Becoming Elijah, Prophet of Transformation

By Daniel C. Matt

Yale University Press

March 15, 2022

248 pages

ISBN 978-0-300-24270-6

$20.70

 

Daniel C. Matt’s book “Becoming Elijah, Prophet of Transformation” is a testament to his profound expertise in Kabbalah and Jewish thought. It is excellent and intellectually stimulating, as well as a balanced blend of scholarly depth and accessibility. This unique combination makes the book engaging and even fascinating, challenging our thinking and propelling us towards self-improvement. Matt, a leading authority on Kabbalah, has been widely recognized for his monumental contribution to the history of Jewish thought with his nine-volume translation of the mystical book Zohar.

 

After a comprehensive seven-page introduction, the book delves into the prophet’s career as stated in the Bible, providing a solid foundation for the subsequent chapters. The second chapter is a treasure trove of dozens of fascinating rabbinical tales where Elijah aids various people after he is taken in a fiery chariot to heaven. These stories, with their timeless lessons, are as applicable today as they were centuries ago. For example, “Elijah reveals that divine truth embraces multiple and conflicting possibilities of meaning.”

 

The third chapter is a fascinating exploration of how the Elijah tales influenced Kabbalah, the Zohar, and the messianic pretender Shabbetai Tsevi, some of whose followers claim Elijah anointed him and taught him mystic ideas. In chapter four, we embark on an exciting journey through the history of the figure Elijah in Christianity, including in the New Testament and the Crusades, as well as his influence on Islam.

 

The fifth chapter brings us back to the present, relating Elijah’s role in Jewish rituals today. Many were first instituted in the Middle Ages, including the Passover Seder, circumcision, and Shabbat. In it, we read many interpretations of why these practices were instituted, including some that contradict others. Matt ends this section by inspiring us to experience Elijah today and telling us how this is done.

 

The book is structured in a reader-friendly manner. The five chapters, each offering a unique perspective on Elijah, conclude on page 156. This is followed by a comprehensive note section, providing additional insights and references until page 194. Pages 195 through 209 contain a detailed bibliography, allowing readers to explore the subject. The book concludes with a general index until page 221, followed by an index of sources until page 230, making it effortless for readers to locate specific topics or references of interest.

 

Reading and reviewing his book reminds me of a lesson I learned decades ago. Ancient sages stressed we can and should learn from everybody. Teachers can and should also learn from students. The same day I began this review, I sent my fifty-sixth book to my publisher. In it, I stressed that we can learn from secular literature, television dramas, and even jokes.

 

Daniel Matt takes an entirely different approach in his commentary on the Bible than I do. As a scholar involved with the Torah, you can call my approach textualism. I seek to understand what biblical words, sentences, and paragraphs mean, not what message, moral teaching, or mystical idea we can squeeze out of the words. (As a lawyer, I am not a textualist regarding the US Constitution.) Matt stresses the mystical while I focus on what the Bible is actually saying, not what we read into it. While he spent forty-two pages telling us what the Bible states about Elijah and used the rest of his excellent book discussing related subjects, I published a book “Who Really Was the Biblical Elijah?” with over 150 pages, mostly analyzing the biblical text to see what the author wanted us to know. I came to a different conclusion about Elijah than Daniel Matt. But this does not matter.

 

I enjoyed Matt’s book. It made me think. It did not change my mind, or how I write, yet it enlarged what I knew, and I found the many tales about post-biblical Elijah in Judaism, Christianity, and other cultures fascinating. We must respect and listen to opinions that differ from ours. We learn from these ideas and improve, move faster to becoming all we can be, improve our ability to treat other humans, animals, and the inanimate as we want to be treated, and move the world to a better age.