Scholar to plumb heights of Kabala

Scholar to plumb heights of Kabala

Dr. Daniel Matt
Dr. Daniel Matt

With its emphasis on filling one of Judaism’s most intrinsic of messages — that God and humans are in partnership in making the world a better place through ethical and moral living — Kabala has continued to attract followers.

Guiding that ethical living is the Zohar, meaning radiance or splendor, the Aramaic-language book on which its mystical teachings are based.

“Some people say it’s the third-holiest book in Judaism after the Bible and Talmud,” said Dr. Daniel Matt, considered one of the world’s leading authorities on Kabala. “For hundreds of years it was and still is for many Jews known as the ‘Holy Zohar.’”

Matt has spent the last 15 years translating and annotating the Zohar. He will be featured speaker at two area venues in the coming weeks: Nov. 16-17, “From Kabala to the Big Bang: Ancient Wisdom and Contemporary Spirituality” at Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth, and Nov. 19, “Zohar: The Masterpiece of Kabala” at Rutgers Student Center on the College Avenue campus, New Brunswick. 

The main public event, open to the wider community, is “God and the Big Bang: Discovering Harmony between Science and Spirituality,” taking place Saturday night, Nov. 17 at 8 p.m. at Highland Park Conservative Temple.

Matt’s seventh translated volume, which covers two-thirds of the Zohar’s commentary on the Torah, is expected out the first two weeks of this month. The compiled work has earned Matt the National Jewish Book and Koret Jewish Book awards.

“There will be nine volumes, which will complete the Zohar on the Torah,” said Matt in a phone interview with NJ Jewish News from his Berkeley, Calif., home. He said tackling the entire work — which he hopes to have completed in three years — has been “an amazing adventure.”

Matt previously served for 20 years as a professor of Jewish mysticism at the Richard S. Dinner Center for Jewish Studies of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. He has authored more than 10 other books, including The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism — which has been translated into seven languages — Zohar: Annotated and Explained, and God and the Big Bang: Discovering Harmony Between Science and Spirituality.

Matt has longstanding ties to central New Jersey. His father, Hershel, a renowned rabbi and author, served as leader of Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen from 1959 to 1970 and at The Jewish Center in Princeton from 1970 to 1975. During the last years of his life, Rabbi Matt taught and co-officiated at High Holy Day services at the Highland Park temple. Daniel Matt attended the former Hillel Academy Day School in Perth Amboy, and his mother and sister still live in Highland Park.

Matt said he believes Kabala’s current popularity can be attributed to an abiding focus on spirituality “that doesn’t flee from the world, but rather engages it and seeks to transform the world.”

Matt explained that Kabala focuses on the “divine romance” between the Shechina — the female aspect of God — and the “masculine path” of God.

“Their union, their wedding, is the goal of Judaism, to unite the Holy One, blessed be He, with the Shechina, the feminine,” he said. “But how do we unite the divine couple? Through virtuous conduct and living ethically…Israel brings forth that union through fulfilling the mitzvot, through living spiritually and ethically.”

Matt also noted that in traditional Judaism, Shechina means “the presence of God in the world” and God’s intimacy with the Jewish people, but Kabala takes it a step further.

“In general, everything in Kabala is based on the Bible and rabbinic Judaism, but what Kabala does is emphasize the direct contact with God,” said Matt. “For the kabalist it is not enough just to fulfill God’s commandments. The kabalist wants to experience God directly, and even that has its roots in the Psalms and the Talmud.”

That “radical” notion that God is both female and male is evident on Friday nights when Shabbat is compared to a bride being brought to her “beloved,” the Jewish people, by God.

“Ultimately God is beyond gender; the term ein sof — which means infinity — is used,” said Matt, “and God is beyond infinite and beyond gender.”

Kabalists recognized that “our understanding of God doesn’t do justice to the infinite nature of God. What we think of a God is not the ultimate reality of God.”

The Zohar “discovers the spiritual essence of Torah through the power of imagination” by reading the Torah in a “fresh and radical new way” — taking elements of Midrash and Talmud and turning them into “fully developed teachings.”

The Zohar, continued Matt, suggests that God is the energy that “animates all of existence and that it is possible to connect with that divine energy through prayer and meditation and ethical living.”

“God needs us. God is somehow incomplete without our active participation. God is potentially here in this world, but it is up to us to actualize that divine potential by living a holy life.”

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