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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

How the U.S. Can Strike at Iran without Risking War

In his testimony before Congress on Tuesday, Michael Doran urged the U.S. to pursue a policy of rolling back Iranian influence in the Middle East, and explained how this can be accomplished. (Video of the testimony, along with the full text, are available at the link below.)

The United States . . . has indirect ways of striking at Iran—ways that do not risk drawing the United States into a quagmire. The easiest of these is to support allies who are already in the fight. . . . In contrast to the United States, Israel is already engaged in military operations whose stated goal is to drive Iran from Syria. We should therefore ask ourselves what actions we might take to strengthen Israel’s hand. Militarily, these might include, on the passive end of the spectrum, positioning our forces so as to deter Russian counterattacks against Israel. On the [more active] end, they might include arming and training Syrian forces to engage in operations against Iran and its proxies—much as we armed the mujahedin in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Diplomatically, the United States might associate itself much more directly with the red lines that Israel has announced regarding the Iranian presence in Syria. Israel has, for example, called for pushing Iran and its proxies away from its border on the Golan Heights. Who is prepared to say that Washington has done all in its power to demonstrate to Moscow that it fully supports this goal? In short, a policy of greater coordination with Jerusalem is both possible and desirable.

In Yemen, too, greater coordination with Saudi Arabia is worth pursuing. . . . In Lebanon and Iraq, conditions will not support a hard rollback policy. In these countries the goal should be to shift the policy away from a modus vivendi [with Iran] and in the direction of containment. In Iraq, the priority, of course, is the dismantling of the militia infrastructure that the Iranians have built. In Lebanon, [it should be] using sanctions to force the Lebanese banking sector to choose between doing business with Hizballah and Iran and doing business with the United States and its financial institutions. . . .

Iran will not take a coercive American policy sitting down. It will strike back—and it will do so cleverly. . . . It almost goes without saying that the United States should begin working with its allies now to develop contingency plans for countering the tactics [Tehran is likely to use]. I say “almost” because I know from experience in the White House that contingency planning is something we extol much more than we conduct. As obvious as these tactics [against us] are, they have often taken Western decision makers by surprise, and they have proved effective in wearing down Western resolve.

Read more at Hudson

More about: Iran, Israeli Security, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, U.S. Foreign policy, Yemen