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

No, Israelis and Palestinians Can’t Simply Sit Down and Solve the “Israel-Palestinian Conflict”

Jan. 17 2019

By “zooming out” from the blinkered perspective with which most Westerners see the affairs of the Jewish state, argues Matti Friedman, one can begin to see things the way Israelis do:

Many [in Israel] believe that an agreement signed by a Western-backed Palestinian leader in the West Bank won’t end the conflict, because it will wind up creating not a state but a power vacuum destined to be filled by intra-Muslim chaos, or Iranian proxies, or some combination of both. That’s exactly what has happened . . . in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. One of Israel’s nightmares is that the fragile monarchy in Jordan could follow its neighbors . . . into dissolution and into Iran’s orbit, which would mean that if Israel doesn’t hold the West Bank, an Iranian tank will be able to drive directly from Tehran to the outskirts of Tel Aviv. . . .

In the “Israeli-Palestinian” framing, with all other regional components obscured, an Israeli withdrawal in the West Bank seems like a good idea—“like a real-estate deal,” in President Trump’s formulation—if not a moral imperative. And if the regional context were peace, as it was in Northern Ireland, for example, a power vacuum could indeed be filled by calm.

But anyone using a wider lens sees that the actual context here is a complex, multifaceted war, or a set of linked wars, devastating this part of the world. The scope of this conflict is hard to grasp in fragmented news reports but easy to see if you pull out a map and look at Israel’s surroundings, from Libya through Syria and Iraq to Yemen.

The fault lines have little to do with Israel. They run between dictators and the people they’ve been oppressing for generations; between progressives and medievalists; between Sunnis and Shiites; between majority populations and minorities. If [Israel’s] small sub-war were somehow resolved, or even if Israel vanished tonight, the Middle East would remain the same volatile place it is now.

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More about: Hizballah, Iran, Israel & Zionism, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East