[NB] Trees of Wisdom and Life

I spend a fair bit of my time trying to parse out the Neoplatonic inflections from the Kabbalistic material I am studying, but it’s worth keeping in mind the antiquity of the interactions between the two streams of thought. In part, that is just being intellectually honest. In part, though, it is also because there may be useful Kabbalistic insights entangled in more syncretic models. So, two texts to share and briefly comment on, one from the medieval period, the other from antiquity.

A less common tree of life diagram, with a ten-spoked wheel at the bottom, a throne-like structure in the center, and a seven-branched tree at the top.
MS Pharma 1390, Folio 94a (dated ca. 1280 CE)

Repeating myself a little from other discussions: The image is attested in a couple of independent recensions, and is one of the earliest image yet found for the SY tree of life. The image is identified as the Ilan HaHokhmah (tree of wisdom). Before noting its textual component, I want to note how visually intriguing this is. The image progresses from a ten-spoked seed to geometric diagram to an organic tree, suggesting an elegant kabbalistic take on the Neoplatonic movement from arche to template to manifest expression.

My reproduction of the diagram doesn’t include the panel of Hebrew text to the right of the diagram (you will see a little handwritten note indicating where it would appear), placed in a way that makes it look almost as if the leafy tree has itself just written the text. Marla Segol translates the text thusly (I’m no palaeographer, so I’m always thankful for them that are):

“The conclusion of the SY:

It is a hint to the fastening/wrapping above, from this respect. This is it [the prayer of fastening] and on His back are the crowns of prayer of those that are wise, and they are the buildings that rise above to the top from the prayer of intermingling, and this matter of them is chief and important. From among us, the head of the household, the father from his left side is a hint for the model that is above, and the chief and father of the house is a hint of the crown.

And what was the brightness on which the resplendent Moshe rose? On this brightness rose the image of the heat of his prayers, the measure of day of Moshe’s resplendence. It rose to the realms above that are called the measure of night, and this is the angel of the eternity of God, and his name is in Korban (sacrifice). And indeed, in the prayers of the wise and the fear of God there is an exalted clue. And afterwards his line is drawn in the circle of his brightness.

‘And I sent up to him an angel that is not remembered’ [alternately: angel that is not mentioned]. If none of your countenances [e.g., angels] are going on his ascent, he is resplendent. This is because these are the countenances of anger at the voices of the enemies, and he is the countenance [of which I speak]. And after that the countenances will be answered, they will depart and He console you with his tablets. But His enemies, on the other hand, their works of sorcery are destroyed and are overturned. [For the righteous] the entire spirit is deterred from the evil urge, and from this [they turn] to the honor of walking in the path of the tree of life. This is the prayer, and this is it, the bundle of life. And this is it, to keep the way to the tree of life. And [the righteous] they will be purified to be the soul of our souls, bundled in the bundle of life, so that she is a speculum that shines, amen selah!”—translated and quoted in Marla Segol, Word and Image in Medieval Kabbalah (76)

Now, I recently discovered that M. David Litwa has released a new translation of Refutation of All Heresies, a text composed ca. 225 A.D. by an early bishop of Rome. It is a pleasure to read, in no small part because the author takes for granted that he doesn’t have to do much arguing. Rather, he reveals many doctrines in their entirety trusting that their absurdity would be evidence enough against them. For those of us with a sense for the rubric in which these heresies are posed, it is a wealth of information (more than 700 pages of text, Greek on one side, translation on the other).

One of the first things I open book to is a discussion of the “Doketai” (not Docetists) whose cosmogeny definitely shares some common roots with the cosmogeny recorded above. The Doketai describe a

“Primal God [who] is, as it were, a seed of a fig tree, altogether tiny in size, but infinitely great in power, immeasurable in extent, needing nothing to proliferate, a refuge for the frightened, a covering for the naked, a veil of modesty, and the fruit that is sought….

Now we believe there to be three primary fig-tree parts produced by the seed: the trunk (which is the fig tree), the leaves, and the fruit…three aeons [that] arose from the first principle….

The light shone from above onto the chaos below. The chaos, as soon as it was illumined and shaped by those multifarious forms from above, received solidity and accepted all forms from above from the third aeon, who had tripled itself….

[T]he stamp of this very aeon [the third] was sealed onto the chaos and from light turned into a living fire….who spoke from the bush…since all forms light crossed from above to below using the air….

[T]he eternal only-born Child from above [Christ] robed himself one by one with all the aeons of the three aeons. Clothed in thirty aeons, he entered the world…invisible, unknown, inglorious, and untrusted….

As the Savior was washed in the Jordan, he received in the water the form and seal of the body that had been born by the virgin. This occurred so that, when the ruler condemns his own molded body ‘to the death of a cross,’the soul in Jesus’s body might ‘strip off’ the body…clothe itself with the sealed body that he received in the water…”—583–93

It goes on from there to talk about the way each of the aeons contained within Jesus and manifested over the course of a year of his life, calls out to a different cadre of souls, each of which is unable to appreciate the way another aeon calls out to another cadre, engendering accusations of heresy.

What I want to highlight in the Doketai heresy is the (1) the presence of the three generative elements that are akin to the Mother of the SY, (2) the centrality of three elements, fire, air, and water, to the process of creation and redemption, (3) the animating image of a tree at the center of the story which mirrors the centrality of the tree in the medieval text, (4) the resonance between the Korban sacrifice in the medieval text and the messianic role of Christ in Doketai doctrine, and (5) the importance of Moses in relationship to the word of the heavens, though here his role is diminished by its proximity to the demiurge.

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