Down-to-Earth Kabbalah

In recent years there has been a tidal wave of interest in Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism. Yet little of what appears on the shelves of Borders or B&N claiming to explain Kabbalah, nor what a raft of celebrities are engaged in, resembles the genuine article. Recently, however, the first volumes of Dr. Daniel Matt’s projected 11-volume translation and commentary on the Zohar -- the foundation of Kabbalah -- were published.

The Zohar (The Book of Radiance) is a seminal work of Jewish mysticism, which emerged in 13th century medieval Spain. Please note the use of “a” in the previous sentence. There are many strands of mysticism in Judaism, and while Kabbalah is one strand of mysticism, it is itself variegated taking numerous forms in different centuries and locations. Rabbi Moses ben Shemtov de Leon of Castile, who composed the Zohar, attributed it to a Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, a second century Jewish mystic and sage.

Every page of the Zohar confronts the reader with new and radical insights into the sacred text of the Torah and the cosmic structure of the universe, God’s unity and power, and our sacred duty to God’s unification.

Dr. Matt's translation and commentary on the Zohar wastes no time in astounding the reader. The Torah opens with these words from Genesis 1:1 Beraishit bara Elohim, which we conventionally translate as “When God began to create...” The Zohar takes the grammar and word order of the first verse literally, rendering an entirely different and radically new meaning: With beginning, _____ created God. The subject of the sentence is missing, and the object is God.

Kabbalists borrow from the theory of “emanations” conceived by Plotinus, the third century Egyptian Hellenistic philosopher, who taught that the material world came into being through a series of emanations deriving from the One: incorporeal, indivisible, and beyond comprehension. For Jewish mystics, God might be beyond comprehension, but not beyond experience. Thus Kabbalah is highly experiential, leading the devotee on a journey of unification and transcendence.

In the opening passage of the Genesis, the attribute of wisdom (associated with the word “beginning” in Hebrew) is responsible for the emanation that leads, through a series of cascading emanations, to the human conception of “God.” Our understanding is far from the truth of what God is, a weak facsimile in fact, and far more reflective of our human material experience and limited intellectual faculties, than of the truth of God. Thus the Kabbalah, in its opening words, reminds us that we know less than we believe we know, and our claims to “absolute truth” are spurious. This lesson in religious humility is sorely needed today.

Further, the Zohar (like all of Jewish mysticism) reminds the reader that the route to unification with God is not through a self-serving engagement with mysticism, a singular personal trip through the cosmos to experience God’s glory, but through striving to accomplish God’s will in this world and this life. The cosmic whirlwind tour on which the Zohar takes its readers begins and ends here, with two feet planted firmly on terra firma: Live your life, it teaches, so as to make this world a better place for all. For a work of vaulted mysticism, that’s a very down-to-earth message.

Rabbi Scheinerman wrote this article for the Carroll County Times.