Friday, October 24, 2008

Bereshit (Zohar)

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to this blog at October 2005.


There is something both refreshing and frustrating about Shabbat Bereshit. On the one hand, it is the Shabbat of Beginnings, when we recommence the study of the Torah; as such, it implies an invitation to begin studying this book of books “in which there is everything”; perhaps to try a new perspective, a new perush (commentary), a new midrash, the approach of a different and unfamiliar school. Moreover, the parashah itself is extraordinarily rich: it is, after all, an account of origins, of the creation of the cosmos, the beginnings of humankind, with all its problematics and complexities—the temptations of defiance, the emergence of man and woman from the Garden of Delights into the cruel and difficult situation met in the real world, the first murder, the first rape and domination of man (and woman) by his fellow. One wishes one could study this parashah, not only for a few days or weeks, but for at least a whole year, if not a lifetime. On the other a hand, it is frustrating: coming on the heels of Simhat Torah, it is one of the few parshiyot which (unless the hagim fall on Shabbat) is not preceded by the full complement of weekdays during which to study it, one section at a time, but one has barely a day or two to study it and reflect upon it.

I have decided to devote this year to studying with my readers a short passage from the Zohar each week. I feel that I am venturing upon unknown and dangerous waters; as I wrote on the eve of the last hag, I risk rising to my level of incompetence, à la Peter Principle. The Zohar is a difficult, dense, and opaque text, with which I am not overly familiar. Even today, after Gershom Scholem has established the study of Kabbalah as an academic discipline with is watershed work, and generations of disciples and disciples of disciples have written innovative and insightful studies and glosses on this book, it is still a work largely for the cognoscenti. And even though Kabbalah has become in our age common fare, and is broadcast, so to speak, at every virtual street corner; and even though I have passed the requisite age and half that again; I still feel something of the traditional reticence: that one does not reveal the secrets of Torah casually, but only to one who is worthy and mature and knows how to understand matters by him/herself.

And yet, there is a fascination exerted by this book (which is really more a library, nay, a whole literature, than a “book” in the usual sense) that draws me to its study. To begin with the obvious point: it is the central, canonical text of what is known as Jewish mysticism or, more exactly, sitrei Torah, “secrets of Torah” or Jewish esoteric teaching. Along with the Tanakh, the Talmud, and the Midrash (itself a genre more than a specific collection), it is one of the fundamental works that has shaped Judaism. That, plus the vast popular interest in Kabbalah in contemporary culture (often in debased and corrupted form), and the involvement of many of my friends and fellows in this book, have led me to the conclusion that the time has come for me to at least dip my feet in the living waters of Kabbalah.

I will save a fuller introduction to the Zohar for another time. It emerged on the Jewish scene sometime in the late thirteenth century (whether, like modern scholarship, one believes it to have been written at that time, by R. Moses de Leon and perhaps others of his circle or contemporaries; or if one accepts its traditional attribution to R. Shimon bar Yohai and its oral transmission until it was recorded in writing ca. 1290), as the culmination of Spanish Kabbalah, a movement that generated a revolution in religious thinking, introducing a whole series of images, concepts, concerns, and even practices hitherto unknown. All later Kabbalah and Hasidism drew upon it in one fashion or another as the sacred text of Jewish mysticism.

I make no claim to being a scholar of Zohar. What I shall present here largely be what Ruth Calderon—one of the founders of Alma in Tel-Aviv, and a pivotal figure in the revival among secular Israelis of what has come to be called “the Jewish book-shelf”—once referred to as “barefoot reading.” That is, a direct encounter with the text itself, without the background of years of study, and without relying upon the prism of an exegetical tradition and reference to commentaries and super-commentaries. In fact, truth be told, this has to a large extent been my approach throughout the years I have been writing Hitzei Yehonatan. I have asked myself “What is in this text itself?” referring only to a minimum of commentaries and reference books, usually when necessary to understand a difficult word or clarify some other problem. Such was the case with my reading of peshat of Torah in the very first year; with Psalms, Rambam, Rashi, Midrash, and the other texts I have treated over the years—and so shall it be this year. In the case of the Zohar, this is perhaps especially important: I see the Zohar as a mystical midrash; a text that is first and foremost suggestive, impressionistic, evocative; that, as Melilla Hellner-Eshed suggests, is intended to awaken the sense of religious wonder and mystery, more than it is to teach a specific doctrine or theosophy. In the centuries following the Zohar, dozens of books were written which attempted to systematize the concepts seen as inherent within the Zohar—first and foremost, the system of ten sefirot and their interactions—whether systematic handbooks, such as Joseph Gikatilla’s Sha’arei Orah or, somewhat later, in Tzfat, the great treatises of R Hayyim Vital and Moses Cordovero, or line-by-line commentaries on the Zohar per se. Valuable as these (and the writings of modern researchers) may be, my approach is first of all to listen to what the text itself is saying.

Unlike my practice in previous years, I shall not translate the text myself, but use an existing English translation. Fortunately, we live in a time when a scholar who is both erudite and poetic has undertaken, with the generous assistance of the Pritzker family, a monumental new translation of the Zohar into English, of which about one-third has already been published. I refer of course to Daniel Matt’s work, being published by Stanford University Press. Prof. Matt has graciously allowed me to quote short selections from that translation, for which I express my deep thanks and gratitude. (Note: Due to technical reasons, in this issue I shall use Matt’s translation of this passage published in an early work, his collection, The Essential Kabbalah [San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996], p. 52).

I will conclude with a few suggestions for background reading, for those who wish to pursue this study further: the two chapters on the Zohar in Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism which, despite being written nearly seventy years ago, is still an excellent introduction, and includes a valuable discussion of his deliberations regarding the authorship of the Zohar; Isaiah Tishby’s Mishnat ha-Zohar, a two volume collection of thematically arranged Zohar passages, translated into Hebrew and with an extensive introduction, both to the Zohar as a whole and to the various sections and ideas (in English translation by David Goldstein in the Littman Library); and Arthur Green’s A Guide to the Zohar, which serves as an introduction or companion volume to Matt’s translation. In Hebrew, there are numerous other works.

“In the Beginning”

And so, without further ado, we shall begin, appropriately enough, “in the beginning.” Zohar I:16a:

When the King conceived ordaining [or: in the beginning, in the King’s wisdom], he engraved engravings in the luster on high. A blinding spark [or: spark of darkness] flashed within the concealed of the concealed from the mystery of the Infinite, a cluster of vapor in formlessness, set in a ring, not white, not black, not red, not green, no color at all.

When a band spanned, it yielded radiant colors. Deep within the spark gushed a flow, imbuing colors below, concealed within the concealed of the mystery of the Infinite. The flow broke through and did not break through its aura. It was not known at all until, under the impact of their breaking through, one high and hidden point shone. Beyond that point, nothing is known. So it is called the Beginning.

Genesis begins its account of creation with the physical universe—with the pre-Creation chaos, the formless void in which the earth was covered by water (that matter which is most formless), from which God shaped all things—light, the firmament, the dry land, etc.—at His word. The Zohar goes back further, beginning with the mystery of: how does Being come about from Nothingness? What existed, where was God Himself, before there was anything? The emergence of being from the “concealed of the concealed,” “the mystery of the Infinite,” that hidden realm within which Godhead resided before Creation itself. Being begins with a process of “engraving” in the supernal luster, the tehiru i’la’a, with a “blinding spark”—butzina de-kardunita, perhaps better translated as “a spark of darkness,” to suggest the paradoxical nature of light coming from a place where there is no light. The cluster of vapor set in a ring, colorless—some scientists find this image evocative of the great clouds of gas that existed before matter cooled and congealed into stars and planets; and the “spark of darkness” as an image not entirely remote from the “Big Bang.” A world of primordial matter, without shape or color, not covering the earth, but in a place that is not yet a place at all. What is the band that caused this ring of vapor to suddenly yield colors? What is the flow that “broke through and did not break through”? And what of the נקודה חדא סתימא עלאה, the “high and hidden point” that shone with brilliance? Later tradition speaks of this point as the letter Yod of the Divine name, as the sephirah of Hokhmah, as the concentrated energy or will of Divine wisdom; as pure potentiality, without dimension or extension of any sort (like the super-condensed matter from which the Big Bang occurred?), from which the cosmos was shaped and fashioned by a process of drawing out, in length and breadth.

More than it explains or elucidates the process of Creation, this account evokes a sense of mystery: how is it that there is existence at all? How did anything, everything, emerge from nothingness, from the world of concealment? The Zohar uses paradoxical, even contradictory expressions, such as “broke through and did not break through,” or repeated phrases such as setimo de-stimo, “concealed of the concealed,” to convey this mystery. This is the essential religious moment: the response of “radical amazement,” the realization that there is a point “beyond which nothing is no known.” It is called Bereshit, not because there is nothing before it, but because prior to that point there is only God, “the King,” dwelling in a place we cannot imagine.


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