Kabbalah’s big kahuna — Berkeley scholar plunges into heart of mystical text

Daniel C. Matt was content with his life as a professor of Jewish spirituality and author when he got a phone call that would likely determine the rest of his working life.

The task: to work on a new translation of the Zohar, the centerpiece of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism.

Part mystical novel, part biblical commentary, the Zohar emerged in the 13th century in Castile, Spain, though it presents itself as if it were written in the second century. Written in Aramaic and Hebrew, it is believed to be the work of Moses de Leon, a descendant of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai.

The first two volumes are soon to be published by Stanford University Press, but that is only the beginning.

The 52-year-old Matt, a former professor at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union, has been tackling the project for the past four years. He estimates it will include 10 to 12 volumes in all, meaning he could be working on it for another decade.

The scope of the project was enough to give Matt more than a moment’s pause. As a matter of fact, at first he didn’t want to do it at all.

“A mystical text can be enticing, drawing you in with its imagery and profound wisdom,” he said. “I thought it could easily become all-consuming, that it would dominate me — that I might not be able to teach effectively or function normally.”

Of course, Matt was the obvious choice. Considered an expert on Jewish mysticism, he has written numerous books, including the best-selling “The Essential Kabbalah” (translated into six languages) and “God and the Big Bang: Discovering Harmony between Science and Spirituality.”

The story of how Matt got the job is now well-known in Jewish academic circles. Margot Pritzker, heiress of the Hyatt hotel chain, had been studying the Zohar in the Soncino edition, the most widely used English translation.

But the Soncino edition, a five-volume work first published in 1933, includes only about 70 to 80 percent of the Zohar, according to Matt.

“The Soncino translation reads well, but it’s incomplete,” said Matt. “It skips various passages, including some of the erotic material, and it avoids or misunderstands difficult expressions.”

Additionally, he said, “It tries to render the Zohar into readable English but thereby sacrifices the raw power of the original Aramaic.” Furthermore, “there is no commentary, and without a running commentary, the text remains impenetrable.”

Rabbi Yehiel Poupko, who was helping Pritzker with her study, persuaded her to make a lasting contribution to the Jewish people and commission a new edition.

Together, they sought out Matt on a recommendation from Rabbi Arthur Green, a friend of Matt’s and himself an expert on Jewish mysticism.

Despite his initial reluctance, Matt tried tackling the work, as a trial, over his holiday break. Once again, he decided he definitely would not do it.

But Poupko and Pritzker were persistent. Eventually Green convinced Matt to at least meet Pritzker, so he flew to Chicago.

When Matt told her that he believed the project could take 12 to 15 years to complete, her unflinching response was, “You’re not scaring me.”

“I saw she’s really serious, and her genuineness really won me over,” he said.

So Matt took a sabbatical from the GTU, and he and his family went to Jerusalem, where they stayed for several years before returning to Berkeley. After the second year, he made the decision he would not be returning to the GTU and would work on the translation full time.

There are three main themes in the Zohar. The first is the concept of God as Ein Sof, which is usually translated as “Without Limit.”

“All names for God are inadequate,” said Matt, “but if you’re going to describe the Divine, then the masculine depiction must be balanced by the feminine, which is known as Shechinah.” This insistence on the feminine is the second main contribution of Kabbalah.

The third main concept is that God needs the human being. “In one sense, God is total perfection, but it’s up to the human being to unify the various aspects of God, to actualize the divine potential in the world.”

If reading the Zohar is difficult, translating it is extraordinarily painstaking, detailed work. Because there is no original copy in existence, Matt works mostly from microfilm of ancient versions, plus all the translations already in existence.

“The original documents are scattered among various European libraries, but almost all of them are available on microfilm in Jerusalem,” he said.

While he studies those versions, his assistant prepares a list of all the available readings.

“All the previous translations relied on the standard printed edition,” he said. And in looking at the different versions over the years, it is possible to see where each scribe has added his own interpretation.

“Every scribe would put in his two cents, adding parenthetical explanations that gradually became incorporated into the text,” he said.

Working an average of six to seven hours a day — “You really can’t do much more than that without endangering your psyche,” he said, laughing — he gets through about two to three Aramaic pages a week, plus the appropriate commentary.

“I translate for a few days, and then compose the commentary on what I have translated.”

As intimidating as the Zohar sounds, basically, it’s about a group of mystics, traversing the hills of Galilee, offering tales of the Torah, according to Matt.

But it is filled with puzzles, and things that are never what they seem on the surface: “An old donkey driver seems like a rambling idiot but turns out to know more than rabbis themselves. A young playful child ends up teaching them Torah.”

Because of its puzzles, symbolism and lyrical language, Matt said, “I think it’s one of the most challenging Jewish texts to translate. Translating such a lyrical, poetic text is extremely difficult, if not impossible, and certainly any translation sacrifices some of the power of the original creation. You’re constantly confronted by multiple meanings.”

And not only is the language filled with mistakes — apparently de Leon’s Aramaic was less than perfect — but there are invented words, which “you could say is a challenge but also an opportunity for a translator,” said Matt.

“The author will take a word that appears once or twice in the Talmud, switch around a couple of letters, and then use it in a way that recalls the original meaning yet displays a new twist. The Zohar is a sacred puzzle.”

Oftentimes, Matt will consult the body of rabbinic literature available on CD-ROM, which is searchable by word.

“Usually, I can track it down,” he said. “What’s remarkable — and humbling — is that devotees of the Zohar could decipher the baffling Aramaic without these tools.”

The text, Matt said, is “very playful and humorous, sometimes trying to fool the reader. The Zohar forces you to search linguistically as well as spiritually, to search for the meaning of the word, but also to search within yourself, asking, how does that image resonate within me?”

So how does Matt feel, knowing he has accomplished much, but with the lion’s share of work still ahead?

“I feared I might grow tired of it,” he said. “But now I am more passionately involved than when I began.”

“The Zohar: Pritzker Edition, Vol. I” by Daniel C. Matt (584 pages, Stanford University Press, $45). “The Zohar: Pritzker Edition, Vol. 2” by Daniel C. Matt (496 pages, Stanford University Press, $60).

Daniel Matt will speak at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 17, at Congregation Emanu-El (co-sponsored by the Jewish Community Center of S.F.), 2 Lake St., S.F., (415) 751-2535. He will also speak 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 9, at the Graduate Theological Union, 2400 Ridge Road, Berkeley, (510) 649-2482, and at 7 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 11, at Chochmat HaLev, 2215 Prince St., Berkeley, (510) 704-9687.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."