Daniel C. Matt is the best-selling author of The Essential Kabbalah, Zohar: Annotated & Explained, and God & The Big Bang. He is considered one of today’s leading experts on Jewish Mysticism. He was also a student of Gershom Sholem, considered the greatest scholar in esoteric Judaism in history.
PART ONE FOUND HERE
MC: Can we find the doctrine of reincarnation, the gilgul, in the Zohar or was this conceived beforehand?
DM: We certainly have no references to reincarnation in Rabbinic Judaism. We have to distinguish between reincarnation and resurrection. Resurrection of the dead means that when the messiah comes then the world will be renewed, but all those who have died will be bodily resurrected. That you do find in Rabbinic Judaism, although it’s very hard to find it in the Bible itself, except in very very late parts of the Bible such as the book of Daniel. In the Torah you would not have any explicit teaching even about the resurrection of the dead. But resurrection is different from reincarnation. As I’ve said, resurrection of the dead, that the dead will someday be revived, that you find in Rabbinic Judaism. What’s new in Kabbalah is, of course they accept resurrection, but introduce the notion of reincarnation, that when a person dies, even in present history, he or she may be resurrected, the soul will roll into a new body. The word gilgul means rolling. The soul will roll into a new body. Now, this is introduced a little bit before the Zohar in Kabbalah, in a book called the Bahir. The Bahir was written in Provence, or I should say was edited in Provence, towards the end of the 12th century, and that’s probably the first kabbalistic text that mentions the theory of reincarnation. It’s talked about in the Zohar, but very secretly, very cryptically. You really have to decipher the references to reincarnation in the Zohar. Later in the Kabbalah it’s talked about much more openly and it becomes a universal principle. But I would say that in the Zohar itself, it’s not that everyone undergoes gilgul. Gilgul is seen as something that happens only if you fail to observe certain very important mitzvot, certain very important tasks, most of all if you haven’t brought new life into the world. If you haven’t married and had children, then you will be reincarnated. It’s not clear whether it’s punishment or more an opportunity, so you have a chance to fulfill this essential commandment. That’s really how it’s presented in the Zohar. Later by the time we get to Isaac Luria, the famous kabbalistic who lived in Safed in the Galilee, in the 16th century, by then already gilgul becomes a universal principle, and everyone, or nearly everyone undergoes gilgul. But in the Zohar it’s more selective and more secret.
MC: How is the concept of evil explained in the Zohar or the Kabbalah for that matter? How is evil explained besides being the punishment of God?
DM: Yeah, this is interesting. For the Zohar, evil is really the shadow side of God. In other words, God as we know him is good and loving and caring, but there’s a dark side. The Zohar refers to this as sitra achra, the other side. In some ways it’s opposed to what we think of as God, but in another sense it emerges from God. It’s not clear how. According to one theory of the Zohar, when the divine powers are balanced, goodness goes into the world. For there is a balance between love and strict judgment. But when things are out of balance because of human evil, human evil will bring about an imbalance in the cosmic forces, and then harsh judgment overwhelms God’s compassion or love or mercy, and evil results from that imbalance. So you have different theories, there’s not one unified theory about it. What’s most striking is that evil is seen as somehow emerging from the divine and ultimately as serving a purpose either of testing or punishment or temptation, and part of the divine economy and that sense.
MC: Another question, I know we got past the Ain Soph, but what would be the ultimate concept of godhead is that the Ayin, nothingness, and is that found in the Torah?
DM: Ain Soph, the infinite, you could say is really the ultimate level of divinity. It’s very hard to distinguish between Ain Soph and what the Kabbalah calls Ayin, which is literally nothingness. Technically Ayin is the first sephirah, and Ain Soph is beyond all those sephiroth. But that first sephirah is really inseparable from Ain Soph itself. You might say that infinity manifests as a Ayin, this paradoxical nothingness. Now in Kabbalah as in Sufism and Buddhism, nothingness is not a negative term, it’s just really means no thing ness. That which is beyond material existence. So nothingness is seen as undifferentiated divine reality. It’s not yet any one thing. It hasn’t yet turned into the world. It’s pure potential. In that sense it’s no-thing-ness. So infinity and nothingness are seen as almost identical. Both of those, you could say, and the top of the ladder have to find existence. From them all the specific qualities of God emerge.
MC: So you would say that the reason we have existence at all is simply God manifesting himself. Is that why God created the world, as the kabbalists look at it?
DM: Yes, there are discussions occasionally about why did this all come about? Why, as a modern philosopher would put it, is there something rather than nothing? Nothing with a small “n”, nothing as a blank. One answer is that God was lonely. God wanted someone with whom he or she or it could interact. So God created that which seems to be separate from God, but this is all part of the divine dance of eventual reunion. God yearns for the divine spark within our soul to reacquaint itself with the divine source, and that will bring about fulfilment of union and mystical oneness.
MC: Is the divine feminine in Judaism something that has evolved since the Kabbalah? Or has it always been present but only surfaced periodically and then gone back down?
DM: This is profound, because certainly if you look at the Bible it’s very hard to say anything about the traditional picture of God. God seems purely masculine. It’s very rare to find any feminine images. There are a few here or there, in Jeremiah or in some of the later poetic books, but in general God is the King to judge the warrior. The radical innovation in Kabbalah is that God is half male and half female. So one wonders where did this come from? Did this just emerge out of nothing? And it seems that there are roots of the divine feminine in earlier traditions. Certainly if you look at ancient Canaan itself, there were definitely goddesses, there was a widespread worship of the goddess under different names Ashirah, Maat, Astarte. So there were goddesses worshipped in the ancient world and the Mediterranean east, and of course the prophets are always railing against this worship, seeing it as a betrayal of God to go after the goddess. But we know now from archaeological finds that there were Israelites who tried to combine the worship of of the israelite God, Yod He Vav He; they tried to combine that with the feminine. So, for example, they’ve dug up pieces of pottery and which you will see written this is to Yod He Vav He, to the israelite God, and his Ashirah, and his goddess. And this isn’t something you find in the Bible. It’s criticised, this kind of worship, of syncretism, but we know that there were Israelites who were attracted to it, and apparently it was suppressed, it was defeated, it mostly disappeared, but it must have continued to exist underground as well, as you say. It surfaces and resurfaces and what you find in Kabbalah is really a reemergence of this ancient goddess material. One scholar, Gerschem Scholem, has called this the revenge of myth. This mythic image of the feminine had been eliminated almost entirely, but it came back with a vengeance in Kabbalah. Another way to say this is that the Kabbalah now turns the goddess into something kosher. The goddess really becomes kosher in Kabbalah, and you have a feminine and masculine divinity.
MC: Aren’t there are some hints in the Song of Songs and other places when they’re talking about wisdom, and wisdom was there from the beginning. In Gnosticism that’s considered obviously to be Sophia. How does Judaism, or the Kabbalah see it?
DM: Kabbalah would accept that. In the book of Proverbs and other wisdom literature you do have a feminine entity it seems, that apparently is God’s helper and assistant. You don’t find in the Bible a description of God being married to wisdom. God is creating the world through wisdom, so wisdom is a divine quality, a divine helper, a divine helpmate, so there is some feminine imagery there. But in Kabbalah it’s made much more explicit, and they take all those verses, many of those verses, and apply them to the Shekhinah. So there are hints of raw material that are developed further by the Kabbalah.
MC: Yes, because another character that I’ve always found very interesting is the figure of the judge Deborah. For some reason I’ve always seen her more as a goddess than as a human being. Maybe a lot of the judges, I don’t know.
DM: Well, they’re historical figures, but they also become turned into divine or heavenly versions in the Kabbalah, many of them.
MC: Yeah, like in psalms, “ye are gods of the most high.” Backing up just a little bit, you mentioned, and other people mention, that’s there is that word in Genesis called et. What exactly does it mean and how to the kabbalists define it?
DM: It’s a Hebrew word pronounced ett, it consists of two Hebrew letters, Aleph and Tav. And that is interesting because of course Aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet and Tav is the last letter. So it’s a little word that contains the first letter and the last letter. As to what it means, it’s very hard to pin down. In many uses, in many senses, it has no independent meaning. It’s just a marker, it has to appear in a sentence in between the verb and the direct object.
MC: This was from the earliest scriptures, from the Masoretic text and so forth? It just appears there?
DM: It appears there, for syntax. For example, in Hebrew you can’t say, I threw the stone. You have to say I threw et the stone. It precedes the direct object, it has no independent meaning. But in the Zohar it becomes a symbol of Shekhinah. Why? Because she is the last of the 10 sephiroth and she includes all of the others. She includes everything from the first to the last. In some ways it is similar to what Jesus says according to the new testament, “I am the alpha and the omega, I am the first and the last.” Shekhinah includes in herself the entire flow of divine being. And the Zohar uses that very often when it wants to interpret or reinterpret a verse. But I should say that you also find that in Rabbinic Judaism. There are interpretations of the word already in Rabbinic Judaism.
MC: And, lastly, do you agree with Rabbi Ezekiel, who is in your introduction, the man you met, that in recognizing the divine feminine in all the faces is the only way to have a feeling mankind?
DM: I should say that the book you’re referring to, Zohar Annotated and Explained, I wrote that book, meaning I translated passages from the Zohar and interpreted them. There’s a preface written by Andrew Harvey, and it’s there that you find the story about Rabbi Ezekiel, but he talks about the need to rediscover the divine feminine. I would say that it’s very important to move beyond the notion of God just as a masculine power or male power or authority figure, and to celebrate the divine feminine, the intimacy of God and the presence of God in nature and the world. I think that’s a very important balance.
MC: You won’t find anybody who agrees with that more than I do. Could you just tell the listeners what you are working on right now?
DM: I could tell you a couple of things that other than that are available first of all. The book I can talk about most immediately is the Zohar Annotated and Explained. It’s published by Skylights Paths, or Jewish Lights, that’s a small paperback. There are a couple of other paperbacks, one is called The Essential Kabbalah, which is published by HarperCollins of San Francisco. And that’s a selection of texts and Kabbalah translated with some written notes. There’s some other material too, there’s Sefer Yetsirah, the Bahir, Isaac Luria, a little bit of Hasidism. But mostly traditional kabbalistic texts organized by subject, the sephiroth, divine nothingness, Torah, how to find God in the material world, meditation, sections such as those. Then another book that I’ve done is called God and the Big Bang, which is on parallels between Kabbalah and contemporary cosmology. That was published by Jewish Lights. And my current project, which will take me many years, is a full annotated translation of the Zohar. The book we talked about, Zohar Annotated and Explained, that’s a tiny percentage of the work, but I think it’s a good place to start. What I’m working on now is called the Zohar Pritzker Edition. The Pritzkers are a family in Chicago who are enabling me to do this work. The full edition is published by Stanford University press. So far three volumes have appeared, and these three volumes cover the entire book of Genesis. I’m now working on the book of Exodus, and I imagine the entire thing will run to something like 11 volumes.
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