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Making Sense of Ancient Jewish Magic

June 15 2017

While it may come as surprise to some, the Talmud is filled with information about demons as well as charms, incantations, and other advice about how to deal with them. There are also Jewish works such as Ḥarba d’Moshe (The Sword of Moses), which contains magical recipes of likely Jewish Babylonian origin, compiled by Jews in the land of Israel between the 6th and mid-8th centuries CE. In his recent book, Jewish Magic before the Kabbalah, the scholar Yuval Harari seeks to explain this lore from the Second Temple period until the 12th century CE. He discusses his research, and the question of why it matters in an interview with Alan Brill:

Magic recipe literature is a broad map of human fears and anxieties, distresses and needs, aspirations and desires. It is a practical literature that, focusing on the daily needs of the individual, slips beneath the radar of social supervision and reflects life itself in a fascinating way.

Second, magic is highly democratic. It focuses on the individual and . . . takes personal needs of all kinds very seriously. It supports the individual at times of crises and assists him or her in fulfilling personal wishes. [The anthropologist] Bronislaw Malinowski viewed magic as ritualization of human optimism and I thoroughly agree with him.

Unfortunately, power always involves potential aggression and the promise of magical power also has a destructive facet. Books of magic recipes reflect that facet with instructions of how to harm and abuse the other. Painful as it is, here too magic literature mirrors life itself. Finally, because of the vague borderline between magic and the power of “true religion,” magic discourse is political by its very nature. . . .

I . . . perceive rabbinic literature as a [heterogenous] corpus, which from the outset does not reflect monolithic thought, faith, or [positions on particular questions]. No wonder then that we find in it a prohibition against sorcery together with stories about rabbis who make perfect use of it. [Furthermore, talmudic rabbis lived in] a world where all peoples believed in and practiced magic.

Read more at Book of Doctrines and Opinions

More about: ancient Judaism, Judaism, Magic, Religion & Holidays, Talmud

Hannah Arendt, Adolf Eichmann, and the Jews

Feb. 23 2018

In 1963—a year after Adolf Eichmann’s sentencing by an Israeli court—reports on the trial by the German-born Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt appeared in the New Yorker and were soon published as a book. This “report on the banality of evil,” as the book was subtitled, outraged many Jews, including many of her erstwhile friends and admirers, on account of her manifest contempt for the entire preceding, her disgust for the state of Israel, her accusation that a wide array of European Jewish leaders (if not the majority of the victims) were complicit in their own murder, and her bizarre insistence that Eichmann was “not a monster,” or even an anti-Semite, but a mindless, faceless bureaucrat. While extensive evidence has been brought to light that Arendt was wrong both in her claims of Jewish passivity and her evaluation of Eichmann as the head of the SS’s Jewish section, her book remains widely read and admired. Ruth Wisse comments on its enduring legacy:

When Arendt volunteered to report on the Eichmann trial, it was presumed that she was doing so in her role as a Jew. . . . But Arendt actually traveled to Jerusalem for a deeper purpose—to reclaim Eichmann for German philosophy. She did not exonerate Nazism and in fact excoriated the postwar Adenauer government for not doing enough to punish known Nazi killers, but she rehabilitated the German mind and demonstrated how that could be done by going—not beyond, but around, good and evil. She came to erase Judaism philosophically, to complicate its search for moral clarity, and to unseat a conviction [that, in Saul Bellow’s words], “everybody . . . knows what murder is.”

Arendt was to remain the heroine of postmodernists, deconstructionists, feminists, relativists, and internationalist ideologues who deny the stability of Truth. Not coincidentally, many of them have also disputed the rights of the sovereign Jewish people to its national homeland. Indeed, as anti-Zionism cemented the coalition of leftists, Arabs, and dissident minorities, Arendt herself was conscripted, sometimes unfairly and in ways she might have protested, as an ally in their destabilizing cause. They were enchanted by her “perversity” and were undeterred in their enthusiasm by subsequent revelations, like those of the historian Bernard Wasserstein, who documented Arendt’s scholarly reliance on anti-Semitic sources in her study of totalitarianism, or of revelations about her resumed friendship with Martin Heidegger despite his Nazi associations.

At the same time, however, the Arendt report on the Eichmann trial became one of the catalysts for something no one could have predicted—an intellectual movement that came to be known as neoconservatism. A cohort of writers and thinkers, many of them Jews from immigrant families who had turned to leftism as naturally as calves to their mother’s teats, but who had slowly moved away from the Marxism of their youth during the Stalin years and World War II, now spotted corruption and dishonesty and something antithetical to them in some of their very models of the intellectual life.

They and their Gentile colleagues had constituted the only European-style intelligentsia to flourish in America. Most of them were only one generation removed from Europe, after all, so what could be more natural than for them to serve as the conduit of European intelligence to America? Arendt’s ingenious twist of the Eichmann trial showed them how Jewish and American they actually were—and how morally clear they aspired to be.

Read more at Commentary

More about: Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt, History & Ideas, Holocaust, Neoconservatism, New York Intellectuals