינא עשרא דאפקותא (qoztifa de-ha-redina asara de-afquta), (V206, 331a). The neologism qoztifa apparently implies projection or flow. See the expression קסטיפא דשמשא (qastifa de-shimsha), “ray of the sun” (Zohar 3:283b); and the Arabic root qdf, “to throw.” The word רדינא (redina), or perhaps הרדינא (hardina), is utterly cryptic and probably a corruption, but it may derive from the root רדי (rdy), “flow, liquefy.”
  2. “Lusters” renders קסטורין (qastorin) (Zohar 1:232b), apparently derived from קסיטרא (qasitra) and Greek kassiteros, “tin.” “Constricted caissons” renders טסקורי קמיטין (tasqurei qemitin); alternatively, “furrowed forms” or “tautened templates.” The strange word tasqurei appears nowhere else in the Zohar, or classical or medieval rabbinic literature. The author may have in mind the other Zoharic neologism טסקוסאי (tasqosa’ei) on Zohar 2:234b where טסקוסאי (tasqosa’ei) is linked with Targum Yonatan, Ezekiel 43:10: טקוסיה (tiqquseih), “its pattern” (recorded in Bei’ur ha-Millim ha-Zarot as טסקוסטיה [tisqusteih]), deriving from Greek taxis, “arrangement, order.”
  3. I translated קולפי בסיכתא (qulfei de-sikketa) (1:232a) as “nail-studded (or flanged, spiked) clubs.” The singular form קולפא (qulpa), “club,” derives from the Persian kūpāl, “club, lance.”

10)    What is the Sitrei Torah?

Sitrei Torah is the title given to a collection of Zohar passages from the later period that are mostly connected to the book of Genesis, but the title is also sometimes used in manuscripts and by early commentators to refer to texts that appear without that title elsewhere. In other words, it is a somewhat generic title that is applied somewhat randomly. A central focus of these passages is the power of the demonic Other Side.

11)   Why should we study Zohar?

The Zohar has charmed its readers because of its literary richness, its acute midrashic eye, and for the lush interlacing of Tanakh, midrash, halakhah, aggadah, medieval philosophy, and kabbalah. It is a poetic, visionary masterpiece whose system—both structured and fluid—offers shining religious homilies. Encompassing the entirety of Judaism, its narratives and mysterious characters confer a quality of both mystery and familiarity, and an aura of authenticity even as it is endlessly creative.  The flow from one set of symbols is seductive, and induces in the reader a desire to participate in its associative process.

For today’s spiritual seeker, Hasidut is often more accessible because it is more expressly psychological, and has usually dropped the arcana of sefirot, angels, demonic forces, etc. Each spiritual seeker, of course, will find the practices, texts, and forms of contemplation best suited to her or him.

12)   How does the Zohar influence your spiritual life?

The Zohar strongly informs my spirituality and the religious intentions that I bring to my Torah study, prayer, and observance of mitsvot, but I do not regard myself as a mystic. The religious imaginaire supplied by the Zohar fills my brain, but it is not the only constellation that guides me. And yet, a large tetragrammaton graces the door of my study serving as a focus for visualization during davenning, inspired by my study of the Zohar.

When I first read through the entire Zohar in the early 90’s, I would spend hours every morning reading large chunks of text. Then I would take a walk down the block to Riverside Park and everything appeared differently: sun, sky, birds, trees, etc. all carried symbolic weight, having become portals onto Divinity itself.

After several months of immersion in the Zohar’s letter mysticism, I received an aliyah at shul. Nothing mystical occurred, but my relationship to those letters, parchment, and the entire text had been transformed, and I was filled with reverence and awe.

13)   What do you do with the nasty parts of the Zohar?

When saying kaddish after my father died several years ago, I thought frequently about the Zohar’s injunctions to say Kaddish and other public rituals to save the deceased from Hell, along with the Zohar’s extensive descriptions of the various compartments and sufferings of Hell. Literal readings of those texts have no purchase on my religious thinking. While I feel deeply religious, my academic training, extending back to a B.A. in English Literature at the University of Toronto, has inculcated in me a ironic distance between me and any text.  Moreover, I am aware that any and all texts I read are filtered through my own subjectivity, and through the broad range of Jewish religious texts with which I have spent time.