Tag Archives: kabbalah

Interview with Daniel C. Matt – translator of the Pritzker edition of the Zohar

In a striking image, the Zohar compares the Torah to a princess sequestered in a palace tower. The student of Torah is her lover seeking her to reveal herself from the window showing her reciprocal love. The lover’s does catch a fleeting vision, a personal and private revelation of her secrets stirring his heart. A mystical approach to Torah yearns for this love and personal revelation.

This may be compared to a beloved maiden, beautiful in form and appearance, concealed secretly in her palace. She has a single lover unknown to anyone—except to her, surreptitiously. Out of the love that he feels for her, this lover passes by her gate constantly, lifting his eyes to every side. Knowing that her lover is constantly circling her gate, what does she do? She opens a little window in that secret place where she is, reveals her face to her lover, and quickly withdraws, concealing herself. None of those near the lover even sees or notices, only the lover, and his inner being and heart and soul go out to her. He knows that out of love for him she revealed herself for a moment to arouse him.

So it is with words of Torah: she only reveals herself to her lover. Torah knows that one who is wise of heart circles her gate every day. What does she do? She reveals her face to him from the palace and beckons to him with a hint, then swiftly withdraws to her place, hiding away. None of those there knows or notices—he alone does, and his inner being and heart and soul follows her. Thus Torah reveals and conceals herself, approaching her lover lovingly to arouse love with him.

A reader could understand this in a technical sense of a ritual to connect to the sefirah of malkhut/shekhinah but for many it is the mystical lyrical aspect of the passage that attracts readers. ” The scholar Michael Fishbane, wrote that the Zohar “pulses with the desire for God on every page.”

For those who cherish the work, Professor Daniel C. Matt has done an invaluable service in translating the Zohar into a vibrant glowing English, thereby setting a benchmark for translations  for contemporary Jewish culture. His Pritzker Edition published by Stanford University Press is easy to use and the website has samples and a full Hebrew/Aramaic text to download.

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The Zohar as printed in the 16th century is a five volume set (3 volumes of Zohar, Tikkune Zohar, and Zohar Hadash) of over thirty separate books including the non-Kabbalistic allegorical Midrash Haneelam from the early 13th century, the 14th century Tikkune Zohar, the especially esoteric Idrot and Sitrei Torah by Rabbi Yakov Shatz. It also contains fragments and pieces of Ashkenaz esotericism, Bahir, and a work on palmistry. The work also has 14th century passages from Rabbi Yosef of Hamadan and his contemporaries, whose authorship was already noted in the traditional commentaries.  These works differ in language, protagonist, esoteric ideas, use of midrash, and especially religious worldview.

The part of the Zohar beautifully translated by Daniel C. Matt is the main narrative section of the first three volume.  The 9 English volumes cover 85% of the 3 Aramaic volumes of the standard edition(s) of the Zohar (except for sections such as Midrash ha-Ne’lam, Matnitin, Tosefta, Sitrei Torah, and Heikhalot, which are included in the English volumes 10-12, and Ra’aya Meheimna, which will not be translated.

(As a side point, the Soncino English translation (1934) was almost unusable, inadequate in both translation and passages covered. The Soncino actually selected as a translator a Volozhin Yeshiva alumna who had already converted to Christianity).

The contemporary attraction for the Zohar is in the narrative section whose passages offer the attractive merits of literary stories, heightened language, love of God, and deeper levels of reality. The work is a mystical midrash in which a circle of kabbalists travel and reveal secrets as they expound the verses of the Bible. The narrative invites the reader to share its vision by using the phrase “come and see’ (ta hazai), in place of the Talmud’s “come and hear.” Gershom Scholem and Isaiah Tishby focused on the doctrine of the sefirot, but later academic readers look at the entire package of midrashic-literary-mystical-kabbalistic weave. The other parts of the corpus do not have these qualities. Current trends find multiple hands and opinions even in the narrative sections leading to seeing the work as a group effort. There is no early complete manuscript of the Zohar (and there never was. For more information, see my 2010 Forward review of Daniel Matt & Melila Hellner-Eshed, and some of my prior blog posts- here and here).

The narrative section reworks older materials into something new. For examples a Zohar section may quote two pieces of Genesis Rabbah then a piece of Tanhuma and/or Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer followed by a piece of Gerona Kabbalah and conclude with Rabbi Shimon presenting the position of Castillian Kabbalah. All of it set within a narrative story with rhetorical questions and vivid imagery. The Zohar reworks minor midrashim such as Midrash Wayissa’u, a story of the sons of Jacob warring against their enemies and Midrash Peṭirat Mosheh, on the death of Moses. It also has knowledge of various Second Temple period Pseudepigrapha books whether via midrash or some subterranean tradition. Nevertheless, none of these antecedents are the medieval sefirotic chart.

For those who are not acquainted with kabbalistic literature, there are dozens of seminal kabbalistic works. If one wanted to be informed about the world of the sefirot one would likely start with the Sha’arei Orah, by Rabbi Joseph Gikatilla, if one wanted to study the Gerona school then one would start with the works of Rabbis Azriel and Ezra of Gerona or one could study Nahmanides’ French tradition. One could even look at the texts as diverse as Moses ben Jacob from Kiev’s compilation Shushan Sodot or the Byzantium work Sefer Hatemunah. The Zohar is far from the summary or summation of the kabbalah and its many schools. (For those who want an introduction, see my YUTorah introductory lectures on the Kabbalah).

The Zohar had admirers and imitators at the start of the 14th century including Yosef Angelet and David b. Yehudah Hahasid, and it was quoted by Bahye and Recanati, however it was not the classic until the Spanish exiles in the 16th century who turned it into a canonical text by writing commentaries on the recently published text and then building elaborate systems using the Zohar as the basis. It generated ritual gestures such as Kabbalat Shabbat and inviting guests into the sukkah as well as the Yeshiva ideal of studying Torah day and night. In the 17th century, it was applied in a mechanical ritual manner (10 pieces of Chometz, 10 items on the Seder plate, 100 shofar blasts).At the end of the 20th and start of the 21st century, people study the narrative parts of the Zohar for its beauty and mystical worldview.

Those who are carefully reading through the volumes page by page will not agree with every decision made in the volumes, one can question some of his decisions of which Zoharic book a passage belongs to, as well as not always agreeing with his translation and commentary. At some points, Matt follows one commentator over another without citing the important alternate understanding. These points aside, Daniel C. Matt has done the Jewish community a tremendous service in his translation Below is a my interview with him and afterwards  I received a selection from his autobiographic essay.

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1)      Why did you decide to make a composite text rather than a
stemma with variants? What were your criteria to choose which variant to use?

There is no complete manuscript of what we now call the Zohar, nor did such a manuscript ever exist, because the Zohar was composed over a long period of time by different authors. At first, I thought that I would translate from one of the standard printed editions and simply consult manuscripts when I encountered difficult passages. However, I soon discovered that the manuscripts (especially the older and more reliable ones) preserved numerous better readings. So I decided to reconstruct the Aramaic text based on those superior readings. There is undoubtedly a subjective element in choosing variants, but I came to trust certain older manuscripts. It is often possible to see how later scribes added material to the text, and I scraped away such later additions.

2)      Why did you include the Matnitin and Idrot if your goal was to
limit the volumes to “guf haZohar”?

The Zohar: Pritzker Edition includes many sections of the Zohar, not just what is called Guf ha-Zohar (The Body of the Zohar). This latter term refers primarily to the running commentary on the Torah, which is translated in Vols. 1–9. Certain other sections of the Zohar are also included in these nine volumes, such as Sava de-Mishpatim, the Idrot, Rav Metivta, Yanuqa. Many of the older manuscripts record the Matnitin as one unit, rather than how they appear in the printed editions (scattered throughout the Zohar), and we decided to follow the older manuscripts. We did not translate either Tiqqunei ha-Zohar or Ra’aya Meheimna, which were composed later as Zoharic imitations.

3)      Are you consistent in the words used to translate a
Hebrew/Aramaic term? For example, is tiqqun always translated as
enhancement? How did you come to translate alma de-atei the way you did? Why is heizu rendered as visionary mirror, rather than one or the other?

It would be a grave mistake to always translate Zoharic terms consistently. As I proceeded in my work, I composed a Zohar dictionary so that I could keep track of various possible nuances for the Zohar’s unique brand of Aramaic. For the root tqn, for example, I listed over fifty possible English equivalents, including “to mend, repair, refine, enhance, improve, prepare, correct, rectify, perfect, restore, arrange, array, adorn, establish.” I used the rendering “enhancement” only for certain passages in the Idrot describing the features (and curlicues) of the divine beard.

The rabbinic term alma de-atei is often translated as “the world-to-come,” but I usually render it as “the world that is coming,” in order to emphasize the eternal present. In the Zohar this term often alludes to the Divine Mother, Binah, who is constantly flowing. In the words of Rabbi Shim’on, “That river flowing forth is called Alma de-Atei, the World that is Coming—coming constantly and never ceasing” (Zohar 3:290b, Idra Zuta).

Occasionally I combine two possible meanings of a Zoharic term in order to convey its range of meaning. For example, the Aramaic word heizu means “vision, appearance,” but in the Zohar it also signifies “mirror,” based on the Hebrew word mar’ah (which can mean both “vision” and “mirror”).

4)      What are some of your most inventive words and hardest words that you used in your translation? 

One of the most charming—and frustrating—features of the Zohar is its frequent use of neologisms (invented words). The authors like to switch around letters of Talmudic terms or occasionally play with Spanish words.

One newly coined word is tiqla. In various contexts, this can mean “scale, hollow of the hand, fist, potter’s wheel, and water clock.” This last sense refers to a device described in ancient and medieval scientific literature, which in the Zohar functions as an alarm clock, calibrated to wake kabbalists at precisely midnight for the ritual stud of Torah. A similar device was employed in Christian monasteries to rouse monks for their vigils. How appropriate to invent a word in order to describe an invention!

The Zohar describes the primordial source of emanation as botsina de-qardinuta. The word botsina means “lamp.” The word qardinuta recalls a phrase in the Babylonian Talmud (Pesahim 7a): hittei qurdanaita, “wheat from Kurdistan,” which, according to Rashi, is very hard. The Zohar may also be playing here with qadrinuta, “darkness.” I sometimes rendered botsina de-qardinuta as “a lamp of impenetrable darkness.” More recently, I chose “the
Lamp of Adamantine Darkness.” As the paradoxical names suggests, the potent brilliance of this primordial source overwhelms comprehension.

Many mystics record similar paradoxical images: “a ray of divine darkness” (Dionysius, Mystical Theology); “the luminous darkness” (Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses); “the black light” (Iranian Sufism). In his Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides writes: “We are dazzled by His beauty, and He is hidden from us because of the intensity with which He becomes manifest, just as the sun is hidden to eyes too weak to apprehend it.”

5)      What was the biggest surprise that you found in the many year
process?

One surprise was the playfulness of the Zohar and its sense of humor. According to Rabbi Shim’on, a bit of foolishness can stimulate wisdom. In the section called Yanuqa (The Child), two rabbis encounter a little boy who is a wunderkind—and also a bit of a rascal. He alternates between amazing the rabbis and teasing them, impressing and then challenging (or stumping) them. This child prodigy spouts wisdom, spiced with humor.

I used to try and figure out what the Zohar “meant.” Now I prefer to let the rich language wash over me and through me, allowing it to uplift, confound, or transform me.

6)      Many people want to know: How does the Zohar influence your
spiritual life? Do you keep a mystical journal? Are you a mystic?

I don’t keep a journal. I don’t have visions. The Zohar enriches my life by teaching me not to be content with how things appear on the surface, by stimulating me to delve more deeply. I look for the divine spark in the people I encounter, in the phenomena of the natural world, and in everyday life, moment by moment. I am a mystic in the sense that I feel the oneness of all existence, the wondrous interplay of matter and energy.

7)      Why should we study Zohar? What does its  creative imagination of God offer?

In interpreting the Bible, the Zohar is willing to ask daring questions. Going beyond traditional midrash, the Zohar employs radical creativity to make us question our current assumptions about life, about ourselves, about God and spirituality. It moves through the Torah verse by verse, asking probing, challenging questions. As the Zohar says, “God is known and grasped to the degree that one opens the gates of imagination,” so it’s up to our imaginative faculty to understand reality, or the reality of God.

The Zohar is a celebration of creativity—it shows how the Torah endlessly unfolds in meaning. Jacob ben-Sheshet Gerondi, a 13th-century kabbalist, said it’s a mitzvah for every wise person to innovate in Torah according to his capacity. That’s refreshing because you often hear the traditional notion: to accept what’s been handed down or to learn from the master because you’re not able to create on your own. But ben-Sheshet says (after conveying one of his innovations), “If I hadn’t invented it in my mind I would say that this was transmitted to Moses at Mt. Sinai.” He’s aware that his interpretation is new, but he thinks it harmonizes with the ultimate source of tradition—his creative discovery itself is somehow deeply connected to an ancient mainstream. An essential component of all creativity is tapping into something deeper than your normal state of mind.

We all know that near the beginning of Genesis there’s the famous story of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. It’s clear that God expels Adam and Eve from the Garden. But the Zohar asks, “Who expelled whom?” It turns out, according to the Zohar’s radical re-reading of the biblical verse, that Adam expelled Shekhinah from the Garden!

This seems impossible, almost heretical or laughable. But the Zohar may be implying that we’re still in the Garden, although we don’t realize it because we’ve lost touch with the spiritual dimension of life. On a personal level, each of us becomes alienated by excluding the Divine from our lives. The Zohar challenges us to reconnect with God, to invite Her back into our lives, to rediscover intimacy with Her.

Ultimately, God is Ein Sof (the Infinite). In a striking interpretation, the Zohar construes the opening words of Genesis not as “In the beginning God created,” but rather “With beginning, It [that is, Ein Sof] created God.” To me, this implies that all our normal names for God are inadequate. What we call “God” is puny, compared to the ultimate divine reality.

8)      What do you like about the Idrot?

The Idrot present a detailed description of the divine anatomy, especially the divine head, face, and beard. This may be, in part, a response and reaction to Maimonides, who insisted on eliminating all anthropomorphic descriptions of God. But there is much more to the Idrot. In the Idra Rabba (The Great Assembly), there is a state of emergency, because due to human misconduct, the world is vulnerable to divine wrath. Rabbi Shim’on and his Companions set out on a dangerous mission to restore the balance in the upper worlds and to stimulate a radiant flow from the compassionate aspect of God, which can soothe the irascible divine force and thereby save the world.

In the Idra Zuta (The Small Assembly), Rabbi Shim’on is about to die, and he reveals profound mysteries. He concludes with a detailed description—graphic yet cryptic—of the union of the divine couple. As he departs from this world, he assumes the role of the Divine Male, uniting ecstatically with Shekhinah. Thus Rabbi Shim’on’s death becomes a joyous occasion, and a celestial voice announces his wedding celebration.

In the recent Zohar conference in Israel I read selections from Idra Zuta because I wanted the listeners to appreciate the dramatic power of this rich narrative.

9)      What do you do with the dualism and demonology of the Zohar- do you find it offensive? What do you do with the nasty parts of the Zohar such as the severe condemnation of masturbation? Many are deeply scarred by the effect of those passages.

The Zohar often describes the conflict between the divine and demonic forces. The demonic realm is called Sitra Ahra (the Other Side). This name can be understood as reflecting the terrifying nature of the demonic sphere—as if it cannot even be accorded a real name, but is just referred to as “Other.” However, this designation can also imply that evil is simply the “shadow side” of good, that you can’t have one without the other. We only recognize light because there is also darkness; we only recognize good because there is also evil. Ultimately, both good and evil originate within God. If there is a balance between the divine polar opposites, goodness flows into the world. If there is an imbalance, evil can lash out, wreaking havoc. Human behavior affects the divine balance, contributing to the manifestation of either good or evil.

I’m not offended by the demonology of the Zohar. I see it as an expression of human fear.

I don’t deny that the Zohar includes “nasty” elements. This masterpiece of Kabbalah is often lyrical and inspiring, but being composed in medieval times, it naturally reflects a medieval mentality, including aspects of chauvinism, misogyny, superstition, and various attitudes that we know find antiquated or harmful. To me, Kabbalah is a great resource for contemporary spirituality; but we should approach it with a critical mind; we should not accept all of its teachings as ultimate truth.

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10)  How do you relate to the various theories of recent scholars
that think that there is no fixed original text, rather the continual
accretion of material?

Certainly the Zohar, as we now know it, never existed as a single continuous text. Rather, it is the product of centuries of compilation and editing, which was proceeded by an extended period of composition by various authors. However, by consulting and comparing early manuscripts, it is possible to scrape away from the standard printed editions centuries of scribal accretion and at least come closer to a more “original” text, section by section.

11)  How do you relate to the various theories of recent scholars
that trace ideas back to earlier midrashic and Second Temple sources?

Although the Zohar was composed in medieval times, it is clearly based on numerous earlier sources, primarily various midrashim and the Talmud. Among the midrashim, we find particular influence of Pirqei de-Rabbi Eli’ezer, Pesiqta de-Rav Kahana, and Bereshit Rabbah. The Zohar itself is a type of midrash, while sometimes it also an experiment in medieval fiction. The genius of the authors lies in their ability to use the earlier material to compose a more spiritual midrash, stimulating the reader to expand his consciousness, challenging the normal workings of the mind.

12)  How do you explain the different mindset of Rabbi Moshe de León from the Zohar? Do you have any new explanation of why Ramdal rejects opinions that are affirmed in the Zohar?

It is very interesting to compare the Zohar with the Hebrew writings of Ramdal (Rabbi Moses de León), in which he admits being the author. In these Hebrew compositions, Moses de León makes free use of the Zohar, often translating or paraphrasing Zoharic passages and introducing them with formula such as: “As the ancient ones have said….” He is completely fluent in the Zohar and seems to be promoting the “ancient” material for a wider public. He often explicates Zoharic symbolism. It is easy to conclude that the author of these Hebrew books is himself the composer of large sections of the Zohar.

On the other hand, his Hebrew writing lacks the lyrical power, creativity, and playfulness of the Zohar. This can be explained partly by the fact that in these Hebrew writings, Moses de León is working within his normal state of consciousness, whereas in the Zohar he has shed this persona and taken on the identity of ancient sages. This switch apparently liberates his poetic instinct and enables him to create a unique, otherworldly masterpiece.

Moses de León was certainly not the sole author of the Zohar. Most likely, he did not express the Zoharic opinions that he rejects in his Hebrew writings.

13)  How does the universalism of mysticism relate to the very particular ritual focus of the Zohar? Why Zohar rather than Vedanta or Buddhism?

There are many similarities between mystical teachings of the various world religions: God as the oneness of it all, the goal of reuniting the apparently separate self with this divine oneness, the potency of the divine word and of human meditation. While the insights are frequently similar, or even identical, each religion expresses these insights through the unique forms of its own tradition and culture. A Jew should explore and appreciate the wisdom of his own tradition, while also being open to other spiritual teachings.

However, while the insights are frequently similar, or even identical, the mystics of each religion express these insights through the unique forms of their own tradition and culture. More basically, the particular forms and practices of one’s religion provide pathways to experience mystical states and discover mystical truths. For example, a Jewish mystic finds God through Torah, the celebration of Shabbat, and the mindful observance of other mitsvot.

In certain mystical traditions, one sees the desire to leave the material realm, to seek seclusion and to focus on meditation. Although there is a rich stream of kabbalistic meditation practices, Jewish mysticism emphasizes life in this world and cooperation with others. Participation in the community remains vital, for example, davening in a minyan. In general, the regimen of Torah and the mitsvot helps the individual to stay rooted.

14) How can we apply Kabbalah to modern day Judaism?

I don’t recommend that we become complete kabbalists. Rather, we should draw on the spiritual insights of Kabbalah in order to enrich our spiritual lives. We can reimagine God as the energy that animates all of life. We can balance the patriarchal depictions of God with the feminine imagery of Shekhinah. In our prayer services, we can focus on the mystical implications of verses such as “In Your light we see light,” or “Taste and see that God is good.” Furthermore, we can make room for moments of contemplative silence within prayer. This will help us comprehend and experience the profound verse in Psalm 65: “To You, silence is praise.”

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Selections from an Autobiographical Essay

My interest in Kabbalah and the Zohar certainly has something to do with the fact that my father, Hershel Matt, was a rabbi. He never urged me to delve into Jewish mysticism; on the contrary, he was somewhat suspicious of mysticism and always insisted on maintaining the gap between human and divine. But he conveyed and embodied an intense spirituality, and this undoubtedly inspired me to search for the mystical element within Judaism.

The writings of Martin Buber introduced me to Hasidic tales and teachings. In my undergraduate years at Brandeis University, I took a Hillel course in Hasidic texts taught by Arthur Green. These texts often quoted phrases or lines from the Zohar, which intrigued me. Then, during my junior year abroad at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, I began delving into Zohar. Realizing that I had only one year in Jerusalem, I took a course in Beginning Zohar and simultaneously another one in Advanced Zohar. I was somewhat overwhelmed by the latter, but that didn’t matter so much because I was also overwhelmed by the former! Overwhelmed, but also captivated.

Returning to Brandeis, I completed my B.A. in 1972. I  returned to my alma mater for graduate work in Kabbalah, under the direction of Alexander Altmann. My Ph.D. dissertation consisted of a critical edition and analysis of Sefer Mar’ot ha-Tsove’ot (The Book of Mirrors), written by David ben Yehudah he-Hasid, a thirteenth-fourteenth century kabbalist. I chose this text because it contains the earliest extensive Hebrew translations of passages from the Aramaic text of the Zohar.

I discussed the choice of my dissertation topic with Gershom Scholem when I served as his teaching assistant at Boston University in 1975, and he encouraged me to proceed with it. I recall someone telling me around this time that a doctoral student should be very careful in selecting his topic, since this will likely determine the focus of his entire academic career. I chafed at that notion and responded, “Not necessarily so!” Little did I know then how translating the Zohar would enthrall me.

During these years (early-to-mid 1970s), I was a member of Havurat Shalom in Somerville, Mass. I still cherish the wonderful friendships, rich learning, and inspired davening that I experienced there.

Soon after receiving my Ph.D., Art Green invited me to compose a volume on the Zohar for the Classics of Western Spirituality. After selecting approximately 2 percent of the immense body of the Zohar, I proceeded to translate and annotate these passages. My intent was to demonstrate how the Zohar expounds Scripture creatively: applying the ancient biblical narrative to personal spiritual quest, and imagining (or, at times, recovering) mythic layers of meaning.

I recall someone asking me, “When are you going to translate the other 98 percent of the Zohar?”But I had other projects in mind.

Subsequently, I became interested in the subject of negative theology. The kabbalists describe the ultimate stage of Divinity as Ayin, “Nothingness,” or “No-thingness.” This paradoxical term implies not an absence, but rather a divine fullness that escapes description and language: God is beyond what we normally call “being.” After publishing “Ayin: The Concept of Nothingness in Jewish Mysticism,” I later compared the Jewish notion of ayin to Meister Eckhart’s teachings on Nichts and the Buddhist concept of sunyata (“Varieties of Mystical Nothingness: Jewish, Christian and Buddhist”).

In the mid-1990s, I was invited by HarperCollins to produce a volume entitled The Essential Kabbalah. For this project, I composed annotated translations of Hebrew and Aramaic passages culled from several dozen significant texts ranging from the second to the twentieth centuries. The translations are grouped into themes such as: Ein Sof (God as Infinity), the Sefirot (Divine Qualities), Creation, Meditation and Mystical Experience, Torah, and Living in the Material World. This book has been translated into six languages including a Hebrew edition (Lev ha-Qabbalah).

I spent several years working on a book entitled God and the Big Bang: Discovering Harmony between Science and Spirituality. Here I do not make the simplistic claim that kabbalists somehow knew what Stephen Hawking and others would eventually discover. Rather, I explore several parallels between scientific cosmology and Kabbalah, such as the creative vacuum state and the notion of fertile mystical nothingness, or broken symmetry and the kabbalistic theory of “the breaking of the vessels.” Given that the theory of the Big Bang has become our contemporary Creation story, I seek to outline a “new-ancient” theology, drawing especially on the kabbalistic idea of God as the energy animating all of existence. A revised edition of God and the Big Bang is about to appear, incorporating some of the recent discoveries in cosmology.

In 1995, I was approached by the Pritzker family of Chicago, who invited me to take on the immense project of composing an annotated translation of the Zohar. I was simultaneously thrilled and overwhelmed by this opportunity. After wrestling with the offer for some time, I decided to translate a short section of the Zohar to see how it felt; but I poured myself into the experiment so intensely, day after day, that I was left drained, exhausted, and discouraged. How could I keep this up for years? I reluctantly resolved to decline the offer, but finally agreed to at least meet with the woman who had conceived the idea: Margot Pritzker. I expressed my hesitation to her, and told her that the project could take twelve to fifteen years—to which she responded, “You’re not scaring me!” Somehow, at that moment, I was won over, and decided to plunge in.

I began working on the translation in 1997 in Berkeley (while on sabbatical). Between 2004-14, Stanford University Press published eight volumes of The Zohar: Pritzker Edition, and last month Volume 9 appeared, concluding the Zohar’s main commentary on the Torah. Two other Zohar scholars are composing Volumes 10–12, which will include various other sections of the Zohar.

David Shasha on Kellner, Idel, and Nationalism

David Shasha is a proponent of all things Sefardi and a radical follower of Jose Faur who envisions a Levantine synthesis of Jewish and Arabic humanism. Shasha offers a critique of Kellner, Idel and others as destroying the humanistic foundations of Judaism. He claims that they destroy the foundation of Maimonidean humanism even if they accept Maimonides. Kellner advocates for the rationalism of Maimonides but back-handedly considers the Maimonideans as too demanding for the common person, as rejecting folk religion, and as not the Jewish tradition. Shasha demands that Maimonides be considered the tradition or else Maimonideans would always be in a defensive position. If one does not live in a rational world then all the power is in the magical hand of the rabbis.

Shasha places blame at the feet of Moshe Idel who explores the magical, irrational, and mythic forces in Judaism but who also maintains that this theurgic world is the world of the Talmudic Rabbis. For Idel, the Rabbinic tradition is magical. Kabbalah is not a Gnostic intruder into Judaism but the very meaning of the commandments for the Rabbis. Once Jews studied Saadyah, Ibn Ezra, Maimonides, Gersonides as the traditon, now they read Abulafia and Zohar. For Shasha, this is tantamount to a return to idolatry and the source of militant nationalism. Full Version here.

Shasha writes:
At the center of this controversy is the vexing question of Jewish authenticity.
In his 2006 study “Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism,” Menachem Kellner adopts an approach that has become standard in most Jewish circles, writing:

“The Jewish world in which Maimonides lived was uncongenial to the austere, abstract, demanding vision of Torah which he preached. Evidence from a wide variety of sources shows that Jews in Maimonides’ day – common folk and scholars alike – accepted astrology, the magical use of divine names, appeals to angels, etc.”

In a noble attempt to elevate the thinking of Maimonides, Kellner’s arguments bizarrely lend credence to the positions of the anti-Maimonideans.
In the book’s conclusion he states:

The world favored by Maimonides’ opponents, on the other hand, is an “enchanted” world. Many of Maimonides’ opponents, in his day and ours, do indeed accept the efficacy of charms and amulets, and fear the harm of demons and the evil eye. But it is not in that sense that I maintain that they live in an enchanted world. Theirs is not a world which can be explained in terms of the unvarying workings of divinely ordered laws of nature; it is not a world which can be rationally understood. It is a world in which the notion of miracle loses all meaning, since everything that happens is a miracle. In such a world instructions from God, and contact with the divine in general, must be mediated by a religious elite who alone can see the true reality masked by nature. This is the opposite of an empowering religion, since it takes their fate out of the hands of Jews, and, in effect, puts it into the hands of the rabbis.

We can see the tension at the heart of Kellner’s argument, a tension that forces his hand in accepting the absolute authenticity of the mystical-occult tradition of the Kabbalah and rejecting the Jewish validity of Maimonidean rationalism.

Kellner’s book contains a forward by Hebrew University professor Moshe Idel, perhaps the single most influential academic in the world of Judaica, a winner of the prestigious Israel Prize and a ubiquitous presence in the world of Jewish studies. Idel has relentlessly promoted the pro-magic, neo-pagan, anti-rational strain of Jewish tradition also called Kabbalah.

Idel’s scholarly project has been designed to affirm the authenticity of the mystical-occult Kabbalah and undermine the validity of the rational standards of Religious Humanism. As we see in a representative passage in his seminal 1988 work “Kabbalah: New Perspectives”:

Kabbalah can be viewed as part of a restructuring of those aspects of rabbinic thought that were denied authenticity by Maimonides’ system. Far from being a total innovation, historical Kabbalah represented an ongoing effort to systematize existing elements of Jewish theurgy, myth, and mysticism into a full-fledged response to the rationalistic challenge.
It is, however, possible to assume that, if the motifs transmitted in those unknown [Kabbalistic] circles formed part of an ancient weltanschauung, their affinities to the rabbinic mentality would be more organic and easily absorbed into the mystic cast of Judaism.
According to this hypothesis, we do not need to account for why ancient Jews took over Gnostic doctrines, why they transmitted them, and, finally, how this ‘Gnostic’ Judaism was revived in the Middle Ages by conservative Jewish authorities.

Shasha concludes:

This has led to the rejection of Sephardic Jewish Humanism as formulated by Maimonides and an affirmation of an ethnocentric Jewish chauvinism based on the magical mysticism of Kabbalistic theurgy. It is a Judaism that rejects the tenets of a critical reading of the Jewish past and has led us to the sort of ideological purity and militant nationalism that has become characteristic of the intractable impasse in the Middle East. Though this occult process has been secularized by Zionism, it is apparent that the ideological values of the mystical continue to animate the Jewish self-perception in a nationalistic sense.

Meditation Conference

The organizers of the meditation conference assumed meditation was a means of sitting and saying a verbal focus which would lead to calm, well-being, and better health. They wanted to find out how this truth of meditation plays itself out in the religions and cultures of the world. Instead, they found themselves with over fifty experts on meditation techniques in Buddhism, Hinduism, Daoism, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism saying that this definition of meditation is not found in the traditional texts or traditional meditation communities. There was a feeling that Western people, in America and Europe, have an idea of meditation and speak of meditation as a know entity that was unknown to the academics in the field.

We felt that we could have used a panel session on where this idea of mediation came from and how in the last 35 years in has become part of Western religion and spirituality. In short, we pieced together that the theosophists and translators of the sacred books of the east created a version of mediation as psychology. In the 1970’s when TM and Zen became popular as well as reading the older works, then we get a flurry of books on “what is meditation.” By the 1980’s we can speak of the “meditation of poetry”, the “meditation of surfing” the “meditation of yoga” or the “meditation of Chabad fabrengen” A rightful possession of American spirituality that Americans wont let experts take away from them. Herbert Benson created the relaxation response and formulated meditation as a form of calm and healthy wellbeing. But this definition is not a traditional one. This was further removed from any tradition by psycho neurology that used its own definitions not accepted by any known religion- except contemporary spirituality. Even frum jews love to use the word when it does not correspond to anything in traditional texts.

So the conference ran as follows:

The calmness of meditation is claimed to be based on the Indic concept of Samadhi, but Samadhi is not calmness, rather a secession of emotions, desires, thoughts, and brain functions so one can transcend the world. Indian and Buddhism meditation is not about calmness and wellness- it is about pain and suffering and rubbing your nose in the inevitability of suffering. Zen is not very calm and includes sweat inducing koans, being hit by the Roshi, unquestioning tasks, and pain. Jewish texts on hitbddedut and kavvanah are about coming closer to God sometimes via ecstasy and emotional upheaval.

The modern definition takes out the purpose of meditation in India or China which is to either escape the world or seek enlightenment. And it has little to do with the Jewish and Islamic themes of God in the heart, or the Tibetan and Daoist alchemical techniques for longevity. After the presentation on vipassana, any vestiges of the opening premises were gone. Vipassana was originally the national ideal of Burma for a educated well cultivated approached to stoically wait for the British colonialists to leave. It was then modernized in the Vietnam War, but still little to do with the current practice of that name. There was little respect for the Dalai Lama at the conference with his promising this-worldly happiness and well being for those who meditate, when his own Tibetan traditions do not teach that.

There was a general consensus that most current practices performed in the west were recent. They were either from the term of the 20th century and involved modernization and Westernization. We find Buddhists reading William James and rediscovering new techniques in manuscript. Then there are new versions of the 1960’s. Finally, there was consensus that anyone claiming tradition and authority in the US teaching “meditation” in the modern sense was either a charlatan or a student of one. Trust those who either acknowledge they are doing something modern or those who don’t promise calm and well being. Everyone saw a decrease in interest in traditional forms of meditation since the 1990’s becuase everyone now knows that they want this new Western meditation – but they want it with a Yoga, Hasidic, or QiGong veneer.

From a Jewish point of view, this means that Ramak, Ari”zl, Chabad, and Rav Nahman all have versions of hitbodedut, hitbonenut, kavvanah, and yihud but there is nothing gained conceptually or linguistically by calling them meditation and they have little to do with any clinical calming technique. (it might have briefly made sense in the 1970’s when stolid religion was breaking down and the BT world was aiming in this realm.) The reliance of the Piesetzna and Menachem Eckstein on modern psychology is par for the course-as is Aryeh Kaplan’s reading of the Dover Publishing Co. books from the early 20th century on Tibetan and Chinese meditation. And sitting for mindfulness before davening is not Buddhist, not Jewish, not Indian but it is American new age spiritual. Sitting before davening has little to do with the Ramak or Ari”zl.

By the end we concluded that there is use for term like visualization, body techniques, or mental apophasis.
One can speak of a Jewish kavvanah of the Ramak as a form of visualization. But it does not share the formal aspects of sitting of the Zen tradition and it lacks the ending of mental facilities like Samadhi and it lack to goal to escape the world of most Buddhist practices. It does not have the mental requirements of Jnana. Yet, there is more to the analogy than just visions since it does take one to a place above the “pain of this world” creating some very weak similarity to Jnana and Samadhi. But the goal of daat and berakhah are very unYogic. One can also find close similarities to Sufis and certain out of context Daoist similarities.

Now what? We shall see if they get funding for follow-up conferences.

[Natan – I know that your approach disagrees. I have read your material so you don’t have to send it to me again as comments.]

Further Adventures in new Zohar scholarship

We have previously looked at the Zohar scholarship of Daniel Abrams, and Melila Hellner-Eshed, Now we look at Oded Yisraeli in a new article “Honoring Father and Mother in Early Kabbalah: From Ethos to Mythos” JQR 99/3 Summer 2009 396-415

Yisraeli looks at a piece of Zohar where R. Hiyya identifies the father with binah, R. Abba identifies it with hokhmah, but R. Yossi identifies it with tiferet. Why does R. Yossi lower the identity of Father? Ans: to be more like Rabbinic texts.

Others have noted (Fishbane, Liebes, Heller-Eshed) that the names in the Zohar each portray different sources. Usually the names reflect a procession from Midrash to Gerona Kabbalah to Castillian Kabblah. But this case offer insight into the relationship of Zohar with Rabbinics.

Mother and Father are portrayed as the higher sefirot is everywhere before the Zohar, including Bahir and Gerona. The source is a variety of Logos theories and personification of the Nous and the highest levels.But starting with the Zohar Mother and Father are lowered to Tiferet and Malkhut. Yisraeli claims that the shift in this case reflects a return to Rabbinics, especially the Mekhilta also cited in the Talmud, and Philo.
The Talmud states that one honors one’s parents because it is honoring the Holy One, Blessed be He. Alternately in Philo, “parents are the created Gods”

Gerald Blidstein in his classic work Honor Thy Father and Mother, shows the prevalence of this idea in Stoic sources. But Blidstein sharply differentiates the rabbis from the Hellenistic sources because the Rabbis do not essentialize, and in fact treat God using a parent metaphor. In contrast, Yisraeli claims, that even without denying some difference between the Hellenistic sources and the Rabbinic, the later readers of the rabbinic tradition in later midrash and then in Kabbalah, in fact did essentialize. Kabblah presents an essentialist reading of Hazal.
The Kabblaists were drawing the connection between the earthly father and the divine father of HKBH, creating a tight parallel.

Yehudah Liebes (1994) already noted the reading of the live images of rabbinics into a “stiff” kabbalistic framework.
Yisraeli claims that nevertheless many of these live images were repressed and not used in the later rabbinic texts and they return afresh in kabbalah. He also claims that the new sefirot symbol makes a stronger case for the ethical imperative.

He finds a similar process in how “the land of Israel” is identified with malkhut. A repressed live myth of the land of Israel as divine realm returns as a need to cleave to malkhut. Before the 13th century when the goal was a restored Divine name, it did not have the same ethical import.
He has studies on the process of moving from midrash to Zohar of the images of Eliyahu, Avrham, Esau, the land of Israel, and has forthcoming book on Tree of Life by Magnes Press. I look forward to reading it.

His forthcoming book will deal with the theme of the Tree of Life and show that the tree as essentialized in certain [Biblical and ] rabbinic passages, then the entire Divine realm is a tree (Bahir) and finally only Tiferet is a tree, but one can join to it, creating a stronger symbol.

Are you essential? Well, Hazal are essential according to the early kabbalah.

Tu bShevat Seder -with Text

One year on tu b’shevat someone (a second career retiree) brought Rav Soloveitchik some bokser before shiur. After chuckling, Rav Soloveitchik told a story about how Rabbi DZ Hoffman would ask on his oral semikha exams – where is Tu bshevat in the shulkan arukh? (ANS-tahanun). Then someone (I don’t remember who) mentioned that Rav Kook on is exams would ask: what to do when you fnd a mistake in the Torah during Torah-reading?

Tu bshevat generated a piyyut for the amidah – found in the Cairo Genizah and is mentioned already by the Maharil in the 15th century. But by the end of the 17th century, in grand baroque age, the holiday generated a detailed seder of collecting 30 fruits. (There is a ton of painfully incorrect history about Tu bShevat on the web)

Twenty years ago, it was still hard to collect 30 fruits. But with the revolution in eating habits and the opening of new markets (Fairway, Whole Foods) one can now collect 30 fruits with ease. In 19th century Russia, even mid-summer one could with great difficulty only collect half the number.

It has made a come-back in certain circles. The seder will probably remain limited in its practitioners for a variety of reasons.

1] To collect 30 fruits based a set typology is a very tactile, crunchy, foody, techie activity. Most American Orthodox Jews don’t regularly shop for papaya, fresh lychees, gooseberries, dragon fruit,  guavas, tamarind fruit, hickory nuts, and kumquats.

2] The seder assumes that one is comfortable with Zohar as one’s table talk. In America, this limits it to academics, Renewal Jews, Neo-Hasidim, and Moroccans.

3] The seder is a performance ritual. Most modern orthodox Jews have a difficult time with ritual. performance. Watch them struggle to get into hoshanot.

4] One has to have a visionary and narrative religion.

5] One has to have a meaningful understanding, beyond rationalism and irrationalism, of tikkunim, theurgy, magic, and religious cause and effect.

6] When you are told that Rav Kook avoided onions because they are all kelipot – it must resonate with you. .

Once, when Rav Abraham Kook was walking in the fields, lost deep in thought, the young student with him inadvertently plucked a leaf off a branch. Rav Kook was visibly shaken by this act, and turning to his companion he said gently, “Believe me when I tell you I never simply pluck a leaf or a blade of grass or any living thing, unless I have to.” He explained further, “Every part of the vegetable world is singing a song and breathing forth a secret of the divine mystery of the Creation.” For the first time the young student understood what it means to show compassion to all creatures. (Wisdom of the Mystics)

For those emailing me requesting sources:

Here is the traditional Pri Etz Hadar in English. This is the entire Seder- go for this.

Hillel Collegiate shortened version

A Chabad crib sheet

A nice article- with footnotes Tu Bishvat in Contemporary Rabbinical Literature

Reb Shlomo on Tu Bshevat

Excursus on Hemdat Yamim.The printed edition of the seder comes from the beautiful work Hemdat Yamim, which teaches the “customs of Safed” in a first person narrative, pretending to be a 16th century person from Safed. .According to current research, the work includes quotes of various Kabbalist customs from 1550 to 1715 from a variety of kabbalistic groups in Jerusalem, Safed, Italy, Turkey, Greece, and Amsterdam. Much of this material was attributed to the Ari, since anything based on Safed must be Ari. In this 150 period, there are over 300 little minhag books of Safed custom. Hemdat Yamin has many of them and collates them for us. To do any serious work on these customs one has to really be prepared to look at a large number of these books.

Isaiah Tishby places the editor in the circle of Kabbalists from Smyrna, and Benayahu attributed it to one member of the group, Israel Yaakov Al Ghazi, Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem.

The book mixes customs based on Cordovero, Luria, Azikiri, ibn Makir, the Peri Hadash of Amsterdam, Nathan of Gaza and others. A recent article by Moshe Fogel in JSJT, shows that even if it has Sabbatian hymns written by Nathan of Gaza (such as the Atkinah Seudata for Yom Tov), it has no explicit Sabbatian theology or belief in Shabbati Zevi. And for those following Lithuanian tradition,  both the Gra and Haayim of Volozhin accepted Hemdat Yamim.

(Think of using a potential Sabbatian custom as similar to the tune to Birkat Hamazon sung today in every Day School, which was commissioned by Mordechai Kaplan. It does not make those schools into Reconstructionist ideologically. It only shows that there are cultural overlaps and that one is part of a larger set of concerns called American Jewry. )

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

The Bahir, The Shepherd of Hermas, and Kabbalah

Once upon a time when Prof Twersky of Harvard was holding conferences on the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, someone commented to me that we need conferences on the 7th, 8th, and 9th, centuries. There is a sense that much would be gained if you put those that work on Kabbalah and those that work on late midrash in a room together, new connections would be found.  Some have noted in my Zohar review the passing references to Philo of Alexandria and Shiite thought.  What I could not include in the Forward review is any discussion of the use of extended narrative of late antiquity in these Zohar volumes such as the role of Sefer Hayashar – Chronicle of Yerachmiel nor the history of the traditions of Moses as king and warrior in Ethiopia from the Chronicle of Moses. Nor did I mention the alchemy. Much of this was already noted by Moses Gaster, Louis Ginzburg, Adolphe Jellinek and others.

What the Pritzker edition lacks is any greater context than early Andalusian Kabbalah. When Midrash is added to the footnotes it is from CD-Rom and Margaliot’s comments on the Zohar not as an actual useful comparison.  Or when there is a footnote to the messianic battles of Nistarot of Rabbi Shimon – the footnote does not make one aware of the half a dozen different versions composed over 500 years  or which version does the Zohar seem to know. The version in Jellinek? the one edited by Bernard Lewis? Nor are the sources in Ashkenaz material sufficiently noted.

Yet,  there are the connections that allude almost anyone in Jewish studies. For example, At this year’s SBL there was a paper on The Shepard of Hermes and thanks to a write up on Mystical Politics, there was a tentative connection to the Kabbalah.

The third paper in the session was “The Tower as Divine Body: Visions and Theurgy in the Shepherd of Hermas,” presented by Franklin Trammell. The abstract of his paper reads:

Behind some of the visions and teachings in the Shepherd of Hermas lies the notion of a direct correspondence between the heart of the righteous and the androgynous divine body. This body is presented by Hermas as a sevenfold Tower that is in the process of being (re)built by (re)incorporating the feminine Ecclesia. Members of the Ecclesia, who are pure of heart, are clothed with twelve virgins and receive the seal of the Son of God, representing the female and male aspects of the body. They then affect the reintegration of this female aspect, being built into the eschatological Tower as a part of her. Hermas’ law of purity therefore plays an incredibly important theurgic role. In identifying the Tower with the Ecclesia, itself implicitly assimilated in the text to Sophia, the author portrays those who do not sin after baptism as participating in the (re)unification of pre-existent Wisdom. It is this process along with elements related to it that shares affinities with later Jewish mystical sources.

I found this talk fascinating, especially since I’ve never read the Shepherd of Hermas. I found particularly interesting the possible connections to Sefer ha-Bahir that he mentioned.

What is the Shepard of Hermes?From wiki

The Shepherd of Hermas (sometimes just called The Shepherd) is a Christian literary work of the second century, considered a valuable book by many Christians, and considered canonical scripture by some of the early Church fathers. The Shepherd had great authority in the second and third centuries.

Here is the text and an Intro.

Shlomo Pines and other have noted the early references to Kabbalistic esotericsm in Patristics. But few look to works to books left out of Patristics like the Shepard of Hermes. Theses books give  insight into the thought of centuries like the second century, where we know little of the rabbinic worldview outside of the Tannaic works.

Why Read The Zohar?

From this week’s issue of The Forward
Why Read the Zohar? By Alan Brill

(The Forward made a few rearrangements at the 11th hr, this was the version as of 2 days ago. Read this one)

For an alternate view to that of Melila Heller-Eshed, see the view of Daniel Abrams discussed 2 months ago here..

Demystifying Kabbalah For English Readers
By Alan Brill Published January 13, 2010, issue of January 22, 2010

The Zohar 5: Pritzker Edition, Volume Five (With Translation and Commentary)
Translated by Daniel C. Matt, Stanford University Press (Pritzker edition), 656 pages

A River Flows From Eden: The Language of Mystical Experience in the Zohar
By Melila Hellner-Eshed Stanford University Press, 488 pages, $60.00.

The Pritzker translation of the Zohar into English by Daniel Matt — the fifth volume of which has just appeared — should be greeted as a major cultural event. Yet, the publication of each volume has typically produced tiresome book reviews on the ownership of the word Kabbalah, comparing the academic approach of Gershom Scholem to Madonna’s New Age approach. The reviews do not answer the basic question: Why read the Zohar? Nor do they explain why the Zohar speaks to our age more than the myriad other kabbalistic works.

Melila Hellner-Eshed, in her book, “A River Flows From Eden: The Language of Mystical Experience in the Zohar,” provides an indispensible work that, finally, explains why the Zohar is an important and alluring work for our time. Susan Sontag taught readers to ask not what the art means, but rather “how it is what it is.” Hellner-Eshed follows Sontag and seeks to offer an experiential aesthetic of the Zohar.

Hellner-Eshed’s book is comparatively easy to read, despite being a scholarly work that assumes the reader has already read the terse prose of Scholem. Her work offers the nonacademic a chance to see the current state of Kabbalah study at Hebrew University among the students of Yehuda Liebes and Moshe Idel.

Liebes, who was Hellner-Eshed’s dissertation supervisor, claims that the Zohar was produced by a group similar to the group of mystics described in it. Accepting this approach, she muses “Who is this Rabbi Shimon who emerges from the quill of the Zohar’s composers?” Is he fictitious, or a legendary embellishment of a real historical person? Or maybe he represents the authors’ ideal figure? To these questions, she concludes: “There are of course no easy answers to these questions and perhaps this is as it ought to be.”

Hellner-Eshed’s book seeks to capture the life of the group of companions around Shimon, the stories of their wanderings and journeys, their study of Torah as a mystical quest and, finally, a description of their mystical experience. The book needs to be read cover to cover and then reread to integrate the concluding descriptions of mysticism back into the stories. This is because stories, experience and wisdom are not separate commodities for the kabbalists.

In Hellner-Eshed’s presentation, the companions around Shimon spend their time revealing the secrets of the Torah to each other as a collective form of mysticism. Instead of the usual reductionist discussion of sefirot (emanations of God), we are shown how the Holy Spirit pulsates within the companions of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai. We also meet wondrous characters — old man, young child, donkey driver — who reveal ancient secrets to the companions.

The Zohar’s name originates in the biblical verse: “The enlightened will shine like the brilliance (zohar) of the sky…” (Daniel 12:3). Hellner-Eshed shows how the image of light is used to indicate the presence of a God in the Bible and in rabbinic literature. The Zohar, in turn, expands the metaphor to include variegated colors and mixings of shades, and combines light metaphors with those of fragrance and fluidity. Her own book draws its title from another of the Zohar’s central images, the superabundant divine plenty portrayed as “a river [that] flows from Eden.” Hellner-Eshed does not treat this imagery as mere metaphor, rather as a description of the mystic life of the companions engaged in nocturnal entrance into the Garden of Eden. When there is an awakening by the mystics below, then there is a parallel awakening from above, shown as a river of divine plenty.

The Zohar portrays the experience of God as ecstatic delight through kissing, embracing and even intercourse. Hellner-Eshed’s original conclusion is that the mysticism of the Zohar describes the experience to be like a wave of water or A scent, where one enters into a period of heightened consciousness, sensuous pleasure, altered time frame and intuition of the secrets. According to Hellner-Eshed, there are three mystical states in the Zohar: when one drifts in and out; when one is “in the zone,” like a dancer or sprinter, and white light — a deep mythic level in which one enters into being itself. One can — using the terminology of less poetic scholars — call them shekhinah, tiferet and keter, but after Hellner-Eshed’s evocative exposition, that would show a tin ear for the drama.

Hellner-Eshed claims that the Zohar’s style is deliberately exaggerated and rhythmic to capture the experiential mood through trails of sensations and emotions. The rhythm of the Zohar offers many voices in which each sage continues and further develops the thought of the prior speaker. Hellner-Eshed compares the Zohar narrative to a jazz jam session, where a common melodic theme performed by the ensemble branches into solo improvisations that build to greater surprise, complexity and crescendo — the more virtuosity, the more wonderful and surprising the innovations.

One of her conclusions is, “The genius of the Zohar as a book lies precisely in its ability to capture the life of the experiences in Rabbi Shimon’s circle.” And thereby, according to Hellner-Eshed, it draws the reader into the mystical journey. She boldly claims that an academic attempt to understand the text should coincide properly with the attempt to induce a mystical experience.

What percentage of the Zohar fits Hellner-Eshed’s description? For that, we have to turn to the actual text of the Zohar. The Zohar corpus as published in the 16th century contains many reworked texts of ancient and medieval materials; there is certainly a large chunk of the Zohar that portrays the grand epic story of Shimon and his companions, but there are many segments that do not.

The fourth volume of the Pritzker edition of the Zohar (2007) was a diverse volume containing many texts that do not fit the model. It included a paraphrase of Philo of Alexandria’s ban on abortion, a Shiite style apocalypse of a messiah who is hidden in heaven, citations of 12th-century Ashkenazic theology, and selections from the rewritten biblical narrative of late antiquity.

The newly published fifth volume of the Pritzker Zohar exemplifies Hellner-Eshed’s thesis in the delightful story of the Old Man of Mishpatim, who teaches though riddles and paradox and then explains them with a chivalrous story of a damsel in the castle who reveals herself only to the worthy kabbalist. But is also contains the terse and bombastic Book of Concealment, which describes the primordial world before emanation. Hellner-Eshed does not explain how the latter gnomic work fits with her selections. In addition, Hellner-Eshed’s biggest lack is that her work does not discuss the huge number of Zohar passages about mitzvahs, Halacha, rituals or pietistic life, all of which are admirably represented in Matt’s new volume.

Armed with these books, one can now begin to appreciate a cultural and religious treasure of Judaism. No journalist or book reviewer should write about Kabbalah again without first reading Hellner-Eshed. Her work steers the English reader between the Scylla of Kabbalah as technical sefirot and the Charybdis of Kabbalah as the personalized New Age spirituality. Hellner-Eshed’s work treats the Zohar as a mystical fantasy in which the Knights of the Round Table are rabbis living in an eroticized Middle Earth and spurred to great deeds by their love of the damsel Shechinah. Then, the beautifully edited Pritzker translation allows the interested reader to travel on these mystical journeys, yet still return home safely.