Adam’s Garments

 For Yuri, a prelude (whose scope and sprawling messiness was massively underestimated when I began work on it) to other pieces, already underway. 

The Prompt for This Post
Or, How I Ended Up Down This Rabbit Hole

This bizarre and metastasizing tumor of a post was initially prompted by a number of passages in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, one in particular that comes towards the beginning of the book. The figure in this passage, Alexei (Alyosha) Fyodorovich Karamazov, is left motherless at the age of four. The narrator tells us that “though it is strange, I know that he remembered his mother all his life — as if through sleep, of course.” We soon hear this repeated:

although he lost his mother in his fourth year, he remembered her afterwards all his life, her face, her caresses, “as if she were standing alive before me.” Such memories can be remembered (everyone knows this) even from an earlier age, even from the age of two, but they only emerge throughout one’s life as specks of light, as it were, against the darkness, as a corner torn from a huge picture, which has all faded and disappeared except for that little corner. That is exactly how it was with him: he remembered a quiet summer evening, an open window, the slanting rays of the setting sun (these slanting rays he remembered most of all), an icon in the corner of the room, a lighted oil-lamp in front of it, and be[19]fore the icon, on her knees, his mother, sobbing as if in hysterics, with shrieks and cries, seizing him in her arms, hugging him so tightly that it hurt, and pleading for him to the Mother of God, holding him out from her embrace with both arms towards the icon, as if under the protection of the Mother of God…and suddenly a nurse rushes in and snatches him from her in fear. [A1]

The sequence of the narrative seems to suggest a connection between this memory and Alyosha being gathered to the Elder Zosima.

The imagery in the excerpt above seemed to have familiar symbolic elements in the background, and so called my mind back to a passage I read about fifteen years ago in a book by Bishop Seraphim Sigrist, Theology of Wonder. There Bp. Seraphim wrote about a certain myth, where

[t]he story is told, (we will use a Jewish narration which comes from a deep meditation of Genesis), Adam was clothed in light, yet somehow, whereas children grow out of their clothes, he diminished, and his clothes were shattered and the shards of light became the worlds. And Adam himself was somehow shattered. It is said that the Shekinah, the Presence of God, wanders the world in search of the shreds of light, to gather them. And Adam also, in his exile, seeks to find himself, the way back to himself. It is the story of Abraham, of Isaac and Jacob, isn’t it? [1]

Given the way that the characters in Brothers Karamazov are themselves fractured bits in search of wholeness, and of integration beyond the clamor of interpretations, it seemed like digging up this tradition might be profitable for exploring some of the themes of that novel.

I reached out to Bp. Seraphim for the sources that this passage was drawing upon, but he wrote it long ago, and could not confidently recall them, as he has been occupied with other reading and writing, and with pastoral-episcopal obligations. Therefore, I couldn’t let go until I had gotten to the bottom of things; it took me down a rabbit hole, and here is what I found, Yuri.


It turns out that his telling is an accidental fusion of two traditions.

The first is the very old tradition  –earliest evidence in the first century B.C. or A.D., though I have a hard time imagining it is not older– of Adam’s primordial garments of light, lost through the transgression, to be reunited at the end of time, or to reappear in and on the Messiah. Sometimes the garments are clearly garments of light, sometimes Adam is covered with “light”, sometimes “glory” or canopies of cloud. (It is not clear that second temple Jewish authors made a very strong distinction between light and glory.) This theme of “the glory of Adam” is found in late second temple Jewish, Rabbinic, Samaritan, and Christian contexts. The Syriac tradition is the one that carried this tradition the longest, with the most explicit language. Probably through East Roman (vi&., Greek) readings and incorporations of the hymnody of Ephrem the Syrian, a variant of this tradition ends up in the Byzantine Liturgy, and so would have been familiar to Dostoyevsky through its recitation at the beginning of each Lent with the chanting of the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, the hagiographer of St. Mary of Egypt. (This, in addition to any detection Dostoyevsky may have made of this theme in the New Testament.) In the Greek, Roman, and Syriac traditions, there is a strong internal element to these garments, even if they appear ritually in the baptismal robes — the heart can be “clothed in light” or “clothed in darkness”, and the soul can become, especially in the writings of Pseudo-Macarius, the chariot or tabernacle or temple of God himself.

The second is a late medieval Kabbalistic tradition about the “shattering of the vessels” coming from Adam Kadmon (something like the primordial man, the first emanation of Ein Sof in Lurianic Kabbalah, not to be confused with “the human, humus from the soil” as Robert Alter translates Genesis 2:7). This tradition is associated with Isaac Luria. The distinction between the primordial archetype of humanity and the original human being goes back at least to Philo of Alexandria, who, as I recall, upon reading the distinctive stories of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2-3, interpreted Genesis 1 in a Platonic fashion. (There is an analog of this theme of gathering in the Hebrew Bible, in the writings of the second temple period, and in the New Testament [1γ]. Nota bene: I won’t be exploring the themes in this parenthetical note in what follows.)

Time constraints prevent me from being exhaustive in exploring these myths — I do not have time to look at the Lurianic one here, though I recommend Gershom Scholem’s book Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism if you’d like to pursue it, Yuri (there is a whole section on this myth there), and several have recommended this book by Luria’s disciple, apparently summarizing the Lurianic system. (I cannot chase that stream right now.) Further, I shall be uneven in the degree to which I examine the several themes pulled out, below, but I would like to look at some of their elements (of responsibility, of autonomy, of alienation, of interiority, of clothing, &c.). I am told that the Zoharic tradition contains nothing in it about the Shekinah gathering anything to do with Adam, as (again, so I’m told by the several scholars I touched base with) the advent of the Torah coincides with the return of the Shekinah to heaven in the Jewish mystical tradition.

The list I have just mentioned is itself, of course, not exhaustive of the texts under consideration, but relative to imminent projects, and many bear upon themes and passages in The Brothers Karamazov. I leave them here, mostly in isolation from those projects, so that other interested readers may examine this tradition without referring to the concerns that brought me to research and write this for you in the first place.

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Stars Down to Earth


In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene 2, Cassius says to Brutus concerning Caesar:

Why, man, he [Caesar] doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

“The fault […] is not in our stars”, which stars are here connected to the “fates” of “men”. James Dunn notes, commenting on this passage, that

[…] the fear that the stars may indeed be involved has been a recurring suspicion or nightmare in all ages. And if not the stars, then supra-mundane forces of some sort or kind.
[James D.G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 102]

These “supra-mundane forces” are typically the gods, or some sort of divine/angelic (or demonic) powers. The notion of fate that accompanies the above passage from Shakespeare is, arguably, even more intense, and sounds rather Homeric, as though:

[…] No one alive has ever escaped it,
neither brave man nor coward, I tell you —
it’s born with us the day that we are born.
[Iliad, VI.488-489 (lines 582-584 of Fagles’ transl., p.212)]

This fate is inescapable; yet it is not always, as is often thought, inflexible. It can be steered, and even in some cases escaped temporarily, though this fate will always catch up with the individual in the end. The Greek word for “fate” (“moira”, “moros” or even “aisa”) means portion or allotment: it is the lot that is assigned to one, as C3PO whines in Star Wars: A New Hope: “We seem to be made to suffer; it’s our lot in life.” This lot is what is simply “laid on us“, and includes what are the very ambiguous “gifts” (δωρα) of the gods —e.g., the loveliness of Helen of Troy; double edged gifts, if ever there were– that would not and cannot be chosen (“no one can have them by choosing” Iliad III.66); this lot includes, at its climax, death.

I suggested that the cup of this portion is, to some degree, flexible: Achilles in the Iliad has two fates he might fill up his allotment with [IX.410 ff., Fagles, 265], though some things are not flexible, because they are beyond one’s lot or portion, and pursuing them would bring about calamity for all. The fates are, it seems, above the Olympian gods such as Zeus, though he is the one who seems to distribute the portions, the limits of men — and as we see in the Iliad VIII.70 ff., where Zeus apportions different fates to the two different armies of the war in his “golden scale”, and in the Iliad XVI.400-550. [Fagles, 427], he can override the fates or portions of men, though the cost could be great, and would bring great turmoil and chaos even among the gods.

The historical-natural-cosmic and the theological are here one and the same. Here, there are no elemental powers that are not in some sense divine, and the difference between magic and religion, or between divination and naturalistic predictions, is unrecognized, moot. Continue reading