Daniel Matt: The cosmological kabbalist

“Another parallel is to be found in the kabbalistic concept of “the breaking of the vessels.” Science speaks similarly about “broken symmetry.”

Dr. Daniel Matt (photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr. Daniel Matt
(photo credit: Courtesy)
If you mention the word kabbalist, the picture that would come up would probably be some kind of heavily hirsute rabbi, his eyes looking firmly into a heavenly distance and his body clothed in an all-white kapota and shtreimel. Well, we’ve had Rabbi Meir Yehuda Getz and Rabbi Menachem Froman in the recent past, who conformed to such a picture. But now we have a new generation of rabbis and scholars who look very un-kabbalistic, if one can use such a term. Such a one is Dr. Daniel Matt. Clean-shaven Dr. Matt is a retired professor of Jewish Spirituality and a world expert on Kabbalah and the Zohar.
Matt is part of a surge of modern religious Jews who have made the arcane world of Jewish mysticism available to a wider public. His translation and annotation of the classic text of Kabbalah, Sefer HaZohar (the Book of Radiance) has put him at the forefront of those rabbis and scholars who believe that this rabbinic book should be accessible beyond the relatively small groups of Kabbalah specialists. The translation of this mainly Aramaic text took 18 years of work and came out gradually, the final volume (number 12) being published in 2016, as the Pritzker Edition, named after the family from Chicago who financed this enormous task. (Matt composed nine of the twelve volumes and served as General Editor of the entire series.)  He received prizes for his work. The Koret Jewish Book Award hailed his translation, entitled The Zohar, as “a monumental contribution to the history of Jewish thought.”
When we met him in Jerusalem, The Jerusalem Report asked him first about other translations that have appeared on the market in recent years. We were referring in particular to that of the Kabbalah Center’s translation of Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag’s monumental annotation of Sefer HaZohar.
“It’s based on Ashlag’s Hebrew translation,” says Matt. “In my opinion they did it too quickly, hiring various people, including some Israelis to do the translations, some of whom didn’t know enough about Kabbalah. They sometimes mangled Ashlag’s Hebrew (written in the middle of the 20th century), occasionally misunderstanding some phrases as modern idiomatic Hebrew. Often, though, the English translation is good because Ashlag’s Hebrew translation is superb. But sometimes Ashlag’s commentary starts with the simple translation, and then goes off on a wider ‘Ashlagian’ kabbalistic tangent, which itself needs further explanations. One positive feature of the English translation is that it includes the original Aramaic, paragraph by paragraph. But it misses a lot, partly because it ignores modern scholarship.”
In Israel, Matt senses a sociological dimension of interest in the arcane:
“It’s in the culture here,” he says. “I have found that people teaching Kabbalah in colleges recommend to their students that they look at my translation and commentary. That’s wonderful, because often Israeli academics are hesitant to rely on English scholarship. In addition, rabbis are using it. The Zohar is becoming more popular in the yeshiva world, too. What used to be relegated to a high shelf is now being handled and read more frequently. There are some Haredim who use my translation.
I heard a rumor that the Gerer Rebbe uses the Pritzker Zohar.  He wouldn’t say so publicly, but someone heard him say it.
“I myself use it, alongside the Aramaic text, in the online course I teach via Zoom. I currently have about 125 people in the class, including 40 rabbis. I teach out of my house, for an hour and a half a week.”
What then is especially unique about the Zohar?
“The Zohar takes the juiciest midrashim, the most radical, erotic or poetic ones, and then raises them up a notch.  Indeed, the Zohar calls itself “the new-ancient words.”
“It reimagines God by penetrating the peshat (the simple reading of the text). A Zoharic rabbi will often say, ‘This has been discussed, but...’ and the ‘but’ opens up a new interpretation. One of its most radical moves involves the concept of Shekhinah (God’s presence), which is already very common in Chazal (the Sages).  But in Rabbinic literature, you never find Shekhinah mentioned together with another Divine Name, for example, “The Holy One, blessed be He and Shekhinah...” Only in the Zohar do you have the Shekhinah and the Holy One, blessed be He, together as a couple. The Shekhinah is now in galut (exile) because She’s been divorced by Her divine spouse. The need that God has for us – what it calls tzorekh gavoha, ‘the need on high’ – suggests that God is incomplete without our active participation. The Divine romance cannot be consummated without our aid. In this sense, every mitzvah is an aphrodisiac, a means to stimulate the Divine romance.  I find that beautiful.”
There are critical differences between Matt’s view and that of the most traditional view of this book. “The Haredi yeshiva world looks at the Zohar as being a product of Rashbi (Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai). The insistence on Rashbi’s authorship of the Zohar is almost a criterion for distinguishing Haredim from the modern Orthodox. There are also some middle positions – such as that the core came from Rashbi, and then it was expanded, or that Moshe de Leon (described as the main author by many academic scholars) inherited it and then edited it.”
We discussed the question of how much of the Torah was actually given at Sinai? “Was it the whole Torah, or just the Ten Commandments? Or perhaps it was just the first two commandments, which are in the first person.” He quoted a Hasidic comment that only the letter alef was given, without vowels, i.e., just the pure potential of Divine communication. “This suggests that we now have a certain reading of the Torah, which is one of many possibilities. It fits in with a striking formulation in Bereishit Rabbah, according to which the Torah is an unripe fruit of heavenly hokhmah (wisdom). You would imagine that the Torah is the fullest expression of wisdom. But no, here it is called an unripe fruit, something that is not yet realized. This relativizes the Torah, which is quite radical. How do we ripen Torah? Through the endless process of creative interpretation.”
Did these ideas have a practical application? Did they influence Hasidut?
Matt observes that although some of the fiercest opponents of Hasidut were kabbalists, the Hasidim succeeded in spreading kabbalistic ideas. Some of these ideas, the kabbalists felt, should be kept secret.
As for contemporary spirituality, Matt mentions one of the problems of prayer. “There are simply too many words, which have piled up over the centuries. We should allow ourselves, at least occasionally, to take one phrase and just sit with it.”
Matt came to Israel to launch his new book, which has just been published in Hebrew. The English version, which came out years ago, is called God and the Big Bang. In Hebrew it is called Elohim veHamapatz Hagadol (Yediot). Its subtitle, “Discovering Harmony between Science and Spirituality,” points to the connection between his earlier work on Kabbalah and his interest in cosmology.
“I’m trying to show certain parallels between Kabbalah and modern cosmology. Kabbalah, for example, speaks of God as ayin – with an alef, meaning nothingness. But this nothingness is not really a blank. Rather it is pure, undifferentiated energy that has not yet manifested itself in any form. It is the pure Divine potential and an ocean of infinite possibility, which somehow becomes the world as we know it. It is Divine energy taking form in the physical universe. God is animating all of life. The ‘nothingness’ that is not empty has a parallel in contemporary cosmology, which speaks of the quantum vacuum. This vacuum is not completely empty but rather retains a minimum energy, which gives birth to the cosmos. The Big Bang is not really an explosion. It’s called the Big Bang because it’s an expansion of an original, cosmic point or seed, out of which all life emerges.
“Another parallel is to be found in the kabbalistic concept of “the breaking of the vessels.” Science speaks similarly about “broken symmetry.”
An original oneness, a unity, is transformed into the multiplicity of the world. I’m not saying that the kabbalists knew these precise scientific concepts, or that Rashbi knew what Stephen Hawkings would come up with. Rather, I want to be open to certain parallels between Kabbalah and cosmology, to certain resonances, and to learn from both of these approaches. So many people plant themselves in one camp or the other – a scientist saying, “I’m a scientist and don’t want to be bothered by all this mythology.” Or a kabbalist saying, “‘I believe, so don’t bother me with this scientific stuff – that’s for Reform Jews. Maybe it’s Satanic.”
Matt recalls a lecture that he gave in Santa Barbara’s Center for Cosmology. “I gave a lecture just after the English version of this book came out. After the lecture, I was mingling with the participants and overheard one cosmologist saying to another: ‘Well, he got the science right.’ That felt great.”
If everything began with The Big Bang, then for Matt it offers a different, contemporary take on God: “It’s encouraging for us to reimagine God, not as someone sitting up there, running everything, but rather as energy animating everything. In Hasidut this is called chiyut, the Divine life force. This gives us an image of God as animating energy and not as an anthropomorphic form seated on a throne in heaven. Moses Cordovero (a leading 16th century kabbalist) has an amazing passage where he says that the image of God as seated on a throne is a wrong conception of the Divine. He criticizes the traditional picture, but then, naturally, he goes to pray the afternoon service, mincha, which retains that image. 
Some of the kabbalists combine the new and the ancient images. They accept the traditional view, while looking for something beyond, what the Christian mystic, the Meister Eckhart, calls “the God beyond God.” He says, “I’m not interested in God, I’m interested in the God beyond God.” I think that helps explain the kabbalistic notion of Ein Sof (The Endless One).
Matt also found another intriguing parallel between the two disciplines: “There are so many wild speculations both among the kabbalists and cosmologists about the possibility of multiple universes, or multiple beginnings. Bereishit (In the beginning) may also be understood as ‘In a beginning’ – just one of the many beginnings, or one of the many beginnings of the universes that we may never be able to contact. Such universes could be co-existing with our universe, or could precede or follow it. An early midrash (Bereishit Rabbah) mentions that God ‘created worlds and destroyed them’ before finally creating and delighting in this world.”
His experience in Israel has been extremely encouraging. Firstly, he says that here in Israel people really care. “A recent poll showed that 80 percent of Israelis believe in God. It matters to them, even secular Israelis. If you say something about God, people take it personally!”
In promoting his latest book in Hebrew, Matt spoke in many places, including Bar-Ilan University and the Weizmann Institute. “At Weizmann, it took months for my lecture to be approved. Only at the last minute was it decided that I could speak in a series they were having on Science and the Humanities. Three days before the talk, they put out a poster advertising it, and yet 150 people turned up, packing the hall. The audience was listening intently and posed some challenging questions. Among the people I met at Weizmann was a brilliant particle physicist, Eilam Gross, who helped confirm the existence of the Higgs boson (known as “the God particle”) at CERN in Switzerland, and he appreciates the work I am doing. It emerged that both students and professors at the Institute think about these questions, but they rarely discuss them in public.”
Daniel Matt’s ongoing Zohar course can be accessed on the website of Stanford University Press (https://www.sup.org/zohar/course)