Thursday, January 29, 2004

"HOW KABBALAH IS LIKE BRAIN SURGERY." David Klinghoffer reviews Daniel C. Matt's new translation of the Zohar for Beliefnet. (For another review, go here.) Excerpt:

Reading along, you get the strong impression that either this stuff is meaningless rubbish, or it was not meant for popular consumption but rather conveys ideas too profound to be understood by amateurs, in language that is appropriately obscure given the unfathomable depth of the subject matter. The latter is the view that Jews who know something about Judaism have historically taken.

It's like brain surgery. Someone who tells you he wants to start cracking open skulls to fix the brains inside but who hasn't yet cracked open a book of anatomy is, obviously, either a lunatic or a fool. So when these obscure secrets are seemingly readily available to all who are willing to shell out the 26 bucks for a red string without investing themselves in the basics of Judaism, namely learning and practicing Torah and its commandments, it's obvious this version of Kabbalah lacks authenticity.

To be sure, there are those in the academic world who would dismiss the Zohar itself as a hoax. It purports to be a record of the conversations of Rabbi Shimon and his disciples, yet the book "emerged mysteriously" (in Daniel Matt's diplomatic phrase) more than a thousand years after they lived, in Spain at the close of the 13th century. The venerated 20th�century scholar Gershom Scholem ruled that the work was entirely the product of the imagination and the pen of Rabbi Moses de Leon, who composed it sometime in the decade of the 1280s.

In his fascinating, lucid introduction to the Matt translation, Professor Arthur Green writes that just because the Zohar is "a work of sacred fantasy," that's no reason "to impugn the truth of its insights or the religious profundity of its teachings." But if the Zohar is a hoax, common sense would suggest that that is a very good reason to impugn its truth and profundity. If Shimon ben Yohai did not conceive these teachings on the basis of earlier traditions, if they were just made up by a guy with a lot of imagination, then they are mere opinions, without any special authority.

What seems undeniable is that the Zohar is a mystery. The rest of Moses de Leon's writings are pale, dry, lifeless, where the Zohar is as brilliantly colorful as it is impenetrably obscure. Some later kabbalists offered the view that de Leon was a reincarnation of Shimon ben Yohai. That would explain why, when the spirit of the ancient sage moved him, he could write in Shimon's name without it being a "fantasy" at all.

It is certainly true that kabbalah is a rigorous, demanding discipline that offers its joys only upon the expenditure of significant effort.

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