The Origins of the Zohar: Rabbi Mendel Kasher
If you have been around this blog at all, or have read any of my, shall we say spirited, defenses of Kabbalah over at DaasTorah, you would have heard me mention Rabbi Mendel Kasher. Rabbi Mendel Kasher wrote an amazing essay on the origins of the Zohar, where he essentially sets out to investigate the claims of many of the academics such as Gershom Scholem, and find the truth.
In my personal opinion he takes a very circumspect and novel approach at examining the evidence and comes up with a fairly solid hypothesis of the origins of the Zohar. It is well worth the read. However, it has until recently only ever been available in Hebrew. Now a fellow blogger, follower of this blog and somewhat frequent commentor has translated the article into English. His blog is called Ohr Ganuz and by following this link you will find the translation of the above mentioned article. I give you here as a teaser the first two pages from the Forward:
In the year 5701  a book entitled Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism was published in Jerusalem, by professor G. Scholem, in which he treats at length the question of the Zohar and its author. He takes the position of those who attribute the work to R. Moshe de Leon and not of those who fix it at an earlier date.
Scholem’s student, Y. Tishby, in his Mishnath ha-Zohar (Jerusalem, 5709/1949), also maintains that the Zohar’s principal parts were written by R. Moshe de Leon, and that no part of the work preceded him. In the introduction to his book he declares that we must accept the conclusions of his teacher [Scholem] as “the final word in the great dispute concerning the composition of the Zohar and its author, which spanned several generations of Judaic scholarship.”
I have waited many years for someone from among the faithful Torah scholars to arise and deal with this question, however, I have waited in vain. I, myself, possess material in manuscript for my [unpublished] book Midreshei Ḥazal VehaZohar in which I have dealt with hundreds of passages from the Zohar that are quoted in the [first] 17 volumes of my Torah Sheleimah, comparing them to other Midrashic works of the Sages. I have especially focused on sayings of the Sages which, though quoted by the Rishonim, are not found in extant Midrashim, but which are relevant to the literature of the Zohar and Midrash HaNe`elam. R. David Luria in his book “Kadmuth Sefer HaZohar,” anaf 2, cited a number of similar passages in order to prove the antiquity of the Zohar, and I have continued in this vein. I have principally shown [the correlation of passages from the Zohar with] Midrashim and the works of ancient scholars which have been discovered in manuscript form in recent times. I also discuss in the book many questions and inquiries concerning the Zohar and the relationship between the Zohar and the works of R. M. de Leon. Due to my many other activities I am unable at present to arrange all of the material which I have accumulated. Therefore, I have decided that it is worthwhile to clarify at least some particular points about this important topic.
First of all, I must point out that after having carefully reviewed all of the sources which Scholem and Tishby cite to draw their conclusions, I have found that those sources in fact support the exact opposite. For it is clear, without any doubt, that the contents of R. M. de Leon’s published works “HaNefesh HaḤachamah” and “Sheqel HaQodesh,” and especially his works that are still in manuscript, “HaRimon” and “Mishkan Ha`Eduth,” demonstrate that R. M. de Leon did not author the Zohar – rather, he made much use of the Zohar manuscripts in his possession and translated many passages into Hebrew. In the following chapters I will make it clear that Scholem and Tishby erred in the very foundations of their theory by comparing the works of R. Moshe de Leon to the Zohar. In general, one who carefully examines the works of R. M. de Leon will clearly see that his style, his mode of expression, his phraseology, his topical descriptions and his methods of explanation and discourse are as far from those of the Zohar as the east is from the west. The pen that wrote them is neither qualified nor competent enough to write even one chapter – let alone the one thousand seven hundred published pages – of the authentic, living Aramaic of the Zohar.
The Zohar is a gigantic, unique creation. It has a wondrous ability to arouse and enflame a person’s soul to supernalkedushah (holiness). This is the book that speaks to men’s hearts, and thus it has been loved and revered so much over the generations by G-d-fearing, elevated people. It bears no resemblance at all to the books of R. Moshe de Leon, which are ordinary books, like the other Kabbalistic works which were composed in that time period.
To be perfectly honest, I cannot understand the reasoning of the two aforementioned authors. Scholem writes that we must admit that there is a large portion of the Zohar whose Aramaic is exemplary, and which comes from the mouths of sages for whom Aramaic was a living language. And even Tishby writes that the Zohar has unique literary qualities, a sublime and lofty pathos, a style of poetic imagery, colorful and vivid constructs, et cetera. So, we must inquire: Is it possible to find even one of all these wonderful qualities in the works of R. Moshe de Leon? How could one find one of these things in the books of R. Moshe de Leon? And how, in the midst of writing these same lines, could an author disregard his own statements and declare that it is definite that R. Moshe de Leon wrote the Zohar, and that there is no section of it that precedes his era?
The Progression of the Disputations Concerning the Zohar
The first reports of the existence of the Zohar are found in many works of the Rishonim who lived in the first half of the first century of the sixth millennium [1240-1290]. In these books, parts of the Zohar are quoted in the name of “the midrash,” “Midrash Yerushalmi,” just “Yerushalmi,” or “Midrash R. Shim`on bar Yoḥai.”
R. Eliyahu del Medigo in his work Beḥinath HaDath, which was authored in the year 5251 , writes critically of the Zohar: “the book has only been publicly known in our nation for close to 300 years.” Even according to his statement, the Zohar had already been publicized by the last century of the fifth millennium [circa 1200].