According to the hakdamah of the Mishneh Torah, it seems that any book(s) or commentary(s) which may have arisen after the hatimat ha-talmud (“the sealing of the Talmud” – see there) – such as the writings of the Geonim (or even the Mishneh Torah itself) – are measured by their faithfulness to the halakhic and aggadic literature which was bequeathed to us by Hazal and their students (i.e. Mishnah, Tosefta, Mekhiltot, Sifra, Sifre, Bavli, Yerushalmi, and the Tannaitic midrashim/baraitot). Much like the prophets were tested against the collective mesorah up until their time, and by abrogation of it they themselves were rejected, so also are books composed since the close of the Talmudic age are in need of similar such “testing.”
Now, granted that there are two types of potential errors in such books:
- Unintentional errors of interpretation or logical understanding, etc. – In other words, a certain talmid hakhamim codifies the halakhah as he sees it and explains hashkafah as he understands it from Tanakh and Hazal, but perhaps the halakhah is not like him or perhaps he misunderstands such issues as the nature of suffering or the function of sekhar ve-onesh (or similar issues). These types of potential “mistakes” do not necessarily disqualify the author. Rather, we see that the attempt to understand Torah is a process wherein one is obligated to accept that different views of Torah from the sources is not only possible but probable.
- Departures from mesorah or attempts to replace it/abrogate it – Should a new book or treatise be written that stands in opposition to the halakhah or hashkafah as expressed by Tanakh and Hazal – especially that which seeks not to understand but to supplant – is to be rejected. Examples are “new revelations” that, rather than seek to understand the statements of Hazal in aggregate, attempt to make the case for “secret teachings” or “hidden meanings” that are in contradiction to established mesorah – such books and their authors are to be rejected.
[NOTE: I am aware that the above are fairly general and that it could be discussed in more detail, such as when to set aside midrashim in favor of peshat or outdated “scientific” ideas in order to incorporate new ones. However, for now these definitions should suffice for this discussion.]
Each of the above certainly has limitations. For example, and perhaps most importantly, there are ideas about which alternate views are not acceptable and cannot be tolerated, such as the nature of the yihud HaShem, or the fact of a physical (read, bodily) resurrection, or the permanence and immutability of the Torah. Diverging from such foundational tenets (and those like them) define apikorsim and minim, and the Rambam – drawing on both the text of the Mishnah and the logical outcomes of rational monotheism – composed his 13 Foundations of Jewish faith to show us where our speculation may go before it is undone and we undermine ourselves (cf. Hilkhot Teshuva 3:14-17).
Many books have come on the scene – both pre-Talmudic and post – claiming to be authentic to our mesorah, or to be an extension of it, or even to replace it. Examples include the “New Testament,” the “Qur’an,” the “Kebra Nagast,” the books of the Shabbateans (followers of Shabbetai Tzvi, yimah shemo ve-zikhro), and many others. Many of these works were accepted by great and learned people. If Shelomoh HaMelekh could worship idols, if Elisha ben Avuyah (“Aher“) could accept the idea of ribbui reshayot from the books of the dualists, if Yohanan Kohen Gadhol could become a Tzaduki at the end of his life, if the Hakham Tzvi z”l could accept Shabbetai Tzvi (yimah shemo) as the mashiah, and if the Hafetz Hayim z”l could be led to accept the blatantly forged (supposedly lost) Seder Kodashin of the Talmud Yerushalmi (to the point of changing his halakhic practices based on it), then the fact that the Zohar was accepted by many great scholars when it first published should neither surprise us nor become the sure basis for its acceptance.
As an aside, one of the most common mistakes is the equation of “kabbalah” with the Zohar literature itself; if the latter is rejected, it is thought, then the former ceases to exist. Such an idea is patently false, but nevertheless demonstrates how entrenched in the minds of contemporary Jews is the idea that all authentic spirituality or “mysticism” in Judaism is inextricably linked to the ideas expressed in the Zohar. The truth of the matter is that the bodies of knowledge known as maaseh merkavah (“Workings of the Chariot” – i.e. metaphysics) and maaseh bereshit (“Workings of the Creation” – i.e. physics) – as mentioned in the Mishnah, Masekhet Hagigah – preceded the 13th century publication of the Zohar by [possibly] thousands of years, as did the Sefer Yetzirah. The Sefer Yetzirah is referred to and expounded by the Kuzari and Saadiah Gaon, among others – all before the Zohar. The Rambam himself makes veiled references to these same ideas in his Moreh HaNavokhim, expounding (where possible) mystical and philosophical concepts related to both maaseh bereshit and maaseh merkavah – again, all before anyone had ever heard of the Zohar.
But this leads to another fact that is often overlooked in the history of the Zohar – many kabbalists at the time of its publication (and afterward) also rejected it as being authentic. Rabbi Avraham Zacuto, in his Sefer HaYuhasin, relates the extant portion of an account written by the well-known kabbalist Rabbi Yitzhak De-Akko (a talmid of the Ramban) who traveled to the home of Mosheh De Leon and offered to purchase the original manuscripts of the Zohar from his widow, whereupon she confessed to him that there were no original manuscripts and that her late husband had forged it and attributed it to Shimon ben Yohai in an effort to gain acclaim and a higher purchase price. Other well-known kabbalists who rejected the Zohar as an authentic book of mesorah were Rabbi Yaakov Emden and the Hatam Sofer (who was the student of the famed and intense mystic, Rabbi Nathan Adler). Their use of language is strong against the Zohar, using words like “forgery” and “lies” to describe it. All the while, however, these men and others maintained a highly-developed mystical system based on earlier literature.
The facts are clear to all who are willing to take an honest look: the Zohar contradicts a great many things which came before it in both the realm of halakhah and hashkafah – even contravening such things that are “off limits” halakhically, such as the nature of the yihud HaShem. And these things are well-known, they are not my invention nor the invention of secular scholars seeking to defame religion. They have been discussed and wrestled with for hundreds of years by rabbis and scholars in every area of Jewish literature. It has been proven that the Zohar borrows and incorporates sections of Rashi, Tosafot, the Rambam, and other works which preceded it. It also contains a vast amount of original material, much of which is controversial and contrdictory when compared to works possessing an established mesorah from Hazal.
Nevertheless, it is true that there are genuinely positive statements and spiritual truths expressed in the Zohar. However, it is also true that there are explicit statements of polytheism and dualism expressed there as well. So, the operating principle (it seems) is that anything valuable in the Zohar may already be found in uncontested and authentic works that preceded it, and anything questionable is of its own invention. Such an observation makes the Zohar superfluous and the attempt to incorporate it into the corpus of Jewish literature as being arguably more trouble that it is worth – a fact that is well-attested to by Jewish theological history since its publication in the 13th Century.
The continuous heretical movements which base themselves upon it (e.g. the Shabbateans) and the seemingly endless stream of charlatans offering miracle cures, instant wealth, and super powers of protection to those who embrace the Zoharic kabbalistic system are a proof that giving Zohar a prime place in Judaism has proven almost disastrous. It appears also to be the case that the positive parts of the message endorsed by hasidism (i.e. that every Jew is important, serving God with joy, etc.) could have been brought about without the aid of Zoharic literature – in fact, such ideas already existed outside the dark, pietistic world of the mitnagdim in other parts of the [non-Ashkenazi] Jewish world.
The historical Jewish response to the Zohar can – in my estimation – be divided into three basic approaches:
- Full acceptance – The full acceptance of the Zohar and its attendant literature as being 100% authentic is most aptly characterized by the Hasidic movement(s) and the North African Sefaradim. Such adherents hold it to be the holiest text in Judaism and that it should be used to “correct” (read, supersede) all other texts – especially those which came before it – which are viewed as being “ignorant” or “unaware” of the secret tradition that it holds.
- Modified acceptance – This approach, most commonly associated with the Gr”a and his talmidim, is to effectively accept the Zohar, but to reject its commentaries. In other words, the Gr”a took great liberties to “re-read” (however, I am sure that he himself did not see it that way) the text of the Zohar in order to make it fit into the established mesorah. By doing so, he rejected many of the ideas of Lurianic kabbalah, and sought new readings (many of which are either based on his own emendations of the text or forced readings of the plain meaning of the Aramaic) to remove conflict and controversy. However, in doing so, the Gr”a also “re-reads” the text of the Gemara in certain places, and in some cases he reverses generations of clear and uncontested pesak halakhah from the Gemara to accommodate the clear “ruling” of the Zohar to the contrary (one example of this is the wearing of tefillin on holo shela-moed).
- Full rejection – Characterized most aptly by the 19th-century Dor De`ah movement in Yemen led by Rav Yihyah Qafih z”l. Rav Qafih authored a book entitled Milhamot HaShem (“The Wars of HaShem”) wherein he effectively demonstrates (like other hakhamim before him) that the Zohar simply cannot be a product of Hazal and their students, is subsequently not an authentic work of mesorah, and therefore must be rejected. He brings a myriad of proofs for this. The Darda`im (i.e. adherents to the teachings of Mori Yihyah, also known affectionately as “Mori HaYashish” z”l) and other groups choose to rely instead on the works of previously established authors for spirituality, such as the Rambam (Moreh HaNavokhim), Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi (Kuzari), Rabbi Bahyah ibn Pekuda (Hovot HaLevavot), Rav Saadiah Gaon (Pirush al Sefer HaYetzirah and HaNivhar Be-Emunot Ve-Deot), and others.
We have a principle of “lo ba-shamayim hi“, i.e. that the Torah is not “in heaven” and therefore we do not base our belief in any certain book or teacher based on purported “miracles” or claims of special “revelation” or “prophecy.” Instead, we are charged with being faithful to the texts and the mesorah that we have to judge all that comes after it. This is why the latter two approaches (i.e. any approach beyond blind acceptance) take measures to study the relevant sources in order to formulate their opinions, rather than seeking a sign or relying on the fact that the likes of the Arizal gave it their approbation.
The Zohar has been accepted – and continues to be so – based almost solely on “mob rule” as it were. In other words, since it has been read and used by a lot of Jews for a long time, most Jews simply assume that it “must” be true. In reality, however, there is no basis for its acceptance, but rather to the contrary. And as has been mentioned, there is nothing on the part of its supporters to substantiate their claims other than dogmas and the attribution of “special powers” or “revelations” or mystical “prophecy” on the part of those famed historical figures who did accept it, while attributing error and arrogance to those scholars who argued against it. It is no different than the many false religious movements that have arisen in world history; they begin with charismatic and bold claims based essentially on nothing and demand blind obedience from all with whom they speak. But in the end, their claims are empty and their reasoning is circular. And, more importantly, they are out of line with the authentic mesorah of Hazal.
Have you ever wondered why those who merely question the authenticity of the Zohar are threatened with excommunication and charges of heresy, while those who propose that a section of the Gemara should be emended (and other such normal acts of Torah scholarship) are met with none of these? Le-aniyut da’ati, it seems that those without truly substantive arguments have nothing left but threats of Divine judgment and ad hominem attacks. Sound familiar?
And PLEASE do not take my word for it – go and see for yourself. Investigate the matter thoroughly and with an open mind. If you come thereby to different conclusion, then you will have no threats and suffer no humiliation from me. And I certainly will not threaten you with a charge of “arrogance” for not seeing things the way that this or that scholar has seen them.
UPDATE: Rabbi Berel Wein (may he live and be well) gives an honest historical talk on the subject of the Zohar. HERE is the link to a short version and HERE is the link to the full lecture. They are both well-worth watching.