FINDING MY RELIGION III – Kabbalah scholar Daniel Matt takes the mysticism back to the Aramaic

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For centuries, the study of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, was considered off-limits to anyone but the most mature scholars. Some believed you could go crazy if you weren’t ready to take its powerful truths about the nature of God and reality.

That was, of course, before a wave of Hollywood stars became entranced with the teachings of esoteric Judaism. Now, it seems, anyone can study Kabbalah, even Madonna and Britney Spears.

Noted Kabbalah scholar Daniel Matt was 19 when he read his first few lines of the Zohar, the ancient text that is the foundation for Kabbalah. He’s been fascinated by it ever since and is now one of the world’s leading Zohar translators.

Matt, 54, spent more than 20 years as a professor, most recently at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, and is the author of “Zohar: The Book of Enlightenment,” “The Essential Kabbalah” and other popular guides to Jewish mysticism. He is working full time on the first complete English translation of the Zohar based on the original Aramaic text.

Matt recently finished the third of volume of that translation, “The Zohar: Pritzker Edition” (Stanford University Press). The three volumes are available now.

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I understand there’s some controversy about when the Zohar, the ancient text that you are translating, was actually written. Can you tell me about that?

Traditional Kabbalists believe that it dates back to early rabbinic times, to the second century, because the main figure in the Zohar is a rabbi who lived then, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. But most scholars think it was actually composed 1,100 years later in Spain in the 13th century. And there is strong evidence for that.

What kind of evidence?

Well, the Aramaic itself is very strange. There are invented words, and occasionally there is a Spanish term or references to medieval events or personalities. So if you look at it objectively, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that it is a medieval creation.

Assuming it was written in the 13th century, why would someone be interested in reading the Zohar today? What is its relevance?

The Zohar is written as a commentary on the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, beginning with Genesis. It challenges that text constantly and overturns many traditional teachings. In that sense, you could say that it reimagines Judaism.

In what ways does it rethink Judaism?

For one thing, it challenges the traditional notion of God. It says that none of our usual names for God are adequate. They all fail to capture God’s true nature. The only name that really is correct is the name Ein Sof, which in Hebrew literally means “there is no end,” or the infinite.

So in the Zohar, God is infinity?

Yes. And any picture we have of God, any theological formulation, is really inaccurate and misleading because it doesn’t do justice to the open-endedness of God.

At the same time, the Zohar also says, “If you are going to describe God, you have to balance the masculine with the feminine.” So I think one of its most important contributions is to insist that God is equally male and female. And it does that very graphically. It actually refers to masculine and feminine halves of God, and the goal of religion — the goal of life — is to unite these two halves of God. And how do you do that? By acting ethically and spiritually in the world.

Besides being a commentary on the Bible, the Zohar is also a sort of mystical novel about a group of wandering rabbis. How does that story unfold?

It is a very loose narrative structure, but these rabbis are wandering through Galilee and sharing their mystical secrets with each other. They also run into strange characters on the road who puzzle them. Often, these people seem to be total idiots — for example, a wandering donkey driver or a little child who stumps the rabbis with questions. But it turns out these figures who seem to be fools end up having the greatest wisdom. So part of its message is, you know, you can’t tell where you’ll find teaching, where you’ll find insights.

Traditionally, studying Kabbalah was something you weren’t supposed to do unless you were an older man — I think the cutoff was 40 years old. What was the reason for such restrictions?

There were several reasons. One had to do with an awareness of the power of these mystical teachings. If you lose a sense of yourself and feel that you are melting into the divine — a common experience among students of mysticism — there is a danger you won’t be able to function in the world. You could lose your sanity or be unable to provide for your family or contribute to society.

There’s also the fear that if people really felt that they could contact God on their own terms, then what need would there be for the rabbinic authorities and for the structures of Jewish law? So there is a social danger as well as a psychological one.

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Today, it seems like everybody’s studying Kabbalah. Thanks to Madonna and Britney Spears, Jewish mysticism has become chic. What do you make of that trend?

I’m intrigued by it. I think it has, you know, positive and negative aspects. The question I’m often asked, and I wonder myself is, “What about Kabbalah appeals to Hollywood types or to modern Americans?” There are a couple of things I’ve been able to identify.

One is that Kabbalah is a kind of spirituality that doesn’t demand that you flee from the material world. Rather, it says that spiritual seekers should try to transform the world by engaging it. So I think many Westerners who are obviously hungry for the spiritual but aren’t willing to give up the material realm might find that appealing.

Another reason for Kabbalah’s appeal may be that it is an interesting combination of something very strange and exotic but at the same time familiar. What I mean is that the Kabbalah is based on the Bible – the foundational text of Western civilization — and yet it reinterprets it in a radical way.

Is the Kabbalah that you are studying the same one that Madonna and others are studying?

Well, one thing we have to make clear is that there is no book called the Kabbalah. So when people say they are studying the Kabbalah, it could be thousands of texts. That said, the Zohar is the major text of the Kabbalah. Every Jewish thinker would agree with that.

So what’s being taught and promoted by the Kabbalah Learning Center — now they are called the Kabbalah Center [where Madonna goes] — is the Zohar. This is the same Zohar that I’m working on, although they have their own translation, which is based on a Hebrew translation of the original Aramaic.

Let’s talk about your own spiritual background. Did you grow up in a religious family?

Yeah. My father was a Conservative rabbi on the East Coast. I would say God and religion were central in the home, and that the Shabbat [the Jewish Sabbath] was a core part of that. There was a lot of studying and singing and guests and taking walks with my father on Shabbat afternoons.

Did you consider becoming a rabbi yourself?

I considered it, but I was keenly aware of my father’s frustration — he was a very genuine spiritual teacher and demanded a lot of his congregation. And I saw him suffer because of that, not to mention that he was often out in the evening at meetings. I remember once telling him, “I can’t be a rabbi.” And he said, “I didn’t expect you to be.”

Eventually, I decided to teach spiritually but outside the congregational framework and without the rabbinical title. So I went the academic route, and I got a doctorate in Jewish studies. For my doctorate I edited the first translation ever done of the Zohar, which was [from Aramaic] into Hebrew in the 14th century. People say that what you work on in your doctorate often determines what you will do later in life. I didn’t realize that it would determine it so much.

I read in a magazine article that you begin each day by meditating on a few lines of the Zohar after taking a walk up the hillside near your home in Berkeley. Do you still do that?

Yeah. Now I have a more strenuous walk in the morning. I find that if I do a good walk, then I can sit for most of the day without taking a break.

How much a part of your spiritual life is the Kabbalah? It seems like it’s more than just an academic interest for you.

I really try to combine an academic and a spiritual approach. I think you lose some of the richness of the Zohar if you look at it only academically — certainly because it is a spiritual text, and it grew out of spiritual experience. The person writing it is really striving to contact the divine through Scripture, through plumbing the depths of Scripture, trying to discover the divine light hidden in the letters or hinted at by the verses of the Bible.

On the other hand, you lose something, too, I think, if you don’t understand when it was written and who composed it. The person writing the Zohar is trying to present it as something ancient, but he knows what he is doing, and when he talks about hidden levels of meaning, part of the hiddenness is his own project of creating the Zohar. His own creativity is part of what’s going on. It really is an experiment in fiction, a medieval experiment in fiction. And that’s part of its wonder, too.

What is it like to be alone with this mystical material day in and day out? How do you keep your perspective?

I don’t really feel alone. I have one research assistant. Right now, that’s an Israeli in Australia. I’m also in touch with colleagues all around the country, and in Jerusalem, who are involved in Kabbalah or in Zohar specifically.

Fortunately, my wife works at home — she’s involved in spiritual counseling. Our daughter is a senior in college now, but our son is still in high school, and it’s precious to me to take him in the morning to his car pool and to pick him up. So I have that feeling of structure for the day, and then in between, you know, from 8 to 3, I try to immerse myself. Often, I continue to work in the evenings.

Actually it’s harder for me not doing it than doing it. Like now I’ve finished volume 3, and I told myself I needed to take a break. So this past week I really tried consciously not to do Zohar and it was very difficult. I just felt unfulfilled, like I was wasting my time.

It sounds like you love what you do. So, my last question: Zohar the movie? What do you think?

I think it definitely has cinematic possibilities. The running into the donkey driver and the spectacular account of creation are pretty compelling. But I’ll leave that for others.

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By David Ian Miller

During his far-flung career in journalism, Bay Area writer and editor David Ian Miller has worked as a city hall reporter, personal finance writer, cable television executive and managing editor of a technology news site. His writing credits include Salon.com, Wired News and The New York Observer.

His “Finding My religion” series of interviews that you can find in SFGate.com look at individual experience of how different people found their religion. It is considered that this is a subject close to all Templars heart, that will surely resonate with some of our own individual experiences, helping us understand how mystical traditions far apart from ours have so many common points. You will also read about people that today follow mystical disciplines that it is said the historical Templar Order was familiar with, including Sufism, Kaballah, Gnosticism, Sacred Geometry, Meditation, etc.