Wednesday, September 3, 2014
Holding on to the Zohar- Kabbalah for Moderns (part III)
If we are going to talk about what Kabbalah offers to the Modern Orthodox community, we are going to have to get past the elephant in the room. If we are to reject the traditional claim that the Zohar was written by Rebbi Shimon Bar Yochai, and instead contend that it was written, or at least, compiled in the 13th century, what is its value as Torah?
Now, to be sure, the Zohar is not the only kabbalistic text, but it is one of the most often quoted kabbalistic texts, and thus, it is imperative to figure out if and how we can ascribe it value as Torah, regardless of when it was written or compiled.
A number of years ago, a chavrusa of mine shared a conversation he had with his Rosh Yeshiva on the subject. He asked the rosh yeshiva how we could treat the Zohar as a holy text despite scholarly claims that contradicted the “frum” understanding that it was compiled by the Rashbi. The rosh yeshiva was what I would term, for lack of a better phrase, open-minded charedi. His answer was, that the Zohar had been accepted by the Jewish people. At the time when I heard about this answer, I was very much dissatisfied, however I have come to think that there was more to his answer than I understood. I can not say for certain what the rosh yeshiva meant, as he is no longer alive, but within his words, there is perhaps the beginning of an answer to our question.
Although we sometimes talk of midrashim as if they are monolithic and exclusively a product of the talmudic time period, it is known that this is not the case. Some midrashim that have entered the midrashic “canon” were compiled as late as the early Middle Ages, with many others that only date back to the time of the Geonim. Nonetheless, we treat them as Torah, and often ignore the time period in which they were written. A possible justification for this approach can be found in the writings of Rav Kook zt”l. Rav Kook speaks of revelation occurring in two different ways. One is through direct revelation from God to man. The other is through the Jewish people. That is to say, that if a text or belief becomes accepted by the Jewish people, it occurs only due to Divine providence. In other words, once a book is treated as Torah, and is accepted as Torah, it in fact becomes Torah. I would suggest that we could thus treat the Zohar as Torah regardless of when it was compiled and by whom.
Of course, there is one significant caveat which must be added. Not all Torah is equal. A claim made by a tanna, such as Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai, has greater stature than that of a rishon. Thus, even as we accept the ideas of the Zohar as Torah, we can not ascribe to it the same stature as it previously enjoyed, even if in fact, as current scholarship suggests, some of the Zohar is in fact from time-period of the tannaim. Practically, this would mean that when the Zohar contradicts something found in the gemara, it would not have the halachic or theological weight to be on equal terms. Thus, the value of the Zohar for those who take this approach will be lessened on a practical and theoretical level.
To take this idea one step further, I would suggest that the reading of, and approach to the Zohar, in particular, and Kabbalah in general, that has the most to offer the Modern Orthodox community is the the chassidic approach. Rather than focus on theurgical claims about God, and how the world functions, the chassidic approach primarily focuses on, and emphasizes, the psychological and personal meaning that can be found in kabbalah. This was the approach that Rav Kook took, and for those of us who value and study his Torah, it is an approach that can be of value, in that it offers the insightful language and content of the Zohar, without the more complex and controversial claims about God. I believe that for many Modern-Orthodox thinkers, who continue to creatively make use of the Zohar, this is the approach they take.