The Secrets of the Messiah

Knowing the history of the Zohar and its reception, one can better understand the spiritual and political worlds of Judaism as they have evolved over the past 700 years.

Kezohar harakiya: Perakim betoldot hitkablut hazohar uvehavniyat erko hasimli (Like the Radiance of the Sky: Chapters in the History of the Zohar's Reception and the Construction of its Symbolic Value), by Boaz HussMossad Bialik (Hebrew), 485 pages, NIS 135

Like the Radiance of the Sky" is a history of Sefer Hazohar (literally, "The Book of Radiance"), the most well-known work of kabbalistic literature. Its origins can be traced to Spain, where the book was "discovered" 1,000 years after it was supposedly written by the rabbinical scholar Shimon bar Yohai. Moshe de Leon, the scholar who disseminated the book, scroll by scroll, claimed that the Zohar was written while Rabbi Shimon and his son were in hiding in a cave from the Romans, as reported in the Talmud. Even in his day, however, there were those who suspected that de Leon wrote the book himself, and credited Bar Yohai in order to capitalize on the use of his name.

To this day, the author's true identity remains unknown. Those who doubt Bar Yohai's authorship point to the descriptions of the Galilee and the coastal plain in the book as evidence that the author never lived in, nor was even acquainted with, the Land of Israel. Additionally, the group of rabbinical teachers and sages who are the main protagonists of the Zohar lived hundreds of years apart and met only in its pages, and never face to face. The book's Aramaic is not the language of the Talmud, but rather an artificial and contrived language. The influence of philosophical ideas is palpable, ideas whose roots hark back to the works of Maimonides and Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, who only appeared in the 12th century. Even the vowel usage reminds us that the Zohar was written in the Middle Ages, following the invention of vocalization in Hebrew.

Nonetheless, uncertainty about its authorship did not prevent the widespread adulation of the Zohar. Its admirers hailed it as an ancient and sacred work whose author was bestowed with the gift of superior knowledge of the secrets of the Torah, secrets that were not likely to be revealed to the rest of the world until the coming of the Messiah.

Boaz Huss, a kabbala scholar at Ben-Gurion University, retraces the manner in which Jewish society has received the Zohar, from the latter stages of the 13th century to the present day. Hearkening to the terminology often employed by the French Marxist sociologist Pierre Bordier, he defines the book as "cultural capital," a subject whose mastery, distribution and interpretation yield benefits often measured in prestige and social standing. In a similar vein, "the advent of a negative symbolism attached to the Zohar and its depiction as a forged, base and amoral text also fulfilled a cultural task during various historical timeframes." He demonstrates a clear correlation between the Zeitgeist and an era's attitude to the Zohar: During a period, like the 16th century, in which Jewish society was rampant with irrational, messianic hopes, belief in the book's sanctity and timelessness was heartfelt among the masses. Conversely, in an era when Judaism embraced a more rational approach, such as the Enlightenment of the 19th century, the cultural elite rejected the book as the "literary fraud of a forger ... that exacerbates the hallucinations and the nonsensical beliefs among the people."

The Zohar is revealed to be a litmus test, and people's attitudes toward it reflect the values they hold dear. This is a unique position for a book to be in, one that has known few recurrences throughout the course of Jewish history: Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed, whose acclaim or rejection was a reflection of Jewish values as they pertain to the relationship between faith and science; Yosef Karo's Shulhan Arukh, the response to which was a good indicator of the extent to which rabbinical authority was held in high stead; and Herzl's "Altneuland," which was a reliable acid test of the reader's attitude toward both Zionism and modernity.

Seven hundred years

The chronicles of the Zohar sketch an outline of the spiritual world of Judaism as it has evolved over more than 700 years. Huss' detailed descriptions and his impressive expertise make "Like the Radiance of the Sky" a comprehensive account of mysticism as a cultural and economic phenomenon.

Market considerations are by no means inappropriate in this case, because they have the power to strip the spiritual pretensions away and to present intellectual conflicts as power struggles that were waged not for the sake of spiritual fulfillment, but rather for material profit.

The study's Achilles heel is the absence of the protagonist. Huss' work does not deal specifically with the Zohar itself, but rather with people's reaction to it. Those not well-versed in Kabbala will not grasp why excerpts from the Zohar are included in the siddur, the Jewish prayer book; why Christian thinkers see the composition as a treasure overflowing with time-honored scholarship that sheds light on the coming of Jesus; and why famous entertainers today wear it like a talisman. It would thus be impossible not to agree with Prof. Yehuda Liebes that one cannot understand the "fierce reactions" to the Zohar without the Zohar: "The foundation that is in the text itself, the luminance of the Zohar [which means "brightness" or "radiance" in Hebrew], are likely to arouse feelings of amazement, perhaps even disgust, all in accordance with the root of the souls of the Zohar's readers," he said during a gathering to mark the release of the book at Yad Ben Zvi, earlier this year.

Furthermore, writing a history about the consumption of the Zohar -- how readers received the book -- is not conducive to eliciting the most out of Huss' abilities as a scholar and commentator. His real talents are manifest in the first chapter, titled "A Sage Is Preferable to a Prophet," in which he relates to the internal meaning of the Zoharian text, which elevates the standing of Shimon bar Yohai, the protagonist, to that of Moses, at times placing him on an even higher plane. The chapter opens with a Talmudic quote describing Bar Yohai and Moses as two men who earned the privilege of observing God through a light mirror. The mirror is a type of shining glass, or a transparent rock, but in the Zohar, it is deified, being described "as a godly entity, which represents a divine object to be viewed... and mostly identified with the glory of God."

According to kabbalistic interpretation of the text, the descriptions of Moses and Bar Yochai stem from their status as the epitomes of God's glory (sefirat tiferet). And yet, Moses did not know that he possessed a luminous quality, while Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was aware of the divine radiance that he transmitted. The expression "luminance of the light mirror" is a reference to the heavenly light that is reflected in Bar Yochai, and also the Zoharian light that beams from the pages of the book. This renders the book and its author as two illuminating forces that bridge between the readers of the Zohar and the heavenly heights. And that is how the interpretive text is elevated to the same plane as the original text: The Zohar reveals the hidden secrets of the Torah of Moses, and merges with it, with both compositions described in the Zohar as divine entities that hold within them the divine truth.

The chapter goes on to the irony behind the comparison between Moses and Rabbi Shimon, which is connected to the power struggles between the kabbalistic elites of Catalonia and of Castile, both of which sought to inherit the two men's mantles. "The claim that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is preferable to Moses reflects the self-perception of the Zohar's authors and their desire to undermine the hegemonic position of the students of Nahmanides ... The image of Moses, unpretentious and hesitant, represented Nahmanides (the leader of the Jewish community in Christian Spain, that is, Catalonia) in the Zohar, the conservative kabbalist who espoused a careful, thorough teaching of kabbalistic secrets... and opposed the new approach being used in the study of kabbala." At the same time, Bar Yochai represents the authors of the Zohar, whose daring enabled them to examine the dark sides of faith -- "the secret of the big crocodile ... the secrets of atzilut smol [the left-handed aristocracy]... the secret of the evil worlds." These various aspects merge into one agglomeration that reflects the Zohar's multi-layered poetry and turns Huss' thesis into a classic interpretation, one that has the strength to lay out the commentator's claim: The Zohar became a cultural asset due to its having the temerity to deal with evil without hesitation, as Gershom Scholem argued, and due to the fact that the Zohar, a complicated and sophisticated text, places before us an intellectual and aesthetic challenge that motivates the best scholars, commentators and students to offer a new interpretation in every new generation.

Scholem's error

To end this review, it would be worthwhile to refer to the book's final chapter, "Amazement and Disgust," where Huss speaks of the present day, the post-Scholemist period of kabbala study. The chapter opens with a reminder of the famous error made by Scholem, the founder of the academic study of kabbala, who at the start of his career, made "philological-historical arguments against the Zohar's reference to Rabbi Moshe de Leon, as a way of exonerating the Zohar from claims that it was a forgery and to point out the possibility that it indeed contains ancient traditions ... Yet later in his career, Scholem changed his mind and accepted many of the claims made by Heinrich Graetz, who said that the Zohar was written in the latter stages of the 13th century by Rabbi Moshe de Leon."

The account of this episode creates an impression of distant irony. Indeed, it is ironic that the mystical text, devoid of logic, led astray the rational scholar, who championed a critical approach to the subjects he researched. And yet, the admission of error confirms Scholem's honesty, for Scholem saw his error as a necessary evil in his search for the elusive truth, in stark contrast to the kabbalist, who viewed himself as incapable of making a mistake, since the hidden truth is revealed to him from the heavens. It was worthwhile to highlight the dramatic change fomented by Scholem once he distanced himself from Graetz, and refrained from denouncing the Zohar as a forgery. Rather, he viewed the Zohar as a case of "pseudepigraphy" -- the crediting of written works to ancient writers -- which is a legitimate model of religious literature. This definition allowed him to free his academic research from the theological arguments over the holiness of the Zohar and to unburden him from the gnawing dogmatism that has come to characterize this argument.

Unfortunately, Huss shows his indifference to the decline of the independent approach perfected by Scholem and the tendency of contemporary scholars to blur the lines between themselves and kabbalists. Yet, if this blurring continues, the study of kabbala will dissipate into the "spirituality" that is fashionable today, at the expense of knowledge. If so, will there be a need for kabbala researchers?

Dr. Mor Altshuler is a scholar of Jewish mysticism.

Haaretz Books Supplement, August 2008