Maps of God

Maps of God – Digital Humanities ProjectDr. J. H. Chajes, Director

Dr. Eliezer Baumgarten, Digital Humanities Project Leader

Keren Barner – Project Liaison, Digital Humanities at the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Library at the University of Haifa


The aspiration to see God has been a persistent characteristic of Jewish esotericism throughout the ages.  The way this vision has been imagined has, however, changed in keeping with different theological conceptions over time and place. The centrality of visualization in kabbalistic traditions beginning in the twelfth century has been of interest to scholars from Gershom Scholem to those of our own day, among them Haviva Pedaya, Elliot R. Wolfson, and Moshe Idel. One of the characteristics of the Kabbalah is the visualization of the divine as a structured, objectivized phenomenon. The Godhead is understood as a kind of machine with spatial as well as dynamic features. Just as the constellations of the heavens were given to graphical visualizations and mappings, the constellation of divinity (in Hebrew, ma’arechet ha-elohut) could be diagrammed, and was.

Until now, for a variety of reasons that cannot be elaborated upon in the current context, scholars have been interested primarily in the mental-imaginal “inner visualizations” so central to the Kabbalah. Only in the last few years, principally due to the pioneering research carried out under the rubric of the “Ilanot [Trees] Project” directed by Dr. Chajes at the University of Haifa, have extensive and systematic efforts been made to study the graphical “diagrammatic visualizations” of the Kabbalah throughout its history. These efforts include the collection, identification, and cataloging of all significant graphical kabbalistic artifacts — at this point well over six-hundred unique diagrams in manuscript codices and scrolls — and in many cases, their transcription and publication. [Please see the end of this document for a brief introduction to the genre of Ilanot.]

Thanks to the generous funding of the Israel Science Foundation, the Ilanot Project team has prepared and published articles, critical editions, and an online database — all while conducting “basic” research in this understudied field. The Ilanot Project now aims to establish a sophisticated online digital platform that will make the richness and depth of the graphical Kabbalah accessible to scholars and interested laypeople: Maps of God.

Maps of God: A Proposal for a Web Encyclopedia

In the context of the Ilanot Project, as noted above, a database has been constructed in collaboration with the Digital Media Center at the University of Haifa. The database, which is already “live” online via http://ilanot.haifa.ac.il/site/?page_id=11, assembles hundreds of kabbalistic diagrams from the thirteenth to the twentieth centuries, from tens of libraries, museums, and private collections around the world — scrolls and codices, manuscripts and printed works, simple sketches and complex diagrams — and “tags” them according to a broad range of historical, ideational, material, and graphical criteria.

The full fruition of the Ilanot Project is, however, still ahead of us: the creation of an engaging, accessible, interactive digital platform that will be dedicated to taking full advantage of our extensive research on kabbalistic images.

The primary means of presenting this research will be via the kabbalistic diagrams themselves. More precisely, our research will be integrated into “live” versions of select images. Kabbalistic diagrams are, in many respects, maps of the divine world. As a result, we posited that the technical challenges facing us in establishing this presentation-via-artifact would be similar if not identical to those faced by scholars who have in recent years developed sites devoted to the online presentation of historical maps. In one case in particular, scholars at the University of Victoria (Canada) used a sixteenth-century map of London as the interface for encyclopedic data on the city in that period: https://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/ On this site, one is able to “tour” sixteenth-century London by selecting any element pictured on the historical map, adapted especially for this purpose; each element is linked to their rich collection of literary and historical sources. A brief exploration of this site goes a long way towards clarifying our own objective in presenting kabbalistic diagrams with the same technology. To our great fortune, the University of Victoria site was developed with Open Source technology, and their researchers have also expressed their willingness to cooperate with us as we repurpose this technology to the Ilanot.

Maps of God will include a number of primary elements:

1. Interactive “maps” of a number of kabbalistic diagrams

2. An encyclopedia of kabbalistic diagrams

The site will feature a number of images of Ilanot of particularly great significance. These images will become “live maps” that the visitor can freely explore to learn about any of their elements with a simple click. Every element in the image will become a “hot spot” bearing a hidden link, a “tag” within a complex visual artifact. A click will bring up a variety of options, from transcriptions and translations of texts to explanations, as well as links to other diagrams with comparable features. In this way, the Ilan itself becomes the portal to a rich encyclopedia of graphical Kabbalah.

The encyclopedia itself will contain detailed information pertinent to the various major manuscript families of kabbalistic Ilanot: cultural-historical, intellectual, and aesthetic.  In addition, the visitor will find explanations of the most common elements in these diagrams, information on the scribal artists who fashioned them, and visual-historical presentations of their development and interrelations. Like Wikipedia, the page devoted to each artifact will include links to other related, relevant pages within the encyclopedia, and of course to the existing database.

Thus, for example, a visitor can explore the “Map of God” known as “the Great Parchment” – a particularly striking Renaissance diagram inscribed on a long vertical-scrolling parchment (see one exemplar of this family, Oxford 1949, to the left.) Through the “live” imge of this Ilan, the visitor will be able to discover the characteristic features of this family of manuscripts, its historical background, and the meaning of its various elements. In addition, s/he will easily be able to find additional exemplars of this manuscript family, and its visual and textual sources.

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