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The Zohar Unlocks the Secrets of Jewish Mysticism

Scholar Daniel Matt spent 18 years translating the ancient text into English, making accessible a strain of Judaism that emphasizes personal spirituality over rationality.
Kabbalist Rabi Uri Revach, second left, sits in front of his students during overnight Kabbalah studies inside a Jerusalem mountain cave near the village of Beit Meir on May 7, 2010. About a dozen of Orthodox Jewish men gather once a week in the cave near the holy city to study all night long the ancient Jewish mystical rite of Kabbalah, reading texts from Jewish holy books, including the Zohar texts.
07_07_Zohar_01 Source: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty

If you haven’t read Hebrew since the rite-of-passage ceremony known as the bar mitzvah, customarily conducted at the age of 13, then a willfully obscure text of ancient Jewish mysticism is probably not the best means to reacquaint yourself with the language of the Old Testament. Yet there I was in a Northern California synagogue, trying to remember my alefs and daleds, less out of the famous guilt of my tribe than a curiosity about that text—the Zohar—and, more specifically, about the man who has done more than any other alive today to unlock its secrets.

Each month, the scholar of Jewish mysticism Daniel Matt holds a study session on the Zohar, among the most beautiful yet impenetrable works of Jewish spirituality. Matt’s authority on the subject is unrivaled: He is the only person to have translated the entirety of the Zohar into English. The effort spanned two decades and ran to 12 volumes (he had help on the last three). When I visited him in May at his house in Berkeley, California, the last of these had just been published. “For the English-speaking world, the Zohar's gates are now opening even wider,” declared Judy Silber on NPR.

Thus on a Wednesday afternoon in mid-April, I walked with no small amount of trepidation into a sunlit room at the Congregation Beth El synagogue in Berkeley, not far from where Matt has spent years working on the Zohar, in a studio overlooking the glorious hills of the East Bay. Most of those in attendance were rabbis; one was a psychotherapist; all could read Aramaic (the ancient language related to Hebrew), or at least Hebrew itself, and were becoming fluent in the Zohar.

The session began with song. There followed a prolonged period of silent meditation, during which you could hear the occasional shouts of a child from the courtyard of the adjacent nursery school. There were crackers and cheese, as well as instant coffee.

'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,”

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