Long journey into the Zohar

Berkeley scholar takes on enormous task of translating medieval Kabbalah text

Every weekday morning, Daniel Matt turns on his computer, stares at the tree-lined slopes outside the window of his Berkeley Hills home and waits for the words to describe the indescribable.

It is a routine he is pledged to maintain for the next 15 years or so. Matt resigned his professorship at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union in 2002 to translate the insights of a medieval Jewish mystic who wrestled with a paradox that has troubled believers of many faiths: How can the limited human intellect possibly grasp the infinite nature of God?

Even his car’s license plate bears witness to his single-minded focus: ZOHAR.

That’s the title of a sprawling, multivolume work by author Moses ben Shem Tov de Leon (1240-1305), whose doctrines shaped Kabbalah, Judaism’s mystical tradition. Such are the vagaries of history that a knockoff version of Moses de Leon’s ideas is currently faddish, with Madonna and Dolly Parton announcing themselves disciples of Kabbalah.

The only extant English translation of the Aramaic text to date has generally been considered more a paraphrase that doesn’t begin to capture Moses de Leon’s poetic voice. Now, there is Matt’s translation, the first two volumes of which were recently published.

Now, he has just 10 volumes to go. “On a good day,” he says, “I can do 20 lines.”

Son, grandson of rabbis

His father and grandfather were rabbis, and he has been fascinated with mysticism since his college days in the 1960s flower child era, when a quest for spirituality was part of campus life. He made the Zohar the focus of 25 years of teaching at the Graduate Theological Union, Stanford University and Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

But the task he was asked to undertake seemed overwhelming. The Zohar, which means “radiance” in Hebrew, is both a vast metaphysical compendium, full of abstract terms that are light-years distant from a modern reader’s vocabulary and a kind of mystical novel told in an earthy narrative style. Only reluctantly did he agree to at least try his hand.

“I worked for a month on a short passage and was left completely drained,” Matt says. “I feared I’d drown if I more than dipped into a few pages.”

He intended to beg off politely, telling his would-be Chicago patron, Margot Pritzker, that a complete translation could take decades — and lots of money. As the wife of the 23rd-richest person in the United States, according to Forbes magazine, she was undeterred. Her husband, Thomas, is a fourth-generation descendant of Nicholas Pritzker, a penniless Russian-Jewish immigrant in 1881 who built a financial empire that now includes the Hyatt Hotels.

After consulting scholars in the field, Pritzker and Chicago Rabbi Yehiel Poupko offered the job to Matt.

“He has the voice of a poet, the soul of a mystic and the intellect of a computer geek,” Poupko says. The intellect enables Matt to toggle back and forth as he translates, comparing obscure terms in the Zohar with a huge database of Jewish religious literature he has downloaded.

Moses de Leon lived and worked in 13th-century Spain, when both Jews and Gentiles seeking spiritual insight dabbled in mysticism — perhaps frustrated with organized religion or an overly rational approach to life, said Bernard McGinn, a University of Chicago professor who studies mysticism.

Moses de Leon provided a new way to read Scripture. The Zohar is largely a running commentary on the Torah, the first five books of the Jewish Bible, as seen through the eyes of a wandering group of ancient rabbis. During their travels through the Holy Land, they converse, something like the pilgrims of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.”

Unfamiliar interpretations

God’s famous injunction to Abraham, “Go you forth from your land,” is interpreted to mean that spiritual insight requires taking leave of one’s daily preoccupations: “Go to yourself, to know yourself, to refine yourself,” Moses de Leon wrote.

“Sometimes, the rabbis come to startling conclusions,” Matt says. “Look at the Zohar’s retelling of the story of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden.”

While the biblical version is unambiguous — “He drove out Adam” — the Zohar says, “We do not know who divorced whom: if the blessed Holy One divorced Adam, or not.”

According to the Zohar, there are 10 sefirot, aspects or powers — almost personalities — of God. One is female, the Shekhinah, who is both the divine presence in this world and God’s spouse. But theirs is not an easy marriage. She is often exiled from him, as Matt explains of the Zohar’s cryptic suggestion that maybe it was Adam who divorced God. “Adam drove out, divorced Shekhinah,” Matt writes, “splitting her from her divine partner.”

Pious Jews accorded the Zohar, a book of ancient rabbinical wisdom, canonical status, right alongside the Torah and Talmud. But as they began to enter the mainstream in Western Europe and the United States in the 17th and 18th centuries, Jews were increasingly embarrassed by this mystical heritage. “It was an age of science and rationalism,” Matt says. “Jewish scholars wanted to rid Judaism of anything that seemed like superstition.”

Accordingly, Matt noted, recent generations of Jews, even those with a religious upbringing, might be only vaguely aware of the mystic dimension to their ancestral faith. But in the years on either side of World War II, an Israeli scholar, Gershom Scholem, reawakened an academic interest in Jewish mysticism, and numerous books have been published in recent years.

Matt’s translation, formally known as the Pritzker Edition, is expected to quicken that revival.

Comments are closed.