The Zohar

Comments by a reader


Reader: I have developed much skepticism with respect to the mysticism popularly disseminated, the Kabbalah of the Zohar, Bahir, and the Arizal. Particular ideas in this mysticism seem very controversial.

More generally, however, it appears that the majority of Kabbalistic literature is not an authentic part of the Mesora. The evidence that neither the great Tanna, R. Shimon bar Yochai, nor his disciples authored the Zohar appears persuasive. Professor Gershom Scholem, a deeply respected scholar who devoted his life to researching the history of Jewish mysticism and ancient manuscripts, has written prolifically on these works, and devotes a lengthy chapter of his Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism" on speculating the identity of the Zohar's author.

The Aramaic used in the Zohar, Scholem argues, is based on the Aramaic of the Babylonian Talmud and, primarily, Targum Onkelos- texts which someone writing at a later time would have in their library, but not exactly the same Aramaic of Shimon bar Yochai's time. Furthermore, distinctive Arabic phrases and jargon used popularly in philosophical works of the middle ages, are found in the Aramaic of the Zohar, but are certainly not of Shimon bar Yochai's time. The Aramaic is also very poor (sometimes just Hebrew words with alephs tagged on at the end), with the Zohar's author very confused between certain verb constructions- not something expected from the Tanna!

After researching the most ancient extant manuscripts of other works of Moshe de Leon, traditionally the revealer of the Zohar, Scholem discovered the very same nuances, the very same confusion between verb constructions. There are also reports of the time in which de Leon's widow admits that her late husband never had any ancient text and that he wrote the Zohar himself, in the name of the Tanna, in order to make more money. If I am not mistaken, I read elsewhere (in Aryeh Kaplan's "Meditation and the Kabbalah"?) that this convinced Rabbi Yaakov Emden that while the Zohar contained many ancient, authentic ideas, it was not authored by Shimon bar Yochai.

These among many other facts, seem to provide a rationally persuasive argument against the traditional assumption that Shimon bar Yochai (or his students) wrote the Zohar. With respect to the Bahir, Scholem argues that it was a product of northern Spain-southern France during the middle ages. He devotes an entire book to this, "Origins of the Kabbala", of which I have read only a chapter, but his keen eye on detail and historical trends is astonishing.

I have mentioned what I recall to be R. Yaakov Emden's approach, but there are other Rabbi's who have a much more radical stance. The RAM, R. Meir ben Shmuel (Rashi's grandson?), spoke out strongly against the Zohar as fraud. In more recent times, a major proportion of the Yemenite community reject the Zohar, including Rav. Kafach and in particular his late grandfather, Rav. Yikhye Kafach, who wrote Milchamoth Hashem against the false Kabbalah of the Zohar. He considered the Zohar to be the Avon Kets, and describes eloquently and in great detail how it promotes Ribbuy Reshayot (Its division of God into Imma and Abba, Zeir Anpin and Ein Sof, the ten emanated sefirot, and the concentration on particular sefirot during different payers as kabbalists teach, etc.).

Furthermore, the stories about how the Zohar was preserved in secret seem too outlandish to be considered seriously. Some describe a king as having discovered the Zohar under the earth, and the only person alive who he could find who could read it was Moshe de Leon, who then revealed it to the world. Even if this is true, how do we know that it was written by the Tanna, and not a gnostic contemporary in his name?

And if the Zohar and the Bahir were studied in secret circles, how could the Rambam write that all our knowledge of the mysticism of the Sages of the Talmud was lost? Is it conceivable that the Rambam, the greatest Torah authority of his day, did not have access to these groups or at least, from all his extensive traveling, know something about them? Was he not a great enough scholar?! And did the head of the academy, Saadya Gaon also not know of these ideas? And not only did they not teach this mysticism, but their philosophies are incompatible with the ideas of the Kabbalists. It appears that the idea of the emanations of Tsimtsum were ALSO DIRECTLY dealt with as heresy by Saadya in his Emunot v'Deot, in his Refutation of the Theory of Emanation in his chapter on creation.

It seems a great stretch of the imagination to accept the Zohar as a part of the authentic Mesora from Sinai, and I am tempted to follow my own mind on the matter, as you suggest, rather than to blindly follow what is popular. I have recently considered a different kind of appeal to authority which has a reasonable basis, however, and shakes my skepticism. I have discovered a biography on R. Hagiz which describes in detail the controversies of his time, and these include the opposition to the Ramchal. The Ramchal was the leader of a mystical circle in Italy (described as seeing itself as playing some sort of role in bringing the Messiah), which aroused suspicion on account of the concerns on account of the secret Sabbateans who at the time drew much of their inspiration from mystical conjectures. He described his visions of different maggidim, angels and biblical personalities such as Moses and Elijah, who visited him, who supposedly visited him and revealed to him the secrets of the Torah. The Ramchal's account of these encounters is very, very vivid (and spooky) and he describes how the angels dictated to him thousands of pages of Mysticism, such as a massive commentary on Kohelet in the style of the Zohar. He even describes, if I remember correctly, how he bound Sammael to reveal secrets of the Torah to him.

I do not accept the Ramchal's description as honest based on his popular appeal or on the praises of him by other great sages, such as the Vilna Gaon. Rather, I am tempted to believe that he is honest on my own reading of his Mesilat Yesharim. It appears very difficult to believe that the author of this classic of mussar, who describes the importance of truth in the strongest terms, could arrogantly fabricate tales. One is left deciding whether he is lying (Chas V'Shalom), delusional (Chas v'Shalom), or telling the truth. Given that he is the author of Mesilat Yesharim,the latter seems the least surprising of the alternatives. The Ramchal, however, is not the only example. Yosef Caro too accepted the Zohar- he lived among the great mystics of Safed- and he also reported being visited by maggidim. It is very difficult to believe that the author of the Shulchan Aruch, advocating truth alone, could have lied so terribly and arrogantly(Chas v'Shalom), acting so inconsistently (Chas v'Shalom).

I appear to have good reason both to reject the Zohar and to accept it. One Rabbi described to me how the Gadol, Rav Orbach, would not allow someone to officiate as a witness in a wedding ceremony because the individual did not believe in the Zohar. The Rabbi described this belief as inappropriate and insisted that I follow what is accepted by the vast majority of sages today. What do you think is the correct belief? Would I be considered a heretic on account of skepticism towards the Zohar?



Mesora Reaction:

You would not be considered a heretic if you listen to your mind, telling you that there is a question on the Zohar's authenticity. If this is a fact, it is a fact regardless of your reaction.

1) You cannot compare historical evidence against a ruling. These are not commensurate. If history tells you there is questionable authenticity, then there is a question, and you cannot ignore this question. It would be dishonest to ignore such evidence, as it is dishonest to close your eyes to any othe truth. Titling findings "Zohar" is not carte blanch validation.

2) Ibn Ezra taught that even a command of the Torah is not followed if it is irrational. If in the written Torah we abandon that which is irrational, so much more so in other areas.

3) Even in areas of Jewish law, one has the halachik right to investigate and follow his own mind, even in opposition to great rabbis. He cannot teach others, but he may follow for himself. This decision is no more stringent. At most, it is the same, and you have the right to decide.

4) You do not have to follow a rabbi' s ruling unless you ask specifically for a ruling "for yourself". But if asked in theoretical terms, you are not obligated to follow his response.

5) Authorship of the Zohar is not a halachik ruling. I don't see how someone can oblige you in this acceptance, it is outside the scope of "al pi haTorah asher yorucha". The Rabbi's have a limited scope of jurisdiction. What is not addressed by Torah or Rabbinic laws is not something a rabbi may oblige you in.

Philosophy | Tnach | New Postings | JewishTimes | Audio Archives | Suggested Reading | Live Classes | Search | Letters | Q&A's | Community Action | Volunteer | Links | Education | Chat | Banners | Classifieds | Advertise | Donate | Donors | About Us | Press | Contacts | Home


Mesora website designed by
© 2003 Mesora of New York, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Articles may be reprinted without permission.