We are naturally drawn to mystery. And there is no greater mystery than uncovering the pulse and purpose of life, which is the essence of Jewish mysticism. And yet, to read the Zohar, the classical mystical commentary to the Torah, is to become aware that illumination, the meaning of the word Zohar, requires patience, imagination and discipline.
The Zohar opens with a quote from the Song of Songs. The great psychologist, Alfred Adler said that if you want to know a person quickly ask for her or his earliest memory, for that primal memory distills core identity. As the Zohar begins with unrequited love, the essence of Song of Songs, the mystical quest seeks to experience G-d, who is both beloved and elusive.
I once heard Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, say that Judaism as a civilization has G-d at the center. Our beliefs defining G-d, he explained, were like a stone falling into a pond. The ripples produced on the surface are Jewish culture: Hebrew, our prayers, song, dance, history and values. But our views of G-d are literally the rock from which all emerges.
If most Jews were asked to define G-d, we would reflexively say, “G-d is one!” And yet, our mystic teachers taught that just as light filters through a prism revealing a band of colors, so G-d’s oneness is manifest in creation with 10 distinctive and complementary qualities. The mystics called these Divine attributes sefirot: 1.ein sof, infinity 2.thought and 3. language; 4.kindness and 5.restraint, balanced as 6.compassion; 7. ambition and 8.humility, enabling 9. creativity; and 10. receptivity. These ten attributes are G-d’s DNA and are mirrored in our inner lives. For the student of the Zohar, they are the keys for understanding Torah as an allegory that reveals G-d’s nature.
The Zohar is encyclopedic in size. Daniel Matt, the contemporary scholar of Berkeley, CA, dedicated 18 years to discerning the core text of the Zohar from manuscripts dispersed in libraries around the world, translating from the Aramaic into a poetic English, and writing a commentary. Professor Matt is responsible for nine of the 12 volumes of the Zohar published by Stanford University. He is also a master teacher.
I have spent the last five years studying the Zohar a page a day and am nearing completion. Some of my takeaways: there are no pat answers as to the nature of G-d; G-d in absolute terms is mystery. To seek G-d begins with understanding ourselves, for our mystics teach that G-d is reflected in our innermost nature. The Zohar is written as a series of conversations with fellow sages and with strangers, teaching that our conversations with companions enable fresh eyes to discern wisdom and that we can never anticipate who might be a sage. Words, particularly of the Torah, are purposeful and warrant careful consideration. The study of an ancient text—whether of the 2nd century, Israel as self-described by the Zohar or 13th century, Spain, as discerned by contemporary scholars—is also to find troubling ideas, such as the supremacy of men or the spiritual inferiority of non-Jews. And yet, to patiently read the Zohar is also to extract pearls of insight into the complementary nature of life and the quest to live guided by G-d’s light.
Please consider calendaring March 13-15th to join a weekend of Jewish mystical study with Professor Daniel Matt, a product of the partnership of the Community Scholar Program (CSP); Temple Beth El (TBE); and Congregation B’nai Israel (CBI). To see the array of offerings, please look at www.tbesoc.org/meditation.
Rabbi Elie Spitz is the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Israel of Tustin.