Restoring Kabbalah to Mainstream Judaism

A new translation has made the Zohar—Jewish mysticism’s key work—accessible at last. Is that a good thing?

A student is silhouetted against the Ardon Windows, which contain imagery derived from the Zohar, in the library of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
A student is silhouetted against the Ardon Windows, which contain imagery derived from the Zohar, in the library of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. (Yannis Behrakis / Reuters)

About 200 years ago, a Jewish scholar in Germany wrote a work called Judaism in Its Main Streams (or Hauptstroemungen, in German). In doing so, he created a new term, one that had never existed before: “Mainstream Judaism.” 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, who sought to present Judaism as a rational, enlightened form of ethical monotheism of which any reader of Immanuel Kant might be proud. Kabbalah, with its esoteric doctrines about everything from the world’s creation 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 1960s, my teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel was not permitted to teach a regular course on Hasidism, the mystical Jewish movement that formed a main area of his research, because Hasidism was not “mainstream Judaism.” But that has all changed in the past quarter century, and Jews are 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 commercial enterprises that claim to offer up the true secrets of Kabbalah to those willing to pay for them.

Why did this change in attitude come about? Throughout the 20th century, most American Jews were highly secularized, believing that scientific knowledge was rolling back the darkness and that humanity was progressing toward a more enlightened self-understanding that would bring us to more humane behavior. Religion was a remnant of a dark era, best left behind. But this new faith in science, sometimes dubbed “scientism,” faced two great challenges in the mid-20th century: those of Auschwitz and Hiroshima. How could Germany, the nation of all those Nobel Prizes in science, have given birth to Auschwitz? 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?

Such challenges led many Westerners to explore all sorts of once-esoteric teachings in a quest for a deeper truth, one that might have been cast aside in the rush toward modernity. Kabbalah joined Indian mysticism, Sufism, Tibetan Buddhism, and many more in an atmosphere of renewed openness to ancient spiritual teachings, updated for the modern seeker.

The key work of the Kabbalah is the Zohar, a name that means “radiance” or “shining.” That is a paradoxical title for a work that has always been shrouded in obscurity—not least because of the odd, partially invented Aramaic dialect in which it is composed. Now, however, the Zohar has received a major update.  Stanford University Press has recently published the 12th and final volume in the Pritzker edition of the Zohar, an English translation with extensive commentary, mostly by Daniel Matt, a Berkeley-based researcher, and sponsored by Margot Pritzker, of the well-known Chicago family, herself a seeker descended from an Anglo-Moroccan Jewish family with deep Kabbalistic roots. Matt devoted 18 years to this project, one that began with combing early manuscripts and rare printed volumes, first to establish a proper Aramaic text (since there is no single canonical version of the Zohar). This formed the basis of his highly readable and often soaringly poetic translation into English, which takes into account the latest Zohar scholarship.

Although the Zohar purports to be a record of conversations among rabbis wandering the Galilee in the second century, scholars (following Gershom Scholem, the founder of modern research in this field) 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, woven around biblical verses. Ingeniously reinterpreting every word of the ancient scriptures, they create a new symbolic language that offers remarkable depth and spiritual resonance to every aspect of the Jewish tradition.

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 dinner table join the host of angels accompanying her to her wedding feast. Abraham is no longer just the first of the patriarchs, but the human embodiment of divine love, a boundless stream of compassion that flows into the world and renews its life. Torah 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.

The Zohar’s language is very much that of eros. Take this passage, which speaks of the relationship between the Torah and “her” faithful student:

This may be compared to a beloved maiden, beautiful in form and appearance, concealed secretly in her palace. She has a secret lover unknown to anyone—except to her, concealedly. Out of the love that he feels for her, this lover passes by her gate constantly, lifting his eyes to every side. Knowing that her lover is constantly circling her gate … she opens a little window in that secret palace … reveals her face to her lover, and quickly withdraws, concealing herself. None of those near the lover sees or notices, only the lover, and his inner being and heart and soul follow her. … So it is with a word of Torah: she reveals herself only to her lover. Torah knows that one who is wise of heart circles her gate every day. What does she do? She reveals her face to him from the palace, and beckons him with a hint. … None of those there knows or notices—he alone does, and his inner being and heart and soul follow her.

The reader who hears echoes of the Spanish romancero in the background will not be completely wrong. In the Zohar, love is the inner energy that unites the cosmos, bringing together all dualities, including those of heaven and earth, light and shadow, male and female. The biblical Song of Solomon is a key scripture for the Zohar, and its lush gardens of desire are spiritualized into realms of sacred love, but without losing anything of their erotic passion. Like their Christian neighbors, the Jews of medieval Spain revered a female figure within divinity, but Jewish culture did not lead them to venerate either celibacy or virginity. Torah, or shekhinah (divine presence), was the bride of both God and Israel in a fully consummated—and yet entirely spiritual—sense.

The Zohar was meant to be seen as an esoteric work. Its strange and often impenetrable language increased its sense 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 the way their Christian neighbors did. For centuries, Jews from Morocco to the Balkans to Iraq would chant the Zohar aloud in almost mantra-like ways, inspired by the beauty of its sound, even while only vaguely understanding its contents. In Eastern Europe, it inspired Hasidism, with the rebbes seeing themselves and their disciples as latter-day embodiments of the wandering sages of the Zohar.

That is why the appearance of this translation is such an intriguing moment. Has the beloved maiden been made more accessible to the seeker, or has she been stripped of those garments of mystery that so enhanced her beauty?

Matt has made the Zohar into a readable work—for the first time in any language. Israeli scholars, writing in Hebrew, are consulting his notes. Students in college or seminary courses, lacking the linguistic tools to delve into the original, will now be able to prepare assignments on this previously closed text. Matt, along with a distinguished coterie of scholars associated with this project, is making the bet that the true radiance of the work will be enhanced rather than diminished by this translation.

What are modern Jews to do with this recovered legacy? Can they use it to rekindle the fires of devotion that flicker so faintly in the American synagogue? A generation of rabbis and seekers is working hard to try to figure that out. A new mystical Judaism may be in the midst of its birth pangs, but to bring it forth successfully—to make it “mainstream”—will require both study and religious creativity. This entails yet another layer of translation, but this time in the broadest sense of that term. The poetic language of the Zohar, rich and beautiful as it is, will have to be transposed into metaphors that work for the 21st century. Medieval Kabbalah’s theological underpinnings—its faith in Creation, Revelation of Torah, and Messianic Redemption—will all need to be retooled in ways that can address the hearts and minds of postmodern seekers.

Now that a scholar, a patron, and a press have collaborated to complete the first act of translation, it will be up to others to undertake the second.