Daniel C. Matt is the best-selling author of The Essential Kabbalah, Zohar: Annotated & Explained, and God & The Big Bang. He is considered one of today’s leading experts on Jewish Mysticism.
MC: To begin more or less broadly, Daniel, as far as your research and tradition has told you, when did the Kabbalah begin?
DM: It’s really very hard to pin down. I would say that there are certainly Biblical roots to the Kabbalah and roots in the early Rabbinic Judaism. But I would say it emerges as a movement within Judaism in the 12th century, 12th century Europe, in Southern Europe, in Provence, Southern France, and then it goes over the Pyrenees, you could say, into Spain, and it’s really in 13th century Spain that the movement crystallises. And that’s where the greatest text of the Kabbalah, the Zohar, was probably composed.
MC: But isn’t the Sefer Yetsirah long before any of this,
DM:Sefer Yetsirah could be called proto-kabbalistic. Many of the images of the Kabbalah appear in Sefer Yetsirah. The most significant is the sephiroth, the 10 sephiroth. Now in Kabbalah, sephiroth means the 10 aspects of God’s personality. God’s love and God’s judgement, masculine and feminine powers, but in Sefer Yetsirah, it doesn’t really have meaning yet. In Sefer Yetsirah the 10 sephiroth are just the numbers one to 10, the numbers through which God creates the universe. Because, according to that text, God created the world through letters and numbers, through language and arithmetic, you could say. So that Sefer Yetsirah is a very important part of Kabbalah, and it does predate what I’m describing, but there’s no wide agreement on when Sefer Yetsirah was composed. Probably around the second or third century. I say that because of the style of Hebrew. The Hebrew of Sefer Yetsirah seems similar to early Rabbinic Hebrew of that period, second and third century. But then there is a long underground development of the Jewish mystical tradition between Sefer Yetsirah and this next creative period of the 12th and 13th centuries. I would call Sefer Yetsirah a pre-kabbalistic text and one of the roots of Kabbalah. So it’s hard to pin down exactly what you would call Kabbalah. Of course, kabbalists would say that it goes back to the time of the Rabbis or earlier, or to the patriarchs, or to Moses, even to Adam and Eve. But looking at it historically, the major texts of the Kabbalah, particularly the Zohar, are a product of the medieval era.
MC: Yes, it seems maybe that gap was caused by a… Back then in Provence there was a little renaissance with the kabbalists, the sufis and the Cathars and all that, and before that there might have been problems with medieval Christianity.
DM: Yes, partly that, partly fear of criticism from outside and from within, and the mystics’ own hesitancy to talk about their direct experiences. So, for whatever reason, I think you are right. The mystical tradition was kept secret for many centuries, and kept secret, but at the same time developing as it was passed from master to disciple, and then it really flowers in medieval Europe and, you are right, Provence is really a very fertile ground. You have Christian mysticism and the influence of Islam coming from Spain, the Middle East, and a lot is going on in Provence. In the Jewish community you have philosophy and rabbinics and mysticism all developing, and then it’s really in Spain that Kabbalah becomes a really creative force. But even at that time, it is still relatively small circles of kabbalists teaching and copying this material, and it really takes several hundred years before it reaches a broader segment of the Jewish population and begins to influence European mysticism, and that’s later in the 15th and 16th centuries.
MC: Yes, and I guess the culmination of it would have been the Shabbati Zevi movement.
DM: Yes, that messianic movement where Shabbati came to see himself as the messiah, that’s 17th century, and at that point Kabbalah becomes fascinating to very wide circles. But when that figure Shabbati Zevi converted to Islam, he was rejected by most Jews and at that point didn’t really arouse a lot of opposition to Kabbalah. The next stage is really Hasidism. Hasidism in the 18th century, you might call that a popularisation of the Kabbalah, and at that point it spread to very wide circles in the Jewish world. That really is an arc, you know, you can trace that arc from the early teachings in very small rabbinic circles and Sefer Yetsirah, then more of the creative development in Spain and the 13th century, and Shabbati and Hasidism, and then there was opposition when Judaism… You might say that in the age of the rational enlightenment, in the 18th and 19th century, there was reaction against Kabbalah and reaction against many mystical teachings. Many Jews were embarrassed by it and they wanted to just jettison the whole mystical and supernatural element. They wanted to redefine Judaism in purely rational terms. So it was really in the 20th century that Kabbalah was rediscovered, thanks in great part to the work of Gerschem Scholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism who lived in Jerusalem. Then you have this more recent phenomenon of mass media and Hollywood and the phenomenon of the last 10 years or so, where there is another explosion of interest. So it’s interesting how that’s moved throughout the middle ages and into modern times, and at this point or even discussing it on web broadcasts.
MC: Yes, we are. Could you tell us the why, when and where the Zohar was written?
DM: This is interesting. We mentioned Spain, but of course, traditional kabbalists believe that the Zohar goes back at least a the second century, to the famous Rabbi named Simon the son of Yohar, Shimon bar Yohai, who was a student of Rabbi Akira. Shimon bar Yohai lived in the second century in the land of Israel. We know his teachings from the Talmud, he was a very fiery figure and had some creative and radical things to say. For example, according to the Talmud Rabbi Shimon said, God depends on the human being. God says, according to Rabbi Shimon, if you are my witnesses, I am God; if you are not my witnesses, as if it were possible, I am not God.
MC: Wow, so this isn’t Lurianic Kabbalah, this is right in the Zohar.
DM: No, this is right in the Talmud. This is the real Rabbi Shimon that actually lived in the second century.
MC: The Talmud says that, that’s amazing!
DM: It’s actually in the Talmud. The roots of Kabbalah are there in the Talmud. But they are buried in dozens or hundreds of pages of legal material, and you really have to ferret them out. But the Talmud has some very radical things to say about the nature of God. And what I’m saying is that the real historical Rabbi Shimon had some very radical things to say about divinity. But as to whether he wrote the Zohar or not, that’s another question. Kabbalists believe that he wrote the Zohar, or that it was written in his circle, in the second century. But most scholars today, most academic scholars, would say that the Zohar was really written 1100 years later in 13th centuries Spain. And the person who composed it or edited it—I would say the composer of the Zohar—was a kabbalist named Moses de Leon. Moses de Leon was living in Spain, he was born in northwestern Spain in the city of Leon. He may have composed it along with the other people, he may have inherited certain writings, but I think he’s the major composer of the Zohar. So you have a book being written in the 13th century, but attributed to this Rabbi Shimon who lived over a millennium earlier. And the question is, why did Moses de Leon attribute it to this ancient figure, Rabbi Shimon? That’s a complicated question. He may have believed that he was really in touch with Rabbi Shimon, that he was somehow channelling the teachings of this ancient master. Or there may be a much more down to earth explanation, that he wanted the book to be accepted, maybe he wanted the book to sell, and he’s attributing it to this ancient figure. And actually, I think that both of those may be at play. It sounds like an impossible combination of motives, but I think that he may have been motivated spiritually and materially, financially, and felt that he was in touch with this ancient figure, but then he composed it and embellished it and actually tried to circulate it as ancient wisdom. Unfortunately for the history of the Kabbalah, that fantastic claim was accepted and people came to see the Zohar as an ancient text going back to Rabbinic times. It was seen as one of the holiest books within Judaism, perhaps only second to the Bible and the Talmud.
MC: Yes, and isn’t the Zohar written in a sort of stilted Aramaic with Spanish expressions and so forth. Gerschem Scholem says that there’s about three strata of writers he can find in there?
DM: There really are different stages of composition. It’s almost a library. There are really 18 or 20 stages of composition. I would say that Moses de Leon wrote much of it, but certainly not all of it. Some things are written after him by someone trying to imitate his style, and, you’re right, the Aramaic is very strange because Moses de Leon knew Aramaic not as a spoken language—probably at that point no one in the world was speaking Aramaic. He knew Aramaic from having studied the Talmud in Aramaic and Biblical translations in Aramaic, but he’s trying to write this book in Aramaic without really being fluent in that language, in terms of knowing how to write it or speak it. He only knew how to read it. So his Aramaic is really unique. It is very bizarre, there are a lot of invented words and neologisms. And in translating the Zohar that’s a real challenge. You come across a word that’s really invented by him. Sometimes Moses de Leon will take a rare term in the Talmud and switch around a couple of letters, and you really have to ponder it for quite a long time to be able to estimate what is meant.
MC: So, the purpose of the Zohar, I’m seeing, is that it seems to be a kabbalistic midrash on the Hebrew Bible, or was it more to clarify and bring out the hidden message in the Talmud. Which one is it?
DM: It’s both and other things as well, I would say. It certainly presents itself as a commentary on the Torah. It’s not written, chapter one “God”, chapter two “Torah”, chapter three “Finding God in the world”… It’s not written in any systematic way except as a running commentary on the first five books of the Bible. So the Zohar begins commenting on Genesis and then moves through Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy and commenting on every verse, but on every significant story and many minor stories, and it tries to find a mystical, spiritual meaning in even the smallest details of the Biblical text. It’s a very radical approach to the Torah. For example, the Zohar says the very opening words of the Bible, “In the beginning God created,” we shouldn’t read it that way. Rather, it’s “In the beginning it created God.” God actually turns into the object of the sentence, rather than as the subject. Now, what does that mean? It sounds ridiculous or heretical, “it created God.” What the Zohar is really saying is that there is an infinite God. There is a God beyond God. This is very similar to teachings in Gnosticism. There is a God beyond what we know of this God, and that ultimate God is called infinity, or in Hebrew Ain Soph, literally “there is no end.” This infinite divinity emanated or generated what we think of as God. So in that sense, it, the infinite, created God.
MC: And they didn’t change the words, they just found different definitions or different alternatives for the words. So there was no corruption of the Torah?
DM: Right. It’s accepting the Torah as it’s written, but reinterpreting it. That’s a technique that is used throughout all religions. In order to keep the tradition alive, it has to be interpreted and reinterpreted and applied. The technique of the Rabbis is called midrash, which is imaginative interpretation of the Bible. And the Zohar is just taken that a little further, or a lot further.
MC: Yeah, because really what attracts most Gnostics to the Torah, because if you read it literally… You mention one Rabbi, and it’s my favourite quote, “if you translate it literally, you’re a liar, if you add to it, you’re blasphemous.” And that makes you really think. And I realized that the Torah, as you say, has numerous meanings, and the Torah is almost an organic entity in itself. It’s up there with the creator God, it’s his tool, but he’s bound to it in a certain way, isn’t he?
DM: Yes. We have Rabbinic teachings that God actually got locked into the Torah and created the world. The Torah is God’s plan or God’s blueprint for the universe. He’s pictured as an architect, as an architect would consult his plans, so God consults the Torah. But in the Kabbalah this is taken further and the Torah actually becomes a divine being, it is seen as if the Torah essentially one long name of God. If you reading the Torah, you’re not just reading God’s commands and stories, you’re actually reading into the divine nature. You’re pronouncing God’s name as you chant the Torah.
MC: How do the kabbalists and the Zohar interpret the Garden of Eden?
DM: There is a fascinating description of that. Of course, Genesis describes how God expels Adam out of the garden, Adam and Eve. So who expels whom out of the garden? It really makes you wonder, and the Zohar says Adam through God out of the garden. In a sense, we’re still in the garden but we don’t realise it because we have lost touch with the divine. That’s one of my favourite teachings and the whole Zohar. In the Zohar it’s just written as a couple of lines and you could easily pass over, written in a kind of code. But the Zohar derives that from a verse in Genesis which says, “He expelled them,” and the Zohar reinterprets it in a creative way to say, “Adam expelled God.”
MC: But he didn’t really expel God, he expelled the Shekhinah of God, right?
DM: The Shekhinah of God, which is a very important concept in the Kabbalah, refers to the feminine half of God, the divine presence. So she is God, but a specific quality or aspect of God, God’s presence in the world, God’s imminence, God’s intimacy with humanity, all that is meant by the notion of Shekhinah. Literally, the word means dwelling or presence.
MC: So you would say that the culmination of creation, which I gather from your books and other books, would be somehow to get Tiphareth and the Shekhinah to be married again, or for mankind and the Shekhinah to be together, or would it be for God to get Shekhinah back?
DM: Well, it’s hard to separate those options. The way the Zohar often describes it is the goal of life, the goal of religion is to unite the masculine and feminine within God, which is to bring together this couple, Tiphareth, the divine masculine, and Shekhinah, the divine feminine. Their union is the goal of existence. That happens only through human action. So, this is another way in which God needs the human being. The divine marriage cannot take place without our active contribution. What we have to do is act ethically and spiritually in the world. Through righteous action we stimulate the union of the divine couple. You might say that every good deed is an aphrodisiac for that divine union. So in that sense the goal is to unite God with God, God and the goddess, but in other parts of the Zohar it seems that the goal is to unite oneself with Shekhinah, or with this whole world of the 10 sephiroth, the aspects of God. The Zohar goes back and forth between aiming at the divine union and trying to participate in that union.
MC: And the sephiroth are not really explicit in the Zohar. It’s pretty implicit, it doesn’t come out in the form of the diagram, does it?
DM: Right, we don’t find diagrams in Zohar itself. On almost every page there are references to the sephiroth, but you’re right, they’re often cryptic. The Zohar, for example, will often not use the name Shekhinah or Tiphareth, it will say the King, or the Queen, or the river of emanation.
MC: Or the bed, that’s another one.
DM: The bed, the ocean, the garden, and the Zohar much prefers that kind of poetic imagery than a systematic presentation of the sephiroth. Other books of the Kabbalah do it more systematically, but I think the secret of the Zohar’s success is that it is more allusive and poetic, and it really forces the reader to join in the search.
MC: Yeah, I understand how it could make the reader very interested, because there’s a lot of romance and a lot of talk about Kings and Maidens, Maidens with veils, that you have to take her veil off and find the secrets. It’s a journey for the reader as well.
DM: Definitely. The romantic search and the erotic element is certainly key to the Zohar, the eros within God and the celebration of human sexuality too, if it’s pursued in holiness, that’s is seen as part of the secret of existence. You have the secret interpretation of the Torah, and also the secret level of existence, and the two go hand in hand.
Part 2 Coming Soon
Complete Audio Lecture