The Walter Benjamin Brigade

How an original but maddeningly opaque German Jewish intellectual became a thriving academic industry.

April 3 2014 12:05AM
About the author

Walter Laqueur is the author of, among other books, WeimarA History of TerrorismFascism: Past, Present, Future, and The Dream that Failed: Reflections on the Soviet Union. His newest book, Putinism: Russia and Its Future with the West, has just been released by Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s.

The German Jewish intellectual Walter Benjamin, born in Berlin in 1892, dead by his own hand on the French-Spanish border in 1940, remains a man of mystery. Anything but prominent in his lifetime, he has emerged in recent decades to unvarnished acclaim as the greatest thinker of the 20th century in fields ranging from philosophy to sociology, aesthetics, literary theory and criticism, and a half-dozen more. This in itself is mysterious. Among the ranks of mid-century Central European intellectuals, the reputation of Benjamin’s contemporaries and colleagues (with the possible exception of the Frankfurt School philosopher Theodor Adorno) continues to shrink; his continues to rise and rise. The number of books and articles devoted to him is staggering; a huge new biography, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Lifeco-written by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings and published by Harvard, is only the latest addition to a seemingly unending stream.

How to explain the Benjamin vogue? Eiland and Jennings cite such cultural signposts as the radical student movement of the 1960s and the attendant revival of Marxist thought. But 60s radicals were hardly great readers, and Benjamin’s writings are, to say the least, maddeningly opaque and often altogether inaccessible. As for his Marxism, such as it was: if that is the main point of attraction, by rights the real culture hero should be his contemporary Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979)—once famed as the “father of the New Left” but, these days, decidedly not a name to conjure with.

More likely, Benjamin owes his fame to the rise of cultural studies and its various academic subdisciplines: post-modernism, post-structuralism, women’s and gender studies, and the rest of the lot. In these precincts, Benjamin’s gnomic style may well count as a plus, an outward sign of inward profundity that, simultaneously, invites the most fanciful flights of interpretive ingenuity. Likewise contributing powerfully to his allure is the sorry story of his life. Quite apart from his tragic end—he swallowed poison while fleeing from Nazi-occupied France—he was always the frustrated outsider par excellence, the very type of the marginal man. Indeed, had he lived, one can hardly picture him as a happy soldier among the academic janissaries of contemporary cultural studies.

My own interest in Benjamin arose from my work in the early 1950s on the pre-World War I German youth movement, in which he had been a passionate but by no means leading member. In connection with this project I met some friends of his youth, including, in Germany, the pioneering educator Gustav Wyneken, who had served as one of his early gurus. In Italy, I encountered a number of his former associates in the radical youth journal Der Anfang. In Jerusalem there lived the librarian and poet Werner Kraft, an early friend but later a critic, and above all Gershom Scholem, who had been Benjamin’s closest friend both in Berlin and later on and who would become, with Adorno, the figure most responsible for launching his posthumous reputation.

The Scholems’ living room in Jerusalem was dominated by a drawing—Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920)—which had been owned by Benjamin and played a central role in his thinking, and which Scholem had inherited after the war. (It is now in the collection of the Israel Museum.) At tea in the Scholem household, sooner or later, the conversation would turn to the Benjamin Question. Yes, he was highly educated, widely read, and engaged in diverse areas of inquiry. Yes, his ideas (as in his best-known essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”) were often original, and there were flashes of genius. But in what precisely did his genius consist? Had he produced a new philosophy of history, proposed a fundamentally new approach to our understanding of 19th-century European culture, his main area of concern, or revolutionized our thinking about modernity? The answers I received weren’t persuasive then, and the answers provided in the vast secondary literature of the last decades have done no better.

To some, the problem is simply that most of Benjamin’s major work remained unfinished. I refer above all to his monumental Arcades Project, inspired in part by an abiding obsession with the urban poetry of Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867). The arcades in question were the glass-enclosed passages in central Paris when that city was, in Benjamin’s terms, the capital of the 19th century. A central emblematic figure for Benjamin was that of the flâneur, the stroller or urban explorer who habituated these environs. Having gathered a mountain of materials, Baudelaire’s poetic masterwork Les Fleurs du Mal being prominent among them, Benjamin wanted to show how urbanization had revolutionized not only culture, as evidenced in art and architecture, urban planning, and new ideas of beauty, but life in general. Traditional critical approaches, whether historiographical or philosophical, were, he pronounced, inadequate to grasp this new epoch of high capitalism and what it had wrought. A new, Marxist-tinged “materialist” theory was needed; he, Benjamin, would provide it.

Did he? Apologists point to the impediments that beset him at every stage of his career. Even his “habilitation”—the major piece of scholarship, in addition to the doctoral dissertation, that had to be submitted by anyone hoping for an academic career—had been rejected. Later, his plans to establish a new journal with the playwright Bertolt Brecht came to nothing. He never held a permanent job, regarding it as the duty of his family and his estranged wife to support him. After 1933, there were handouts from Adorno’s Frankfurt School, which had wisely transferred its funds to Switzerland and later to America, but this was no substitute for a steady source of income.

But let us assume that he’d succeeded in finishing his great project. Wherein lay its originality? The figure of the flâneur had been “discovered” earlier in the novels of Honoré de Balzac and others, and the main themes of Baudelaire’s poems had been studied even by German academics, some of whom had offered analyses not dissimilar to Benjamin’s. Were the Parisian arcades, with or without Baudelaire, the right starting point for a new understanding of modernity? Even the most detailed Benjamin biography, by the distinguished French professor Jean Michel Palmier, reaches no satisfying conclusion on this point. (Palmier’s mammoth book, almost 1,400 pages long, remains, like Benjamin’s work, unfinished—which is a comment in itself.)


It is much easier to write the life of a man of action than to write about a thinker, and Benjamin was nothing if not a man of inaction; in view of the difficulties this poses to a biographer, Eiland and Jennings deserve much praise. By necessity, their book is based mainly on Benjamin’s essays and correspondence. Admirably comprehensive as it is, however, there are also some strange omissions. Notably underrepresented is Asja Lācis, Benjamin’s great love; it was she who broke up his marriage, was instrumental in his conversion to a peculiar brand of Marxism, and engineered his personal introduction to Brecht. Latvian-born, a militant Communist, she lived in Moscow until suddenly disappearing in 1938. Although Benjamin must have known that she had been sent to a gulag (where she spent the next ten years), and although losing her must have had a major impact on his life and work, there’s barely* a word about this aspect of things in the Eiland-Jennings book—probably because it does not figure in his correspondence.

Since Benjamin’s death in 1940, two issues in particular have been endlessly debated: the nature of his Marxism and his attitude to Judaism. From the 30s onward, he thought of himself as a Marxist, and so he is regarded by others among his many admirers. But Scholem, who from the beginning considered Benjamin’s “materialist” orientation not only wrong but deluded—hard as he might try, Benjamin would never be able to transform himself into a materialist—dismissed this description of him as a misunderstanding. Similarly skeptical was Max Horkheimer, the leading figure in the Frankfurt School, who called Benjamin a mystic; as for Brecht, his denunciations of Benjamin’s mystical aberrations were especially harsh. More recently, the literary theorist Terry Eagleton has dubbed him a rabbi.

The confusion over Benjamin’s politics is easily explained. Of all the Weimar intellectuals and eventual emigrants, he was perhaps the least politically minded. Reading his essays and correspondence from the 30s, one cannot fail to be struck by the breadth of his interests and the depth of his knowledge—and the almost complete dearth of anything on politics. As the world was going up in flames, Benjamin was writing about the motifs of Baudelaire’s poetry. Of course he hated the Nazis and all they stood for, but I doubt he read much or anything by Marx except for the newspaper dispatches collected in The Class Struggles in France, for the light they shed on the Paris scene in the mid-19th century. As for his enduring devotion to Baudelaire, an arch-reactionary whose guru was Joseph de Maistre, a sworn enemy of the French Revolution, one has to look elsewhere than to politics for an explanation. The same goes for his admiration of Proust—hardly an idol of the Left—and his interest in Kafka.

Similar inconsistencies plague any attempt to understand Benjamin’s attitudes toward things Jewish; although this subject has given birth to a small industry, seldom has so much been written about so little. His family background lay in the highly assimilated Berlin Jewish upper-middle class. His deep friendship with the young Scholem did greatly help to stimulate an interest in Judaism—but how deep did it go, and how long did it last? He read Franz Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption (1921) not as a theological but as a philosophical text, and in later years it played no role in his thinking; it certainly did not bring him closer to God or to the synagogue.

Scholem, who had moved to Jerusalem in 1923, tried for years to persuade Benjamin to join him at the Hebrew University. He toyed for a while with the idea of a visit or even emigration, but eventually gave it up even though it held out the prospect of an academic career, friendships, and a salary. Esther Leslie, a professor of political aesthetics who admires Benjamin and frowns on Scholem’s attempts to lure him away from Paris, observes that he had no reason to find Zionism, or the desert, appealing. This is quite correct. European culture was infinitely more interesting to him; besides, there were no arcades in Jerusalem, and no keys to modernity in Mea She’arim.


Benjamin’s place was in Europe; unfortunately, Europe had no room for him. The strictures of the professor of political aesthetics aside, had he followed Scholem’s pleas to join him in the “desert”—that is, the verdant and congenial Jerusalem neighborhood of Rehavia—he would have lived another decade or two or perhaps even three. Instead of dying a miserable, self-administered death on the French-Spanish border, he could, had he so wished, have returned to his beloved Paris after the war. I can well imagine him in 1944, sitting in a Rehavia café, discussing philosophy with Natan Rotenstreich or photography with Tim Gidal or physics with Shmuel Sambursky, playing chess with the folklorist Emanuel Olsvanger, and debating with the three Hanses (Jonas on Gnostic religion; Polotsky on linguistics; Lewy on Greek philosophy). Most of these figures belonged to the Pilegesh (“Concubine”) circle of German Jewish intellectuals and scholars presided over by Scholem.

One way or another, Rehavia would have taken care of Benjamin: not the most padded existence, perhaps, and perhaps a little boring after Paris—but a fate worse than panicked suicide in a shabby hotel? The impressive memorial by the sculptor Dani Karavan in the Spanish border town of Port Bou is no compensation.

* Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that there is “not a word” in Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life about Lacis’ internment. It is mentioned on page 321.


Walter Laqueur is the author of, among other books, Weimar, A History of TerrorismFascism: Past, Present, Future, and The Dream that Failed: Reflections on the Soviet Union. His newest book, Optimism in Politics and Other Essays, was published by Transaction in January.

More about: German, Gershom Scholem, Intellectual, Marxism, Walter Benjamin


Were Reuben and Gad Right to Ask Moses for Land on the Other Side of the Jordan?

Wherever Jews live, God lives within them.

<em>From</em> Reuben and Gad Ask for Land, <em>by Arthur Boyd Houghton.</em> Wikimedia.
From Reuben and Gad Ask for Land, by Arthur Boyd Houghton. Wikimedia.
Atar Hadari
July 16 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Atar Hadari, born in Israel and raised in England, is a poet and translator whose Rembrandt’s Bible, a collection of biblical monologues, was recently published in the UK by Indigo Dreams. He writes regularly for Mosaic.

The question at the heart of this week’s double reading of Matot-Masey (Numbers 30:2 – 36:13) strikes at the heart of what the Torah as a whole is actually about. At the very beginning of Genesis, Rashi opens his magisterial commentary with this hypothesis:

Rabbi Yitzḥak said: The Torah didn’t need to start other than with “This month shall be [your first month]” (Exodus 12:1), which is the first commandment the Israelites were commanded. Why then does it begin with “In the beginning”? This is because it says in Psalms (111:6): “He declared the power of His works to His people in order to give to them the inheritance of nations.” Thus, should the nations of the world say to Israel, “You are robbers, for you have taken by force the lands of the Seven Nations [of Canaan],” they shall say to them: “All the earth belongs to God. He created it and gave it to whomever He saw fit. It was His will to give it to them and it was His will to take it from them and give it to us.”

Rashi’s hypothesis would make sense if the conquest of the land of Israel actually took place in the course of the first book of the Torah, or the second, or the third. But it does not take place in any of the five books of the Torah, whose narrative breaks off with the Israelites on the eastern side of the Jordan, leaving the messy business of conquest to the book of Joshua. And even that book, as my teacher Rabbi Hezi Cohen pointed out, contains fewer than 100 verses on the subject of warfare, being much more concerned with the problem of ethics and power once you’re in your own land.

As for the Torah as a whole, it’s concerned with much broader issues. Take, for example, the conversation in this week’s reading between Moses and the livestock-rich sons of Reuben and Gad:

But there were farm animals galore belonging to the sons of Reuben and sons of Gad,
A tremendous number and they saw the land of Etzar and the land of Gilad
And here the place was a place for grazing.
And the sons of Gad and sons of Reuben came
And spoke to Moses and Elazar the priest and the leaders of the community, saying:
“The country the Lord struck before the community of Israel is for livestock
And your servants have livestock.”
And they said, “If we’ve found favor in your eyes,
Let this land be given to your servants as an estate,
Don’t cross us over the Jordan.”

As the attentive reader will recall, this is not the first time in the Torah that livestock have figured at a critical juncture. Abraham and Lot discontinue their travel together because they have too many animals, and Lot, gazing at the rich pastureland in the cities of the plain, heads off in that direction. (To put it mildly, that didn’t turn out so well.) Later, Joseph’s brothers follow him down to Egypt to live in Goshen because of its rich pastureland. (And how did that turn out? A pattern is emerging here.) And now along come these livestock-happy fools. Have they learned nothing from the preceding books? Moses proceeds to slap them down:

But Moses told the sons of Gad and sons of Reuben: “Are your brothers coming to war
And you’ll settle here? Why do you stir the hearts of the children of Israel
From crossing over to the land the Lord gave them?”

So far, Moses seems to have no intention of letting them stay outside the land of Israel. Which must mean that Rashi’s right: the Torah isn’t a book of moral philosophy, it’s a real-estate prospectus. Or is it?

But they went up to him and said, “We’ll build pens for our sheep here
And cities for our children.
And we’ll swiftly trailblaze ahead of the children of Israel
Until we bring them to their places
While our children settle in cities fortified against the dwellers in the land.
We won’t return to our homes until each son of Israel has inherited his inheritance.
But we won’t inherit with them over the Jordan and beyond,
For our inheritance will have come to us on the eastern bank of the Jordan.

And Moses said to them: “If you fulfill this speech,
If you trailblaze before the Lord to the war,
And every trailblazer of you crosses the Jordan before God
Until He lets you inherit His enemies before Him
And when the land is conquered before the Lord
And after that you return—then you’ll be clear of the Lord and of Israel
And this land will be yours as an estate before God.
But if you don’t do so,
Here you’ve sinned before God
And know that your sin will find you out.
Build yourselves cities for your children
And pens for your sheep,
And what comes out of your mouth, follow through.


It turns out, then, that the Torah is not about the land of Israel, it’s about morality—anywhere. When the sons of Gad and Reuben ask for the rich land outside of Israel, Moses reacts initially in his role as warlord, not as spiritual leader. But then these tribesmen—who were among the fiercest fighters at his command—take charge of the negotiations and assure him that they will see the campaign through. At that point, Moses switches modes. Rather than insisting that they plan for villas in the Negev, he becomes entirely practical about the realities of building your life outside the land of Israel. Notably, he also reverses the order of their plan of action: where they put building their property and sheep pens first, Moses instructs them first to build cities that can protect their children from the inhabitants of the surrounding land.

The issue is not really what land you’re living on, but how you live on it. That’s why the central actions of the Torah take place in pre-Jewish Canaan, Egypt, and Sinai. The laws of moral reality that govern Jewish life obtain everywhere, and Moses’ job is to pound them into the heads of the Israelites. As he prepares to delegate his duties to Joshua, he also prepares the sons of Gad and Reuben for a life without him, and for that purpose the central question becomes: how will you raise your children? If you want to raise them properly, put their welfare ahead of your livestock’s. They’re your principal herd, and if you’re no longer moving through the desert but proposing to settle down then you’d better make provisions for educating them and keeping them distinct, or—guess what?—they won’t be distinct for long.

But Moses appointed over them Elazar the priest and Joshua son of Nun
And the leaders of the tribes of the children of Israel
And Moses told them, “If the sons of Gad and sons of Reuben cross
With you over the Jordan, each a trailblazer to the war before the Lord,
And the land is conquered before you,
Then give them the land of Gilad as an estate.
But if they don’t cross as trailblazers with you
Then they’ll take hold among you in the land of Canaan.”

If the land of Israel were the only place the Torah envisaged as a possible Jewish habitation, things would have looked different. But at this crucial juncture, with some Jews opting to stay outside the land, Moses postulates a moral hierarchy. It is certainly possible to stay outside the land, but extra effort is required. Over and over again, Moses repeats the word offered by the sons of Gad: ḥalutsim, pioneers or, in my translation, trailblazers—the same word that in our era was adapted to describe the early Zionist pioneers who returned to the land to prepare the way for a mass immigration from Europe (which never came). But “pioneer” doesn’t cover the entire meaning. I’ve opted for “trailblazer” because of its moral connotations: if you want to stay outside the land of Israel, you don’t just have to blaze a trail ahead of the rest of the community while conquering the land, you have to be a perpetual trailblazer: you yourself have to be the force that insulates your children from becoming lost among the surrounding tribes. If you do not keep your word to God, that is the sin that will find you out. And if you aren’t capable of such trailblazing, better to accept the lesser moral challenge of scrabbling to take root in Canaan amid the other tribes.

Not that that’s such a simple challenge, either:

And the Lord spoke to Moses in the prairie of Moab, saying:
Speak to the children of Israel and tell them—
You’re crossing the Jordan to the land of Canaan
And you’ll disinherit all those settled in the land before you
And you’ll desecrate their mosaics, and all their graven images you’ll desecrate,
And all their platforms you’ll wipe out.
And you’ll dispossess the land and settle it
For to you I gave the land, to inherit it.

. . .

And if you don’t dispossess those settled in the land before you
Then whatever you leave of them
Shall be pokers in your eyes and burrs in your sides
And they’ll tie you in a knot over the land you’re settled in.
And then it shall be that what I thought to do to them, I’ll do to you.


The problem of living in and conquering the land of Israel is that it is not unoccupied; it has never been unoccupied. If the moral problem of living in it were simple, then Rashi’s scenario at the beginning of his Torah commentary would work fine: just show up on the other side of the Jordan, wave the first verse of Genesis at the first inhabitants you meet, and they’ll immediately start packing. But it isn’t like that. Even when Joshua conquers the land by force, armed with divine permission to conduct a kind of ethnic cleansing, all it takes is for the Gibeonites to pose as a distant tribe and sue for a treaty and the children of Israel strike a deal allowing them to become the “woodcutters and water carriers for the assembly.” Even with divine sanction, dispossession and a clear conscience do not go together.

The upshot is that the land of Israel is another morally lethal environment:

But don’t defile the land you’re in
For blood will defile the land
And the land won’t be expiated for the blood spilled on it
Except by the blood of whoever spilled it.
Don’t contaminate the land you dwell in
That I dwell within
For I the Lord dwell within the children of Israel.

Here finally is the answer to the question posed by Rashi and the question posed to Moses by the ranchers. Real estate matters, but not ultimately: wherever Jews live, God lives within them. If you live in the land of Israel, you have to take care not to desecrate that land because the blood you spill will come back to haunt you. If you don’t live in the land of Israel, God is still within you, and you’d best communicate that fact to your children—because, whether stationary or moving, a herd of farm animals or of children needs to be led; it doesn’t lead itself. And wherever God lives, there are consequences to actions. If you don’t keep your word, your sin will find you out.

More about: Hebrew Bible, Rashi, Religion & Holidays, The Monthly Portion


What's so Bad about Paganism?

Even in our increasingly post-religious age, “pagan” remains for most people a derogatory word. Why?

<em>The winter solstice at Stonehenge.</em> Flickr/brentbat.
The winter solstice at Stonehenge. Flickr/brentbat.
July 15 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be sent to his email address by clicking here.

Got a question for Philologos? Ask him directly at [email protected].

Richard Samuelson writes about my recent column on the Hebrew term avodah zarah, “foreign worship”:

Your discussion [of rabbinic laws concerning paganism] raises a question. What exactly is the proper definition of the term “pagan”? Is paganism only a thing of the past? Peter Gay, the great historian of the Enlightenment, speaks in his books of “modern paganism,” and many elements of modern life in the West seem to be pagan, a repudiation of classic Jewish ethics that goes from the worship of God to the worship of nature. Or am I mistaken?

I don’t think that Mr. Samuelson is mistaken. In general, one of the errors we often make about ancient polytheism, which is what the word “paganism” has traditionally referred to, is to dismiss it as a more primitive stage of religion than monotheism, and therefore as a relic of history. Yet just as monotheism developed in antiquity from its simpler biblical form to the more sophisticated Judaism of the early rabbis, so polytheism evolved, too. The high paganism of Greco-Roman culture and the Roman empire, which reached its acme in the first centuries CE just before being destroyed by Christianity, produced elevated modes of worship, important philosophers, great poets and prose writers. Intellectually, let alone artistically, it was in no way Judaism or Christianity’s inferior.

The roots of this dismissal, of course, go back to the Bible. “Their idols are silver and gold,” typically says the Psalmist of the gods of the peoples among whom the Israelites lived. “They have mouths but they speak not; eyes they have, but they see not.” As perceptive as the biblical authors were about many things, they themselves were blind to the fact that no thinking polytheist ever confused an idol representing a god with the god it represented. Biblical monotheism understood paganism, whose conception of the world was not necessarily simple-minded, no better than paganism understood biblical monotheism.

The Christian scorn for paganism, inherited from Judaism, can be found in the word “pagan” itself. It derives from Latin paganus, which originally meant, in pre-Christian times, “rustic” or “villager,” and also had the derogatory sense of “hick” or “yokel.” Paganus in turn is from pagus, a rural district, whence come words like French pays and Spanish país, “country,” Italian paesano, “fellow countryman,” and English “peasant.” Paganus came to mean “non-Christian” or “polytheist” because Christianity made its first strides in the Roman empire as a largely urban religion and spread more slowly to the countryside, where the old gods continued to be worshiped longer. All of this was reinforced among Christians by the word’s pejorative sense.

A variant form of “pagan,” “paynim,” from old French paienime, was once also common in English but has long been archaic. Interestingly, another now-archaic word, “heathen,” which was in the past used more often than “pagan” as a designation for non-Christians or (in biblical times) non-Israelites, has a similar history. It derives from Old English haethen, “heath dweller,” or from an even earlier Germanic word (compare German Heide, meaning both “heathen” and “heath”) referring to someone like a cowherd or shepherd who lived on uncultivated land. Even when most farmers had been Christianized, paganism held on in outlying areas where farmland yielded to pasturage. The heathen was the bumpkin whom the true faith had not yet reached.

Even today, in our increasingly post-Christian age, “pagan” remains for most people a derogatory word. Take the case of Hinduism, the one great polytheistic religion of antiquity that has survived and still flourishes. In an essay published a few years ago, Arvind Sharma, an Indian professor of comparative religion at McGill University, wrote:

Is Hinduism a pagan religion? . . . [It] at first blush appears to conform to [definitions of] paganism. It seems to worship many gods and seems to do so by worshipping different images. It thus comes across as polytheistic and idolatrous and therefore pagan. . . . There is only one problem with this scenario. It is based on a false presumption. It is true that there are many gods in Hinduism and that it abounds in image worship, but while these various gods are considered different gods in paganism as traditionally represented, in Hinduism they represent the various forms of one and the same God.

And yet that the “different gods . . . represent the various forms of one and the same God” is precisely the message that the high paganism of the Roman empire was preaching in the early centuries of the Christian era! Read such pro-pagan works as the Neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry’s Against the Christians, or the 2nd-century Apuleius’ wonderful novel The Golden Ass, and you’ll see that Sharma’s description of Hinduism applies to them, too. Were he less defensive about it, he would embrace Hinduism’s pagan nature rather than deny it.

Whether one can justifiably speak, as does Peter Gay, of a “modern paganism” that is post-theistic rather than polytheistic is, I think, a largely semantic question. Certainly, there are ways in which contemporary Western culture resembles the paganism of antiquity—for instance, as Mr. Samuelson observes, in its sacramentalization of nature, or in its veneration of physical beauty. Without a doubt these are things that both Judaism and Christianity were traditionally opposed to and that they identified with the paganism of antiquity. But the paganism of our own times, if such it is, also has much to distinguish it from the paganism of old, and the use of a so highly charged a word to characterize it may not contribute to the quality of the discussion.

Got a question for Philologos? Ask him directly at [email protected].

More about: History & Ideas, Paganism, Religion & Holidays


Diving and Divinity

How a Bible scholar with a yen for scuba diving ended up introducing Judaism to Christians on a remote island in Fiji.

<em>A six-rayed sea star.</em> Wikipedia.
A six-rayed sea star. Wikipedia.
July 9 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Joshua Berman is professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University and at Shalem College in Israel, and a research fellow at the Herzl Institute. He is the author most recently of Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought.

Sunset on a Friday evening: clouds have descended on the lush mountains surrounding this grassy campus as young people, dressed in their Sabbath best, cross the central lawn to gather in a large common room. In the stillness, I’m transported back to my teenage years and Friday evenings at my Jewish summer camp—until suddenly my reverie is interrupted: “Dr. Joshua! Happy Sabbath, happy Sabbath to you!” The nearest synagogue is over 1,700 miles away, and I’m in Sabeto, a village on the Fijian island of Viti Levu in the South Pacific.

There are two passions in my life. Primary is the Hebrew Bible—the Tanakh—which I have the good fortune to study and teach and write about as a professor of Bible in Israel. Second is scuba diving. Currently on sabbatical, I’d indulged a longstanding dream to travel to a world-class diving destination—and, while there, to teach Tanakh.

As a diver, my sights had long been long set on Fiji, whose underwater mountains of candy-colored coral, teeming with reef sharks, offer some of the best diving in the world. But Fiji is two ten-hour flights from Tel Aviv, and to fulfill the itinerary I had in mind I would have to observe Shabbat in a place with no Jewish community and no Chabad presence. Scouting out venues in Fiji that offer Bible, I’d noticed that one, Fulton College, was associated with the Church of the Seventh Day Adventists, of whom I knew nothing except that in some fashion they observed Saturday as a holy day of rest. Surely, I reasoned, it would be better to spend Shabbat with them than within the walls of my hotel room.

But would they see it the same way? An inquiring e-mail made its way to Steven Currow, the college principal, who graciously invited me to spend Shabbat on the campus and while there give a range of talks on Judaism and the Bible. Contacting a European member of his theology department, I asked about topics that might be of interest. “Well, few of us have ever really met a Jewish person before,” he replied. “Could you offer a lecture about those boxes you wear in the airport?” I happily agreed.


There is no church edifice at Fulton College. Instead, communal gatherings are held in an enormous open-air hangar. This allowed me to remain outside during prayer services on Friday evening before entering to present my talk. I was struck by the melodies, which were reminiscent of black American spirituals, and by the fact that all of the hymns were in English. Later I learned the reason why: Fulton students come from all over the Pacific islands, and even on a single island it’s common to hear more than one language being spoken. Hence, instruction and prayer at the college are conducted in the local lingua franca, a heavily accented English.

My first talk, following the ceremony ushering in the Sabbath, went well. “Dr. Joshua,” gushed the college pastor, a native Fijian who had earlier sent me an enthusiastic e-mail, “it is an enormous privilege that you are here with us. And what you said tonight is so important. I have arranged that tomorrow all of the elders from around the region will come to hear your talk and shake your hand.” I was a bit unsettled by the intensity of his response. At home, my lectures and sermons are well enough received—but nothing like this. I was reminded of a Hebrew saying that a friend of mine likes to invoke: eyn navi be-iro, “no one is a prophet in his own hometown,” or: you’re only a star when you’re on the road. I couldn’t remember the prophet who said it, but the name would come back to me soon enough.

For dinner, I was invited to the home of Steven Currow and his wife Nerrisa. Would this feel like a Shabbat dinner, I’d wondered? I needn’t have. There were just the three of us, and, like me, Steven had dressed for the occasion in a white shirt and dark slacks. Intent on serving only what I could eat, my hosts had prepared a meal consisting of a bounteous salad followed by a large platter of local tropical fruits, the whole served on a table set beautifully on a white cloth. To finish off, Nerissa produced fig bars whose wrappers bore the kashrut certification of the Orthodox Union.

Adventists engage in formal Bible study every Sabbath morning, focusing on the same weekly reading worldwide. In order to be able to express themselves in their native tongue, the Fulton students had broken into smaller groups, the Polynesians in one corner, the Melanesians in a second, the Micronesians in a third, and, in a fourth, those students and faculty, remnants of the fall of the Tower of Babel, who spoke in diverse other tongues but also knew English. This was the group I joined.

The morning’s reading, from the Gospel of Luke, was a passage narrating how Jesus’ teachings had developed a following in some parts of the land but not in Nazareth. We read Luke 4:24: “And I tell you all with certainty that no prophet is accepted in his hometown.” I had found the voice behind my Hebrew proverb: Jesus of Nazareth.

Over the course of the day I had many conversations with Fulton students about their lives and their communities. One young man approached me with struggle visible on his face. “May I ask you a question about marriage?” he asked. “What does the Bible say about taking several wives?” As I began measuring my response, he continued: “My grandfather is the chief of our tribe in the Solomon Islands. He has four wives, and he says there is nothing in the Bible that forbids this.”


“Your grandfather is absolutely correct,” I said to the young man. “In fact, we find in the Bible many stories about families where a man has married several wives. And I can tell you that not a single one of those families is happy. It’s not for me to offer you instruction as a religious authority. But I’ll say this: you can enjoy the pleasure of having several wives available to you, or you can enjoy the intimacy and the bond that comes with monogamous union. You can’t have both. The choice is yours.”

As Saturday ended and the sun sank over the open-air hangar, the students again sang hymns, and again I was struck by the melodies, by the loveliness of their voices, and by the frequently exquisite harmonic effects they achieved. It had been a more beautiful Shabbat than I could possibly have imagined.

At the same time, though, I felt within me a certain tension that runs through rabbinic literature: how to regard the observance by non-Jews of commandments that Judaism traditionally considers a particular inheritance of the Jewish people? A prime example is the laws of kashrut, which aren’t universal moral teachings but, to the contrary, precepts by which Jews are deliberately separated from other human beings. The observance of Shabbat is often cited as a second example—but, for me, the power of this community’s Sabbath observance had challenged the notion.

Some guardians of Jewish law, fiercely protective of the commandments as a trust given to the Jewish people alone, maintain that no meaning whatsoever inheres in the attempted observance by non-Jews of Shabbat and kashrut. But Maimonides in the Middle Ages and many contemporary authorities on Jewish law maintain otherwise. To them, non-Jews who recognize the Torah as the word of God and wish to observe the commandments may receive divine reward, and are to be regarded positively.

Was my time among the Adventists of Fiji shedding further light on this question? Part of me felt as if someone had gone into my closet and come out wearing my best suit—and looking pretty good in it.


The diving portion of the trip began the next morning at Rakiraki on the island’s northern coast. If my trip had already brought me experiences far from my usual comfort zone, the diving part would be no different. Back-flipping off the boat into a spinning swirl of bubbles in an azure sea, I was propelled into an incredibly thrilling universe entirely disconnected from normal existence. Moments later, in the total silence of the undersea world, I was alongside a 50-foot cliff of lavender and yellow polyps of coral. From the left, a school of small red fish made its way in my direction; from the right, another school of glass-colored fish. As the two converged around me, a five-foot reef shark swam quickly by. Looking up at the columns of light streaming down into the water I couldn’t help wondering: if there were no one to behold all this, would it still be as ravishing?

No less eye-opening than the dive itself had been the long boat ride to the site. Our pilot, Choelly, or “Joe” as he introduced himself to the English speakers, was listening to a discourse on a Fijian-language radio station. Hearing words like “Solomonolulu,” “Moabitelula,” and “Sidonitalula,” I recognized the context: passages in the biblical book of Kings about Solomon’s lapse of virtue in his dalliance with foreign wives. “Joe,” I asked, “Are you a Christian?” “Yes, sir, Adventist!,” he beamed, and his eyes lit up when I proceeded to tell him about my Sabbath at Fulton College. “Joe, while I’m here, would you like me to come to your village and speak about the Bible?” Certain that the village elders would be pleased, he made a date with me for that same evening.

Nakorokula was established some 80 years ago when rival tribes in another part of the island chased out some inhabitants. The population, drawn from two clans, numbers some 70 souls. No one owns a car, and inside the village there are no roads at all. Electricity arrived in 2012.

In pitch-black darkness, our taxi wound its way down a dirt path. At the first structure in the village—a small thatched hut—a man was pounding loudly and (to me) rather forebodingly on bongo drums. My hosts allayed my anxiety: “This is our call to all of the village members to gather together for a significant occasion.”

Escorted by two elders, I entered the common room to find the entire village—men, women, and children—seated on mats on the floor, with some of the youngest children already sleeping on pillows or in their parents’ laps. The villagers sang a hymn in my honor, this time in Fijian, and once more I was struck by the resonance and richness of the voices and how naturally the singers broke into harmonies.

I began my talk by telling them how privileged I felt to be with them, and expressing gratitude on behalf of the Jewish people for the Fijian men in arms who participate in UN peacekeeping operations on Israel’s northern and southern borders. After I spoke for a while, we opened the floor and the questions came in earnest:

“Could you tell us please the history of your people?”

Who is the man who led your people back to the holy land?”

“What tribe are you from?”

“Does your wife wear the hijab?”

It was no surprise that, as Adventists, they were most interested to hear about Jewish Sabbath observance. Here I note that the Adventist church discourages a lengthy code of official rules for Sabbath conduct. Rather, each community institutes its own norms for instilling the special Sabbath spirit—although a common recommendation is that cooking for the day be concluded before sunset on Friday. “Like you,” I therefore opened confidently, “we do all of our cooking on Friday”—only to notice that the villagers were exchanging uncomfortable glances. Sensing that there must be some debate and perhaps contention over the issue, I backtracked. “Before I tell you about my Sabbath, let me tell you about my Friday.” I then described what a typical Orthodox home looks like in the hours preceding Shabbat, concluding that, in our experience, the greater the effort on Friday to get everything done in the kitchen, the greater the rest and peace in the house on the next day. Every woman in the room smiled and nodded in approval.

An especially fascinating moment came when a woman asked if we separated tithes on the Sabbath. Adventists dedicate a tenth of their earnings to the church, and evidently bring the money to worship services on the Sabbath itself. I said that we don’t touch money at all on the Sabbath, not even to give charity, and no beggar would think to extend his hand on that day. This really struck home. On the taxi ride back, one of the two elders, after conversing with the other in Fijian, announced a decision: henceforth, tithing in Nakorokula would no longer be done on the Sabbath. “You are absolutely right about money,” he said to me. “When your hand is in your pocket, your mind is in your pocket.”


But if the villagers gleaned something useful from me, I benefited even more from them. During the course of the evening in Nakorokula, one man had asked if I knew the origin of the name “Fiji.” As I struggled to remember what I had read on the subject, he proudly interjected: “‘Fiji’ means First Israelite Jews’ Island.” Stunned, I looked around the room, but no one was laughing at his invented acronym. Fearing to embarrass the man in front of his village, I also feared offending the whole village by correcting him. I decided to play it safe and register polite interest in this newfound insight.

As it turned out, no else dared correct him publicly, either, at least not in my presence as the honored guest. But as we returned to the waiting taxi, one of the two elders—they had been speaking to each other in Fijian—broke into English. “Mbale,” he began, addressing his colleague, “that was the first time I ever heard that explanation for the name ‘Fiji.’ Have you heard it before?” “No,” said Mbale,” that was also the first time I heard that explanation.” I was blown away. By staging this innocent dialogue, they had managed to make clear to me that, lest I think them a community of kooks, they knew their etymology perfectly well and that “Fiji” did not remotely mean the Promised Island—a feat they had accomplished with such delicacy as simultaneously to avoid shaming or disparaging one of their own.

Back in Israel, when first conceiving the idea of combining the word of God with an undersea adventure, I’d facetiously dubbed my plan the Jonah Project. In the biblical book named for that notoriously reluctant prophet, Jonah flees God’s summons by putting to sea on a boat manned by supposedly heathen sailors. When the sea begins to storm violently, he is content to let all aboard perish rather than acknowledge his identity. But the sailors spare no effort to save his life, thereby offering a living lesson in the divine attribute of compassion.

To achieve insight into God’s ways, Jonah had to remove himself from home and seek the society of strangers, only then to find himself undersea, alone and terrified, in the belly of a great fish. Sometimes a rabbi and professor must depart his comfort zone and dive into worlds, on land and beneath the waves, entirely disparate from his own, there to apprehend the fullness of the Almighty’s blessings.

More about: 7th Day Adventists, Arts & Culture, Asia, Religion & Holidays, Scuba diving


Are the Origins of "Abracadabra" Jewish?

The first written reference to the magical utterance was in a Roman text. Did it have earlier roots?

July 2 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be sent to his email address by clicking here.

Got a question for Philologos? Ask him directly at [email protected].

Among the many things said about President Barack Obama in Ally, the new book by Israel’s ex-ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren, there is one that few readers may have paused to reflect on. Yet in reading Ally, I couldn’t help wondering about the assertion, made midway through Oren’s controversial analysis of Obama’s character as a product of childhood experience, that the president’s “pervasive belief in the power of words . . . reminded me of the ancient Aramaic incantation ‘Abracadabra,’ meaning ‘I speak therefore I create.’”

For a moment, forgetting all about AIPAC, Iran, and the state of Israeli-American relations, I found myself asking: is abracadabra, one of the few five-syllable English words probably known to every five-year-old speaker of the language, really Aramaic in origin? And if it is, does it mean what Michael Oren says it does?

It’s a word, it turns out, with a long written history. The earliest reference to it occurs in a Latin text, Serenus Sammonicus’ De Medica Praecepta. Serenus was the physician of the Roman emperor Caracalla, who reigned from 188 to 217 CE, and in treating of fevers and colds he prescribes an amulet on which is written:


This amulet, writes Serenus, should be worn around the neck for nine days. On the morning of the tenth day, the patient should rise before dawn and discard the amulet in a flowing river, whereupon he or she will be cured.

How many fevers or colds were gotten over in this way, I don’t know. Yet the magical logic of the treatment seems clear. As the eleven letters of abracadabra diminish day by day, so does the power of the illness until, by Day Ten, when only one letter is left, it has been weakened enough to be cast off.

Medical spells of this sort were common in antiquity and were practiced by Jews as well as Gentiles. The Babylonian Talmud speaks of a condition known in Aramaic as shabrirey, a temporary attack of blindness brought about by contact with an aquatic demon named Shabrir. This was treated, according to the tractate Avodah Zarah, by means of the incantation shabrirey, brirey, rirey, irey, rey, which gradually shank the demon’s hold on the blinded person. “Abracadabra” was no doubt such a charm, too.

But if the ancient purpose of the word seems clear, its origins are anything but. “I speak, therefore I create” is Oren’s version of a hypothetical Hebrew (not Aramaic) phrase suggested by others before him: evra k’divra,“I create as is the spoken word”—an implied comparison of the healer’s magical powers with those of the biblical God who created the world by speech alone. Not only, however, is such a phrase unknown to rabbinic or other Jewish tradition (from which it supposedly was absorbed, perhaps via Jewish Gnostic circles, into Graeco-Roman culture), it makes no sense in terms of the gradual diminution of the letters on the amulet. Why would the healer want to diminish his own powers?

Numerous other explanations of abracadabra have been given, none of them any more convincing. Its source has been proposed as Aramaic avad k’davra, “it has perished like the plague.” (Alas, though this interpretation provides the “killing curse” of Avada Kedavra in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, no Aramaic word davra corresponding to Hebrew dever, “plague,” exists.) As the invention of Jewish Christians, abra being an acronym of Hebrew av, ben, and ruaḥ ha-kodesh, “father,” “son,” and “holy spirit,” and kadabra of ha-kadosh barukh hu, “the Holy One Blessed Be He.” (This strikes one as far-fetched—and, once again, why the diminution?) As Abrasax or Abraxas, the supreme archon or ruler of this world, considered an evil demiurge in certain forms of Gnosticism. (This name is indeed found on many ancient amulets, but how did its ending change from “sax” or “xas” to “cadabra?”) As a nonsense word formed from “a,” “b,” “c,” and “d,” the first four letters of the Latin alphabet. (How, though, unless we are dealing with an ancient placebo, would a nonsense word have affected a demon?) And on and on.

One of the more recent ideas concerning abracadabra’s reputed Jewish provenance comes from the late Amram Kehati, an Israeli student of Jewish mysticism who argues that the word is a garbling of Hebrew ארבע-אחד-ארבע, arba-eḥad-arba or “four-one-four.” As far as I can follow Kehati’s reasoning, it’s that ancient Hebrew or Aramaic magic spells against demons must have consisted of nine rather than eleven characters, nine being a symbol of evil in the Jewish numerology of the age, and that the demon’s name was shrunk by progressively removing the letters on either side of the middle one until that alone remained; arba-eḥad-arba, its ḥet pronounced by the gutturally-challenged Romans as a hard “c,” would thus have been a generic term for all such spells, not a proper name in one of them. Yet while it’s a nice theory, there’s no external evidence to back it up. On the contrary: shabrirey (שברירי), the only example of such a Hebrew/Aramaic spell that we have from talmudic times, has six letters, not nine.

Where does abracadabra come from? It’s anyone’s guess. When, in the first of 125 separately published fascicules that eventually comprised the entire work, the Oxford English Dictionary said of it “origin unknown,” the date was 1884. Nothing much has changed since.

Got a question for Philologos? Ask him directly at [email protected].

More about: Aramaic, Hebrew, History & Ideas, Magic