These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Learning Zohar with Daniel Matt

Posted on November 16, 2012 by Jeff Amshalem

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This week the Talmud Hey and Kollel classes had the real honor to learn Zohar with possibly the world’s leading Zohar scholar, Dr. Daniel Matt. Dr. Matt has spent the last fifteen years working full time on a translation of the Zohar. In a couple years he hopes to be done. It’s hard to exaggerate the enormity of his task. It would be like translating the Talmud, if the Talmud were written in a made-up language, meant to be impenatrable, and dealt with the inner workings of God instead of the details of kashrut and the eruv.

Spending entire days locked away in his closet with the Zohar seems to have given Dr. Matt a broader sense of the Zohar than any other scholar. Any other time I’ve asked a question about the Zohar as a whole, my professors have laughed or looked at me like I had asked them to estimate the number of ants on earth at this moment, but when Dr. Matt was asked about, for example, the meaning of certain words across the Zohar literature, he demurred modestly and then would answer, “Sixty percent of the time it means this, thirty percent this, and the other ten percent this.” That’s some crazy knowledge.

Dr. Matt spent almost no time introducing the Zohar to us. Instead, he gave us texts and asked us to jump right in. This way we got to learn about it from the inside out, and even students who claimed no prior knowledge of the Zohar could take full part. This also gave us a better sense of not just what the Zohar has to say but, maybe more importantly, how it says it. The people I know who are really in love with the Zohar feel that way about it not because of its ideas but because of its poetry, the magic of the language, and we got to see that first hand — for example, how the Zohar plays with Hebrew grammar to rearrange the Gan Eden story so that Adam was exiling God as much as the reverse, or how the Zohar invents words in its attempt to speak about the Unspeakable.

If anyone else out there has a chance to go hear Dr. Matt speak I definitely recommend it, and if Pardes would like to invite him back (hint, hint) I won’t complain. Shabbat shalom, Jeff