The road winds like a Talmudic discourse, first one way and then another, up toward Daniel Matt's home in the Berkeley, Calif., hills. "There's a more direct route that my wife likes," admits Matt, 53. "But I find this one more interesting."
That's not surprising. Matt is embarked on a solo journey through one of the most influential--and maddeningly difficult--works in the history of religious literature. After six years of his labor, Stanford University Press has published the first two books of his translation of the Zohar, the wellspring of Jewish mysticism, or Cabala. He will do nine more volumes, all rendered from the Zohar's original Aramaic. The work has received ecstatic advance reviews ("A superbly fashioned translation and a commentary that opens up the Zohar to the English-speaking world," blurbed lit-crit colossus Harold Bloom), and two weeks ago it won a $10,000 Koret Jewish Book Award for "monumental contribution to the history of Jewish thought." Beneath the praise runs an undercurrent of awe that someone was crazy enough to take on the job.
The Zohar's elusiveness dates to its appearance in the Spanish region of Castile around 1280. Written in Aramaic, a language Jews had not composed in for centuries, the book was attributed to a great rabbi of a millennium earlier. But in fact, in the 1930s scholars determined that it was penned by one Moses de Leon and his associates in the 13th century.
De Leon had every reason to fake his work's pedigree: the Zohar was far too radical to be accepted without a fabricated imprimatur. An utterly original 1,800-page mix of Torah commentary, parody, erotic poetry, numerology and experimental narrative devices, it crams some 400 subplots into a Chaucer-like tale of a band of traveling sages. The book's form alone, says Matt, is "a challenge to the normal workings of consciousness."
Its theology is wilder still--nothing less than the division of God's personality, which Judaism had always seen as a unity, into 10 interacting emanations, two of them female. One of these, the Shekhinah, was the Zohar's obsession, the portal through which it pulled believers willy-nilly into the divine drama. Only their prayer and good deeds could save her from hordes of demons and effect her mystic marriage to God's male aspect, a reunion described in sometimes erotic detail. "Without arousal below," de Leon noted, "there is no arousal above."
Remarkably, his book caught on. By 1600 the Jewish world saw the Zohar as its third holiest text, preceded only by the Bible and the Talmud. Cabalistic study and meditation flourished, and zoharic principles formed the basis of Hasidic Judaism. The Zohar's use faded as Judaism absorbed the just-the-facts influence of the European Enlightenment, but it left behind dramatic mementos such as the Bar Mitzvah coming-of-age celebration and the gorgeous Friday-evening song welcoming God's "Sabbath bride." The Zohar also informs the current Cabalistic resurgence, so fascinating to Jews and spiritual adventurers like Madonna. And this created new demand for an authoritative English version.