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.

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

Israel’s Nation-State Law and the Hysteria of the Western Media

Aug. 17 2018

Nearly a month after it was passed by the Knesset, the new Basic Law defining Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people” is still causing outrage in the American and European press. The attacks, however, are almost uniformly incommensurate with this largely symbolic law, whose text, in the English translation found on the Knesset website, is barely over 400 words in length. Matthew Continetti comments:

Major journalistic institutions have become so wedded to a pro-Palestinian, anti-Benjamin Netanyahu narrative, in which Israel is part of a global trend toward nationalist authoritarian populism, that they have abdicated any responsibility for presenting the news in a dispassionate and balanced manner. The shameful result of this inflammatory coverage is the normalization of anti-Israel rhetoric and policies and widening divisions between Israel and the diaspora.

For example, a July 18, 2018, article in the Los Angeles Times described the nation-state law as “granting an advantageous status to Jewish-only communities.” But that is false: the bill contained no such language. (An earlier version might have been interpreted in this way, but the provision was removed.) Yet, as I write, the Los Angeles Times has not corrected the piece that contained the error. . . .

Such through-the-looking-glass analysis riddled [the five] news articles and four op-eds the New York Times has published on the matter at the time of this writing. In these pieces, “democracy” is defined as results favored by the New York Times editorial board, and Israel’s national self-understanding as in irrevocable conflict with its democratic form of government. . . .

The truth is that democracy is thriving in Israel. . . .  The New York Times quoted Avi Shilon, a historian at Ben-Gurion University, who said [that] “Mr. Netanyahu and his colleagues are acting like we are still in the battle of 1948, or in a previous era.” Judging by the fallacious, paranoid, fevered, and at times bigoted reaction to the nation-state bill, however, Bibi may have good reason to believe that Israel is still in the battle of 1948, and still defending itself against assaults on the very idea of a Jewish state.

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More about: Israel & Zionism, Israel's Basic Law, Israeli democracy, Media, New York Times