Zohar, the Book of Enlightenment

By Daniel Chanan Matt | Go to book overview
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One who delves into the religious literature of some figures and periods can never forget the profound link that exists between spiritual creativity and the poetic imagination. The reader of Solomon Gabirol or Judah Halevi among the medieval Hebrew poets, like the reader of John of the Cross, to limit the consideration to fellow Spaniards, will perforce see how the poetic vehicle and the religious message converge to influence and mediate one another.

This is not so obviously the case with the Zohar, the magnum opus of Spanish-Jewish Kabbalah in the late thirteenth century. Here the thicket of symbolism is so dense, and the Aramaic prose in which the work is presented often so obscure, that the sense of the poetic is not immediately apparent. The author of the Zohar was, however, possessed of a truly magnificent literary imagination, and he created out of the emerging kabbalistic tradition a work of masterful poetic scope, though doing so without recourse to those specific literary canons that distinguished "poetry" in his age. Working with an already established system of symbolic correspondences (the sefirot, as will be explained below), Moses de León was able to keep the conventionalized religious language in the background, and to sing loftily of lights and sparks, sun and moon, flowing streams and rivers, and, most passionately, of the unending love between the celestial Bridegroom and His Bride.

Such was the fate of this work, however, that it came to be increasingly venerated by generations of devotees who sought to make its poetry transparent, to see beyond the imagery into the "true" religious meaning of the text, exegeting it much as the early rabbis had the Bible, to find in each word or phrase previously unseen layers of sacred meaning. As kabbalistic thought itself developed, particularly after the sixteenth century, a new and infinitely more complicated system of symbols, based on further development of zoharic themes, supplanted the old. Now the purpose of exegesis became a rereading of the Zohar in this later spirit, seeking to find the Lurianic teaching, as it was called, in the more venerable source. Commentaries of the Zohar became increasingly illegible to the noninitiate, and even once deci


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