Reading Berg’s “Essential Zohar”

This isn't Berg's fault, really, as he tries to explain all the issues and problems with the underlying religious texts, so my review isn't against his work per se but the underlying problems with the belief structure itself.

I’ve explored a lot of esoteric literature both in reading and in practice.  I was looking forward to the Zohar, which is often referred to as Judaic esotericism. I came away disappointed. For the most part, I would sum up the book’s depiction of God as an insufferable bully.

First, it seems incredible that the One, the master of the universe, has time to play mind games with his chief protagonists—Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in particular. While the good author goes to great lengths to reminds us at every step that these people were real flesh and blood he also simultaneously retreats into explaining away God’s regular pettiness and insecurities by calling the text allegorical. Well, sorry, you can’t have it both ways.  God is supposedly talking directly to his chosen prophets regularly saying these things, so to me, turning them into nice allegories which aren’t really as mean and judgmental as they seem is just making excuses for his behavior. Take Essau for example.  Why does the almighty excuse Jacob’s deception to get his father’s blessing, yet make sure the Essau doesn’t get into heaven at the end of time?  Why does he tempt David with a trial—a pretty silly trial at that—only to see him fail immediately, then let him have the toast at the end of judgment?

The whole series of stories are one nasty trick after another on people who are supposed to be founding a basis for the world to live harmoniously.  I don’t want any part of this sort of system. Another issue is if God is omnipotent and all, why does he get jealous?  Jealousy implies a need and the One by definition cannot have needs. The One is everything and complete. Second, why does he care what the “Dark Angel” thinks? He puts Job and Abraham through the wringer to prove to the Dark Angel that these people have faith in him.  Why does he care?  Again it shows him having a need which is against the idea of unity and completeness of the creator.  

And the Patriarchs themselves are no great lot, either.  So Noah curses his son Ham for “seeing him naked”. Now the Rabbi says this is a euphemism for having sex.  Is it? The Old Testament seems pretty clear when sex is being had and when it’s something else. “David laid with Bathsheva” for example…is pretty clear.  Seeing him naked?  Again when you go all over the place to either excuse things or take them literally when it doesn’t fit your philosophical story telling doesn’t engender much confidence in the stories or the morals. In another example, the leaders of the tribes get jealous of Joseph for more petty reasons…he has a nice outfit and studies the Torah. So they throw him into a pit and then sell him into bondage. Great relatives! Berg again tries to cover this up by saying Joseph knew all this was part of the divine plan so it’s ok. This doesn’t strike me as a very compelling plan at all. Same issue with the golden calf: so Moses goes to great lengths literally, plagues, the angel of death and parting the Red Sea, and then these righteous folks can’t wait 6 hours for Moses to come back so they fall into idolatry? Are you kidding me? So we are told that God here was ready to transport the group of Jews back to the Garden of Eden, but since they fell of the wagon again, no dice.  Is this the kind of God you want to give your loyalty to?  I think not.  I can see why Rabbis spend generations arguing and discussing the Torah and its meanings, since it essentially can be whatever you want it to be.  And Yaweh, in the end, really doesn’t care one way or the other as long as he’s having fun with his mind games and his pal the Dark Angel.

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Comment by John on December 31, 2019 at 1:20pm

Hi Jeffery.

The Wisdom Books in the Bible are stories that are fictional, poetic etc. and can't be taken literally. The common list of 7 wisdom books are: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs (Song of Solomon), the Book of Wisdom (Wisdom of Solomon) and Sirach (Ecclesiasticus). I also include Genesis. Genesis has some stories, back to back, that differ. The Creation chapters, 1 and 2, are very different. Also the story of Noah has two descriptions that are back to back. e.g. did he have several animals (on board) that can be sacrificed when the waters receded? He only brought 2 of each animal in story 1. The second story has extra animals that were sacrificed. I think many stories in the bible have simultaneous esoteric and  exoteric readings. We agree on that, I believe. I only list the 7 wisdom books for the web surfer. I am pretty sure you already knew those.

Reading “Essential Zohar” is not high on my list of books to read. I think I agree with you on most counts, especially the tribalism.  The behavior of the Old Testament's "God"  can make one become a Gnostic. 

Comment by Jeffrey Soule on December 22, 2019 at 11:56am

John, thanks for pointing out the Psalm.  It has another interesting line..."how shall we sing a song to the Lord in a foreign land?"  This further underscores my belief that Judaism is completely local and tribal--not meant to be a "universal" theology. Further, it was the Hebrew king's fault they were brought to Babylon and Jerusalem sacked because he quit paying for the Babylonian military protection. 

Comment by Dewald Bester on September 5, 2019 at 4:48am

Hi, I think you hit the nail on the head with "since it essentially can be whatever you want it to be".

It is called anti-essentialism in philosophy, and in literary criticism something along the lines of reader-response theory. Right now, i am seeing this as a positive.

I am sure there are many implications -positive and negative, but one of them is throwing the responsibility back to the interpreter. Instead of receiving knowledge one is now responsible for creating it.


Comment by John on September 4, 2019 at 9:31pm


Ps 137.9

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