Thursday, January 10, 2013

Moses’ Sword: Jewish Magic and the Importance of Culture Wars


Rabbi Mishael Zion | Bronfman Fellowships | Text and the City | VaEra 2013


“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

This 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]
The Jewish 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 to Christianity.
To 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.
To 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.
Despite 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?
With 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.
If in the last 200 years Jews have been asking whether Judaism is a religion, a culture or a nation, it is time to admit that we are none of those things, and all of them. We are not really an “ism” at all (as portrayed in a recent “Bizzare Judaism” showcase organized by an Israeli Bronfman alum and funded by our alumni Venture Fund).
What 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.

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