ZOHAR’S TRANSLATION UNLOCKS THE SECRETS OF JEWISH MYSTICISM IN AN AGE OF EXTREMISM
‘Mystical Jewish Bible’
The Zohar—central to the mystical strain of Judaism known as Kabbalah—is a 13th-century commentary primarily on the first five books of the Bible, known as the Torah. That might make it sound dull; it is anything but. Imagine the Old Testament as written by H.P. Lovecraft, Bible stories tripping on acid, rendered in difficult-to-decipher Aramaic, full of wisdom and beauty but shrouded in obscurity, a 1,900-page text written more than 700 years ago whose teachings have been embraced by celebrities like Madonna but not fully understood even by most scholars of Judaism.
The Zohar serves as “the ur-text of the mystical Jewish imagination,” explains Shaul Magid, the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein professor at Indiana University, where he teaches Jewish and religious studies. Magid calls it a “kind of ‘mystical Jewish Bible,’ refracting the Hebrew Bible through its particular cosmological lens,” which includes a complex schema of 10 dimensions, or sefirot, that constitute reality. Some have even compared the cosmology of the Zohar to the conception of the universe suggested by quantum physics, string theory in particular.
If the Zohar demands shows of faith, it is through the doing of good deeds. That will, the Zohar claims, restore order by uniting the male and female halves of God. Matt says to think of our actions on Earth as a kind of “aphrodisiac” for the divine pair. At a time when all three Abrahamic faiths are struggling with their versions of fundamentalism, Matt’s work is a reminder that religious faith, at its best, is about repairing the world, not enforcing dogma; it’s about the beguiling mysteries of existence, not its certitudes.
“God needs us,” Matt says. “God is incomplete without our active participation in mending the world.”
The Zohar’s final volume arrives at a time when world religion seems increasingly removed from the kind of private, contemplative spirituality evoked by the Zohar (the last three volumes were translated by Nathan Wolski and Joel Hecker). The Islamic State militant group posts beheadings on YouTube, American evangelicals forsake their Christian convictions for short-term political gains, Jewish settlers in the West Bank take land away from their Palestinian neighbors. In India earlier this spring, Hindus killed a Muslim man who was transporting cows, an animal considered sacred in Hinduism. Whoever your god or gods are, they cannot have had this in mind.
In an age of extremism, Matt’s work is a rejoinder that calls for humility, patience and wonderment. This has long been an animating theme. “We have lost our myth,” Matt wrote in his 1996 book, God & the Big Bang: Discovering Harmony Between Science & Spirituality. “Many people have shed the security of traditional belief…. If they believe in anything, perhaps it’s science and technology. And what does science provide in exchange for this belief? Progress in every field except for one: the ultimate meaning of life.”
That sentiment contains an echo of the rationale Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers had given a century before. A British occultist, Mathers was the first to translate the Zohar into English, though he worked from the Latin, not the original Aramaic. He did so because he “opposed institutionalized Christianity, and hoped for a spiritual Christian revolution,” according to Kabbalah historian Boaz Huss. Mathers offered a ferocious explanation for why he was taking on the task of translating the Zohar:
I say fearlessly to the fanatics and bigots of the present day: You have cast down the Sublime and Infinite one from His throne, and in His stead have placed the demon of unbalanced force; you have substituted a deity of disorder and of jealousy for a God of order and love; you have perverted the teaching of the crucified One.
Though it may be a work of faith, the Zohar’s main goal is to instill awe. That alone makes it indispensable