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Community Blog Reclaiming the Zohar: In Celebration of the Pritzker Zohar Translation and Commentary

By Rabbi Arthur Green
Rabbi Art Green

In October 2017, Rabbi Arthur Green participated in events celebrating the completion of the Pritzker translation of the Zohar, a twelve volume and twenty year project published by Stanford University Press.  Green, who served as co-chair of the Academic Committee supporting the project, spoke at events at the University of Chicago, the 92nd Street Y in New York, and Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

About two hundred years ago, a Jewish scholar in Germany wrote a work subtitled “Judaism in Its Main Streams (Hauptstroemungen, in German).”  In doing so, he created a new term, one that had never existed before: “Mainstream Judaism.”  The term is so alien to the historic Jewish experience that there is, in fact, no way to say it in Hebrew.  When Israel is want to refer to this concept, they call it yahadut meynstrim.  The intent of proclaiming a mainstream, of course, is to exclude.  What is it that is not “mainstream Judaism,” and therefore can be dismissed or swept under the rug?  In this case, it was primarily the vast mystical tradition within Judaism, a source of great embarrassment to that first generation to emerge from the ghetto, seeking to present Judaism as rational, enlightened, and a form of ethical monotheism of which any reader of philosopher Immanuel Kant might be proud.  In its Reform version, this Enlightenment religion came to be known as “Prophetic Judaism,” as though the prophets of ancient Israel had been rational, liberal monotheists.  Kabbalah, with its esoteric doctrines about everything from the world’s creation to the secrets of Hebrew letters to the unique Jewish soul, threatened this Enlightenment effort and needed to be buried.  Hence the emergence of “mainstream Judaism.”

The hegemony of that view, at least among western European and American Jews, lasted nearly two centuries.  When I was a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the 1960’s, my teacher Abraham J. Heschel was not permitted to teach a regular course on Hasidism, a main area of his research, because Hasidism was not “mainstream Judaism.” 

When I was a student, if one wanted to learn about Jewish mysticism in English, after reading Buber and Scholem one needed to seek out occult bookstores and guidebooks written by seekers who themselves had never read the original sources.

 But that has all changed in the past quarter century, and the Jewish people is now scrambling to recover that which was once so firmly rejected.  Witness the large number of books – both good and bad – published in this field, the great number of courses now offered at all the rabbinical schools as well as universities, and the dubious edge of this recovery in various popular and commercial enterprises that claim to offer up the true secrets of Kabbalah to those willing to pay for them.

The event we are celebrating here – the completion of the Pritzker edition of the Zohar – must be viewed in that context, the highest manifestation of that trend.  The interest of Margot Pritzker in studying the Zohar, then her remarkable decision to establish a fund for this magnificent new translation and commentary, the willingness of Stanford University Press to undertake such a huge and complex project, and the availability of such a dedicated scholar to do it – all these need to be viewed in this broader context: the restoration of the mystical tradition to a place of honor within the broad mainstream of Jewish self-understanding.

To explain why this change in attitude has come about, we need to look far beyond the boundaries of Judaism itself.  Most American Jews, almost all of whom have been university-educated since the early post-war years, had become highly secularized, believers in science rather than religion as the great source of truth.  They were avid supporters of the progressive vision, a sense that scientific knowledge was rolling back the darkness and that humanity was moving toward a more enlightened self-understanding that would surely bring us to better and more humane behavior.

 This faith in science (called scientism, by the experts) was faced down by two great challenges in the mid-twentieth century: those of Auschwitz and Hiroshima.  How could Germany, the nation of all those Nobel prizes in science, have given birth to Auschwitz?  What did we not understand about the human capacity for evil?  And what did it mean that the United States, “the last, best hope of mankind,” had brought us all into a new era of life in the nuclear shadow?  Those and other challenges of the past half century have led many of the best minds in the West to explore all sorts of once-esoteric teachings in quest for a deeper truth, one that might have been cast aside in the rush toward modernity.  Perhaps there is some spark of ancient wisdom that will change the way we live, keeping us from killing one another and destroying our lovely planet.  Kabbalah thus joins Indian mysticism, Sufism, Tibetan Buddhism, and many more in an atmosphere of renewed openness to ancient and mysterious spiritual teachings, updated for the modern seeker.

 In the case of Kabbalah, there is another, more particular element, that needs to be taken into account, and that is the return to Zion.  The re-connection of the Jewish people to its ancient homeland in Erets Yisrael was first undertaken by a Zionist movement that saw itself as essentially secular.  Zionism was a response more to Jewish cultural alienation and anti-semitism in the European context than it was to any mystical faith.  But as Zionism succeeded – perhaps beyond its own dreams – in touching the heart of Jews everywhere, and as it coincided and overlapped with the great trauma of the Holocaust, it served to reawaken deeper spiritual forces as well. The return to both the Holy Land and the Holy Tongue could not take place without stirring something in the Jewish soul of which the mystics had so long been aware, and which had been denied so forcefully by most voices of Jewish modernity.  Gershom Scholem, the great pioneer of all modern study of Kabbalah, already foresaw that in the concluding lines of his Major Trends, first published in 1941. 

These two forces, a universal quest for spiritual truth in the postwar world, and the rebirth of Jewish intellectual creativity in the setting of cultural Zionism, together stand behind the project we see before us. 

The Zohar is the greatest work of Kabbalah; if Kabbalah is to be retrieved, the Zohar will need to be at its center, as it has so long been.  The title means “radiance” or “shining.”  It is a book filled with light.  This includes the light of the first day of Creation, but also the secret light that had existed before it, or de-kvar havvah.  It is also the subtle first light of dawn, so often invoked as the setting for prayer in the Zohar.  But it is the reflected light of the moon as well, which is the light of shekhinah or divine presence.  So too is it the light that ripples through the gardens of the Song of Songs, constantly invoked in the Zohar, the light present when “the shadows flee away.”  But the light has personal dimensions as well.  It is the light of the divine countenance that shines forth upon those who receive it, as in the ancient priestly blessing, the light of ‘atiqa, God as the “ancient of days,” whose radiant and loving smile ever beams forth toward His cosmic Son and Daughter in the Idra Rabbah section.  All of these are aspects of Zoharthe radiance for which the book is named. To use a play that works in English as well as Hebrew, mystical “enlightenment” is very much what it is all about.  Although purporting to be a record of conversations among rabbis wandering the Galilee in the second century, scholars now believe it was composed in late 13th century Spain.  It weaves together tales of these rabbis and their adventures with a remarkable series of homilies they share with one another, teachings woven around biblical verses, expounded in the course of their conversations.  Ingeniously reinterpreting every word of the ancient scriptures, they employ a new symbolic language that offers remarkable depth and spiritual resonance to each word – even letter – of Scripture and every aspect of the Jewish tradition.  While this language of the sefirot had begun to emerge a century or more before the Zohar, its authors mastered the craft, turning Kabbalistic speech into an instrument of sublime poetic sensibility, a poetry that emerges in the course of that most classic of Jewish intellectual enterprises: the re-interpretation of ancient texts.  Ordinary language is transformed into a network of interlinked symbolic clusters, in which each noun invokes association with all others in its group.  This results in a language a resounding profundity, and its speakers in the pages of the Zohar themselves seem transported to a different level of existence as they employ it.  So too the open-hearted reader who engages in the conversation.

The Sabbath, for the Zohar, is no longer just a day of rest, but is transformed into the mysterious bride of God, and Jews at the Shabbat dinner table have joined the host of angels accompanying her to her wedding feast.  This makes for a very different, deeper and richer Judaism, one fully engaged with halakhic praxis, but delving into levels of its meaning never explored until this new language emerged for doing so.  Abraham, in this language, is no longer just the first of the patriarchs, but the human embodiment of divine love, a boundless stream of compassion that ever flows into the world and renews its life.  Is the “Abraham” of any particular Zohar passage a figure of the ancient Jewish past, or an aspect of the divine self, active in the universe?  The answer is “Yes!” – because there is no clear line of demarcation between the two.  On what level a particular Zohar text is to be read cannot easily be determined, just as one cannot know in what register the Zohar itself means to read the particular Torah text that underlies it.  “All of the above” is usually the best answer.

Torah, for the Zohar, is not just the commanded word of God, but a verbal incarnation of divinity that comes alive in the hearts and minds of those who engage with it.  That engagement, rendered as “making an effort” in the Zohar’s Aramaic, is called forth by this new way of reading.  It lends a depth and complexity to the Torah text that had been inaccessible to prior generations.  The reader is taken along “on the road,” invited to join into the endless conversations among its wandering heroes, and thus to participate fully in the excitement of constantly discovered gems of the interpretive art.  Zohar scholar Yehuda Liebes has referred to the Zohar as a renaissance of the ancient creative form of midrash.  Like the broader western Renaissance, it also cast its shadow forward, opening the door toward new creativity for those who were to come in its wake.

The Zohar was composed as an esoteric work.  It was written in Aramaic rather than Hebrew, to increase its aura of mystery.  Its image-rich text fueled the imagination of Jews, who were forbidden by tradition to depict their truths in painting or stained glass, as did their Christian neighbors.   The artistic imagination of medieval Jewry, confined to expression mostly in the verbal arts, may find its fullest expression in the pages of the Zohar, a world in which images remain ever fluid.  Personal depictions of the divine realm flow into images of light and of water, of sublime gardens and lovers taking delight within them, who in the next moment may turn into priests and sacrificial animals standing at the biblical altar.  The beauty of nature, the richness of tradition, and the passionate dynamics of family and love are all wrapped together in the ever-changing maelstrom of the Kabbalistic imagination.

For centuries, ordinary Jews from Morocco to the Balkans to Baghdad would chant the Zohar aloud, inspired by the beauty of its language, even while only vaguely understanding its contents.  Later mystics, in love with the mysterious language and terminology of the Zohar, often re-tooled its language to fit their own ideas and experiences.  In eastern Europe, it inspired Hasidism, the rebbes seeing themselves and their disciples as latter-day embodiments of the wandering sages of the Zohar, sometimes quite literally so.  

Indeed, the peripatetic little band of disciples around their leader, Rabbi Shim’on ben Yohai, formed the model for the way Kabbalah was taught and disseminated throughout the generations.  We think of the circles of Kabbalists in Safed in the sixteenth century who re-discovered the Zohar, first gathered around R. Moshe Cordovero, then around the ARI, of the group around R. Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto in Padua, Rabbi Shalom Shar‘abi in Jerusalem, Rabbi Dov Baer in Mezritch, Rabbi Nahman in Bratslav, and many other Hasidic masters, the circle around Rav Kook in Jerusalem, and many more – all of them are real-life embodiments of the fantastic community of masters and disciples who people the pages and the life adventures of the Zohar.

But modern Western Jews did not know the Zohar at all; they were deprived of it, since it was not part of the “mainstream.” The Judaism they learned – and mostly rejected – had been deeply impoverished, almost rendered sterile, by its absence. All that has changed now, thanks to the unlikely collaboration of a scholar, a patron, and a press.  We here celebrate Stanford University Press having published the twelfth and final volume in the Pritzker edition of the Zohar, an English translation with extensive commentary.  This work was mostly undertaken by Daniel Matt, who devoted eighteen years of his life to this labor of love, with the participation of Joel Hecker and Nathan Wolski.  Their effort has been sponsored by Margot Pritzker, of the well-known Chicago family, but herself a seeker descended from an Anglo-Moroccan Jewish family with deep Kabbalistic roots.  I had the great merit of being the shadkhan, the matchmaker who brought Matt together with the Pritzkers. Matt worked hard first to establish a proper text (since there is no final authorized version of the Zohar), first in Aramaic.  This formed the basis of his highly readable and often soaringly poetic translation, based on all the latest scholarship, most of it carried out in Israel.

Daniel Matt and I are both students of the late Professor Alexander Altmann, who deserves to be mentioned on this occasion.  Altmann came to Brandeis University, from Germany by way of England, and in 1960 taught the first course of Kabbalah ever offered in an American university.  I was a student in that first class, and Matt took the same course with Altmann about a decade later.  The high scholarly tradition, along with the deep personal spirituality, embodied by Alexander Altmann is certainly reflected in this translation and commentary.

What are modern Jews to do with this recovered legacy?  How can they use it to rekindle the fires of devotion that flicker so faintly in the American synagogue?  That is the essential question that lies before us.  What shall we do with the Zohar, now that the gates to it have been thrown so wide open?

A generation of rabbis and seekers is working hard to try to figure that out.  A new mystical Judaism is potentially in the midst of being born.  To bring it forth successfully will require a unique blend of study, devotion, and religious creativity.  Essentially the job is one of translation, but in the broadest sense of that term.  The poetic sensibility of the medieval Kabbalah, rich and beautiful as it is, will have to be transposed into a religious language that can speak to people in the 21st century.  The theological underpinnings of Judaism – its faith in Creation, Revelation of Torah, and Messianic Redemption – will all need to be retooled in terms that work for our era.  How to do all that without losing the poetry of Kabbalah, without silencing the profound echo-chamber wrought by the sense of rootedness in ancient wisdom and an unbroken chain of tradition? That is the great challenge that stands before us.  It will take a new generation of men and women (especially women, we should hope, since they were so excluded from prior rounds of Jewish mystical creativity) who study the sources carefully, who come to love the Zohar, but who are also free and creative enough to build a new Kabbalah upon its foundations.  We can hardly yet guess where such a journey will take us.  But wherever we go from here will have been enabled by the daring of Daniel Matt, Margot Pritzker, Stanford University Press, and all the others who have joined them in taking thisimportant first step.

Rabbi Arthur Green is Rector of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College





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