I have been reading back and forth between two translations of the Zohar. One is the edition put out by the Kabbalah Center folks and the other is Daniel Matt’s critical translation. Part of that is just because I want to see two takes of it, especially since Matt takes a philological approach and attempts to reconstruct an original out of the variants.
I am working with the first volume of each right now (because I’m only a little crazy) and so far like the Matt translation better. Mostly, I am dipping in and out of different sections, reading a stretch here, then there. There is just one thing that grates on me a little, which I never imagined would—extensive footnotes. There is so much critical apparatus attached to the Matt translation that I am having a difficult time working through the text on its own terms.
I know I can ignore the footnotes, but years of scholarly conditioning make that difficult. The commentary is good and interesting, but so far I feel like it might be telling me too much. It starts explaining sefirot assignments almost right away, well ahead of the texts unfolding. Strangely, I’m not even sure if I agree with the ones Matt is pointing out.
Well, maybe that’s not quite right. I don’t agree with him pointing them out so early. I want to work through the text more intimately, on its own terms, and he keeps piling up conceptual elements. It keeps pushing my experience of a deeply imagistic and affective text, into more schematic and conceptual territory. It also doesn’t help that the conceptual territory he treads over seems only tangentially relevant to the conceptual territory that seems most interesting to me.
It’s good commentary, but it makes me feel keenly the contingency of commentary (or well, commentary on commentary in this case). Anyway, let me talk about the terrain that does interest me. I am sure for some it will seem as contingent and distracting as Matt’s to me.
So, okay, the Zohar opens with the rose, in reverse, from petals to sepal, each differentiated by triplicate repetition of the name of God in the opening of Genesis. The name is sort of the pistil, it centers and joins the differentiations. It appears once, thirteen words follows. It appears twice, five words follow. It appears thrice, completing the repetition.
Thirteen petals, five points of the sepal, three repetitions structuring it. The thirteen is the strange part, derived from the rose rather than the heavens, but it seems impossible to divorce from the twelve figures that make up the zodiac. The five points, well, if we look at one of the more traditional diagrams of the sefirot, it’s hard to miss the pentagram sitting at the top of the diagram joining Chokmah, Binah, Chesed, Gevurah, and Binah.
Later, there will be another image of thirteen strands, through which a mysterious something is dropped and used to weave and gather the strands. Later, there will be a poisonous rainbow serpent. Later there will be an explication of Asherah’s exclusion from the temple being rooted in her already being present in a truer form within it. There is, too, the five become the four fingers and the thumb.
Venus and her movements, back and forth across the heavens, drawing a five pointed sepal in the sky between which God sets his name as a throne. Venus as the movement that encompasses the petals of the stars, cradles them until they blossom. Venus as the violent holy spirit, turtledove, who descends to pluck the flowers blossoming upon the earth. Back to the deal with the watchers and the pact that makes things grow, evolve, and die.