Judaism Unbound Episode 161: The Zohar - Daniel Matt

Daniel Matt is a scholar of Kabbalah who translated and annotated the Zohar — a central text of Jewish mysticism — into English. He joins Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg for a conversation about the Zohar’s origins, his work that yielded The Zohar: Pritzker Edition (his landmark translation), and questions that the text opens up about the duality of old and new. [1]

Image Credit: Tom Levy

Image Credit: Tom Levy

(0:01 - 21:20): To begin the episode, Daniel Matt reflects on his recent foray into the world of digital Judaism, through an online class that he teaches weekly to hundreds of people all around the world. He then turns to the main subject of this episode, the Zohar itself. [3] Opening by giving a general overview of its content and structure, he names the reality that many Jews — even those who are very learned in many Jewish texts — have never cracked open the pages of the Zohar. He also provides an introduction to the 10 Sefirot, a term that is difficult to translate but can roughly be understood as “attributes” or “emanations” of God that play a central role in the Zohar’s text, as an ever-present kind of “secret code.” Turning to the origins of the text, he explores two vastly different time periods, and two vastly different geographic contexts, each of which play a critical role in the Zohar’s formation. [4]

(21:21 - 41:41): Matt looks at the role of Moses Maimonides in affecting the shape that the Zohar took, emphasizing how the latter text’s authors were simultaneously influenced by, and critical of, the famous Jewish philosopher. [5] He argues that the text sees itself as “new-ancient,” balancing a radical, innovative lens with the authors’ claim that the text dates back to the 2nd Century C.E. He notes his conscious choice to refer to “authors” plural, as Moshe de Leon is the major, but not exclusive, author of the text. He shifts to look in more detail at some of the Zohar’s most radical ideas, and walks through his process of translating the entire work into English.

(41:42 - 57:51): Continuing on the thread of translation, Matt considers why it is that the Zohar was written in Aramaic, and discusses why in a certain sense, it is in and of itself a kind of translation. He takes on the question of why Moshe de Leon felt the need to claim the text was ancient, as opposed to saying directly that he was writing it in his own time. He speaks to the question of whether there may be still be ways in which ancient precedent holds a great deal of weight for religious practitioners, including many Jews. To close the episode, Matt names some ways in which the Zohar’s relationship to gender and sexuality can be understood as equal parts profound and problematic. [6]

[1] Learn more about Daniel Matt by clicking here. Purchase any of his books on amazon here, and purchase The Zohar: Pritzker Edition (Volume 1) in particular here.

[2] Sign up for Matt’s online class on Zohar at this link.

[3] For a brief textual overview of the Zohar, click here. For an article about Matt’s translation, published in Newsweek shortly after it was released, click here.

[4] Matt cites the chariot featured in the book of Ezekiel as, in many ways, a launching point for early Jewish mysticism. Learn more by clicking here.

[5] For another Judaism Unbound conversation that looks at the philosophy of Moses Maimonides, see Episode 131: Protesting God - Dov Weiss.

[6] Matt mentions the work of Elliot Wolfson, on ideas of gender that manifest in the Zohar. For a book on this subject, see Wolfson’s Circle in the Square: Studies in the Use of Gender in Kabbalistic Symbolism