Yet perhaps above all else, it was the worldview of the Zohar – through its establishing a reciprocal relationship between the world of humanity and the world of divinity – that left an indelible impression on the hearts of its readers. In this ever-changing, constantly evolving relationship, the divine flow seeks to be revealed and to saturate the world of humanity; and humanity, for its part, seeks to attain, to take part in, and to cleave to the divine world. Indeed, the Zohar created a view of reality that bestows upon humanity the ability and the responsibility to rectify, constitute, and beautify over and over again the figure of the Godhead-and in so doing, itself and the world. (Loc. 81-87).
– Melila Hellner-Eshed
In addition to essays with original content, this site also seeks engagement with a variety of world philosophical theory and practice. In this engagement, theory and practice are as fused and complementary as two sides of the same coin. These concepts ask to be experienced anew and perhaps even be called into being. They are reminders of the delicate, fluid web of cause and effect, and the paramount importance of our beliefs and actions.
I can think of no more fitting place to start this exploration than the Zohar, the 13th century Jewish mystical text. Combining stunning poetry with exacting biblical analysis, the Zohar provides a basis in which to effect the healing of creation. Reconnecting male and female elements of the divine, the Kabbalist helps to make “the world that is to come.” Although God is often shrouded in mystery, the Kabbalist nevertheless tries to understand and participate in His continuing revelations. Humanity’s own efforts when waking to the mystery of God help determine the course of His creation.
In honor of this great work of ages, I would like to do a series on some sections of its writings. Connecting it to diverse scholarship on the Kabbalah, I hope to help shed some light on this challenging text. The Zohar’s view of the religious life is difficult to match in its density of interpretation and depth of feeling, so each section will try to elaborate on some of its diverse themes. How we then attempt to practice these concepts is up to each of us. Reading the Zohar is a charged experience, and we may be drawn into its rapturous heights as we ascend further into its world.
Excerpts are from the first volume of Daniel Matt’s Pritzker Edition, unless otherwise noted.
In its first section, the Zohar frequently discusses the mystery of existence and of God. This exploration of mystery generates some of the Zohar’s most amazing passages, describing the summiting of the inner life to probe the beginning of all. Some of these passages also refer to something called Ein Sof. As mentioned and explored in a previous essay, this is the infinite, unnameable source out of which all existence flows. It means “there is no end.” The One God that is wrapped up in all created things emerged from Ein Sof, and is intriguingly labeled “the Concealed of all Concealed.” God can be known in some ways, but there remain forever untapped and unknown dimensions of the absolute. This God gradually began to divulge itself in and through the shaping of the universe:
When Concealed of all Concealed verged on being revealed, it produced at first a single point, which ascended to become thought. Within, it drew all drawings, graved all engravings, carving within the concealed holy lamp a graving of one hidden design, holy of holies, a deep structure emerging from thought, called ‘Who,’ origin of structure. Existent and non-existent, deep and hidden, called by no name but ‘Who.’ . . . Seeking to be revealed, to be named, it garbed itself in a splendid, radiant garment and created ‘these.’ ‘These’ attained the name: these letters joined with those, culminating in the name ‘Elohim.’ Until it created ‘these,’ it did not attain the name ‘Elohim.’ . . . Through this mystery, the universe exists. (8)
Interestingly, God is named “Who,” as much a question as a designation. God emerged out of a dark, primal Unknowable, and will always remain so. In this understanding, God represents the origin of existence, yet His ultimate meaning and full potential remain uncharted. The Zohar truly brings the reader into an encounter with that arcane causa sui of existence. Even though it follows the emergence of everything from the initial point of divine incandescence, it still acknowledges that this beginning is veiled in secrecy. This is expressed in an incredible passage worth quoting in full:
The holy hidden one engraved an engraving in the innards of a recess, punctuated by a thrust point. He engraved that engraving, hiding it away, like one who locks up everything under a single key, which locks everything within a single palace. Although everything is hidden away within that palace, the essence of everything lies in that key, which closes and opens. Within that palace stand gates built cryptically, fifty of them. Carved into four sides, they were forty-nine. One gate has no side. No one knows whether it is above or below; it is shut. In those gates is one lock and one precise place for inserting the key, marked only by the impress of the key, known only to the key. Concerning this mystery it is written: Be-reshit bara Elohim, ‘In the beginning God created.’ Be-reshit is the key enclosing all, closing and opening. Six gates are contained in that key that closes and opens. When it closes those gates, enclosing them within itself, then indeed: Be-reshit – a revealed word combined with a concealed word. Bara, ‘Created,’ is always concealed, closing, not opening.
As long as the world was locked within the word ‘bara,’ it was not, did not exist. Enveloping everything was ‘tohu,’ [Chaos], and as long as tohu reigned, the world was not, did not exist. When did the key open gates? When was it fit to be fruitful, to generate offspring? (17-19)
So beginning is both revealed in the universe we find ourselves in yet is also concealed from human knowledge. The “single key” is the rune of existence, in which all speculation becomes obscure. This is the “closing” of speculation. One finds the last gate shut, unable to be opened to comprehension. Concepts no longer avail the seeker at this place. Here stretches out the gate to all, at the same time nothing, an impenetrable darkness. However, this creation or tree of life also expounds itself in certain ways which constitute our shared existence. This is “the tree bearing fruit with its seed in it.” The “revealing” is the same creation, seemingly endless in its manifestations.
The Zohar understands this revealing of creation as an emanation from that blazing point of divine light. In divulging some of Himself, progressive attributes of God make themselves known. These parameters, known as sefirot, help determine how God comes to be known to His creation. The sefirot are admirably described in the book A River Flows From Eden:
The Zohar assumes that its reader is familiar with descriptions of the structure of the divine world as they had crystallized in the circles of the first kabbalists in Provence and Gerona, beginning at the end of the twelfth century. These teachings assume the existence of an infinite, abstract divinity termed Ein Sof. From it emanate ten sefirot, constituting the world of active divinity. They are able to be comprehended in different ways. The sefirot are qualities or nodes of operation of the divine outside its incomprehensible and indescribable mysteriousness. They are characterized as masculine or feminine, and the relationships between them are dynamic and (hetero)sexual. (Loc. 215-221)
The sefirot form a complex understanding of reality. They do not solely chart the known aspects of God. They also form a representation of meditative practice, in which the practitioner climbs the “rungs” of the sefirot to the apex of nothingness. The sefirot also reveal how the world progressed out of Ein Sof, and the hidden dimensions that this reality contains.
The Zohar introduces one of its major themes in its first part – the idea of God separated from itself. Although this work discusses more of its creation story in a later commentary, it touches on this in the first chapter. A passage discussing this theme reads:
As soon as He departed, the flow flowing from above ceased. ‘He,’ as it were, ‘smote’ them, destroying and obliterating them, and the Holy Throne fell, as is written: ‘And I was in the midst of exile’ (Ezekiel 1:1) – that rung, called ‘I’ was ‘in the midst of exile.’ Why? ‘By the River Kevar’ ibid.), River of Already, on account of the river gushing and flowing, whose waters and springs ceased, so that it did not flow as before, as is written: ‘A river dries up and is parched’ (Job 14:11). ‘Dries up’ – in the First Temple; ‘is parched’ – in the second . . . All the lights illumining Israel darkened. (39)
God is disconnected from Himself and the nourishing springs that flow down from the celestial worlds and out of Ein Sof. This metaphor is discussed several times throughout the Zohar’s first section. Mentioned later on is the distinction the Kabbalists draw between the masculine God and the feminine God, with the feminine half referred to as Shekhinah. Shekinah, equated with Earth, is separated from the healing radiance of the divine, ravaged by evil forces and the wages of sin. Her state mirrors that of Israel, God’s chosen people, with its Temple destroyed, and exiled among the demonic tribes of other human nations. It is the Kabbalist’s responsibility, through their actions, to restore this lost bond and unleash the healing potency of divinity. We will return to this description again, and in greater detail, as we look at some of the Zohar’s later sections.
Humanity thus occupies a hugely important role in healing the wounds brought on by existence and separation. These wounds are understand cosmically as part of the divine reality, in which humans are an indelible part. Humans can come to these feelings of esteem and protectiveness by engaging in certain kinds of practice. These include contemplating holy works which expose hints of the universal narrative; participating in creative and edifying interpretations of Torah; and resolving their inner conflicts of good and evil.
One of the most useful perspectives on evil in world literature is found in the Zohar, in both its description and emphasis on human action. It interweaves an incredibly rich mythology that describes how humans ultimately perpetuate evil. Demons continually try to inhere in human expression and occupy “a dual earth, dualized by darkness and light.” (63)
Some of the Zohar’s most inspired lines comes out of these intense experiences of darkness:
In darkness they turn into the image of the two-headed serpent, moving like a serpent, then swooping into the abyss, bathing in the vast ocean. Reaching the chains of Uzza and Azazel [fallen angels] they agitate and arouse them. These then leap into the dark mountains, thinking the blessed Holy One is about to call them to judgement. These two officials swim the vast ocean and fly through the night to Na’amah, mother of demons, after whom the primordial deities strayed. They intend to approach her, but she leaps 60,000 parasangs, transmogrifying herself into countless figures confronting human beings, so that they stray after her. These two officials fly and roam throughout the world, then return to their abode, arousing those descendants of Cain to generate offspring by the spirit of evil impulses. (63-64)
The demonic is sometimes referred to in the Zohar as “the Other Side” and exists as a necessary corollary to the divine. Evil existed as an outgrowth in the beginning of creation and became a shell encasing the divine light. In order to access this light, one must penetrate through the shells around it. Bringing evil into awareness allows humanity access to its creative role without fatally being drawn into the Other Side. This is to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. According to an article by Paul Levy:
From the Kabbalistic point of view, evil brings into the world the possibility of choosing between sin and virtue, which is to say that evil is the very origin of the possibility of the highest good. Freedom of choice is a necessary postulate for responsibility, morality, and the creation of values. Evil becomes the condition for free choice, and hence, the condition for the full realization of good. As if the revelation of everything is through its opposite, an idea is only complete when it reveals its opposite to be inextricably linked to its very significance, e.g., darkness is only known through light, just as light is only known through darkness. According to the Kabbalah, the world and the soul of humanity are partly immersed in the “Other Side,” which is to say that the evil impulse can’t be banished, but needs to be harnessed for the good. To quote Jung, ‘You can’t reject evil because evil is the bringer of light.’
Seeing the evil in ourselves is part of our recognition of the unity of God and the necessity of our restorative work. The Zohar places a great deal of emphasis on righteousness in this regard. It describes its adherents as “sturdy pillars.” It describes “the world that is to come,” the potential experiencing of ourselves and our creative place in reality with new eyes. This is an arduous and lifelong task. It is also a rousing call to action:
O high, hidden, concealed ones, open-eyed, roaming the entire world, gaze and see! O low, sleeping ones, close-eyed, awake! Who among you turns darkness into light, bitter into sweet, before arriving here? Who among you awaits each day the light that shines when the king visits the doe and is glorified – declared King of all kings of the world? Whoever does not await this each day in that world has no portion here. (21-22)
Since this knowledge of our facility for good is found within an interior pilgrimage, the Zohar refers to it is “hidden.” We must remind ourselves of this fact as the world proliferates its own darkest impulses in its confusion. Our imagined separation is part of the separation of God, and access to this knowledge becomes lost as humanity falls prey to the Other Side:
Since [your goodness] is hidden within you, it plays no part in this world that I am about to create, but rather in the world to come. Furthermore, because your goodness is hidden within you, the gates of My Temple will sink, as is written: ‘Her gates, have sunk, into the earth (Lamentations 2:9). (15)
This understanding is finally remembering the overwhelming generosity of the Holy Ancient One.
How great is the precious, supernal goodness the blessed Holy One intends to lavish upon humanity – for the supremely righteous, dreading sin, engaging in Torah – when they enter that world! The verse does not read ‘Your goodness,’ but rather ‘Your immense goodness.’ Who is that? ‘The memory of Your immense goodness they express’ (Psalms 145:7) – joy of life flowing from the world that is coming to Vitality of the Worlds, who is ‘the memory of Your immense goodness’ – ‘immense goodness for the house of Israel . . . ‘ – Isaiah (63:7).
Your goodness’ – the light created on the first day. ‘That you have hidden away for those in awe of You,’ for He concealed it for the righteous in that world. (44-45)
The last theme we will discuss ties into and develops the others to such an extent that it will make a fitting conclusion to our discussion on this first section. In the process of investigating what lies hidden within the Torah’s wings, the Zohar requires its practitioners to expound new and interesting ways of interpreting these canonical texts. Creativity is expressed in the Torah as a communion that all its adherents must enter. This is not numbing repetition for its own sake, but ecstatic discovery. Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead described something similar in his opus Process and Reality:
It follows from the first category of explanation that ‘becoming’ is a creative advance into novelty. It is for this reason that the meaning of the phrase ‘the actual world’ is relative to the becoming of a definite actual entity which is both novel and actual, relatively to that meaning, and to no other meaning of that phrase. Thus, conversely, each actual entity corresponds to a meaning of ‘the actual world’ peculiar to itself.
The novelty of each moment is unique to that situation, and cannot necessarily be predetermined arbitrarily. The novel is defined relative to the situation at hand. Becoming is the entire universe changing into the new, perennially changing the meaning of “the world.” Interpreting the Torah in new ways is to participate with the becoming of divine creation. The broadening of the Torah’s meaning is brought out in the Zohar’s exegesis of “let the waters teem with swarms of living creatures” (Genesis 1:20). This creativity makes new methods of swimming in the waters of the world.
The Torah then comes alive, a matrix of associations branching into unique places. Interpreting the holy text becomes a religious imperative, as the Kabbalist makes new heavens and participates as the world. One’s connection to the Torah is thus extremely important. In creating new interpretations and new “heavens” for humans to dwell in, we add to the aesthetic beauty of the universe. We also devise enduring opportunities for salvation. These new heavens become part of “the supernal crown” and the glory of God. “The waters swarm” with the results of this abundance. Humanity’s religious goals become re-centered in expanding the image of God.
How vital it is for a human being to engage in Torah day and night! For the blessed Holy One listens to the voice of those who occupy themselves with Torah, and every word innovated in Torah by one engaged in Torah fashions one heaven . . . All the words of the Ancient of Days are words of wisdom, conveying supernal, concealed mysteries . . . So each and every word of wisdom is transformed into a heaven, existing enduringly in the presence of the Ancient of Days. He calls them ‘new heavens,’ newly created heavens, hidden mysteries of supernal wisdom. . . (25-26)
The Zohar is a paean to humanity’s deep creativity and the effects of that creative urge on all the worlds. God is permanently linked to humans through the consequences of our combined actions. These actions join us to the divine reality, as we add to creation, finding our own beauty, wonder, and awe.
The sixth commandment: to be fruitful and multiply. For whoever engages in this causes that river to flow constantly, it’s waters never ceasing, and the sea is filled from every direction. New souls are innovated, emerging from that tree, while above, numerous powers increase along with them, as is written: ‘Let the waters swarm with a swarm of living souls [and let birds fly above the earth]’ (Genesis 1:20.) This is the holy sealed covenant, a river streaming forth, its waters swelling, swarming with swarms of souls for that living being. (87-88)