Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Sefer ha-Bahir: The Tree that is All

So, I'm just finishing up teaching my Kabbalah course at the University of North Texas. Great group of students, a lovely experience. My only gripe, having taught this from 2006? Teaching Sefer ha-Bahir. I'm frustrated by my translation options. Kaplan's complete translation of Margolioth is good, but his commentary is ahistorical, retrojecting later, post-Zoharic assumptions on the texts, and is basically a sefirotic version of Clue "I think its Yesod, using Malchut, in the Keter." Not terribly useful to the general learner.

I use Joseph Dan's selections found in the fine anthology Early Kabbalah (Thanks to the good Brothers at Paulist Press!). Good explanations, but he focused on a very limited number of the two-hundred portions, and he didn't even address many of what I consider te most interesting passages.

So that has meant this year I started writing my own translations and commentary for the students. Its been interesting and fun. I'm going to throw a few up here on the blog now that my focus on the class is winding down. I thought I'd start with a recurrent topic we discussed in class, the Eitz Hayyim, the Tree of life. So here's the first of two Bahir passages, with brief commentary below:

She is a Tree of Life for those who embrace her, and whoever holds on to her is happy (Proverbs 3:18)

I the Lord make all; I alone stretch out the sky, the earth spreads out from Me (Isaiah 44:24).
[Read the last word as] Who is with me?1
I [alone] am the one that planted this tree for all the world to delight in it.2
And through it I spread all. I called its name All, for everything depends on it,
everything goes forth from it, everything requires it, looks to it, waits for it,3
And from there the souls blossom in joy.4
I was alone when I made it.
No angel excels above it who can say “I preceded you!”5
I was also alone when I spread out my earth in which I planted and rooted this tree.4
I rejoiced in unity and I rejoiced in them,
Who was with me that I revealed to him this mystery?6

1. Who is with me? In Hebrew a minor emendation, mi eeti rather than meiti.

2. This tree. The Tree of Life, which is also the Sefirot.

3. I called its name All. The Tree is the totality of all there is. The cosmic Tree of Life is not only a biblical motif (Genesis 2,3, Proverbs 3) but a cross-cultural one.

4. Souls blossom in joy. All consciousness is connected to it. The Human soul is the fruit of the Tree. Elsewhere (section 180) this generative power is specifically located with the sefirah Yesod. There is also wordplay at work, porekh can mean "blossom" or "fly." So there is simultaneously an arboreal and avian vector to the idea of the soul. In the next passage (112), we will see the avian element fore-fronted.

5. No angel excels above it. The Tree pre-exists all spiritual as well as physical reality.

6. My earth in which I planted…this tree. Elsewhere (96) “earth” is revealed to be a code word for the Throne of Glory, the substrate of reality. These two pre-existent entities form the matrix of the universe. Without doubt there is also a syzergy here, a sense of the Tree and the Earth as a masculine/feminine pairing that yields universal fertility and generativity.

To learn more, read the EJMMM, available at amazon.com. Click here - http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050/sr=1-1/qid=1159997117/ref=sr_1_1/002-7116669-7231211?ie=UTF8&s=books

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