A good way to start an argument among fairly well informed Orthodox Jews is to ask a group of them (preferably representing the whole spectrum of Orthodoxy) the following question: who wrote the Zohar? This is guaranteed to produce at least two answers, both defended vehemently with a good deal of ridicule for the other side. One group will absolutely insist that the Zohar is the work of Moshe de Leon, a somewhat obscure and enigmatic mystic from 13th century northern Spain. The other will swear that it is the work of the 2nd century rabbi, Shimon bar Yochai, and his students and successors, who wandered the countryside of the Galilee discussing mystical topics.
What is the truth? Before we even attempt to answer that one, we first have to explain what the Zohar is. Essentially, it is a midrashic commentary on a good deal of the Chumash. But it is really much more than that. It may have at its core a genuine Midrash, called the Midrash Hane’elam (Hidden Midrash), which could very well be quite ancient. Surrounding this are numerous layers of tangential and parallel discussions, some embedded within the main text, and some in peripheral texts that go by the collective name of the ‘Zoharic literature’. Included in the peripheral literature are books that were added to the main text at some later time. Nevertheless, they have an authority in mystical circles similar to the Zohar itself.
The Zohar and the Zoharic literature cover a vast array of core topics of Judaism: the soul, God, God’s relationship to creation, the afterlife, the hidden reasons for the commandments and the various incidents in the Torah, and countless other subjects. They don’t appear to be in any particular sequential order, other than that the lead discussion on any given topic may quote a verse from the Torah. Those lead discussions follow the order of the verses in the Torah. In studying Zohar, one has to let down certain intellectual criteria normally associated with rabbinic law and even with Midrashim. It requires a pretty open mind - the mental equivalent of surfing a wave, you just go where it takes you. Zohar study is not an intellectual exercise. It is a spiritual experience.
As far as its authorship is concerned, the two primary views are as stated above. The traditional group (Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai) considers any alternative to their view to be akin to heresy. The other group considers the traditionalists to be hopelessly naïve. The historical fact is that a good deal of evidence exists to support late authorship, including a controversial testimony from a contemporary of Rabbi Moshe de Leon, who recorded that de Leon’s widow stated it as a fact. This contemporary, who was an accomplished Kabbalist himself, nevertheless accepted the Zohar as legitimate.
Towards the beginning of the Zohar (I: 23a,b) a fascinating discussion is found between Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his associates. After discussing the verse stating, ‘Let us make man in our image and as our likeness’, they ask the question: why God should have created man if it was known that man was going to fall? Rabbi Shimon’s reply is that man could always repent. To this, the others ask, why create man with the capacity to do evil in the first place? Rabbi Shimon answers that it was necessary that man have a good and an evil inclination and free will to choose between them, in order to be able to do, or to violate, the mitzvot. But they come back with essentially the same question - why was it necessary to have the evil side at all? Rabbi Shimon’s final answer is that it was necessary to fulfill what the Torah describes about rewards for good and punishments for evil.
He finishes his answer with the cryptic statement: 'Additionally, the created Torah is the garment of God’s presence - if human beings weren’t created, God’s presence would not be clothed. Consequently, whoever sins, it is as if that person has stripped God’s presence of garments, and this is that person’s punishment. But whoever fulfills the mitzvot - it is as if that person has clothed God’s presence.'
There are many angles to approach this typically puzzling selection from the Zohar. One gets the feeling that Rabbi Shimon only reluctantly doles out the answer, almost like pulling teeth. One can’t help but wonder why he didn’t just spill the beans right at the start. Furthermore, his ultimate answer has two parts: to enable the Torah’s description of reward and punishment to play out in real life, and to cloth God’s presence. How do these two answers fit together? Furthermore, what is God’s presence? Is it different from God?
This second question gets us into a core subject of the Zohar, the nature of God. The Zohar, in the course of many discourses, makes the bold claim that God’s nature, at least as it appears in creation, is not simple at all, but is quite complex. God is knowable to the creation through ten emanations that proceeded from God’s essential self at the moment of creation. This topic, how the infinite God of ultimate oneness could become manifest through a finite and multifaceted creation, is an ancient question that occupied philosophers of late Roman times. The Zohar deals with it head on. These ten emanations are like God’s inner feelings and thoughts revealed. Why ten and not some other number? This is the subject of the Kabbalistic interpretation of the Sefer Yetzira, the Book of Formation. The Zohar names the ten ‘numbers’ of the Sefer Yetzira and describes them in great detail - how they emerge from each other and how they relate to the created world.
God’s presence is the result of those ten ‘Sefirot’ as they appear in creation. This presence may change according to situation. It may go into exile or be redeemed. It may mourn or rejoice, wear clothing or be stripped of them. Needless to say, the philosophers among the Sefaradi Jews at the time were quite horrified that this idea was becoming all the rage. To them, this was the trinity of Christianity multiplied into ten. Nothing the Kabbalists wrote to explain how it was all a unity, both at the source and in creation, could bridge this gap. So it has remained until today, although Kabbala really won the battle for the soul of Judaism.
Leaving that argument aside, our quote from the Zohar gives two answers to the question of why human beings were created with a built-in evil side. The first focuses on the Torah. It seems to say that God needed a flesh and blood example to demonstrate the Torah’s system of reward and punishment. The theoretical concept wasn’t enough. This line of thought illustrates a fascinating idea that is found in several places in the Zohar, that God ‘looked into the Torah and created the world’. Looked at in this sense, everything in our universe, from the stars to our own moral conscience, exists because it is the ‘hard copy’ of something in the Torah. Difficult as this idea may be to fathom and to actually accept, it cuts into the Kabbalistic conception of reality. What we see and experience in this world is only an outer manifestation of a deeper reality that exists in God’s mind.
The second answer complements this unorthodox way of looking at things. The Torah is God’s garment - it is the visible manifestation of God’s hidden ways. It is through the Torah and the results of its spiritual consequences that we are able to see aspects of God that would be imperceptible otherwise. God, in this sense, needs us to reveal godliness. When a human being does something of genuine goodness it enables God’s presence to be a little more visible in the world. When a human being does evil it does the exact opposite - God becomes less visible in the world. With no human beings at all these aspects of God would have remained unrecognizable, unnoticed, and unknown. It is only through our choices in life that those elements of God become revealed.
This startling concept takes us into a realm that represents the cutting edge of theology. It is where mysticism and philosophy part ways. Does God ‘need’ us in any way? The standard Jewish answer is a resounding ‘no’. We can do nothing for God. God’s essence is in no way changed by our thoughts or our deeds. Aside from the apparent contradiction to many incidents in the Torah itself, this view leaves many people feeling distant from God, an unmovable and incomprehensible being that we cannot fathom or influence. To this, some mystics respond that God does indeed need us and cannot accomplish certain goals without us. This passage from the Zohar appears to reflect such a view. We are needed to clothe God’s presence.
Many Kabbalists also were reluctant to take such a radical stance. Most took the alternative route of attributing dependence to God’s presence, while maintaining absolute independence for God’s essence. While dividing God into two distinct dimensions, a hidden and a revealed, it skirts the other problem. In essence, God is God with or without us. In order to be known and felt in the world, God needs our assistance. We are God’s vital props, God’s make-up artists. We make or break God’s image.
Not everybody wants to hear that the decisions they make in life have cosmic significance. Most people don’t want that kind of responsibility. They prefer the results of the scientific outlook – that we are just the final product of some 14 billion year long accident, the last two billion of which had the added quirk of living things evolving according to some other unplanned scheme. The religious view rejects this as heretical and irresponsible. Mysticism rejects it as naïve. To look at the world as one big series of random events with no plan and nothing lying underneath the surface other than more of the same is to deny the reality of the conscience. Mysticism is not as mystical as the name implies. It needn’t be any more mystical than the simple feeling that there is more going on in life than what meets the eye.
The kabbalistic idea that we, in some way, clothe God’s presence, places a great weight on a person’s shoulders. But it is also extremely liberating. It can take a person out of the humdrum of everyday life, out of the meaningless rat race and the boredom of sameness. It frees us from the confines of being products of evolutionary mutations and elevates us to a kind of partnership with God. A word spoken in the right way at the right time can bring a feeling of godliness into another person’s life. A secret favor done for someone who could really use it produces spiritual vibrations that echo around the world.
Our deeds needn’t be merely deeds. They can be pick-me-ups for God’s frequently forlorn presence in a troublesome world. Do you want to help God out, or do you want to make God feel like not showing His face in public? The punishment for one who chooses the apathetic path is that God’s presence is diminished in their life. There is no greater tragedy. The reward for one who chooses a good path is the godliness that they sense around them. Which do you prefer?
Food for Thought
According to all this, God needs us in order to be revealed in the world. While it elevates our importance in the great scheme of things, it puts God in a position of dependence. Doesn’t this ultimately lead to the human-centered, godless world that we all too often find ourselves living in?
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