Stanford Press revives interest in masterpiece of Kabbalah

Courtesy of the collections of the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem Zohar title page

The title page of the 1558-60 Mantua edition of the Zohar, one of many sources for Daniel Matt’s new translation.

Courtesy of Stanford University Press Cover of the most recent volume of the <i>Zohar</i>

The cover of the most recent volume of the Zohar, which is being published by Stanford University Press.

Daniel Matt

Daniel Matt

It is a teaching that is fabled to drive unprepared readers mad. It is a book of ancient Jewish wisdom. Or is it?

The Zohar— a compendium of enigmas that forms the basis of the Kabbalah—is getting a long-awaited renewal thanks to Stanford University Press's new translation, which Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel calls "masterful." The influential critic Harold Bloom calls it "a superbly fashioned translation and a commentary that opens up the Zohar to the English-speaking world." The series already has received a $10,000 Koret Jewish Book Award for "monumental contribution to the history of Jewish thought"—even though it has produced only four of a projected dozen volumes to date.

"Ultimately, it will be the biggest project Stanford University Press has ever done," press director Geoffrey Burn said. "This project will dwarf anything the press has committed to."

It is hard to describe the Zohar to those who are not already devotees. It is a mystical commentary on the Torah, but more than that. It has been called an encyclopedia of Jewish mysticism, myth and esoteric teaching.

The Zohar describes the Arabian Nights-style adventures of a group of Galilean mystics in search of God. Beyond this, facts are largely unavailable or troublingly blurry. It was purportedly written in the second century, around 130-150, and purports to describe the teachings of Shim'on bar Yohai, a miracle-working rabbi of Galilee living under Roman rule after the destruction of the Second Temple.

Or it may have been written in the 1280s, or thereabouts, by a Castilian Jew, Moses ben Shem Tov de León, the man who claims to have merely redacted the older teaching. If this is the case, one could argue that the name of the obscure Iberian rabbi should be carved with the immortals, alongside Cervantes, Goethe, Shakespeare, Dante and Rumi.

To all of this, Burn has a simple reply. "The work stands on its own. It's a work of revelation—its provenance is less important," he said. "I don't care if it was written yesterday by Carlos Castaneda."

The work is maddeningly difficult to read—but even more maddeningly difficult to translate from the ornate and exalted Aramaic.

"It matches no Aramaic dialect in the world," said its translator, Daniel Matt, a professor of Jewish spirituality at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley for more than two decades and the author of a number of books on the Kabbalah. Matt notes that by the late 13th century "hardly anyone in the Jewish world spoke Aramaic."

"Despite its artificial nature, it's amazing," Matt said. And the most amazing thing, he adds, is its crazy, invented language that revels in the sounds of strange words. "Even if one does not understand, the language is suited to the soul," said the 18th-century Italian Rabbi Moses Hayyim Luzzatto.

Matt says the Aramaic is a rich cassoulet, peppered with grammatical errors, seasoned with Castilian and rabbinical phrasing from periods later than the claimed second century. "It's such a vast book. To think one person wrote it is hard to imagine. But it has a consistent, idiosyncratic style," he said. Comparing it with Moses de León's Hebrew writing, "it's very convincing that it's the same person."

It is the equivalent of a present-day author writing in liturgical Latin. And not just an article or two, but 2,000 pages in a dead language. The result just might incorporate the kinds of neologisms, incongruities and anachronisms that crop up in the Zohar.

Who wrote this masterpiece? Matt estimates that 75 to 80 percent comes from Moses, who died in 1305. The rest may indeed be ancient texts, or perhaps the result of a collaborative effort with other contemporary kabbalists. But the question may be rather like asking whether Shakespeare or Holinshed wrote King Lear.

"You lose a lot if you only see it as an ancient composition," Matt said. Moses subtly and artfully introduces references to the effect of the Crusades on Spain, or the anguish of the Jews in an alien land. Moreover, "there's a constant interaction with earlier sources."

One of those earlier sources, Matt said, is the Spanish physician Maimonides (1135-1204), the Jewish thinker who attempted to reconcile Judaism with Aristotelian thinking. Maimonides' take on the Absolute was abstract and radically monotheistic. It fostered rationalistic trends in Spanish Jewry and a laxity in religious observance.

"God became so abstract, inaccessible, that it was hard to imagine praying to that God," Matt said. When faced with a thicket of tradition, ritual and law, it inevitably invited the question, "Does God need this? All I have to do is think of God."

The blush of innocence was gone, and there was no going back to the age of naïve belief. The arguments of Maimonides required a response. Moses came up with his own reply, which puts the Zohar in a nutshell: "Ultimately, God is infinity, but if you are going to talk about God anyway, you have to balance the masculine and feminine." God is manifested in 10 aspects, or sefirot—and some of them are female.

The Zohar concludes that "humans actualize God by living ethically and spiritually. Human holy actions fulfill God," Matt said.

Obviously, then, it didn't take the likes of Madonna and Dolly Parton, or even the mysteries surrounding its authorship, to make the Zohar controversial. A potpourri of commentary, parody, erotic poetry, numerology and hundreds of subplots, it was a radical reworking of Jewish theology.

Understandably, such a message would not have gone down well if peddled as the work of Moses de León. Instead, he sold it in pamphlets as ancient wisdom. How did he justify it? "Maybe he felt in touch with Rabbi Shim'on, channeling wisdom," Matt said. "Within a few decades, nobody challenged it. And then nobody dared challenge it."

But a few have challenged its message. Yitzhak bar Sheshet, writing about a century after Moses, said, "The Kabbalists are worse than the Christians. For the Christians pray to three-fold gods, while the Kabbalists pray to ten-fold gods" (that is, the sefirot).

Outspoken 20th-century Israeli philosopher Rabbi Yeshayahu Leibowitz called the Kabbalah, in its entirety, "a collection of pagan superstitions which have penetrated into the world of Jewish faith." He called the sefirot "a pagan Gnostic tradition."

In any case, the controversy was a highly limited one. Although some of its concepts had entered the mainstream, the book itself was unavailable in almost any language. Greatly reduced abridgements, inadequate translations and "versions" were available, but they didn't have the unique Zohar bouquet.

There was not even an "original" to translate. Moses' pamphlets were frequently re-edited and were not gathered together in any systematic way until the 16th century, when an Aramaic text was finally compiled and published.

The great work of creative genius remained largely inaccessible—until Stanford's intervention, with its "strong and long history in Judaic studies," Burn said.

Since the early 1990s, Yehiel Poupko of the Jewish Federation/Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago had been studying the Zohar with Margo Pritzker, a member of the wealthy Chicago family known for its philanthropy. They wanted a better edition. Pritzker approached Matt to commission a new translation.

Matt wrestled with the "thrilling, terrifying offer." After working for a month on a short passage, he concluded "it was too daunting, too draining."

Matt warned Pritzker the job might take 12 to 15 years. "You're not scaring me!" he recalled her saying. Matt took the job. Pritzker's patronage—with a price tag in the millions, for a 20-year project on a rarefied branch of Judaism—is now an eleemosynary legend.

With Poupko's encouragement, Matt approached the then-directors of the Taube Center for Jewish Studies—Steve Zipperstein, the Daniel E. Koshland Professor in Jewish Culture and History, and Aron Rodrigue, the Eva Chernov Lokey Professor in Jewish Studies—who met with Burn at the Stanford Faculty Club for an after-work Coke in 2001. Their enthusiasm was contagious.

The press's efforts have matched the scale of the project and include a sophisticated marketing campaign and handsome book design. It has launched a "Zohar portal" with the Aramaic texts of the Zohar (, so that the translated volumes can be compared with original texts. The site includes English excerpts, Pritzker's foreword, Matt's introduction and a lengthy introduction by Arthur Green of Brandeis, which some consider a masterpiece itself.

"In the four years since we launched the first volume, we have sold over 30,000 copies, worth close to $1 million in revenue to the press," Burn said. When the final volume is published, the press envisions a suite of products, possibly including Zohar selections for classroom study and a collector's edition.

"It will outlive me," Burn said. "It's something that will always be a legacy for the press—not only in financial terms, but in intellectual terms.

"When we were signing [the contracts], I thought, how often does a publisher get to publish something that will be in print forever?"

For Matt, the days of grading student papers are behind him. The affable scholar spends his time like a contemplative, comparing original texts from international libraries to produce the first translation from original manuscripts. He translates maybe a page of the Aramaic a day. Most days he said he feels like he's inside Moses de León's mind. "Somebody told me, no—he's inside my head," Matt quipped.

But his biggest reservation has been banished: "One of my main fears was that I would get tired of it—but it's still thrilling and exciting. I'm eager to do it every morning."