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A Guide to the Zohar Paperback – December 11, 2003
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"This is more than a useful corrective for the pop-Kabbalah fantasies that have become fashionable among some spiritual seekers―it is also a serious aid to anyone seeking a serious encounter with Jewish spirituality." (Tikkun)
"This is now the best introduction to the Zohar in English..." (CHOICE)
"...a succinct study that in distilling half a century's research, including Green's own, proves unflailingly lucid and illuminating: he is equally skillful at explicating ideas and at explaining their historical context." (Times Literary Supplement)
"This work can stand on its own as an excellent introduction to the Zohar, the central text of the Jewish mystical tradition. It is highly recommended to anyone interested in Jewish mysticism and would make an excellent text for undergraduate courses." (Religious Studies Review)
"...[Arthur Green's] 191-page introduction [to the Zohar] is so lucid and thorough that one almost does not notice how capably it has synthesized and presented the material." (The Forward)
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I recommend Green's Guide especially to those like myself who have little knowledge of the Zohar and the Kabbalah traditional writings. I think it is also a worthy vol. for those more experienced and informed in such studies. I think Green proves himself a learned scholar. To me it was well written and easy to read.
There is controversy about the historicity of the Zohar even in classic Jewish circles. Is it actually the teachings of second-century sage, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his contemporaries (or at least those in the ensuing generation or so after him)? The great 18th century sage, Rabbi Yaakov Emden, examined the question in detail and wrote an entire book the subject. Most or all of the essential claims of latter day academicians, in fact, can probably be traced to this book.
Having said that, though, most of them have gone beyond Rabbi Emden and whereas he might present evidence that raises questions about parts of the Zohar they have turned his questions into conclusions and extended it to the entire body of the Zohar. Arguably the most extreme example of this is Gershom Scholem. He is the 20th century academician most responsible for disseminating the opinion that the Zohar is entirely a 13th century creation.
In truth, it is hard to read Scholem and not be impressed with his arguments. But, more in truth, the matter is not as settled as Scholem and an uninitiated person reading Scholem might suspect. (See below.) At the least there is an inbetween position between the assumption that the Zohar is literally the words of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and the invention of a 13th century scholar. This position would say, for instance, that some or even most of the Zohar goes back to Rabbi Shimon and his immediate followers, but includes later interpolations by various scholars for various reasons.
Scholem knows nothing of that -- or admits nothing of that. Neither do his most ardent followers.
In this regard, Arthur Green has not added anything new to Scholem. And this, in my opinion, makes his introduction to the Zohar here one-sided, if not highly faulted (I gave him two stars instead of one because he writes well).
Here is not the place to go into detail about the other side of the coin. However, below is a link to a multi-part online essay that does. Specifically, it critiques piece-by-piece Scholem's claims, many of which are found in his Major Trends of Jewish Mysticism, that led him to his conclusions.
(E.g. Scholem cites 18 places in the Zohar where a place called Kapotkia is mentioned and argues that no such place ever existed in Israel, and it was never mentioned in Talmudic or Midrashic sources as a place in Israel. This leads him to conclude that "the author had never so much as set foot in Palestine and that his knowledge of the country was derived entirely from literary sources which he misunderstood!" However, the place Kapotkia appears in Targum Onkelos, Targum Yonatan, Mishnah, Babylonian Talmud and several Midrashim!)
In any event, if you want an Academic-oriented book that provides an overview of the Zohar and its major themes consider Isaiah Tishby's, "Wisdom of the Zohar" (translated from the original Hebrew). Tishby was Scholem's disciple and, not surprising, follows in his footsteps in terms of assuming late authorship of the Zohar. Nevertheless, his 3-volume "Wisdom of the Zohar" goes way beyond anything Scholem did or anything in English does regarding offering an overview of the Zohar and its major themes.
If you really, really want to know what the Zohar says, however, I hate to be the one to inform you but there is really no short-cut -- other than learning it in the original and finding a genuine teacher and/or group of like-minded individuals who not only learn the Zohar but live it.
Here's the link I promised: