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.

Moses’ Sword: On Rabbis, Sorcerers and Verbal Weapons

Hidden among the shreds saved from the Cairo Geniza, and deep within a tome of ancient magical Jewish manuscripts, is a book known as “The Sword of Moses” [חרבא דמשה]. One part disclaimers, two parts magical recipes, and a whole lot of gibberish in the middle, it is a fascinating and loopy users guide for becoming a Jewish magician of the most powerful type. We know very little about the books author (is was probably written in the Land of Israel during the last quarter of the first millennia) but the book has been recently re-published in an academic Hebrew version and in an English translation thanks to the work of Dr. Yuval Harari. Reading this short book – which I recommend for people regardless of their skill at sorcery – brings up fascinating issues about violence, self interest and the limits of human power (in a separate blog post I reflect on the place of magic in contemporary Jewish discourse). [Online you can find an un-annotated Hebrew version and an old english translation which censors most of the fun parts]
As Harari writes: “The Sword of Moses is the largest and undoubtedly one of the most important of all surviving texts from early Jewish magic literature. It comprises three main parts: (a) the ritual for gaining authority over the sword4; (b) the sword; and (c) the practical section.”
The beginning of the book instructs the reader that in order to attain control of the sword, three days of fasting and self-purification must be taken on. The fasts are interlaced with rituals of commanding the thirteen archangels that are “in charge of the sword which is delivered from the mouth of eje ef ej ef ea the Lord of Mysteries, who is also in charge of the Torah.”
The sword itself is a verbal weapon, comprising of 1,800 names of angelic creatures, which read like long strings of meaningless syllables. Wielding the sword promises the magician control over all these angels and all their powers.
How does this magical control of divine forces work theologically? For this the author of Harba de’Moshe has an elegant, monotheistic, solution: God – according to Harba de’Moshe – has given Moses the power over all the angels, through the word. Moreover, he has decreed that any subsequent person who wields the sword will have the same powers as Moses did:
Do not impede any mortal who will appeal to you and do not treat him otherwise than my servant Moses, son of Amram, for he appeals you by My Ineffable Names and it is to My Names that you render honor and not to him. But if you impede him I will burn you for you have not honored Me.”
A series of words which, if mastered, gives the user the power of Moses himself? This sounds like familiar Rabbinic ideas on speed. The Rabbis radically placed words at the center of the universe: the world was created by words, it is redeemed through words (of Torah) and can be destroyed through words (lashon ha-ra). Whoever masters the words of Torah, like Rabbi Akiva, has the power to almost redefine the meaning of the Torah, empowered by God himself (as in the story of Moses in Rabbi Akiva’s beit midrash). In the hands of the magicians, however, holy words are not just the building blocks of the universe, but can also be inflicted back on divinity to force them to do your will.
This is where magic, for all its quirky coolness, also become ethically questionable. If for the Rabbis the Torah is a weapon for creating a just society or implementing God’s vision for the world, for the magician this holy weapon becomes a way of achieving goals that are both self-interested and petty. Here are a few examples:
If at a full moon47 you wish48 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 every thing,write on a red plate from TWBR TSBR until H’ BSˇMHT.49 [2]And if you wish to destroy high ountains50 and to pass (in safety) through the sea and the land, and to go down into fire and come up,51 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 adjure 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 TWBR TSBR until H’BSˇMHT. [3]For a spirit that moves in the body, write on magzab52 from TWBR until MNGYNWN. [4]For a spirit that causes inflammation, write from MGNYNWN until HYDRST. ’. [5]For a spirit in the whole body, write from HYDRST. ’ until H’ BSˇMHT. [6]For a demon, write from H’BSˇMHT until Y’WYHW.

There is another troubling aspect to the magic at hand: it is achieved through violence. The Sword of Moses is a way of forcing divine powers to do your will. The coercive premise at the core of magic was one of the things that troubled Jewish philosophers throughout the generations, not only because of the way it seems to undermine monotheistic perfection, but because of the violence and coercion at its base, which show a deep disrespect and desecration of the Holy. It is interesting to compare these two critiques
Names/incantations from Harba DeMoshe
Using these critiques of magic, it would be interesting to return to our own figures of authority and ask: what is today’s charlatanistic authority; who today uses power for petty and self-interested motives instead of furthering a vision of good; and whose authority today is rooted in a basic violence which, while possibly invisible, is quite troubling…
Despite these criticisms of magic, reading Harba d’Moshe is a fascinating exercise in the diversity of Jewish experiences, and how wide the net of Jewish texts, ideas and culture can be spread. It is also a fresh midrashic light on Moses’ character – the all powerful sorcerer. One must go beyond the confines of Harba d’Moshe  in order to encounter the boundary of what magic can do for you. A midrash describes how at the end of his life, Moses – for all his amazing powers – is over-powered by God’s decree: he will not enter the land. The midrash, which is clearly aware of the idea of Moses’ power being “magical” while also hesitant about how overtly to point  this out (incantation is framed here as prayer…) describes how Moshe uses all his powers to fight this decree. His ability to coerce the heavens is feared in the higher registers of power, and God has to protect himself from hearing Moses’ plea:
When Moses saw that the decree against him had been sealed, he resolved to fast, and drew a small circle and stood therein, and exclaimed: “I will not move from here until you annul that decree.” […] He donned sackcloth and rolled in the dust and began to pray before the Holy Blessed One ...
God hastily summoned angels and commanded them: “Descend quickly! Bolt all the gates of every heaven! For the voice of Moses’ prayer threatens to force its way into heaven!” The angels sought to flee to heaven because of the sound of Moses prayer, for this prayer was like a sword which tears without any delay, for his prayer was of the nature of the Ineffable Name which he had learnt from Zagzagael the Master Scribe of the children of heaven.
Midrash Deuteronomy Rabbah 11:10

Moses has been armed like no human before him: he has the power to tear through the heavens with his powerful “sword”. Yet even the all-powerful Moses meets his limitation: mortality. Moses’ tragic end is a reminder that even in the highest echelons of power, limits exist. In this midrash, which might a polemic of sorts with the “Sword of Moses”, wielding the sword of Moses does not save one from the confines of mortal life – the opposite, it only strengthens the gravity of human action.