A Discussion Regarding Truth, Authenticity, Tradition and Reason
Did R. Shimon Ben Yohai or his Disciples
Write the Zohar?
A Response to a Letter
I will answer your question with some of my own.
- Who wrote the Talmudh? Ravina and Rav Ashi? Baloney! The Talmudh itself makes it clear that it was written long after their deaths. Mar bar Rav Ashi? Also baloney, since the Talmud makes it clear that it was written after his death also. It is more likely that it was written by the Rabbanan Saboraei, who we know practically nothing about, not even their names, and there is no dispute that certain passages in the Talmudh were interpolated by post-Amoraic authors. Rav Meir Treibetz has a cogent argument that it was not even written by the Rabbanan Saboraei but by the later Geonim. See www.hashkafacircle.com. Does it matter to you who wrote it and when? The bottom line is: NOBODY knows who wrote the Talmudh.
2. Who wrote the Book of Iyov? The Talmudh offers two opinions as to its authorship and time of composition, and they differ by 1000 years. The Talmudh gives no definitive statement on this issue, and this obscurity is a gold mine for Bible critics. Do you believe that the Book of Iyov was written by Divine Inspiration, or the product of the minds of some rabbis in the period after the first Hurban? If the second scenario be true, should it be expunged from the Tanakh? Similarly, there are disputes as to whether or not the books of Shir HaShirim, Qoheleth, and Ester, were written with Divine Inspiration or the product of human thought.
3. Who wrote the last eight pasuqim in the Torah (according to Ibn Ezra the last twelve)? The explanation offered by the Tosefoth is obviously a poor attempt to “explain away” the commonly held notion that the whole Torah, down to the very last letter, was the direct word of God through Moshe. If you were faced with a Sefer Torah missing even one letter of these 12 pasuqim, or even all of them, would you render the Sefer Torah kosher?
Till now I have dealt with the authorship, now I will deal with its acceptance. The Zohar has been given a bad rap by intellectuals because of the Eastern European “Hasidim” to whom blind faith in a Rebbe or a book that is called “holy” is an article of faith, and Oriental Jews who are largely given to superstition and saint cults. They have a ridiculous custom of “reading” Zohar as opposed to “studying” it because of their belief that “reading” it, even without comprehending it, purifies the soul. That is akin to saying that if one simply “reads” Einstein without even understanding it he will become a genius.
In fact, some of the greatest most learned and rational Sages of Israel, Geonim in Talmudh and Halakhah and even secular studies, have devoted themselves to the Zohar and swore by it. Among them,
1. The Ari zal, although he made his name in Qabbalah, this overshadowed the fact that he was also a Gaon in Halakhah, a talmid of Radbaz and Rabbi Bessalel Askenazi, author of Shitah Mequbbesseth. And his disciple Rabbi Hayyim Vital, who himself studied and quotes the Moreh Nevukhim, the epitome of rationalism, also describes how the Ari intensely laboured over his Talmudic studies.
2. The Gaon of Vilna, an iconoclast, rationalist, and critic of the first order, who did not shirk from making changes in accepted texts or changing long established practices he believed to be wrong. Both he and Rabbi Yosef Caro even used the Zohar in rendering halakhic decisions.
3. Rabbi Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto, author of Mesilath Yesharim and numerous other Torah works. It is also documented that he was well versed in secular studies and his talmidim were students at the University of Padua.
4. I am aware of Rav Qafah’s grandfather and his Dardayim with their vitriolic opposition to Qabbalah, and I assume you are aware of the correspondence he had with Rav Kook on the matter. I once asked Rav Qafah about this and he humbly and honestly said that he had no understanding of it and could not comment pro or con.
Furthermore, Qabbalah greatly pre-dates the Zohar. Writings on it by Rav Sherira, Rav Hai, Ramban and his talmidim, Rabbi Eliezer of Worms and others of that time are still extant, not to mention the Talmudh itself (c.f. Ein Doreshin and other places). When the Zohar appeared the bonifide Qabbalists of the generation accepted it as genuine. The Zohar is often called the “Zohar HaQadosh”. I have never heard the Talmudh being referred to as the “Talmudh HaQadosh”.
And now to its content.
You write” The teachings of the Zohar range from profound to inane, from insightful and enlightening to misleading and even heretical”.
What about the Talmudh? It states that Og king of Bashan was a mile tall and threw a mountain on the the people of Israel who numbered at least 1,200,000. Don’t tell me this is only an allegory. Whoever wrote this meant it literally, since it has halakhic implications. (See the Mishnah there.) And the statement that for every Jew who left Egypt 300,000 died in the days of darkness. 300,000 squared equals 90,000,000,000! And the measurements of Bethar? And the Rabbah bar bar Hannah tales? Again, don’t say it’s an allegory since an Amora said he was there and saw it.
Do you believe this nonsense? The Talmudh says so. And what about the cryptic chapters of the Book of Yehezkel and Masekheth Haghighah that can only be understood in light of Qabbalah? Should they also be rejected? The explanations given by Radaq, Ralbag, etc. are clearly contrived and in light of modern science simply ridiculous.
Qabbalah is usually called “mysticism”. I prefer to call it “meta-physics”, since that is what it is; as opposed earthly physics that deals with the workings of the mundane world, it is the physics of the workings of the higher dimensions of Creation and how the Creator interacts with the Creation. Like advanced physics, it has a logic, language, and nomenclature of its own that often differs in meaning from their earthly meanings and often has anthropomorphisms and the like, just as the Torah itself does.
I am well aware of the passage about Zevulun and the Tekheleth, and your misunderstanding of it results from your lack of understanding of the terminology and concepts being referred to.
The exact same methodology you use to denigrate the Zohar can be used equally well to discredit the entire Torah itself, both Written and Oral.
A Rav of your stature, who I admire for your attempts “l’hahazir ha’atarah l’yoshnah” would do well if, instead of aligning himself with complete apiqorusim like Gershom Scholem and his ilk, would align himself with the great Torah Giants of the generations, especially those who knew much more about this subect than you.
- Let me begin by rejecting your claim that the topic of the redaction of the Talmud and all that such a legitimate discussion implies is in any way analogous to a discussion of the authorship and authenticity of the Zohar. No-0ne has ever questioned the authenticity and provenance of the Talmud; many have questioned the authenticity and provenance of the Zohar. This is an undeniable fact.
- Now ask yourself: Why is this so? The answer is plain: the Talmud, like all extant Hazalic literature, has come down to us by a long but clearly traceable chain of tradition. The teachings of Anshe K’neseth HaG’dhola, disciples of the N’vi’im, were recorded by their disciples and passed on to the Hakhamim who followed in their footsteps, and so it was from generation to generation, as indicated by the chain of Oral Tradition recorded in the Mishna in Masekheth Avoth. The Oral Tradition was known and studied by Jews from that time down to the present day, as opposed to the Zohar which was unknown until it suddenly made its appearance in 13th century Spain. We know with great precision who the Hakhamim of the Mishna and Talmud were, where they lived, from whom they received the Oral Tradition, etc. This cannot be said of the Zohar.
- The authorship of the Talmud — i.e. who authored the Talmudic text as it exists before us and how and when this occurred, as opposed to its authenticity — is a fascinating and extremely important discussion about which much has been and will be written. I do not concur that “nobody knows who wrote the Talmud”. Today we know as much as one could reasonably expect to know, considering its antiquity and the fact that the text consists of several layers from different periods.
- You are correct regarding the Book of Iyov: Hazal make it plain that they had no firm tradition as to its author. I fail to see, however, why anyone would suggest expunging it from the T’nakh. The Jewish people have always relied on Hazal’s determination regarding the contents of the T’nakh, and they were of the view that Iyov is an extremely important and inspired book which we need to study. Keep in mind that they were the disciples of the N’vi’im, the recipients of the Prophetic tradition; they knew an inspired work when they saw one. This is more than enough for me. Hazal made no such determination regarding the Zohar. All of the above holds true for Shir HaShirim and Qoheleth as well. The consensus of the Hakhamim (Mishna Yadhayim 3:6) was that all these books are “Havivim (to be treasured)”.
- Regarding the Book of Ester: from the Mishna in Yadhayim 3:6 it appears that all the Hakhamim mentioned there regarded Ester as part of the T’nakh. This position is stated explicitly in TB M’ghila 7a in the name of R. Shim’on. It is true that R. Y’hoshua and Sh’muel HaBavli (ad loc.) were of the view that Ester was not intended to be part of the written T’nakh but rather to be recited from memory once a year on Purim (see Rashi ad loc.), but this is beside the point; the debate between the Hakahmim was regarding its Halakhic status, not its authenticity or accuracy. The Halakha is that it is to be committed to writing as are all the books of the T’nakh. All of Hazal were in agreement that we are required to read M’ghilath Ester on Purim, and that M’ghilath Ester conveys a profound and essential message regarding the relationship between HASHEM and His people, the absolute necessity of ‘Am Yisrael’s existence in the world, and HASHEM’s ability to direct historical events with an unseen Hand.
- Regarding the last 8 or 12 p’suqim of the Tora which describe the last actions and the death of Moshe Rabenu: this is discussed by Hazal in Siphre D’varim 357 and TB Bava Bathra 15a. The majority view is that these p’suqim were written by Y’hoshua, whereas a minority claim that these too were written by Moshe Rabenu. Clearly it is easier, from a rationalist standpoint, to accept the view of the majority. Be that as it may, this too has nothing with the provenance of the Zohar. All agree that these p’suqim are part of the Tora, and that a Sepher Tora lacking these p’suqim is pasul.
- To sum up thus far: none of the issues mentioned above are in the least bit germane to a discussion regarding the provenance of the Zohar.
- You write: “Some of the greatest most learned and rational Sages of Israel, Geonim in Talmudh and Halakhah and even secular studies, have devoted themselves to the Zohar and swore by it.” To point to certain great rabbis of the past who believed the Zohar to have been authored by R. Shimon ben Yohai or his disciples and claim that therefore it must be so is simply no argument at all.
A man, even a very sagacious man, can be mistaken. Hazal were misinformed regarding certain aspects of the physical world due to the poor state of scientific knowledge in their day; this fact in no way detracts from their greatness or authority. Many members of Hazal believed in spontaneous generation as did everyone at that time; today we know this to be false. Rambam, a great astronomer, believed, as did all astronomers in his day, that the sun circles the earth, and that there exist great celestial wheels (galgalim) in the heavens in which the planets are embedded. Should we subscribe to these spurious concepts? Albert Einstein was convinced that the steady-state model of the universe was correct, to the extent that he “fiddled” with his own calculations to make them fit this model. He only reluctantly accepted the Big Bang model when forced to do so by undeniable and unambiguous observations, at which time he said of his “fiddling” that it had been the biggest blunder of his life.
- I am reminded of the following true story: HaRav Avigdor Nebenzahl (the Rav of the Old City of Y’rushalayim) who wears T’philin all day, was once challenged, rather cheekily, by a student: “Why should we not learn from all those great rabbis who did not wear T’philin all day that this is not done?” HaRav Nebenzahl replied: “Why should we not learn from all those who did?”
Allow me to apply HaRav Nebenzahl’s approach to this discussion. In my previous letter I mentioned the R. Ya’aqov Emden, the Ya’abess, who reached the conclusion that the Zohar was authored in 13th century Spain. He presented his claims, backed by much proof, in a book entitled Mittpahath S’pharim. (I am curious: have you actually read this book?) Keep in mind that the Ya’abess was an exceptional Hakham with a very finely honed sense of reality, history and textual integrity. He was a great m’qubal, and authored many Qabalistic works.
- Ya’aqov Emden was not alone. R. Moshe Sopher, the famous Hatham Sopher, was of the same view. In the fascinating book Me M’nuhoth p. 43b a close disciple of the Hatham Sopher, R. Eliezer Lipman Neisatz, quotes his teacher as saying “before many of his students that were it possible to identify the authentic statements in the midrashim of Rashbi, as opposed to the material which was added over the generations by various Hakhamim, it would be a very small book indeed, and would come to no more than a few pages“.
- Here I will add something known to very few. About 27 or 28 years ago I was in the Gershom Sholem Library of Qabala in the National Library in Jerusalem. There I came across a small pamphlet, just a few pages stapled together with a cardboard binding. On the outside it said: “Attributed to Rav Kook”. Inside I found a few hand-written pages. I immediately perceived that this was not Rav Kook’s handwriting. I read and reread the contents and realized that these pages had been written by the Nazir, Rav Kook’s disciple, HaRav Dawidh Kohen. (I later compared the writing to other published examples of the Nazir’s writing – there was no doubt whatever that this was the Nazir’s hand.) The gist of these pages was that he, the Nazir, had heard from “Maran Sh’litta” (anyone familiar with the Nazir knows that he could only have been referring to Rav Kook to whom he frequently referred using precisely these words), that the Tiqune Zohar and the Ra’ya M’hemana were authored by a Hakham in medieval Spain but emanated from a high spiritual source. I was able to photocopy these pages which are still in my possession.
We see that Rav Kook was aware of the facts regarding the time and place of the Zohar’s origins, and that he differentiated (for reasons that are clear to those familiar with the texts) between Tiqune Zohar and Ra’ya M’hemana and the rest of the Zohar (which he considered of a much lower order).
Rav Kook clearly felt that these works were of great value but did not allow this assessment to cloud his vision regarding the hard facts.
- I knew HaRav Qapheh z’l well. He chose not to discuss the matter with you, as was his wont with most people. He held very firm views on the subject; a book by HaRav Qapheh about the Zohar and Qabala, Sihath D’qalim, was published posthumously. There are hints of his opinion on these matters scattered throughout his writings (see HaRav Qapheh’s introduction to Rav Sa’adhya Gaon’s perush on T’hilim for one such example). As for myself, I reached my conclusions regarding the Zohar completely independently of HaRav Qapheh or the DarDa’im. The Darda’im/’Igeshim split among Temani Jews is of no interest to me. It is, however, regrettable, to say the least, that many Temani Jews have been brainwashed into distancing themselves from the Qapheh family which has so much to offer.
- Jewish mysticism certainly predates the Zohar. Has anyone ever denied this? My earlier response related specifically to the Zohar. It is, however, a fact that modern-day Qabala would not exist without the Zohar; the earlier systems are something else entirely.
- The pseudo-responsa relating to Qabala purporting to have been written by G’onim such as Rav Sh’rira, Rav Hai and in one case Rav Sa’adhya, are all forgeries. Clumsy forgeries, in point of fact. Many attempts were undertaken to create ex nihilo a “lineage” for the mystical teachings of certain medieval authors. The phenomenon of pseudepigraphical works is well known and was recognized early on. A good example is Rav Sa’adhya Gaon’s response to the Karaite Solomon ben Yeruhim’s critique of the ideas ascribed to the Tannaim R. Yishma’el and R. ‘Aqiva in Shi’ur Qoma, in which Rav Sa’adhya Gaon expresses his suspicion that the work is pseudepigraphic (The Unique Cherub Circle, p.7 notes 15 and 16).
- The fact that some refer to the Zohar as “HaZohar HaQadhosh” reminds me of the Yiddish expression “er schrei chai vekayem“, referring to someone protesting on his deathbed that he is alive and well. When one is “chai vekayem” there is no need to state the obvious. This is why no-one refers to the Talmud or the T’nakh as ‘Qadosh’. A propagandist, on the other hand, will never miss an opportunity to disseminate his agenda. Far from being a proof for your position, it reveals the underlying insecurity and intellectual dishonesty of those who insist that the Zohar can be traced back to the disciples of R. Shim’on ben Yohai.
- Regarding statements found in the Talmud such as the one you mention regarding ‘Ogh, King of Bashan: no, I do not take it to be factual. Nor do I take the Agadoth of Rabba Bar Bar Hana literally. Neither did the Maharsha, the Gr’a, R. Nahman of Breslev or Rav Kook in their detailed commentaries on the Agadoth of Rabba Bar Bar Hana.
I believe that most intelligent, educated Jews who ‘reside’ in the world as we know it, as opposed to those who view reality through a medieval prism, discount such things, just as they discount tales about demons and evil spirits. The Rambam, very much ahead of his time, explicitly rejected many notions that are mentioned in the Talmud and were once widely believed by the masses, and even by many scholars, such as demons and astrology. It is difficult to convey to the modern reader how radical Rambam’s positions were at that time when all civilizations grave credence to such claims.
Nor do I believe in spontaneous generation, even though at least some members of Hazal did. How could I when the reality is clearly visible under a microscope? I know that many Orthodox Jews are reluctant to express their thoughts on these matters for fear of being labelled unorthodox. This is a great pity, a tragedy in fact: it misleads many to adopt the view that to be an Orthodox Jew one has to be primitive and unschooled, or alternately exist in a constant state of cognitive dissonance. Nothing could be further from the truth. One can only guess at the number of Jews who have turned their backs on Tora Judaism for this and related reasons.
Modern understandings and scientific advancement are not enemies of Tora, and we should embrace all knowledge based on fact. 90 years ago Rav Kook z’l pointed out that the increase in human understanding should encourage us to expand our minds, which will in turn lead us to a more profound understanding of Tora and knowledge of HASHEM. Rav Kook points out further that old and obsolete theological understandings must be relinquished in order to make way for the newer, deeper understandings that our present state of knowledge demands. He likens it to the seed planted in the earth which must first begin to rot before it sends forth the new shoot of life.
- You are mistaken to think that my aim is to denigrate the Zohar or Qabala. I expressed my view as to the Zohar’s provenance in response to a specific question. I am not in the habit of ducking or ignoring difficult or controversial issues. Nor do I avoid expressing an opinion when asked to do so. When I don’t know, I say so.
- In my previous response I wrote that “[The Zohar] should only be studied by those of superior intellect who have dedicated themselves for many years to the in-depth study of Tora based on the primary sources. The capacity for critical thought and caution are essential. The masses are to be discouraged from studying it.” It seems that this statement vexed and provoked you, but this was not my intention. In fact I am only echoing that which appears in Shulhan ‘Arukh YD 246:4: that many authorities over the centuries have expressed the view that Qabala should not be studied by those “who have not gorged themselves studying the straightforward meaning of the Tora and Halakha”. The Shakh (commentary ad loc.) states that all agree that the masses should be discouraged from studying Qabala, and adds that some authorities banned the study of Qabala by anyone under the age of 40. The Pithhe T’shuva ad loc. quotes several great Hakhamim who severely criticized the widespread practice of studying Qabala. See T’shuvoth Hawoth Yair no. 210 and T’shuvoth Nodha’ BiYhudha I, YD no.93.
- Anyone truly familiar with Tannaic and Amoraic Aramaic will quickly become aware of the fact that the Aramaic of the Zohar is the invention of people who did not speak the language. You do not have to take my word for it. In his doctoral thesis, Prof. Y’hudha Liebes demonstrated that the Aramaic of the Zohar is artificial and contrived. It is unlike any form of Eastern or Western Aramaic of the period, and is loaded with Spanish and other foreign terms which betray its time and place of origin.
- Regarding the Zohar’s claim that T’kheleth was produced from a fish found in Lake Kinereth, you wrote: “your misunderstanding of it results from your lack of understanding of the terminology and concepts being referred to”. Apparently you claim that the passage in question is not, in fact, discussing the dye T’kheleth, or it is not, in fact, referring to the Kinereth, and should be interpreted as some kind of mashal. You may be interested to know that the R. Moshe Kordivero (Ramaq) in his perush Or Yaqar (Vol. 8, p. 19) and the Ya’abess (Mitpahath S’pharim 22) both understood the passage as I did. Did they too lack an understanding of the terminology and concepts?
- I am not an enemy of mysticism. Mysticism is an essential part of the religious experience, or so it is, at least, for many. There have been different forms and formulations of mysticism over the ages. My approach towards Qabala, or the Zohar, is identical to my approach to Rambam’s Mor’e HaN’vukhim or R. Y’hudha HaLewi’s Kuzari, or to the writings of Rav Kook or Rav Hirsch: study and consider well, and accept what seems good and correct. That which is plainly not true one should reject. That which is problematic or dubious, or possible but not necessarily so, one may choose to either accept, reject or place in one’s Undecided Box. This approach to Jewish thought and philosophy is analogous to the attitude of Rav Sh’rira Gaon and Rav Hai Gaon (see Eshkol, I, p. 157 ff) towards Agadoth: that many Agadic statements are non-binding opinions not based on firm tradition, and that one is not required to accept all such statements.
- As I have endeavoured to make clear, I have not aligned myself “with complete apiqorusim like Gershom Scholem and his ilk”. I am most definitely and unequivocally aligning myself with “the great Torah Giants of the generations” such as Ya’abess (R. Ya’aqov Emden), the Hathem Sopher and Rav Kook. And it is an honour and privilege to be so aligned.
Rabbi David Bar-Hayim