Category Archives: Mysticism

The Zohar

What is the Zohar, and where did it come from?

Kabbalah Sefirot Tree

he Zohar: Pritzker Edition

 

The Zohar is the most prominent “book” of Jewish mysticism. It is considered holy by many people. It contains the core teachings of modern Jewish mysticism. However, the book is not what it claims to be, its ideas are at best obscure and incomprehensible, its concept of God is often Gnostic, polytheistic,or given Trinitarian aspects.

Most strikingly, the Zohar isn;t even a book; it is an anthology of many parts, added together between 1300 CE to 1500 CE, much of it being pesudigrapha, and we don’t know the authorship of each part, nor which part is the supposed core material.

Daniel Abrams reveals the following

The Zohar was neither written, nor edited, nor distributed as a book by the various figures who produced the various literary units which were later known by the name Zohar. (10)

The Zohar is not a Book – Nor does it have an author (105)

I have tried to express my theoretical discomfort, indeed a perceived dissonance, concerning published methodologies for evaluating the literary quality and forms of the texts known by the name Zohar. (127)

No satisfactory evidence has yet been offered in the relevant scholarship proving that the zoharic writings were intentionally composed, edited, or copied as a book. Not only can ‘the’ Book of the Zohar not be restored to its full form, but there was no single original moment that is recoverable amidst the disparate writings and unstable text(s). (142)

 – The Invention of the Zohar as a Book: On the Assumptions and Expectations of the Kabbalists and Modern Scholars, Kabbalah: Journal for the Study of Jewish Mystical Texts 19 (2009), pp. 7-142.

Despite it’s acclaim as an ancient holy book, the Zohar as a unified may have created by 17th century publishers in order to sell an anthology!

Professor Alan Brill writes

Abrams claims the idea of the Zohar as a preexisting book was created in the 16th century by the printers- before that point there were only various unconnected manuscripts of esotericism. The production of the Zohar as ideas, texts, and isolated units, has little to do with consumption of the product as a book. …

Abrams rejects Scholem’s theory of a single author;
he rejects Yehuda Liebes’ theory of circle of Zohar authors- hug haZohar.
The Zohar contains variety of styles and diverse literature, hence Abrams is sympathetic to Moshe Idel’s reclamation of the theory of Moses Gaster, who considered the work a collection of diverse sources.

He accepts parts of Ronit Meroz’s articles that claim that the texts of the Zohar originated between the 11-14th centuries. But he demurs from her suggestion that there are 14th century imitators of the Zohar’s style Abrams asks: Who says there was ever a fixed thing called the Zohar to imitate?

… Abrams suggests that the field needs to go back to manuscripts and first editions, and especially colophons – every text must be treated in its context of production of the manuscript.  He notes: Danny Matt is creating a synthetic text that does not correspond to any text out there. Meroz is creating a synoptic edition but that already assumes a whole to be recreated

Was the Zohar ever really even a book? Alan Brill
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Scholars have assembled a host of proofs showing that the Zohar was not an ancient document.

1. A renowned person visited Moses d’ Leon to see the ancient documents that d’ Leon claimed he used to copy the Zohar. Moses d’ Leon kept putting him off and later asserted that the documents had strangely disappeared. After his death, d’ Leon’s wife admitted that the documents never existed.

2. The ideas in the Zohar are a later development of earlier mystical notions, showing that they were composed after these earlier works, and not in 130 CE, as d’ Leon claimed.

3. The rabbis knew nothing about the Zohar until d’ Leon introduced it.

4. Moses d’ Leon had no sense of history; he describes the alleged second century author conversing with people that lived longafter his death.

5. The Zohar author knew of the existence of vowels and accent marks used in the Torah books and gave them mystical interpretations. However, these items were not invented until the ninth century, seven centuries after the alleged composition date.

6. The terms “master of dikduk [grammar]” and “tenuah gedola” (long vowel) are used in the Zohar even though they were not coined until the tenth and eleventh centuries, respectively.

7. The author inserted terms from Jewish philosophy of the Middle Ages.

8. The book contains ideas copied from the eleventh-century Kuzari of Yehudah Halevi.

9. The author introduces Maimonides’ twelfth-century concept about physics.

10. The volume mentions putting on two pairs of tefillin, a practice that arose in the twelfth century.

11. The Zohar discusses the Kol Nidre prayer of Yom Kippur, a ceremony that began in the eleventh century.

12. The language of the Zohar is later than its alleged date of composition.

13. There are many incorrect quotations from the Bible and the Talmud. The latter did not exist in 130.

14. Prophecies in the volume inform the reader that the Zohar will be revealed around 1300 C.E., a blatant attempt to justify its late appearance.

15. There are parallel passages between the Zohar and other books that were indisputably composed by Moses d’ Leon, including mistakes in the original books that d’ Leon copied into his Zohar.

16. There is no mention in the Talmud or Midrashim that the alleged author of the Zohar, Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai, was interested in mysticism. Thus, d’ Leon took the wrong hero for his work.

17. The famous mystic Rabbi Jacob Emden (born 1697) recorded 280 contradictions, anachronisms and incorrect statements and concluded that the book is a forgery of the thirteenth-century with some later additions.

Lastly I’d like to point out that De Leon “found” this text after it was supposedly hidden for centuries (there are different versions of how and where he found it, but as mentioned earlier, he claimed the original documents mysteriously disappeared). So, even if you were to believe in the secret Rebbe-to-student mesora, it does not even apply in this case since he wasn’t taught this book from his Rav (also, I’d like to know who his Rav was because that fact is also mysteriously and conveniently missing from the pages of history).

 

Resources

Alan Brill writes

This volume contains several sections of the Zohar called Midrash ha-Neelam, which are separate in language and theology than the main body of the Zohar. They have a Hebrew core and an Aramaic overlay, they mainly concern the soul and other allegorical topics, rather than sefirot, and the named scholars are unlike the Zohar. The works use Neoplatonic philosophic language and philosophic terminology. The Midrash ha-Neelam offer a sense of how 13th century Castilian Jews integrated the Heikhalot and early esotericism with the scholastic philosophic traditions.

In the eighteenth century, Rabbi Yaakov Emden considered these sections separate and earlier than the rest of the corpus. In 1926, Gershom Scholem speculated in his inaugural lecture at Hebrew University, that these texts were earlier than the rest of the Zohar. Scholem completely buried this article and never referred to it; he considered these sections from Moses deLeon. Samuel Belkin, (1957) argued that there were Philonic elements in the work, which received a long critique from R.J. Z. Werblowsky (1960).

Current range for the origin of the Midrash ha-Neelam is between 1250 as an allegorical precursor to the Zohar to 1280 as part of De Leon’s large oeuvre, the opposite positions of belong to Ronit Meroz and Nathan Wolski.

Ah… but all this is only background. Pritzker Zohar Volume 11 contains a selection of later texts that are modeled on Midrash ha-Neelam. They are post-Zohar and before the 14th century Tikkune Zohar, and combine philosophic allegory with kabbalistic sefirot. They also have significant amounts of reworked later Midrash such as Eichah Rabbah or the short works of Batei Midrashot.

What is the origin of these later texts? 1250 and then additions in 1280? All 1280? How many strata? Was there an Aramaic overlay on Hebrew original or mixed language right from the start. Were they written by several people? Who were they? What did they think they were doing? Did they relate to one another?

Interview with Joel Hecker- Pritzker Zohar volume 11.

 

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Noah, by Darren Aronofsky

Noah: A very Jewish retelling of the story.
To criticize the film for taking a few plot liberties is to miss its superb message of morality.
By Rabbi Eliyahu Fink , Apr. 3, 2014
Noah movie

Noah: A very Jewish retelling of th

The story of Noah in the Bible is fertile ground for intense theological debate and controversy. Incredibly, the recently released film “Noah” has generated almost as much discussion as the biblical account. It is impossible to review the movie without first addressing some of the criticism directed at it.

The feature film is visually stunning and a technical marvel. Russell Crowe shines in his role as Noah and his co-stars live up to the lofty standard he sets for the cast. “Noah” is a modern retelling of the biblical epic – with a difference. The film does not rewrite the Bible story as much as it retells it by filling in the blanks. The sources and meaning of these gap-fillers have become a thorny issue.

Christian fundamentalists and political conservatives take issue, in particular, with some of the social circumstances of the antediluvian era. But many of these critiques are misguided, like the suggestion that the only sin for which mankind is punished in the film version of “Noah” is harming Mother Nature and that humanity’s many other moral shortcomings are ignored.

Many of the gap fillers are borrowed directly from Midrashic literature firmly anchored in the Jewish tradition. Other plot elements not found in scripture are adapted from the Midrash, other sections of the Bible, and fairly well known Jewish mysticism. The strangest addition to the cinematic story is a lifted directly from “The Book of Enoch,” an ancient Jewish text. Following the Midrashic tradition, director Darren Aronofsky uses inventive ideas to solve problems in the text, like a forest spontaneously appearing to supply wood and magical creatures helping to build the ark. Similarly, the incredible visuals of the creation story as it unfolds in the film are heavy on evolution imagery. Judaism is comfortable reconciling creation and evolution so I was right at home seeing this retelling of creation. Indeed, “Noah” is a very Jewish retelling of the story….

See the rest of the review here Noah A Very Jewish retelling of the story
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Rabbi Eliyahu Fink also writes on his blog:

For Jews, Midrash has such a prominent place in Torah study. There are many kinds of Midrash, and one form of Midrash adds details and background to the Biblical narratives. It’s common for great Torah scholars to learn a new approach or twist on a Biblical story found in a Midrash. Our versions of these stories encompass competing and contradictory views. Even today, long after the closing of the Midrash texts, many great rabbis, especially in Chasidic circles, will derive new lessons and find new twists in the story to teach an important idea. In that sense, Noah takes the Jewish approach. The movie strays very far from the text. In the Bible, the story of the flood is long on construction details and specific dates but short on lessons and drama. The movie contrives much of its drama, but it’s not completely Hollywood imagination. Many of the superimposed conflicts and stories have roots in Torah and Jewish tradition. Whether it’s borrowing from the Book of Enoch or adapting from actual Midrashic teachings, much of the movie, with one giant exception, felt familiar enough to me.

Perhaps the most vocal and most common criticism I’ve seen from conservatives has been their objection to the ecological overtones of the movie. Aside from my personal opinion that worrying about this kind of not subliminal, subliminal message in a movie is silly, the truth is that our tradition supports this idea.
One Midrash teaches us that until Noah saved the animals in his ark, Man was prohibited from eating meat. Adam was a vegetarian. The animal world was protected and Man had no right to kill for his lunch. Only because Noah was responsible for the survival of the animals was he permitted to eat meat after the flood. Another tradition says that we couldn’t eat meat for our personal pleasure until we entered the Land of Canaan in the time of Joshua. According to one stream of Jewish thought, even then, eating meat is not ideal. Rav Kook famously held that vegetarianism was part of the Utopian Messianic era. This is not hippy drippy Hollywood. This is Judaism.
Similarly, in our tradition Noah was named for his farming innovations. One Midrash says that Noah invented the plow. It’s not a disconcerting invasion of foreign modernity to see Noah as a symbol of agrarian life. Another Midrash teaches us that Noah was super sensitive to the needs of the animals in the ark. He was a sort of proto-animal rights activist. That’s not the liberal movie industry, that’s Torah.
Throughout the movie there is a magical light source called zohar. It can be mined like a precious stone and could provide light and fire if used the right way. I thought this was a clever adaptation of the Midrash that explains the “tzohar” that Noah placed in the ark for light. One opinion in the Midrash is that the tzohar was a precious stone that provided light. It seems obvious to me that this is the source for zohar in Noah. The movie simply turned tzohar into zohar (which means radiance) and assumed that these stones were available to everyone.
Here are some other adaptations from Midrash that occurred to me during the movie. Don’t worry, I won’t reveal how these examples are used in the movie. There is a Midrash that says that the animals came to the ark on their own. One Midrash teaches that people began to attack the ark as the rains began and the wild animals surrounded the ark to protect Noah and his family. Some rabbis teach that Noah had little faith and did not enter the ark until the water rose above his ankles. We have a tradition that Og was a kind of stowaway on the ark. There are more examples, but you get the picture. To someone familiar with Midrash, embellishments like these are expected and accepted. To Biblical Literalists, they might be offensive….

Noah Midrash Details

 

Survivors of Noah’s flood

From the Jewish Encyclopedia

Og, Amorite king of Bashan, who reigned in Ashtaroth and was conquered by Moses and Israel in the battle of Edrei (Num. xxi. 33), sixty fortified cities, with high walls, gates, and bars, comprising the region of Argob, being taken and given to the children of Machir, son of Manasseh (Deut. iii. 13; Josh. xiii. 31).
Og was one of the giants of the remnant of the Rephaim. His iron bedstead in Rabbath, the capital of Ammon, is described as having been nine cubits in length and four cubits in breadth (Deut. iii. 11).

In Rabbinical Literature:

Og was not destroyed at the time of the Flood (Niddah 61a), for, according to one legend, the waters reached only to his ankles (Midrash Petirat Moshe (Hebrew: מדרש פטירת משה) or Midrash on the Death of Moses, i. 128, in Jellinek, “B. H.” ii.).

Another tradition states that he fled to Palestine, where there was no flood (Rashi to Niddah, ad loc.); while, according to a third legend, he sat on a rung of the ladder outside the ark, and, after he had sworn to be a slave to Noah and his children, received his food each day through a hole made in the side of the ark (Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer, פרקי דרבי אליעזר, or פרקים דרבי אליעזר, Chapters of Rabbi Eliezar, ch. xxiii.). Og was known also as “Ha-Paliṭ” (see Gen. xiv. 13).