Zohar's Translation Unlocks the Secrets of Jewish Mysticism in an Age of Extremism

If you haven’t read Hebrew since the rite-of-passage ceremony known as the bar mitzvah, customarily conducted at the age of 13, then a willfully obscure text of ancient Jewish mysticism is probably not the best means to reacquaint yourself with the language of the Old Testament. Yet there I was in a Northern California synagogue, trying to remember my alefs and daleds, less out of the famous guilt of my tribe than a curiosity about that text—the Zohar—and, more specifically, about the man who has done more than any other alive today to unlock its secrets.

Each month, the scholar of Jewish mysticism Daniel Matt holds a study session on the Zohar, among the most beautiful yet impenetrable works of Jewish spirituality. Matt’s authority on the subject is unrivaled: He is the only person to have translated the entirety of the Zohar into English. The effort spanned two decades and ran to 12 volumes (he had help on the last three). When I visited him in May at his house in Berkeley, California, the last of these had just been published. “For the English-speaking world, the Zohar's gates are now opening even wider,” declared Judy Silber on NPR.

Thus on a Wednesday afternoon in mid-April, I walked with no small amount of trepidation into a sunlit room at the Congregation Beth El synagogue in Berkeley, not far from where Matt has spent years working on the Zohar, in a studio overlooking the glorious hills of the East Bay. Most of those in attendance were rabbis; one was a psychotherapist; all could read Aramaic (the ancient language related to Hebrew), or at least Hebrew itself, and were becoming fluent in the Zohar.

Though previous generations of Jews had endowed the Zohar with what historian Boaz Huss calls “an authoritative and sacred status,” modernity had driven an increasingly urbane and sophisticated Jewish diaspora to reject the more obscure aspects of its faith. “Jews threw out, along with the superstition and the supernatural, a lot of the powerful spiritual teachings,” Matt laments.

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That’s in large part because the kind of Judaism most Americans are familiar with today has its roots in Germany, whose Jewish population “wanted to prove that Judaism was ethical and rational,” explains Susannah Heschel, the chair of the Jewish studies department at Dartmouth College. They sought to “Protestantize” their religion, Heschel says, in part by rejecting what they saw as embarrassing shows of piety by their Eastern European brethren.

For the full article in Newsweek.