Rabbi David Greenstein’s recently published commentary on the Zohar, Roads to Utopia: The Walking Stories of the Zohar, is not for the uninitiated.
It is dense, and assumes familiarity with the traditions, language, and concerns of the Zohar, a mystical commentary on the Torah that first appeared in the 13th century.
For those picking it up with no background, it might be like reading a close analysis of a particular motif in The Canterbury Tales without having read or even ever heard of that medieval work.
Greenstein wrote his book, published by Stanford University Press, not only for academics, but also for serious students of religion. He hopes that we are entering a moment in time when being an educated Jew will include some knowledge of the Zohar.
“This whole tradition was ignored, even disparaged, by the non-Orthodox community, and we’re just waking up. We are in a renaissance of Zohar studies, but it will take some time,” said the rabbi of the Conservative Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair. He is among those who lead regular classes on Kabala and the Zohar.
Shomrei Emunah will hold a book launch party for him at the synagogue on Sunday, June 8. He will give a talk on walking, with God and in the Zohar.
The Zohar is the foundational text of the Jewish mystical tradition known as Kabala. Most scholars, including Greenstein, believe the Zohar was written in the 13th century by Rabbi Moses De Leon; however, De Leon claimed he only copied a text written by the second-century rabbi Simeon bar Yochai. Some in the Orthodox world continue to ascribe to the idea of bar Yochai as the author.
The book focuses on a recurring literary motif in the Zohar, in which teachings emerge from conversations between rabbis walking along a road.
The walking motif is very brief, “then you get to the meaty parts of the Zohar — stuff about the soul and about God, and you ignore the walking. It’s a very flickering motif. It’s there for half a second, and it disappears,” Greenstein said. “I think my contribution is to slow things down and say, ‘Did you see that flicker?’”
He was amazed to learn that no one had pursued the idea before. “It just raises the question of what happens when someone notices something that is right in front of everyone’s nose, but no one ever noticed,” said Greenstein. “I’m happy it happened to me.”
The book grew out of his dissertation, completed in 2003. Leading Zohar scholar Daniel Matt, whose translations of the original Aramaic text are responsible to a great extent for the current renaissance in Zohar study, encouraged Greenstein to pursue the topic and then to publish the dissertation.
“But it needed editing, and I have a day job, and it took me awhile to be able to get to the library to do the revisions,” he acknowledged. Over the years, work in the field progressed, so sections of the book had to be revised to reflect these advances in scholarship, Greenstein said.
Greenstein holds an MFA from Queens College, a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in Talmud from the Orthodox Yeshiva University, a PhD in medieval Jewish thought (Kabala and rabbinics) from New York University, and rabbinic ordination from the nondenominational Academy of Jewish Religion, where he served as dean.
His first teachers were his father and grandfather, before he headed to a traditional Orthodox yeshiva as a child. He picked up his passion for Kabala from his grandfather. “Every rabbi, every Jew, has to find the right parts of our tradition and possibilities that resonate best with him or herself,” he said. “My background is traditional in terms of finding what is precious, what to look for to get the meaning of holiness in Judaism. I’m just making my path the same way everyone makes a path. I am just grateful I have the experiences I had.”