The Zohar, Pritzker Edition, vols. 1 and 2. Daniel C. Matt. Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press: 2004. Pp. 500, 460. hardcover $45.00.
The Zohar is one the most numinous and subtle mystical texts in world literature. Its lyrical spirituality is itself a zohar, a radiant energy which has captured the minds and hearts of generations of Jews and even Christians. So much so, that it is not unusual to find rabbis who know it by heart and students who chant its words even without comprehending its meaning. One can even obtain small pocketbook editions of parts of the Zohar to carry as a good luck charm.
Daniel Matt’s translation of, and commentary to, the Zohar is a powerfully poetic rendition of this spiritual masterpiece. It is a book to be studied, not read. As one who has pondered and taught the Zohar for many years, I found Matt’s interpretation learned, insightful, and very beautiful. Often, his translation and commentary changed my understanding of passages I thought I had already mastered. My only regret is that he has not yet reached the sections on which I am now working.
The poetics of the work are stunning on several levels. First, dealing with a text famous for its mixed metaphors and its double entendres, Matt has followed the text. Thus, we get a faithful rendering of such multiple images as ‘the light which enters the rose and emits seed.’ In doing so, Matt catches very well the uncanny, numinous and lofty, rolling quality of the text, as well as its strangeness, the sense of its coming from another world.
Second, Matt has reached deep into his own poetic powers to render the Aramaic text. Thus, ba`ei le-mivrei becomes “was on the verge of creating”; dugma de… becomes “paradigm of”; sheiruta de-vinyana becomes “origin of structure”; ’avira becomes “aura”; and mishkan, usually rendered “Tabernacle” becomes “Dwelling.” Wonderful, too, is the rendering of avid shelimu as “consummates” and `alma de-‘atei as “the world that is coming.” (I wonder, though, about the rendering of tikkuna as “arrayal.”)
Third, the lapidary semitic character of the Aramaic has been transformed into freely flowing English. This enables to reader to swim more easily in the stream of images, texts, and counter-texts which constitute the Zohar.
Fourth, the Zohar is a book written on several levels and Matt’s footnotes “decode” the text into its properly zoharic, sefirotic symbolism. Thus, what looks like an ordinary midrash evoking God and Israel turns, through decoding, into a stunning explanation of the inner workings of the person of God. The art here is not only in the decoding but in resisting the urge to over-interpret.
Throughout, Matt has avoided the usual “scholarly” questions: Who wrote the Zohar? What are its main teachings? How would one systematize its ideas? How was it transmitted and canonized? How does it resonate with religious texts from other traditions? Further, Matt has not been swallowed up the in the Lurianic stream of zoharic interpretation. Rather, the structure and technique of this translation and commentary succeed in giving us primary access to this most primary of texts in several important ways.
First, Matt has created as critical an edition as possible of the original Aramaic text, a copy of which is to be put on line by Stanford University Press (http://www.sup.org/zohar). This has enabled him to choose the best reading for any given passage, an option long needed for this text which has suffered so in transmission.
Second, in the very process of translation, Matt has had to divide the material into
sentences and paragraphs. This has forced coherence on a text which is usually published as one continuous, unpunctuated paragraph.
Third, Matt has put his learning in the footnotes which refer the reader to an exceptionally wide range of earlier rabbinic literature including the Talmud, the midrash, the Heikhalot literature, Sefer ha-Bahir, Nahmanides, Rabbi Azriel, the other works of de León, various commentaries to the Zohar, and Scholem, Liebes, and other moderns, as well as to other passages in the Zohar where the same theme is treated.
Fourth, with good theological as well as grammatical sense, Matt has rendered capital letters for pronouns referring to Shekhina as “She” and “Herself,” and “He” and “Himself” for pronouns referring to Tiferet, but “he” when referring to the Other Side (which itself should probably not, theologically, be capitalized).
Finally, Matt gives the key terms in Hebrew, in transliteration, and in translation. This enables all types of readers to follow his presentation. He also uses italics for biblical verses quoted in the text, which makes it easier for the reader to follow the exegesis and midrashic expansion of the texts cited.
All this makes for very rewarding study on the level of language, of exegesis, of symbolism, and of theology.
There are moments where any interpreter may miss the meaning of a text – at least as perceived by other experienced readers. Thus, I found Matt’s decoding of the passage on page 220 to be less imaginative than my own. In that passage on the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the “river that spreads into the garden” seems to me to refer more easily to Bina who spreads her energy to the realm of the lower seven sefirot (and not to Yesod who channels energy into Malkhut which then separates it, a reading adopted earlier by Tishby). This passage is also instructive because it enables us to compare Matt’s translation and commentary with the Goldstein translation of Tishby’s translation and commentary to the same passage. In my opinion, the version of Matt is more accurate and flows much better.
The Zohar, however, is a book which requires more than footnotes that decode and refer. It really needs to have that as the basis and to be followed by a more expository interpretation of what is happening in the text, and of why this is an important text, spiritually as well as literarily. It would have been better if, after several pericopes that seem to cling together, Matt would have inserted two or three pages explaining why this pericope is important and beautiful, and what is spiritual and even revolutionary in it. The Plaut commentary to the Torah and the Speiser commentary to Genesis use this technique, though with different goals. (I, too, tried this, in a much more modest way, in my commentary to passages from the Zohar in Understanding Jewish Mysticism.) Two examples:
In the pericope dealing with the Akeda, the Zohar teaches that Hesed (God’s grace) does not achieve completion until it has mixed with Gevura (God’s power), and vice versa. Matt renders and decodes the passage wonderfully, but what does it mean? What does it mean to say that God’s grace is incomplete without judgement, and God’s judgement is incomplete without unmerited love? Granted these traits mix in Tiferet (God’s compassion and mercy), what does it mean to say that, individually, they are not complete without passing through the crucible of one another?
In the pericope dealing with Sarah’s annunciation, the Zohar alludes clearly to the theme of Rosh ha-Shana – because this passage is read liturgically on the first day of the Jewish new year. The reader needs to hear why this pericope is central to the birth of the world and to the Day of Judgement, both key themes of Rosh ha-Shana? **** // **** The same passage in the Zohar also alludes to a major theme in all monotheistic literature: the unjust death of the righteous. Just what is the teaching of the Zohar? And, what is its connection to the passage and to the holiday? Just a little further on is one of the enigmatic messianic puzzles of the Zohar. Again, what is the spiritual location of this puzzle in the context of the passage and of the holiday?
Daniel Matt, who probably has studied more Zohar than any other English speaker, is in the unique position of being able to respond to these kinds of theological questions. I realize that any attempt to do this would color the reader’s primary access to the text. Still I, for one, would have wanted to hear his views in a more reflective genre of writing than the on-the-page commentary. Perhaps we shall yet see a series of terminal essays in the style of the grand translators, or a separate book which brings together Matt’s larger interpretation of the most important pericopae.
There is also no subject index for each volume. I presume there will be an index to the whole but, given the time it will take to issue the whole translation and commentary, it might have been better to index each volume and then publish the agglomerated index at the end as indeed was done with Goitein’s magnum opus, A Mediterranean Society.
No matter what the possible failings of this text, Matt’s new Zohar is a classic already in its first two volumes. The edition alone, or the translation alone, or the commentary alone would be major contributions. The whole is a work of art. The Pritzker Foundation is to be commended for underwriting this enormous effort and Daniel Matt is to be praised for his poetic and learned work.
This appeared in Jewish Spectator, Winter, 51.