Daniel Chanan Matt, PhD.
by Jan Rabinowicz
On the last weekend of October, our city was graced with a visit by one of the foremost living scholars of Jewish mysticism, Daniel Chanan Matt, PhD., a professor at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA, who is most widely known for his ongoing work translating the central kabbalistic text Sefer Zohar. As Congregation Nahalat Shalom’s Scholar in Residence for 5776, Dr. Matt spoke to nearly-packed houses at Congregations Albert, B’nai Israel and Nahalat Shalom over the course of three days, on topics ranging from the Zohar as midrash to the philosophy of Shabbat and from ancient Israelite goddess worship to quantum physics. His visit brought the Jewish community together in a way I have not seen in the year and a half I’ve lived here, and which I have been told is a rarity; no less so, I’m sure, for the fact that it revolved around a topic that is so often misunderstood and dismissed.
A warm and soft-spoken personality, Dr. Matt is remarkable not only for the depth of his knowledge about Jewish spiritual traditions, but for his ability to present their radical and often paradoxical teachings in plain words. Introducing his last talk of the weekend, Rabbi Deborah Brin of Nahalat Shalom observed that his work “makes it possible to enter into the text no matter how much knowledge of Jewish tradition you have or don’t have.” Below, I attempt to outline the substance of his talks in Albuquerque; anyone who is new to the subject but interested is strongly encouraged to pick up any of the several books he has written or edited.
Dr. Matt gave his initial talk during a highly-attended Friday evening service at Congregation Albert, in an appearance that underscored his position linking the active spiritual community to academia. A lay scholar, Matt is the son of a rabbi, and indeed one local rabbi would, by slip of the tongue, introduce him as “Rabbi Matt.” Themed on the concept of Shekhinah, or the presence of G-d in the world, which is considered feminine, Matt’s remarks also served as an introduction to the overall topic of mysticism in Judaism.
Right away he posed the question, “Why study Kabbalah?” The ancient tradition of Jewish philosophy and mysticism is often seen as the hopelessly obscure province of New Age faddists and Hasidic devotees; “not,” as Matt said, “for the modern, thinking Jew.” Matt’s answer, though, goes right to the point: the metaphysical speculations and meditative practices of Kabbalah provide a means to “shatter childish images of G-d” and relate to an Almighty which is understood “not as static being, but dynamic becoming,” and not distorted by notions like gender and personality. This relation is then key to the positive transformation of human life and the cosmos, since it puts us in touch with our divinely-appointed task of healing a broken world.
Noting the Zohar’s self-characterization as “new old words” (its likely author in medieval Spain claimed it was an ancient text he received by revelation), Dr. Matt emphasized the theme of divine dynamism and in-definability by pointing out that ‘Kabbalah’ (Kuf-Bet-Lamed), which is usually translated as ‘tradition’, signifies ‘receiving’ in a much broader sense (e.g., in modern Hebrew, it can even denotes the scrap of paper we call a receipt). If, as he suggested, mysticism can be given a cursory but useful definition as “direct contact with G-d,” it follows that Kabbalah is the living stream of a reception which is always ongoing.
There is always a gap, then, in any possible presentation of the notion of G-d, Who is really Ayin (Nothing) – not a thing, but a necessary condition for the possibility of anything; not the deity revealed in history and Torah, but the unknowable One Whom kabbalists called Ein Sof (the Endless). G-d is not the pillar of fire in the desert or the clouds of glory about the tent, but the Source of everything, Whose only possible name is the one given Moses at the bush: “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh – I am that I am; I will be what I will be.”
To bring this all back down to earth a little: early Jewish mysticism was largely based on Ezekiel’s vision as recounted in Neviim; its practitioners sought ethical purity as a means to spiritual insight and developed contemplative practices so that the human soul might serve as a harmonizing link between higher and lower worlds. The kabbalistic milieu which crystallized in medieval France and Spain would attain its most monumental expression in the Zohar, a lengthy picaresque novel about Talmudic sages traveling through ancient Israel while discussing the mystical meanings beneath the Torah’s surface. In a work replete with strange encounters, arcane symbolism and erotic imagery, the sages nonetheless always return from speculative depths to practical matters of how one should live, in timeless Jewish fashion.
Kabbalistic exposition of the Shekinah derives from such sources as the Talmudic statement that “the Presence went into exile with them” (Megillah, 29a); the feminine Shekinah is affected by human activity. She is a face that G-d shows to the world, and G-d is present everywhere potentially, but ‘realized’ only when humans act ethically. For this reason Shekhinah is also called Sod Ha-Efshar, “the secret of the possible.” Matt also pointed out that this concept can be linked to the earlier stages of the Israelite religion (where archaeological evidence has indicated that YHVH in some times and places was worshiped together with a female consort) and cited Gershom Scholem’s contention that Kabbalah represents a “revenge of the mythological” in Judaism.
Since Shabbat “is an opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with a sense of intimacy with
G-d,” Dr. Matt said, it is no surprise that Shekhinah figures prominently in the kabbalist’s view and practice of Shabbat. Five centuries ago, Sfat in the Galilee was becoming the global center of Jewish mysticism, and according to their custom, the community would go out to the fields dressed in white on Friday afternoons to welcome the arrival of the Shabbat Queen or Bride, who is both the Shekhinah and the same Bride we sing about in “Lecha Dodi,” which was composed by a member of Sfat’s mystical circles. Their most important teacher, Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, recommended meditating on Shekhinah while gazing into the setting sun on Fridays.
Dr. Matt pointed out here that a midrash explains why it is said that G-d completed the work of creation on the 7th day, not the 6th, even though on the 7th He simply rested – it is because life is not complete without time for rest and appreciation. Shabbat is re-acquaintance with a deeper dimension of reality, which we might reach through family, friends, nature, peace and quiet, or – perhaps the greatest luxury nowadays – by avoiding spending or earning money. Matt referred to Shabbat as “an antidote to materialism,” “a holy ‘no’,” “a palace in time” and “a chance to recover the immanence of G-d.”
After a talk focused on the Zohar the next morning at B’nai Israel, Dr. Matt spoke at Nahalat Shalom about science and spirituality, mainly following from his book “God and the Big Bang.” In drawing numerous parallels between physics, biology, and Kabbalah, Matt argued that “distinct but complimentary” scientific and spiritual traditions have aimed at understanding our origins and uncovering a sense of cosmic unity. Modern science’s explanation of the beginning of the universe coheres surprisingly nicely with that of Lurianic Kabbalah, where the cosmos begins as an infinitely small, infinitely dense kernel within a void that is not quite a void – in modern physics terminology, a singularity in a quantum foam of virtual particles. No one can say what happened at the very beginning, but shortly thereafter all was chaos, which resolved into the world of the various created things as the symmetry of the four forces (gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces) diverged. Matt related this to the Lurianic imagery of the ‘Breaking of the Vessels’ (Shevirat Ha-Kelim), in which divine emanation in its pure form proved too intense for the physical universe to contain, and the world as we know it arose as a result.
Sparks of divine light were then trapped in the created world like the ‘rest energy’ of subatomic particles, which is trapped in them by their very physical existence as such. Albert Einstein, who affirmed his belief in Spinoza’s panentheistic divinity, is best known for the equation, E = mc2, which indicates a substantial equivalence between matter and energy. In Kabbalah, G-d permeates the world while radically transcending it, and continually creates it through an influx of energy (usually metaphorized as ‘light’). The word olam, usually translated as ‘world’, shares a root with ‘conceal’: G-d is the energy which animates the world but is concealed by its apparent congealment into matter, the shards of the broken vessels which hide G-d from the world and keep it from dissolving into the sheer divine radiance. Olam, of course, also means ‘eternity’, and Matt cites Einstein’s revolutionary coining of the term ‘spacetime’ as further evidence for the Nobel laureate as a Jewish mystic. Drawing on a different and no less radical branch of modern physics, the “many-worlds interpretation” of quantum mechanics is strikingly reminiscent of the midrash which states that “many worlds” have been created and destroyed apart from this one.
The theory of evolution and something like Rabbi Miles Krassen’s ‘planetary Judaism’ arose here too: as shocking as the new scientific view of human ancestry was to many forms of religion, like the Big Bang Theory, it lets us know that our origin – our Source – lies not at some particular privileged point but everywhere, and we are inside it (i.e., if the universe expanded from a single point, the Big Bang ‘happened everywhere’; humans likewise are part of a living planet, in which there is no separate and superior species). Bereishit, in any case, makes clear that plants and animals pre-existed humans. Our biological relations locate us within a vast cosmic web of being, all of which is permeated by divinity and depends on ethical human action to “raise the sparks” and re-sanctify it.
This theme was developed more in its application in the following day’s concluding talk at Congregation Albert, on “G-d and the Material World.” Lively question-and-answer sessions explored the ethical implications of a G-d who is everywhere and who calls us to participate in Tikkun Olam, “to mend our own brokenness, our social fabric and our planet.” The concept of Moshiach was raised as a “necessary illusion” that metaphorizes the human potential to do good – striving to bring on the cosmic Shabbat of a permanently redeemed world – as reflected in the comment by Franz Kafka (who learned about Jewish mysticism from Martin Buber) that “The Messiah will come on the day after his arrival” (or, I might add, as in Walter Benjamin’s classic essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History”).
Kabbalah is very concerned with the fractal self-similarity of the great structure it sees as underpinning all reality, the microcosm-macrocosm relations: aleph is said to be a vav (hook) connecting two yuds, G-d (above) and Israel (below); the Tree of Life can be found at every scale, from the human body and soul to the cosmos and the first stirrings of its creation. Luria’s cosmology is thus also seen to model human experience: for instance, me turning off my phone on Shabbat to “taste the silence” is also passing into Tzimtzum, the metaphysical moment right between when there was only G-d and when there was the world, but also a foretaste of the moment between this world and the next; the fertile void of Ayin, where language and logic cannot reach. Ultimately, the Tradition is about living in balance between material and spiritual planes, in such a way as to heal the world and spread holiness. This is not really something so ‘out there’ and esoteric, but something we can carry in our daily awareness and the least of our gestures, something very close to the soul of our ancestors’ faith.
I have heard a number of people remark, both personally and publically, on the great enthusiasm stirred across our relatively small community by Dr. Matt’s visit. A number of people first heard about and expressed interested in Rabbi Miles’s bimonthly neo-Hasidic teachings at Nahalat Shalom, and although I’m not sure if anything’s come of it yet there were rumors that a new study group would be forming to read and discuss some of Matt’s translations of key kabbalistic texts. If the high attendance at each of his talks and the overflowing Q&A’s were any indication, the sparks he fanned here have a good chance of growing into something illuminating.
Jan Rabinowicz is a philosopher, musician, mathematician, and cyclist living in Albuquerque.