Joel Hecker spent the last six years working on the 11th and 12th volumes of the Pritzker translation of the Zohar, a book of Jewish mysticism dating to at least the 16th century.
You won’t find this birth announcement in the paper or on the news.
But for Joel Hecker, who’s spent the last six years working on the 11th and 12th volumes of the Pritzker translation of the Zohar, a book of Jewish mysticism dating to at least the 16th century, it’s just as rewarding.
“The first picture I’m going to take will be a selfie of me holding it on top of my belly as if I just birthed it,” laughed Hecker, a longtime associate professor of Jewish mysticism at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote. “I’ve joked that my wife’s first labor was pretty awful, but it was only 20 hours. It took me six years to do this. But, for the most part, it’s been an enormous blessing.
“The first few years it was so euphoric, because it’s a spectacular text as a work form of religious literature. [It’s] perhaps the greatest work of Spanish religious literature — not just Jewish — of the Middle Ages.”
The story behind the Zohar isn’t something you usually learn about in Hebrew school. In fact, Hecker admitted he knew little himself until he was studying in Jerusalem, and a fellow student suggested he read about it and the Kabbalah, the Jewish study of mysticism.
It didn’t take long for Hecker to get hooked.
“I started to read about a God who had both masculine and feminine aspects,” explained Hecker, sitting in the living room of his Bala Cynwyd home where he lives with his wife, psychologist Frani Pollack, and their three children. “A God we could impact through our ritual practice.
“[It’s] about literature that conceived of the Torah as a book of mysteries that was waiting to be revealed. [That’s] because the Zohar reads the Torah in ways that texts, for the most part, did not read it.”
It gets complicated trying to understand but, according to Hecker, there’s a true fascination to it.
“What I tell people is the Zohar is the central and canonical text of Jewish mysticism,” continued Hecker, who spent hours each day squirreled away in his office working painstakingly on the Aramaic text. “There are mystical streams within all religions, and usually the people engaged in studying or practicing within the mystical strands are the ones who want to be intoxicated by God,” he said.
“They’re seeking the most profound, intimate, unmediated relationship they can have with holiness, divinity and purity. Seeking a sense of the elation that comes through union with divinity.”
For Hecker, that elation has come with trying to help translate his portion of the 12-volume Zohar into modern-day English. But besides the words, each passage requires special commentary trying to determine what the original writer — or writers, since many suspect it was a collective effort rather than the work of a single individual — meant to say.
The work was commissioned by the Pritzker family in 1995, which reached out to University of California, Berkeley professor Daniel Matt, who is considered one of the leading authorities on Jewish mysticism. He completed the first nine volumes, realizing in the process he needed help.
Australian professor Nathan Wolski translated the 10th volume with Hecker, who had written Mystical Bodies, Mystical Meals: Eating and Embodiment in Medieval Kabbalah in 2004 and other works on Jewish mysticism, taking on the last two volumes in 2010.
Volume XI was released Oct. 5, with the final volume–which he’s co-writing with Wolski– expected out in the spring.
“One of the things that struck me over the last six years is the fluidity of the text and how scribes can manipulate it one way or another,” said Hecker, who has a picture in his office of when he ran with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain in 1980 “when I was young and foolish.” . “Very often, a scribe is just someone who can copy.
“Until 200 years ago, books were very expensive. Rich people would hire a scribe to write for them. One of the things which is important for people to know is that the Zohar is not a book. It’s a compendium, like the Bible.”
Like the Bible, that means the common man or woman can find meaning by reading it.
“Zohar means ‘brilliance’ or ‘splendor’ in Hebrew,” said Hecker, who was on sabbatical from RRC nearly half the time he worked on the translation. “I was really amazed at the euphoria I felt the first year in particular.
“We were in Jerusalem on sabbatical for the year, and I was just studying Zohar all day long. It was like when I first went through the entire Zohar in 1993. I’d spend hours studying Zohar, and then I’d go over to Riverside Park in Manhattan and the sky was different. The trees were different. The birds, the sun. Everything was transformed in light of the Zohar.”
Soon that light will be revealed for all to see, after which the 56-year-old Hecker isn’t quite sure what he’ll do. Maybe even become a U.S. citizen, having lived here for 20 years.
“I’m very excited to be almost done and looking forward to doing other things,” said Hecker, who consults with his assistant in Jerusalem on a near-daily basis. “A lot of it will be related, particularly a literary analysis of the Zohar on the parshat, because it’s clear this is different authorship.
“What I see is [that] modern scholars will sometimes modify the translations. I suspect they’ll do the same with mine. But no one’s going to undertake doing such a big project again.”
Having done his part, though, Joel Hecker, is ready to take his life through the Zohar and the complex yet familiar world of Jewish mysticism to the next step.
At the same time he knows this: Nothing will ever top that feeling of holding his “baby” in his arms.
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