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Living in a Material World

The spiritual fad of the new millennium hinges on a cryptic, erotic, medieval text. If anyone can explain why, it’s Daniel Matt.

Sara Ivry
January 14, 2004

In 1997, before Madonna and Monica Lewinsky started flaunting red string bracelets, Daniel Matt began work on the first complete English translation of the Zohar, an esoteric biblical commentary central to the kabbalah. Matt can hardly be accused of dabbling in Jewish mysticism; thanks to the patronage of philanthropist Margot Pritzker, he was able to resign his post at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, and devote his full attention to a text that scholars believe was composed by Moses de Leon in 13th-century Spain. Stanford University Press just published the first two volumes of Matt’s labors, with the remaining ten to be completed over the next 20 years—so he’ll finish just in time for Uggs to come back into style.

The term kabbalah comes up everywhere from People magazine to Larry King, but that wasn’t the case when you started this project.

In a sense it’s even a sharper contrast than when I first started studying Zohar in 1970. Then it was the most esoteric, unknown aspect of Judaism perhaps. Now, you find it all over. The Hollywood connection has certainly made it widely known. In some ways, it has made me more committed to doing translation in a very accurate, scholarly way to balance the superficiality you find in some dimensions of kabbalah today. I want to give readers what the Zohar really is—a commentary on the Bible.

The Zohar constantly wrestles with the text and shows new possibilities of meaning in an imaginative and fantastic way. For example, God says to Abraham, “Go forth.” The Hebrew is “Lech Lecha,” which literally means, “Go to yourself,” and that’s how the Zohar takes it. It’s not a geographical journey. It’s saying, “Go deep within and you’ll discover the Divine.”

The Zohar is written in Aramaic. I always thought that was an ancient language that was dead by the 13th century.

When the Zohar appears, hardly anyone in the Jewish world spoke Aramaic. They studied it because the Talmud was written in Aramaic, but in part the Zohar was written in Aramaic to make it look ancient. Moses de Leon never admitted he was the author. He said, “I’m just a scribe, and I’m copying it out from an original second-century text.” He claimed it went back over a millennium, and the original had been composed in the land of Israel in the second century by a famous Talmudic teacher.

Why would he do that?

So that it would be accepted as authoritative. He presents very radical ideas: that God is feminine, equally feminine and masculine; that the ultimate name for God is simply infinity, Ein Sof; and that God needs the human being, is in some sense incomplete without our active participation. Those are among the three most important innovations of kabbalah. If he had said, “I have an idea that God is a woman,” he might have been thrown out of town. But he presents ideas as ancient wisdom. People were naïve enough that the Zohar was accepted as ancient, which paved the way for the acceptance of kabbalah.

If you compare it to what happens in Christian mysticism—one of the great Christian mystics at the same time, Meister Eckhart, he was denounced by the Church. And some of the great Sufi teachers in Islam were condemned. It’s remarkable how easy a way kabbalah had.

Why were there traditionally restrictions on studying the Zohar—mastery of the Bible and the Talmud, reaching a certain age, being married?

Those have to do partly with the material—there’s a very strong erotic element to the Zohar. The goal of the whole system is to unite these two halves of God, the masculine and the feminine, and although the Kabbalists insist that’s just a symbolic mode of thought and shouldn’t be taken literally, the text reads very erotically. God’s inner romantic life is being described graphically. That may have been part of the hesitation. The other is the fear that people would be so attracted to the material—to the beautiful poetry and imagery, and to its intense spiritual nature—that it might lead them away from responsibilities of the family, of making a living.

When did it become acceptable to approach it without a certain level of erudition?

It’s been gradual. Kabbalists would say kabbalah goes back to Adam and Eve, or Abraham, but kabbalah as a movement within Judaism goes back about a century before the Zohar, in Provence. It spills over the Pyrenees into Spain and crystallizes. But in the first couple of centuries, it’s very small groups of kabbalists, studying together, meditating, sharing secrets. Over the next several centuries, it starts to spread to larger groups. Hasidism is really the popularization of kabbalah. Hasidism spread it to the masses. Some of the fiercest opposition to Hasidism came on the part of Kabbalists who agree with the ideas but don’t think they should be spread so widely.

Because they’ll be abused?

Yeah, they’ll be diluted or abused or misunderstood or taken too literally. That’s in the 18th century.

What about contemporary interest with kabbalah?

In the last 20 years or so, in America and in Israel, there has been this fascination with kabbalah, first in the Jewish community and then in broader circles. Certainly it’s part of the general interest in spirituality since the sixties, but I ask myself, why specifically kabbalah, why do some of these Hollywood folks get drawn to this rather than to Zen or Hare Krishna? There are a couple of things that I have been able to identify.

Kabbalah is fairly unique: It’s a spirituality that doesn’t flee from the material world. It doesn’t demand that you go off to a cave and meditate for 20 years. On the contrary, it demands that you engage the world, that you try to discover the divine spark in the material world, and thereby transform it. So it may appeal to people like Madonna, who have made it to the heights of materialism. She even defined herself in those terms. Somebody who does that will very naturally feel that there must be something else—and yet they’re not willing to give up everything they’ve received. It’s spirituality that doesn’t demand you jettison all of the material, and yet it does demand that you look more deeply and search for some spiritual core.

The other factor is that kabbalah is simultaneously strange and familiar. It’s supernatural and exotic in some ways, but based on the most familiar text there is in the entire Western library: the Bible. The Zohar will say, well, Abraham stands for this quality of God, and Sarah stands for this. It enables you to engage in a spiritual search but still be anchored in something familiar. In some ways it’s almost not what the Zohar says but how it says it that’s especially relevant for a contemporary reader. It’s a celebration of the imagination.

Have there been earlier periods when the kabbalah was in fashion?

Yes. In the Renaissance there was a fascination with kabbalah in the Christian world. Key figures in the late 15th and 16th centuries—people like Johannes Reuchlin in Germany, and a little before him, in Italy, Pico della Mirandola—were attracted to kabbalah because they also thought it conveyed ancient wisdom and saw parallels with Christian theology. They created what became known as Christian kabbalah. In the feminine half of God they saw some parallel with Mary. And in the symbol system of kabbalah, the ten sefirot—aspects of God’s personality, you could say—are also grouped in triads they thought were similar to some Trinitarian structure.

Are talismans like the red string bracelet, or the Kabbalah Mountain Spring Water sold by the Kabbalah Centre, bona fide parts of the tradition?

Things like that are part of folk tradition, which some people who are drawn to kabbalah may have also been drawn to. I don’t know in detail that particular custom of the string, but I doubt it has a specifically kabbalistic origin. It may even be non-Jewish, like the hamsa. That’s really an Islamic tradition which then was adopted by Jews in Islamic countries, and then people think it’s authentically Jewish.

As a scholar, do you feel the work you’re doing is trivialized by endeavors that reduce it to a piece of red string?

Certainly. I’m bothered by the commercialization, the hard sell. I know someone who was going for an operation, and she was told, “Buy this set of Zohar and it will go well.” That seems worlds away from my interests.

On the other hand, kabbalah is a broad term, and many things are included under it. There certainly are superstitious elements. You can find discussions of amulets and things referred to as magic or numerology that I’m not particularly interested in, but I can’t deny that they’re part of a kabbalistic universe.

Most names you hear—Madonna, Stella McCartney, Britney Spears—are women. Why do you think women in particular appear to be drawn to kabbalah?

It may be partly because the feminine has such a large role in the kabbalah. It’s not that Kabbalists gave equal rights to women or encouraged women to participate in Jewish life. But they did make the feminine prominent within the divine world, and that probably resonates today. A lot of Jewish feminists have made use of that to promote a social transformation of Judaism. You know, seeing God as father in heaven definitely makes you feel excluded as a woman. And seeing God as equally male and female is empowering.

What makes your translation unique?

There are standard Aramaic editions of the Zohar, and usually that’s the basis of translation. But I had access to the original 14th- and 15th-century manuscripts of the Zohar, which are scattered around various European libraries.

Over the centuries, every scribe or editor that handled the Zohar doctored the text; he would put in a word of exclamation or he would correct what seemed to him to be mistakes in the original. I decided to try to recover those original readings. I have a research assistant who goes through all the manuscripts and lists the differences, the variant readings, between the manuscripts and the printed edition. As I’m going, I can see what manuscripts have what I feel is a better reading, and I translate from that superior reading, rather than from the printed text.

So what we’ve done is to create what you might call a new ancient version of the Zohar that’s closer to the original, and that’s what I’m translating from. That we are making available on Stanford’s website.

How did you get involved with kabbalah?

It goes back in part to my father. He was a rabbi, genuinely spiritual, and I felt drawn toward that dimension of Judaism. I was really searching for that dimension within Judaism, the spiritual dimension, and felt attracted to Martin Buber and Hasidism, and explored kabbalah to discover the roots of Hasidism. That’s the simple answer.

Does your interest in kabbalah go beyond the scholarly?

I’m trying to balance the two approaches: the spiritual and the academic. I think they each have something to offer. If you subscribe to it totally as ultimate truth, you miss some of the historical perspectives which enrich it, and if you look at it just academically, then you stay at such a distance that you don’t allow the power to have an effect on you. I try to navigate between those two.

What form does your spiritual interest take?

Well, certain techniques of meditation, and then the regular mitzvot, the observances of Judaism. In kabbalah those become in a sense mystical techniques, because you’re doing them with certain intention in order to gain intimacy with the Divine.

Sara Ivry is the host of Vox Tablet, Tablet Magazine’s weekly podcast. Follow her on Twitter@saraivry.