Why translate the Zohar? (A Q&A)

Photo courtesy of Daniel Friedman on Flickr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/daniel_friedman/

Joel Hecker is a leading scholar of Jewish mysticism and an associate professor at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Penn. Hecker is part of a team that together has spent nearly two decades working on a new English translation of the Zohar, a landmark project that produce the first unabridged translation, with commentary, of the original Aramaic text. Hecker visited Toronto last fall and spoke about Kabbalah and the Zohar at Makom: Creative Downtown Judaism. The CJN spoke with him by phone.


First off, what is the Zohar?

It’s the central and canonical text of Jewish mysticism. It was written in the 1280s and ’90s and the first decade of the 14th century in Castille, Spain. It was ascribed to a second-century rabbi in Israel, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, but the person who probably wrote much or most of it and played a hand in editing it was Rabbi Moses de Leon, in Castille. While the story of Rabbi Bar Yochai’s authorship was contested from the beginning, and modern academic scholarship doesn’t believe it, much of the traditional Jewish community still believes today that this book was written in the second century. Modern academics generally believe that Rabbi Moses de Leon was probably the lead writer and editor of the Zohar, but contemporaries of his – other Jewish mystics – probably contributed to the works and that he played a large role in shaping and editing that material, but that subsequently others we don’t know of wrote parts that then became part of the Zohar.

The Zohar was handwritten in idiosyncratic Aramaic, and in 1558, it was printed in two different towns in Italy. Two different formats and styles were used but subsequently, those formats were merged.


So what exactly is Jewish mysticism?

Mysticism is a feature of all religions. There are always folks who want to have the most intense experiences of divinity, to be intoxicated by divinity and feel God’s closeness in the deepest, most intense ways. Jewish mysticism has a very long history and has undergone various forms. The Zohar represents the form of Jewish mysticism that reached maturity in late 13th-century Spain and that reimagined God in much more complex terms than had been previously discussed in Judaism. It brought about talk of, for example, the masculine and feminine aspects of God and the ways in which these two aspects of divinity need to be erotically merged. That merging is thought to take place through the performance of mitzvot, Torah and prayer. The Kabbalists perceived themselves as the primary agents of the harmonization of the masculine and feminine aspects.

Joel Hecker
Joel Hecker

Isn’t performing mitzvot, studying Torah and praying just part of a regular Jewish practice?

Yes, but for the Kabbalists it was doing it with a specialized intent. If you asked the average Jew in the 13th century why they abide by the Torah commandments, they’d say, “Because I’m commanded” or “It helps me to be a better person.” But the Kabbalists imagined that there are cosmic ramifications to the performance of mitzvot. They encouraged people to be engaged in the regular practice of mitzvot, but saw the practice as having dramatic effects both on the cosmos and on their personal relationships with God, that it might lead to an attainment of a mystical union with God.

Is this belief at odds with rabbinic edicts?

Generally they’re not. If you were to ask Maimonides, though, he’d say this was heresy. He argued for very particular ways of talking about God and was careful to avoid saying there’s any multiplicity within God. While the Kabbalists emphasized unity within God, they were also involved in discussion of a kind of multiplicity within God.


Are kabbalist movements alive and well in Judaism today, beyond, say, whatever is going on with Madonna?

Totally. It comes in different forms. Perhaps the most pervasive is among Chassidim. That, in many ways, is the modern expression of Jewish mysticism. One of the main goals they have is deveikut, a mystical union with God. Also, the notion of divine sparks and unifying fallen sparks are kabbalistic ideas adopted by Chassidim as part of the development of a populist mystical movement. The Baal Shem Tov, the father of Chassidism, wanted to create a spiritual revolution through a popularized form of Kabbalah. But even in traditional Jewish practice, all kinds of things from Kabbalah have seeped into our liturgy and practices. The best example is Lecha Dodi, which was written by a Kabbalist and expresses all kinds of kabbalistic themes.

Is the translation project you’re working on the first English translation of the Zohar?

It’s the third translation into English, but the first complete one and the first one based on scholarly examination of the manuscript. It’s also the first one that provides a commentary to help the reader. Previous translations were either incomplete or showed a lot of signs of a lack of understanding of the material, or decided not to translate certain sections, or interpreted them through a filter that took away from the poetry and basic meaning of the texts.

How long is the translated text?

It’s about two-thirds the size of the Babylonian Talmud. We’re producing 12 volumes, and I would ballpark guess that it’s around 6,000 pages. With translation and commentary, it’s well over 7,000 pages.

What’s been your role in the team of translators?

The primary translator was Prof. Daniel Matt. He started work on this 18 years ago and was working on the project full-time until about seven years ago, when the project’s sponsors, Margot and Tom Pritzker of Chicago, decided they wanted it finished before 2022. They hired two of us to do the last three volumes. Danny completed translating through Volume 9, and myself and Nathan Wolski, an Australian scholar, split the last three volumes.

Is it finished?

I’m dealing with copy editing now at the end of Volume 12. So Volume 12 will be published in May. Each volume is being published individually. They started to be published in 2004 and have, on average, come out every one to two years.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced translating it?

There have been challenges that were daunting and challenges that were fun. Daunting ones included that there’s no complete manuscript on the Zohar. The printed text has lots of inconsistencies when compared to earlier versions. One fun challenge is that the Zohar is in many ways playful text and has a lot of neologisms – made-up words. These sometimes drew on Latin, sometimes on Greek, Persian or Arabic terms. So part of the fun was trying to understand this idiosyncratic Aramaic and to come up with creative and engaging renderings.

How do you know Aramaic?

Anybody who’s gone to yeshiva knows it. It’s the language of the Talmud. In the ancient period, there were a couple of versions: Babylonian Aramaic and Palestinian Aramaic. The Zohar is the most ambitious medieval work to be written in Aramaic. It shows the influences of the different versions of Aramaic. The text has its own poetic purposes, whether that’s to give a greater poetic feeling or the feeling that God is underlying everything.

Why translate it into English?

Because it’s the most important text in the mystical Jewish tradition. It’s a value to spiritual seekers both Jewish and not. Until now, the Zohar has been largely restricted to academic or religious scholars. With the richness and spiritual creativity you find here, it’d be a shame to limit it to such an elite and exclusive few.

Speaking of exclusiveness, what about the restriction against women studying the Zohar?

People usually ask about the restriction against studying it before age 40. The truth is, the restrictions on studying the Zohar have their own history. At times it’s been more restrictive and at other times more liberal. Up until the modern period, most Jews just followed Orthodoxy, so yes, women would’ve been excluded from its study, as would much of the Jewish population. We’re not allowing dogma or rules about dissemination to limit our production of this translation. It’s published by Stanford University Press, which isn’t Jewish, and we’re operating in an academic capacity. To be sure, there will be people in the Orthodox world who will say disseminating this is not a wise move, but those aren’t authorities that we’re consulting.

Do you see non-Jews like Madonna practicing Kabbalah as appropriative?

Religion, like politics, always has more or less refined versions. I think that in some of the most popularized forms of Kabbalah, you can find charlatanism or a lack of understanding of the texts. Madonna appeared on NPR about 10 years ago, and it was pretty clear that even though she’s given lots of money to the Kabbalah Centre, either they were misrepresenting things or she didn’t really understand what Kabbalah is all about. The Kabbalah Centre has chosen to present the Zohar in a way that’s very universalistic. While I find some of the universalizing to be appealing, this is inescapably a Jewish text, one about Torah and mitzvot. You can say that references to Israel are metaphors for spiritual seeking, but that’s not what the original text meant. To say that the text isn’t specifically talking about Torah or the Jewish People is a big stretch. But hey, one gets big stretches in the area of religion.

This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.