I am going to occasionally blog on the Zohar in conjunction with the Zohar Haburah I am running here in Boston. If you are interested in joining the group, feel free to reach out to me. Text available here, and here page 1:15b
Today’s section of Zohar highlights a conception of the text and hermeneutical activity which is (or should be) alien to modern people. In describing the relationships between the letters, the vowels and the ta’amim of the Torah, the Zohar indulges in a series of beautiful metaphorical constructions that might lead us to ignore the completely strange way it ends up talking about Torah.
“And the enlightened will shine like the radiance of the sky,” (Daniel 12:3) like musical intonations whose melody is followed by the letter and vowels, undulating after them like troops behind their King. The letters are the body, the vowels, spirit. All of them range in motion after the intonation and halt with them. When the melody of the intonation moves, letters and vowels follow; when it stops they do not move but stand in place.
The phonocentrism of the body/soul metaphor is one of the few clear cut statements of that particular red herring, so we will grant that point to the phonocentrism team. The anthropomorphic rendering of the letters as soldiers undulating, or better, trembling, before the king, dramatizes the inner life of the text as going down all the way to the graphemes. When we say the Torah is alive, we don’t just mean that it has stories that are applicable to our everyday experiences or laws we need to keep thinking about and discussing. According to the Zohar, the Torah is alive because the letters are little people.
Beyond this, notice how the little people act. When the melody enlivens them, they are happy to “undulate” before the King. If not, then they stop in their place and just sort of wait. It’s almost like the Torah works like a record—by chanting the Torah, you play the record.
If this is the case, then the sense in which the Torah is alive for the Zohar is absolutely opposed to our contemporary hermeneutical notions of a living text. For us, a living text means a text whose meaning needs supplementation by living people. Famously, the Constitution is “living” because we explicate it and extend it onto new and unheard of situations. Contrast this with the Zohar’s notion of a living text. For the Zohar, we don’t add anything. We just arrive and press play and this drama unfolds. This isn’t to say that human activity is unimportant. For the Zohar we need to show up and press play, we need to chant the Torah. But all we accomplish consists in effecting processes which are really preset. This doesn’t mean that each chanting of the Torah isn’t different, but that the difference doesn’t inhere in the person chanting it, but in separate processes of meaning divorced from that person and inherent in the graphemes.
Still, if people aren’t active meaning makers in this Zoharic passage, its telling that the letters (who do make meaning) are analogized to people. For the Zohar, the sense that humans add meaning is attenuated but not absent—the letters which constitute meaning still need to be personified to do so. Modernity consists in becoming more like the letters.