Berkeley professor completes 20-year translation of the Zohar

The Zohar, the foundational text of Jewish mysticism, is the most notoriously opaque sacred book in the Jewish canon. Written in a cryptic, anachronism-laden form of Aramaic, it has fascinated, uplifted and baffled mystics and seekers for centuries.

But with his nearly complete nine-volume translation of the Zohar, a mystical commentary on the Torah, Daniel C. Matt has done a lot to make it more accessible. Since 1997, he has worked full time on the translation, most of that time from his home in the Berkeley Hills, where he takes a hike in Tilden Park nearly every morning.

Daniel C. Matt

Lehrhaus Judaica, the Berkeley-based adult education center, is taking the opportunity to make it the focus of its 2015-16 Philosophy Circle program, offering six Zohar Circles around the Bay Area, with Matt himself selecting the teachers and curriculum.

The Zohar, Matt said, is “a book that transforms Judaism. It reimagines God not as someone up there in heaven running the show, but as the energy that animates all of existence.”

The Zohar is traditionally printed in four hefty tomes. Matt tackled three of them, dividing each into three volumes — nine in total. When the ninth volume is published in December, he will have completed the Zohar’s main commentary on the Torah. (The Zohar’s fourth tome will be translated by two other scholars as part of the same project.)

A former professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley who has taught at Stanford University and in Israel, Matt has published 10 books and is considered one of the world’s leading authorities on Kabbalah.

His translation, supported by the Pritzker Family Philanthropic Fund, was called “a monumental contribution to the history of Jewish thought” by a panel of Koret Jewish Book Award judges in 2004, when his first two volumes earned Matt the award for philosophy and thought.

In laying the foundation for Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), the Zohar “makes three bold claims,” Matt said. First: “All names for God are inadequate except for Ein Sof, which means ‘without end.’ ” Second: “The Zohar insists on balancing the patriarchal images of God with the feminine side of God, the Shechinah, a major contribution to Judaism.” Third: To achieve the ultimate goal of uniting the masculine and feminine halves of God, the Zohar says that “God needs us; we actualize God in the world. We realize divine potential.”

As if that’s not heady enough, the book is written in a bizarre form of Aramaic, drawing on many different eras of the language, and is steeped in a complex array of symbolism. It first emerged in 13th-century Spain, a time and place in which no one was fluent in Aramaic; it was “discovered” by Moses de Leon, a rabbi who claimed it had been written in second-century Israel. Scholars now agree that the Zohar was written by medieval Spanish kabbalists, with de Leon as a primary author or editor.

The Pritzker Edition of the Zohar, translated by Daniel C. Matt

“I’m trying to make it accessible to a reader who knows very little Hebrew, no Aramaic, who is somewhat familiar with the Bible,” Matt said.

He remembers fondly a positive review written after the first two volumes of his translation were published. “It’s still in Aramaic,” it said. “That made me happy because I wanted to preserve the complexity and strangeness of the Aramaic.”

Shaul Magid, chair of the Borns Jewish Studies Program at Indiana University, said translating a book like the Zohar, where the language is very symbolic, is difficult.

“You can translate it word for word and it doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “You have to be able to understand how the mind of the Zohar works to unpack it. So having an English translation alone doesn’t really help you. You need a translation that’s going to help you enter into the text.”

And that, Magid said, is exactly what Matt has created. “It really opens the text up in a way that it hadn’t been before,” he marveled.

Yet it almost wasn’t published at all.

Philanthropist Margot Pritzker first approached Matt 20 years ago. She had begun studying the Zohar with a rabbi in Chicago, but they were dissatisfied with the available translations and decided a new one was necessary.

When they first proposed the idea to  Matt, it seemed like too much for him to tackle. “I was really overwhelmed and I took weeks and months thinking about the offer. I finally decided to try it for a month, and I was so drained that I said, ‘I’m definitely not doing this,’ ” he said.

But he decided to at least meet with Pritzker. When he told her it would take 12 to 15 years, Matt remembers her saying, “You’re not scaring me.” And in that moment, Matt said, he decided to go for it.

“It just came out of Margot’s desire to penetrate the Zohar,” Matt said.

Sandy Edwards, a philanthropic strategy consultant in San Francisco, is one of 140 people from around the Bay Area signed up for Lehrhaus’ Zohar Circle. “They say that you shouldn’t study the Zohar before you’re 40 because the Zohar speaks to life experiences in a very deep way,” Edwards said.

Edwards, 66, is looking forward to more of the close, detail-oriented study that she already enjoys as part of Lehrhaus’ Talmud Circle. “By reading closely and discussing it with these fabulous teachers, the discussion evolves into something very important about the meaning of life and connecting with Judaism.”

“The Zohar is a monument of literature,” said Daniel Boyarin, professor of talmudic culture at U.C. Berkeley. “[The Pritzker edition] is a wonderful project and a real landmark for Jewish scholarship, but even more for Jewish literature in English. It’s a real contribution to the Jewish bookshelf.”

Boyarin is enthusiastic about Matt’s commentary. “The notes are superb. Even scholars who can read the Zohar in the Aramaic will need to have access to this commentary and will find much value in it,” he said.

A kickoff event for the Zohar Circles was held Oct. 11 and the program will begin in earnest on Monday, Oct. 26 with the first meetings of the six circles. The classes will be held at JCCs in Berkeley, Foster City, San Francisco, San Rafael and Palo Alto and at Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek. Teachers include four local rabbis, a U.C. Berkeley Ph.D. candidate and a University of San Francisco adjunct professor.

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan, coordinator of the Zohar Circles and one of the teachers, said he has been looking forward to such a program since the translation project began.

“We are partners with [Matt] to trumpet that this amazing thing has happened,” Wolf-Prusan said. “And in our community! And it is being published in our day!”

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is the online editor of J. and "Jew in the Pew" columnist. He can be reached at david@jweekly.com.