Zohar (Sick-Souled)



Like Yosemite Sam said about Bugs Bunny, I hates Zohar. I had read through the first two volumes of Daniel Matt’s Pritzker translation and stalled. I just couldn’t stand it anymore. I thought the text had reached a high point at the end of vol. 2 of the Pritzker. Rachel has just died on the return back to the Land of Israel. She is now replaced by Shekhinah, who can now take her rightful place as Jacob’s consort. It’s not the weirdness that bothered me. The text had seemed to reach a consummation of sorts, and I just couldn’t go on. From this point on, only two volumes into the translation, is everything else going to be anticlimactic? Against my better judgment, I am now back in. I’ll try to explain why.

To tell the truth, I have never liked the Zohar. My first significant encounter (after reading Scholem) was at an all night study session in Berkeley many years ago for the holiday of Shavuot. I picked out a volume of the Soncino translation (or was it the Daniel Matt anthology for the Classics in Western Spirituality series?). I opened the page right to the passage about the very frightening child (the Yanuk) who knows more kabbalah than the kabbalists themselves. Creeped out, I still don’t know why, I slammed the book shut and returned it quickly to the shelf.

I want to be perfectly honest about my reading through the Pritzker Zohar. It is not intended as a scholarly inquiry into the Zohar, its authorship, history, and style. I’ll leave that to the pros, whose learning and acumen I respect more than my own. As a modern philosophy person, I’m looking instead for something more simple, namely a Jewish world. I spent lots of time with the Schottenstein translation of the Babylonian Talmud, after a senior scholar recommended it to me with a “why not?” Now I want to read the Zohar if for no other reason than that “it’s there.”

Unlike the Bavli, however, the Zohar still leaves me feeling ill at ease and slightly nauseous. (The only time I don’t get this way is when I’m reading it with students). Its spiritual world strikes me as both caustic and hysterical, in the extreme. It takes the reader to a certain place, and it opens up the senses. But to what? The murmuring deep and the door to death, to demons and other impure spirits, male and especially gentile and female, who contend, attack, and tear. I find it skin crawling. There’s nothing cute about the Zohar, unlike the Bavli which is often funny. You sit and read and then you look at the blueness or the blackness or the grayness of the sky and listen to the birds, and you begin to realize that the world is not what it seems to be to the optical eye. This, in part, is the point about the non-human in kabbalah and science by Henri Atlan, about whom I posted below. In the Zohar, it seems to me, this realization skirts the difference between the exhilirating and ecstatic, and the claustrophobic and terrifying. (Try communicating that to an adult ed class.)

I’m not reading Zohar because I necessarily want to. Not yet, at least. I do so under professional obligation. Another senior figure, this one in Jewish philosophy, once told me in that way affected by some senior scholars that one must read everything. I know others don’t, but I happen to love this kind of command performance. So I asked, even tractate Zebahim? Zehabim is a long tractate in the Bavli dealing with sacrificial meat or slaughter offerings. He said, even Zebahim. So I read Zehabim and thought it was great. Now I’m reading Zohar because one should read everything. I can’t say I love it. But it’s interesting.

At any rate, contemporary Jewish philosophers untrained in the classical sources no longer have an excuse not to read the Bavli or Zohar –not with the publication of the Schottenstein Talmud and the ongoing Pritzker translation. I won’t know this world like a Talmud or Kabbalah specialist. No apologies. I’m reading the stuff in English. With the Schottenstein, one can acquire a somewhat rudimentary competence in the source language. With the Zohar, forget it. I don’t have the time to master the pseudo Aramaic. This is not my world. I’m only visiting. I’ll “know” a little something and not almost absolutely nothing.

Despite my own deep misgivings, I appreciate two things about the Zohar.

One is the immersion into an idiosyncratic world.  If Jewish philosophy and textual study has anything to offer the larger world of philosophy and religious studies, it is this look into the intensities of a particular mirco-world and its striated spaces. It may not be a “good” one, but it’s a great place to go, as long as you keep your wits about you.

Two, it’s a “nasty” spiritual micro-world. It’s gross, bitter, and caustic. To understand this means that maybe people shouldn’t go around romanticizing mysticism. At one level, it’s crazy, idiotic stuff, and the zoharic authors are not to be trusted. Their world is not an ethical world (on this see Elliot Wolfson’s Venturing Beyond: Law & Morality in Kabbalistic Mysticism). But in coming to see this, we also might begin to unlearn delusions about the nature of our own material world. The kabbalists were on to something. On the one hand, the terrible things that happen in the world are to some degree caused by our own gross action, not just on the world, but on the godhead itself. This is a frightening burden. On the other hand, those terrible things are also worked into the world fabric, up and into the very structure of the godhead. And that’s also a good thing to “know.”

I’m going to try to remain agnostic. I’ll be more than pleased to submit to correction all of the views expressed above.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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1 Response to Zohar (Sick-Souled)

  1. Taikoboy says:

    I really like this post, zjb, and now that I have a pseudonym, I feel like I can just write and tell you that without trying to explain why. How lazy!

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