Tag Archives: zohar

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.

zohar cover

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.

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

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.


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.”


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.


Ronit Meroz-Who wrote the Zohar?

I know I am behind on posting about some of the new works on Kabbalah. In the meantime here is a nice video interview with Ronit Meroz about her forthcoming book about the various strata in the Zohar. She states that the texts of the Zohar were written between the 11th and the 14th century, layer upon layer, each generation adding or taking out what they wanted. she claims that the manuscripts show that there were many things called Zohar.
Meroz places the first texts in Israel in the 11th century, those texts were reworkings of Rabbinic ideas taken a little further. The early drafts were not mystical yet, rather more mythic versions of Rabbinic statements. Here is an 18 page taste of her book from an earlier article. (Whatever similarities her view has to Emden and Sde Hemed would need to wait until the full book comes out.)
For the alternate view, see my post on Daniel Abrams, who claims the Zohar was never a book until created by the printers.

Notice how she changes the question when the interviewer asks: Is it worth it [to spend a decade looking at 1000 manuscripts]? Is it interesting to do this?

(h/t Yosef Rosen).

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.

Contemporary Orthodox Death

Doreen Rosman in her book The Evolution of the English Churches: 1500-2000 describes the early modern concern of religion as death centered. She asserts, “People’s passage from this life to the next and their entry to heaven were…matters of major concern.” Inherent in Rosman’s assertion is the idea that since people thought that most believers did not enter heaven, they had to work very hard to earn their eternal reward through belonging to con-fraternities, appealing to saints and to the beyond, engaging in magical rites, and practicing esoteric wisdom. Modernity changed that major preoccupation.

Michel Vovelle in his La mort et l’occident de 1300 à nos jours (1983) and Ideologies and Mentalities (1990) traces the slow process by which people in the 19th century stopped referring to the afterlife, how tombstones stopped having acute references to the next stage, and people no longer related to the next life as the longer part of one’s existence. Shadal in the beginning of the 19th century was already of a modern mind, yet the American Reform movement was still producing English guides to the afterlife based on Maavar Yabok at the end of the 19th century. Maurice Lamm’s The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning oriented modern Orthodoxy away from the traditional concern with the afterlife and claimed that there are no Jewish teaching on the afterlife.

Recently, I went to a funeral and the rabbi spoke about how the deceased will return to be at the wedding of the children and at the wedding we will invite the deceased back.

The formulation for this idea is the Zohar.

Even though the father and mother have left this world, the joy of the [wedding] is attended by all of its partners.. Because we have learned, when a person joins Hakadosh Baruch Hu to the joy of his [wedding], then Hakadosh Baruch Hu comes to Gan Eden and takes from there the other partners, the father and mother and brings them with Him to the joyous event. All are in attendance, and the people are unaware.

But modern circles do not generally follow the traditional Kabbalistic customs; they are not listed in Maurice Lamm’s Jewish Way in Love and Marriage. I emailed a number of my older, and more rationalist, pulpit rabbi friends to find out how customary this was. The general response that I received was that this started at modern weddings in the 1980’s and at that time it seemed surprising to them. It has grown more prevalent since then. Let me know if anyone has any more information about whether it would have been heard at a wedding in the 1970’s or how it came back in.

This comes back because of our current vision of the family staying together after death. There were several studies a decade ago that the American vision of the afterlife is where the family stays together. This was one of the attractions of Mormonism in 1980’s and 1990’s because that is a specific part of their teaching and firmly grounds the idea of family values.

It also comes from our acceptance of the long and complex process of mourning, beyond anything in the halakhah, where mourning becomes a process of temporary magical thinking. People continue to relate to their deceased long after the death. The most poignant reckoning with our current worldview is Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (2005).

We claim to be rational and project magical thinking onto other religious groups, but we should first look at ourselves and the function the irrational has in our lives. (This may come up again when we return to Habermas’ critics who state that he does not give enough credit to the irrational.) The Zohar did not return because of the study of Kabbalah or haredi influence, rather from our own need to make sense of our losses.

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.

Was the Zohar ever a book?

Daniel Abrams, “The Invention of the Zohar as a Book” Kabbalah 19 (2009) 7-142

I just finished a very long (135 pages) rambling article by Daniel Abrams with many topics and looks to be the core of a forthcoming book. The article is a seminal one for Abram’s approach and the vast literature review of the field that it contains will make it required reading in the field.

The Zohar was neither written, nor edited, nor distributed as a book by the various figures who produced the various literary units which were later known by the name Zohar. (10)

The Zohar is not a Book – Nor does it have an author (105)

I have tried to express my theoretical discomfort, indeed a perceived dissonance, concerning published methodologies for evaluating the literary quality and forms of the texts known by the name Zohar. (127)

No satisfactory evidence has yet been offered in the relevant scholarship proving that the zoharic writings were intentionally composed, edited, or copied as a book. Not only can ‘the’ Book of the Zohar not be restored to its full form, but there was no single original moment that is recoverable amidst the disparate writings and unstable text(s). (142)

Abrams claims the  idea of the Zohar as a preexisting book was created in the 16th century by the printers- before that point there were only various unconnected manuscripts of esotericism. The production of the Zohar as ideas, texts, and isolated units, has little to do with consumption of the product as a book. He notes that books of esotericism had continuous reworkings.  Then in  the 16th century there arose the idea of a single book, The Zohar.

He spends much of the article reviewing statements of what this work is, from the 13th century to the 16th century printers to 20th century  and then all 20th and 21st century academic studies on what they thought about the nature of the Zohar as a book and whether they imagined that there was such an original lost book to be recovered

Abrams rejects Scholem’s theory of a single author and he rejects Yehuda Liebes’ theory of circle of Zohar authors- hug haZohar. The Zohar contains variety of styles and diverse literature, hence Abrams is sympathetic to Moshe Idel’s reclamation of the theory of Moses Gaster, who considered the work a collection of diverse sources.

He accepts parts of Ronit Meroz’s articles that claim that the texts of the Zohar originated between the  11-14th centuries. But he demurs from her suggestion that there are 14th century imitators of the Zohar’s style Abrams asks: Who says there was ever a fixed thing called the Zohar to imitate?And form criticism does not work if you do not know that the text existed as we have it in these earlier centuries.

With a bit of overkill, he cites Walter Benjamin that in an age of reproduction the book is different than in the era of production. (He does not know Stephen Greenblatt on how a printed book can have ever more aura). He uses Foucault’s “What is an Author” mentioning that author is a constructed idea. But he does not mention that in the middle ages philosophy was authorless while science had an author. Now, in the modern era, we treat science as authorless and give philosophy an author. Abrams does not state why he should think esotericsm should be different than philosophy. He might have been between off citing the shelf of books on authorship in medieval literature- Foucualt may not be proving his point. He has a nice use of Brian Stock on textual communities that have an interplay of textuality and orality.

Abrams suggests that the field needs to go back to manuscripts and first edoitions, and especially colophons  – every text must be treated in its context of production of the manuscript.

He notes:  Danny Matt is creating a synthetic text that does not correspond to any text out there.  Meroz is creating a synoptic edition but that already assumes a whole to be recreated or an original text to retrieve Abrams compares the Zohar to Rabbinic works. Zohar is like the tannaic collections that existed before the Bavli was edited.

He is glad to substantiate Meroz’s finding that some of the texts of the Zohar were originally circulating in Hebrew and then later editors translated them into Aramaic because they thought they were returning the text to its original language of Rashbi which was lost.

He is perturbed by the new book on the Zohar by Melila Heller-Eshed. There is no proof for a hevraya around the Rashbi nor is there any proof that the texts joined as the Zohar have anything in common in the original formation. Abrams is against the literary and thematic studies produced by the students of Yehudah Liebes. (I have a forthcoming review of Melila Heller-Eshed’s book)

Finally Abrams notes the phenomena of hyper-animation of the text where there is an assumed personal authorship. He notes that this started in the 16th century with the poem to Bar Yohai and continues with Liebes’ poem to Rashbi and the invocationof the spirit of Rashbi By Heller-Eshed. He asks rhetorically why doesn’t anyone ask for the spirit of the author of Sefer Yetzirah to descend on them?