Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Zohar - Book of Splendor - Its Importance to the Jewish Kabbalah - Pt. 1


In my history of the Qabbalah series, I briefly touched upon the topic of the Zohar, but I now feel that it requires a more extensive and separate article. The reason for this reappraisal is because the Zohar was even more important to the formulation of the Qabbalah than the Sepher Yetzirah and the Sepher Bahir, although they were used as sources for it. The Zohar is the penultimate product of the Spanish Qabbalists, and it became the foundation for the final revisions and refinement that took place in Safed, Palestine, nearly three hundred years later.

The Zohar consists of mystical and gnostic interpretations of the Torah, which is the foundation and source for all Qabbalistic speculation. Others may propose a wholly Greek version of the Qabbalah, but without a body of holy scriptures like the Torah, that proposal is both weak and groundless. Of all the various religions of antiquity, only the Persians, Hindus, Sabians and the Hebrews had holy or revealed scriptures. Christians, and later, the Arabs, followed with their own holy scriptures, but the other religions of western antiquity had neither the need nor the impulse to create such written lore. It is the Torah that gives power and authority to the Qabbalah for both Jews and Christians, and the Zohar sought to vest the Qabbalah within the sanctity and power of those scriptures.

So now we must define the nature and contents of the Zohar and explain why it is important to those of the Abrahamic faiths. Modern pagans and wiccans might find this level of scriptural based detail to be irrelevant, and indeed it is certainly abstruse and not particularly important to someone who is following an earth-based spiritual system. However, since most of us live in societies where Christianity is dominant, the legacy of the Bible is part of our own world, whether we have reason to seek out its mysteries or not.

Our western culture is so suffused and saturated with Biblical references, myths and beliefs that even the most stubborn and focused pagan can’t avoid continually coming in contact with them. Modern pagans (such as myself) must acknowledge this legacy and perhaps even incorporate some of it into their spiritual considerations, even if it is done in an oblique manner. The reason that we must acknowledge and to some extent include some of the Bible myths into our spiritual considerations is that our own pagan myths are either weak or incomplete. Much has been lost over the last two millennia, and also, much has changed. Christian and Jewish myths still shape and move our culture, so we must address them in some manner, since they are also to be found operating even within our individual psychic deep structure.

I have assiduously avoided studying the Zohar myself, except where a specific topic from the Zohar has been elucidated in another work. I have had Mather’s book “Kabbalah Revealed” on my bookshelf for decades, but I have never been able to completely read it. As I will reveal later, the book “Kabbalah Revealed” has within it the very core of the Zohar, translated into Latin in the 17th century by the German mystic, Christian Knorr Von Rosenroth. This book had only three of the books of the Zohar translated, but for the occultist, they were the more important books, having only omitted the initial Zohar midrash from this main body of work. Thus the “Book of Concealed Mystery” and the “Greater and Lesser Assembly,” all three of which functioned as the very heart of the Zohar, were chosen and included in Rosenroth’s book, and later translated from Latin to English by Mathers, including the mistakes and typos from the original. 
It was likely that this work of translation, no small feat for a supposedly poorly educated man, forced Mathers to be intensely wedded to the Bible based Hebrew Qabbalah, even as he ventured into spiritual derivations of an Egyptian pagan revival. If we throw the corpus of Enochian magick of Dee into the melange of traditional lore, we can easily see why the Golden Dawn organization had problems digesting these various streams into a common and seamless whole. Many occultists today have the same problem, which is probably why I have avoided attempting to fully digest the Zohar and integrate its massive lore into my own spiritual and magickal practices. 

Before I get into discussing the various books and topics found inside the Zohar, I would like to briefly discuss the various parts of the literature associated with the Hebew bible. In order to really understand the Zohar, one must have a basic understanding of how the various books of Hebew religious literature were formulated and written down, since the Zohar sought to emulate that process with a decidedly mystical and even gnostic bias. I have not found a single book that has all of this information contained in it, and instead, I had to rely on numerous sources found on the internet, including Wikkipedia. However, checking the sources of these sites, I believe that I have compiled information that is reliable and more or less correct.

The Hebew Bible is called the Tenakh, and it consists of three essential parts. The first and most important part is called the Torah, which means “instruction.” Another name for this part of the Tenakh is the Pentateuch (five books), which is its Greek name, since the Tenakh was translated into Greek in antiquity to produce the Septuagint. The Torah contains the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, which consist of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The second part, in sequential order, is called the Khetuvim, which are the lesser books, such as the Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs, Joshua, Kings, Judges, and others, and the third part is called the Nevi’im, which are the books of the Prophets. The word Tenakh is an acronym for Torah, Nevi’im and Khetuvim, or TNKh. The cannon of the Hebrew bible was formulated and finalized sometime during the last two centuries BCE, during the Hasmonean kingship.

In addition to the Hebrew bible, there was also a considerable amount of orally transmitted lore regarding various legal considerations, traditions and even folklore. This oral lore was finally written up after the Bar Kokhba revolt in Judea (132 - 136 CE) because the rabbis feared that this knowledge would be lost if it weren’t committed to writing. Therefore, a new religious literature was redacted and completed around 200 CE by Judah ha-Nasi, and it was called the Mishnah, which means “repetition” (derived from the verb root ShNH, which means to “study and review”). Many rabbinical scholars worked on the Mishnah, where Judah ha-Nasi was only the last in a long line of multi-generational scholars, and they were called the Tannaim, or teachers. The Mishnah had a companion book called the Tosefta, which was a supplement to the Mishnah, having been structured in an identical manner. Often the Tosefta and the Mishnah agreed on a particular point of Jewish law, but other times the two books would arrive at different opinions about the same passage of the Torah.

Once the Mishnah was committed to writing, there were many comments and additional considerations that began to be associated with it, and these were compiled into another book, called the Gemara, which consisted of writings that presented a deeper and more thorough analysis of the contents of the Mishnah. The combination of the Mishnah and the Gemara was called the Talmud, which also contained a lot of historical information and foot notes about the associated scholarship (annotations, controversies and arguments) that went into the canonization of the Tenakh and the final formulation of the Mishnah. The rabbinical scholars of the Gemara were called the Amoraim, which means “those who say or tell about [the Laws].” Additionally, there were two Talmuds that were developed, the first in Palestine, which was called the Jerusalem Talmud, and the second in Babylon, which was appropriately called the Babylonian Talmud. Of these two Talmuds, only the Babylonian is complete, while the greater part of the Jerusalem Talmud was lost.

Another important book in the body of Jewish biblical lore was the Midrash, which means “to investigate or study.” The Midrash was a body of written lore that consisted of many homiletic commentaries and an in-depth analysis of various passages of the Torah. These textual analyses consisted of two kinds, those that were concerned with Jewish religious law (“halakha”), and those that were concerned with non-legal and homiletic themes, called “aggadah.” 
The writers of the Midrash was tasked with performing several different kinds of biblical analysis, and these were represented by a simple or literal interpretation (peshat), a deep textual analysis (examination of hints - “remez”), a comparative analysis (comparing different texts using the same words - “deresh”), an analysis of hidden meanings, mysteries or secrets (“sod”), and an examination of legal pronouncements (commentaries on various judgements - “din”). Of course, to perform a “dersh” analysis, one would need a concordance of Hebrew words used in the Tenakh, and there is such a concordance. The Midrash emphasized peshat, remez, deresh and sud for aggadic analysis, and din for halakhic analysis. The various books of the Midrash were focused on a single book of the Tenakh, and these were ultimately grouped together as ten midrashim called the Midrash Rabba, or Great Midrash.  One can easily see that the later qabbalistis would greatly expand and inflate the use of “sod” over all other methods. 

Medieval qabbalistic lore was concerned with mystical and therefore, a non-legal exegesis of the Torah, so it was based on the pattern of the Midrash, using the homiletic or aggadic method of “sod”to derive hidden or occult meanings from strategic passages of the Torah. A homiletic discourse is actually a fancy way of saying a sermon or a religious discourse of some kind. Obviously, qabbalists were interesting in writing sermons and religious discourses that presented their unique way of interpreting and revealing the hidden or underlying knowledge contained in specific biblical passages. Instead of fostering a comprehensive interpretation of the bible, qabbalists were only interested in certain passages that seemed to embody their essential beliefs concerning creation, ultimate cosmic destiny, the human soul, the after-life, and for some, the attributes of the cosmic messiah and the redemption of humanity. It is for this reason that the bulk of qabbalistic commentary was based on the first several verses of Genesis (Bereshit), where the story of how the Hebrew God created the universe is described.

The Tenakh was mostly written in Hebrew, but much of the commentary was written in Aramaic, although the Jerusalem Talmud was written in both Hebrew and Aramaic. In the Geonic period, when the Babylonian Talmud was being written, an authoritative Aramaic translation of the Tenakh was produced. These writings were called the “Targunim,” and they consisted of translated passages and Midrashic interpretations of the Torah (Targum Onkelos) and the Nevi’im (Targum Jonathan ben Uziel). There were also several targums that covered the books of the Kheturim. I am specifically mentioning these two collections of writings because the author of the Zohar used the Targum Onkelos extensively (and to a lesser extent, the Targum Jonathan ben Uziel) in composing the text of his book, including using various word structures, idioms and even borrowing some themes from those works. The Zohar was also written in Aramaic, as if to make it seem more antique and authoritative, as if it had been assembled during the Geonic period based on writings from an earlier epoch. A thorough analysis of the Aramaic used in the Zohar has shown that it was actually written by someone who was not fluent in that language and whose mother tongue was Spanish, as we shall later see.

One of the rabbinical scholars that had a hand in crafting the Mishnah, the Gemara as well as the Midrash was the legendary Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai. He was a known historical figure who was one of the members of the Tannaim. His work and life were recorded in the Talmud, but for some reason, the qabbalists of medieval Spain believed that he was the first qabbalist, and that his son, Eleazar, was the scribe who wrote down the qabbalistic lore that later became the Zohar. What historians do know about Simeon ben Yochai was that he lived during the first century after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, and he was also the eminent disciple of the great Rabbi Akiva, who was the main religious scholar behind the composing of the Mishnah and the Midrash. Simeon was a religious legal scholar and helped to write some of the sections of the “Sifre” (commentary on Leviticus) and the “Mekhita” (commentary on Exodus), which were parts of the Midrash halakha, or legal exegesis of the Torah.

According to Talmudic legend, Simeon ben Yochai publically criticized the Roman government and was forced to flee for his life, along with his son, and remained in hiding for thirteen years. They both lived in a secluded desert cave for the duration of their forced exile, and miraculously, soon after they had arrived, there appeared a fountain of water outside the cave along with a sumptuous fruit tree, which kept them alive. During their exile, the two men spent their time reading and studying the Torah, and many interesting and unusual things happened to them there. These legends grew until it was said that the two men were the actual authors of the Zohar, with Simeon ben Yochai dictating, and his son, Eleazar, acting as scribe.

This brings us back to our subject, the Zohar. The actual author was never explicitly declared when the books were written and disseminated, and the main character featured in the Zohar narratives was Simeon ben Yochai, so many later qabbalists assumed that he was the original author. A book that claims a specific authorship that is false is known as pseudopigraphy, where the claimed author is often someone famous and far enough in the past for his role in the work to be indisputable, which also obscures the true author who wrote the work at a much later time. Since the date of the authorship of the Zohar is estimated at sometime after 1274 CE (we will cover how that was determined), it would be unlikely that Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai was the original author. It would be also highly unlikely that a religious legal scholar would also be a mystic who spent a large portion of his time writing quasi gnostic and theosophical works, the cave story notwithstanding.

The association of Simeon ben Yochai and his son, Eleazar, with the Qabbalah is entirely mythical, loosely based on Talmudic legends of his supposed exploits and intellectual excellence. While it is very curious that the Sepher Yetzirah might have been written during the Tannaic period when Simeon lived, it was also unlikely to have been authored by someone who was a rabbinical scholar. This is because the theme of the book consisted of a kind of heterodoxic speculation that would have been rejected by such individuals.

Still, for whatever reason, the author of the Zohar chose Simeon ben Yochai as the rabbinical master whose numerous sermons and discussions occurred while he traveled through parts of the Galilee with a group of intellectual companions. Oddly, some of these companions were historically known individuals who either formed part of the Tannaic or Amoraic groups of religious scholars. The exploits and symposium-like discussions between Simeon ben Yochai and his companions characterize each and every one of the themes of the books of the Zohar, regardless of the topic, with exception to the earliest work, the Midrash ha-Ne’lam, which featured other known rabbis. It is particularly unlikely that this group of ten men ever congregated together (some of them were from different time periods), nor would they have discussed such heterodoxic topics with each other. The format of the dialogues, which seem to imitate the kinds of discussions found in the Greek philosophical dialogues, were obviously fictional, artificially set up to aid in the discourse of qabbalistic doctrines and ideas.

Frater Barrabbas

1 comment:

  1. Interesting and an initiated post. It is my belief that people need to treat the traditions they incorporate into their spiritual practise with respect. Pagans who are unaware or resentful towards christianity or judaism should know its esoteric forms has in no little part influenced the pagan revival.

    I am looking forward to continuing blogs on this topic.