“When the Holy Blessed One gave the Torah to Israel, He gave it to them like grain from which to make finely sifted flour; and as flax from which to make fine linen” (Seder Eliyahu Zuta, p171).
Blogging one grain of Torah and unraveling the many garments made of it, "in those days and in our times". With a cultural eye and the assumption that "The Torah is a commentary on our lives, and our lives are a commentary on the Torah."
Thursday, January 10, 2013
Moses’ Sword: Jewish Magic and the Importance of Culture Wars
“If at a full moon you wish to seize and to bind a man and a woman
so that they will be with each other, and to annul spirits and blast demons and
satans, and to bind a boat, and to free a man from prison, and for everything – write on a red plate from תובר
תסבר until הע בשמהט.
And if you wish to destroy high
mountains and to pass through the sea
and the land, and to go down into fire and come up, and to remove kings, and to
cause an optical illusion, and to stop up a mouth, and to converse with the
dead, and to kill the living, and to bring down and raise up and command angels
to abide by you, and to learn all the secrets of the world – write on a silver
plate, and put in it a root of artemisia, from
תובר תסבר until הע בשמהט..
Excerpt from Harba de’Moshe,
The Sword of Moses, a Jewish magical treatise from 7-9 century
week’s parasha, VaEra, portrays the “Magicians showdown” between Moshe and
Pharaoh’s Sorcerers. It is part of God’s cultural war against Pharaoh’s
political-theological system, so that “the Egyptians shall know that I am
the LORD, when I stretch forth My hand upon Egypt, and bring out the children
of Israel from among them” (Shemot 7:5).
Biblical commentators saw this as a kulturkampf– the cultural
war between “real religion” over superstition, of miracles over trickery, of monotheism
over idolatry. Magic was synonymous with a culture of enslavement, inauthentic
power, charlatanism and idolatry.
But for some readers, like the
author of “Moshe’s Sword”, the magical user’s guide quoted above, the
Magician’s showdown is the founding moment of Jewish Magic – a rich tradition
which saw Moses as the ultimate sorcerer. This short, quirky book encourages Jewish
Magicians to follow in Moshe’s footsteps so that they too can wield the
powerful verbal weapon which is “Moshe’s Sword”. The book, which was recently
published in an updated
English translation by Yuval Harari is a fascinating case study for the
cultural wars within Judaism to this day. [For more links to the book and a longer
post on the “Sword” see the Text and the City website]
magical tradition, while esoteric and often polemical, was extremely popular
throughout Jewish history – until Protestantism came along. In a Kulturkampf
reminiscent of Moses and the Egyptian sorcerers, magic was exorcised from
Judaism in 19th century Western Europe as part of Judaism becoming a Protestant religion
(see Bronfman alum Michah Gottleib’s “Are we
All Protestants Now?”). If Orthodox and Reform Jews in Germany and
America could agree on one thing, it was that Jewish magic (and mysticism) was
a contamination of the “pure religion”, an irrational hunchback which grew on
the body of the otherwise rational and mature religion known as Judaism.
Nothing else would be befitting the Mothership of Monotheism which gave birth
this day many “Western Jews” are surprised by the prevalence of mysticism,
magic and other “superstitions” within mainstream Judaism. Tellingly, in
Eastern European (Catholic) and Arab (Mulsim) countries the Protestant “othering”
of magic never happened – mystical/magical/superstitious rituals are
commonplace to this day. In America it was through Yiddish literature that this
tradition was allowed to live on (think of the Dybbuk, the Golem
or Bashevis Singer’s demons); relegated to folklore and popular (i.e. low)
culture, magic had no hold on the rational adult religion which is Judaism.
be sure, belief in magic – aside from probably being wrong – has many morally
disturbing aspects, fascinating in their own right. Maimonides objected to magic
and astrology’s determinism which undermine moral responsibility. As the
incantations quoted above show, magic often involves a use of divine power for
self-interested and petty reasons, which are a desecration of the holy (in a
way as disturbing as the way people “desecrate” politics or religion with their
petty self-centered goals). Finally, there is an inherent violence engrained in
magic: it is about coercing divine powers to do the Magician’s will, an aggression
towards Divinity which implicitly justifies violence in other means.
all these, I believe telling the story of Jewish Magic is fueled with an
ideological urgency not unsimilar to the kulturkampf of old. Feminism
and critical race theory have taught us the importance of giving voice to
marginalized ideas which were sidelined by hegemonic powers over the ages.
Moses the Magician: Dumbeldore or Gandalf?
the Age of Reason in twilight, the Protestant assumptions about religion and
rationality do not hold sway as they used to. Rationality is being re-examined not
only in religion but in economics and psychology as well (see Daniel
Kahneman). Religious affiliation is declining (in the affluent North) and
being redefined (as fundamentalism?) the world over. Judaism is struggling to
grow out of the confines of being a (Protestant-style) religion.
is the alternative? Some see a pluralism of Jewish stories which is no more
than a mish-mash Jewish quilt where all Jewish phenomena are “celebrated” equally.
Personally, I’d rather see a world in which Jews in various situations fashion the
Jewish building blocks at their disposal into Moses’ Swords of a wide
variety, shaping Jewish visions and ways of life that further the issues they care
about, with each then “making battle” a healthy conflict of ideas. As Yeshayahu Leibowitz
once said: “The very thing fools fear is what we
desperately need, what in European political jargon is called Kulturkampf. The struggle is essential for intellectual
and moral health.” “Moses’ sword” is a powerful reminder of how
this idea has played out in surprising – and powerful – ways for centuries.