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Q-and-A with Daniel Matt: Demystifying the Zohar

Daniel Matt

The Zohar (Book of Radiance) has been the foundational text of Jewish mysticism for 800 years. Spiritual movements that shook the Jewish world were built upon it. Echoes of it can be found in the music of Leonard Cohen, who began studying it in the 1960s and delved into its depths regularly until his death in 2016. In recent years, one man is responsible more than any other for making the Zohar accessible to English speakers who don’t have the requisite Aramaic chops to crack the original.

Daniel Matt has spent 18 years translating the Zohar into a 12-volume Pritzker edition set. Matt received his PhD from Brandeis University and served for 20 years as a professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif. He has also taught at Stanford University and Hebrew University. On Sept. 19-21 Matt will be visiting Vancouver, where he will be speaking at the Vancouver School of Theology and Or Shalom Synagogue.

What inspired you to translate the Zohar?

My dissertation was on the first Hebrew translation of the Zohar by David ben Yehuda ha-Hasid, the grandson of the great rabbi Nachmanides. Afterwards, I compiled a book that presented about two per cent of the Zohar. People asked me, “When are you going to do the rest?” I would say, “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life translating the Zohar!” Then the Pritzker family came to me, through the scholar Arthur Green, and asked me to translate it. It wasn’t my initiative, I was asked to do it. I was very hesitant. I delayed for months, and at the end I said, “No, I’m not going to do this.”

Art was very clever. He told me to meet the Pritzkers and tell them “No” myself. That was my mistake. Margot Pritzker had been studying with Yehiel Poupko, a rabbi in Chicago, and she had realized a new translation was needed. When we finally met, she asked me, “If you did do this, how long would it take?” I said, “Twelve to 15 years.” She said, “You’re not scaring me.” When I said that, something flipped around inside and I just blurted out “OK, I’ll do it.”

Can you tell me about one of the ideas in the Zohar that’s most important to you?

There are three that stand out for me. The first is Ein Sof, meaning “there is no end” or infinity. For a kabbalist, that’s the only adequate or accurate name for God. It’s admitting that God is beyond any definition or anything we can describe or conceptualize. I like that as undermining all of traditional theology.

The second is this notion of ayin, which is the transition from infinity to the particular, created world. Ayin is the energy that animates everything but is not yet any particular thing. That “no-thingness” is the source of all particular things. Later, the goal of the Jewish mystic is to turn the ego into no-thing – to rearrange the ani (“I” in Hebrew), which is spelled alef-nun-yud, into the ayin, spelled alef-yud-nun, for the ego to melt into the divine nothing. This teaching also has powerful parellels with teachings in other mystical traditions, like Buddhism and Vedanta, which I think is fascinating.

The third of my favourites, though it’s in some ways the most radical and the most relevant, is the notion of the Shekhinah, the feminine aspect of God. To say that God is equally male and female is so radical for the Abrahamic religions. In Judaism, Christianity and Islam, God is so patriarchal, so overwhelmingly masculine – the warrior God, the ruler, the judge. To say that God is equally male and female – to say that there is a female and male half of God, and that their unification is the purpose of Judaism and all the mitzvot – is really radical.

The Zohar says its teachings are “old-new words.” How is this so? Well, one of the many ways is that the idea of the goddess was very popular in the ancient Middle East, but in ancient Judaism, the biblical authors were successful in eliminating the goddess, and in some ways you could say that, in the Zohar, what happens is the re-emergence of the goddess. The goddess has now become kosher.

Many people are familiar with her presence because of the Lekhah Dodi, welcoming the Sabbath bride, the Sabbath queen. That prayer is really celebrating the wedding of the Shekhinah and the masculine side of God. The last verse says, “Come in peace, the crown of her husband.” The crown is the Shekhinah, the husband is the Holy One, Blessed Be He.

What would you say to the critique from the feminist point of view, pointing out that the Shekhinah is still hierachically lower than the masculine side of God, that the Shekhinah is lacking in agency because she is said to receive from God?

Both things are going on. It’s a radical theological move and its very much a product of its time. They’re stuck with their own archetypes of gender. The Zohar does say that Shekhinah is called melech (“ruler”) and is actively ruling the world, yet the masculine is above the feminine and the feminine receives from the masculine. This is a good example of how we should not worship the Zohar. The Kabbalah is not “absolute truth.” The Zohar was written by men for men. The Zohar should stimulate us to move further.

That reminds me of the great Hasidic master Rebbe Nachman, who said, “Don’t make any innovations on Jewish law, but feel free to make innovations on my own teaching.” Is the Zohar saying that as well?

To say that God is equally male and female is so radical for the Abrahamic religions.
– Daniel Matt

The Zohar very much encourages creativity and innovations. It’s aware of its own creativity and promotes creativity. It says God is yearning for human innovation, and everyone becomes a jewel in the divine crown and God kisses every one. It’s really a celebration of the human imagination.

I hadn’t viewed the Zohar that way, as encouraging others’ creativity in interpreting Torah, but now it sounds obvious.

We should be inspired not just to take the Zohar further, but to be bold and creative enough to look at the Torah and be creative with the text, using the Zohar as a model. We should go back and be creative with the original layers of our tradition as well.

What do we need to hear from the Zohar today?

In the Zohar, there is a concept of the “exile of the Shekhinah” – that the Shekhinah is in exile with the Jewish people and is sharing our suffering. The Zohar took this one step further by reasserting the power and importance of the feminine within God, and we need to go further by getting out of the way of women’s self-liberation and by assisting and supporting and helping that process. That’s also a way to overcome the exile of the feminine.

How did you feel when you finished it?

I really experienced the void. I was looking forward to finishing for years. People said, “Be careful, you’re going to experience postpartum!” It was thrilling, but then I experienced a real emptiness. Then, after a year or two, I took on a new project that I’m very excited about, a biography of Eliyahu ha-Navi (the prophet Elijah). Because he never died, it’s very challenging to do a biography of him! It’s for the Jewish Lives series for Yale University Press.

What is the best way into the Zohar?

Well, I began teaching an online course using Zoom. We study about five pages of my translation each class and I read it and explain it. We have six weekly sessions, then take a break and begin again. With the Zohar, people can start at any point. It pretty much doesn’t matter where you start – you’re lost wherever you begin! I have a free video available to people, which is a basic introduction to some core concepts. Around 500 people have been in the course now, including about 40 rabbis. There’s also a short book I wrote for Jewish Lights called Zohar: Annotated and Explained, which presents about one per cent of the Zohar – kind of the Zohar’s “greatest hits.”

What will you be talking about in Vancouver?

On Sept. 19, I’ll be giving a talk at the Vancouver School of Theology – “How Kabbalah Re-imagines God.” On Sept. 20, I’ll be talking about the Shekhinah and relating her to Shabbat and talking about how the concept of Shekhinah evolved. My last talk will be about finding the divine sparks in everything – how to bring these teachings down to earth and how they can enrich our mundane and spiritual lives.

This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.

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