The Medieval Rabbis Who Thought They Could Understand God’s Will from Nature—and from Stories of Werewolves

March 14 2018

The Ḥasidey Ashkenaz were a relatively small group of 12th-century German Jews who cultivated distinctive mystical and ascetic practices and teachings; their theological and halakhic works had a lasting impact on European Jewish thought and observance. In A Remembrance of His Wonders, David Shyovitz examines these works’ attitudes toward nature and the natural world, and toward such legendary monsters as werewolves. Dana Fishkin writes in her review:

Shyovitz posits that German Jewish pietists assigned significant value to the created order as a source of theological truths. At the core of [his analysis] is Psalms 111:4, the eponymous verse “He has made a remembrance of his wonders,” which prompted pietists to identify “remembrances” in the natural world and to link them with God’s “wonders” in order to answer theological challenges. Through this unprecedented exegetical approach, pietistic authors gained insight into the enigmatic divine by way of parallels drawn from natural processes. Shyovitz argues against common scholarly views that medieval Jews of Ashkenaz were “at best apathetic and at worst overtly hostile toward exploration of their natural surroundings” by establishing that the German pietists believed enough in the consistency and stability of the natural order to draw theological meaning from all aspects of the universe—even the unpleasant ones like excretion.

To contextualize the worldview of Ḥasidey Ashkenaz, Shyovitz examines pietistic beliefs in comparison with other Jewish ideologies—rationalism and mysticism—as well with [the parallel] Christian interest in mirabilia, [or natural wonders]. During the cultural and intellectual renaissance of the 12th century, Christian concepts of nature were themselves evolving away from Augustinian notions that the wonders of nature are meant to inspire spirituality but were not to be examined or explained in themselves. Shyovitz pinpoints this same impulse in the writings on magnetism of Jewish thinkers in Spain, demonstrating that both German Jews and Christians were simultaneously deviating from the same ideological stance. . . .

Rescuing the werewolves, vampires, and other demons from the underworld of “folk culture and superstition,” Shyovitz [also] shows how pietistic interest in the monstrous and physical transformations stemmed from the perception of the stable human body as a source of theological truths, alongside a belief that demonic forces were disembodied and unstable. . . . Shyovitz indicates that while Jewish fascination with monstrous creatures is evident in many midrashic and talmudic tales, medieval Jews rarely engaged with metamorphoses in the Bible. [Medieval] exegetes generally glossed over such biblical narratives, or interpreted them metaphorically, [but] pietist authors devoted much time and ink to transformations, especially the werewolf and its mutation from human being into animal.

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More about: Ḥasidei Ashkenaz, Judaism, Middle Ages, Nature, Religion & Holidays

 

Syria’s Downing of a Russian Plane Put Israel in the Crosshairs

Sept. 21 2018

On Monday, Israeli jets fired missiles at an Iranian munitions storehouse in the northwestern Syrian city of Latakia. Shortly thereafter, Syrian personnel shot down a Russian surveillance plane with surface-to-air missiles, in what seems to be a botched and highly incompetent response to the Israeli attack. Moscow first responded by blaming Jerusalem for the incident, but President Putin then offered more conciliatory statements. Yesterday, Russian diplomats again stated that Israel was at fault. Yoav Limor comments:

What was unusual [about the Israeli] strike was the location: Latakia [is] close to Russian forces, in an area where the IDF hasn’t been active for some time. The strike itself was routine; the IDF notified the Russian military about it in advance, the missiles were fired remotely, the Israeli F-16s returned to base unharmed, and as usual, Syrian antiaircraft missiles were fired indiscriminately in every direction, long after the strike itself was over. . . .

Theoretically, this is a matter between Russia and Syria. Russia supplied Syria with the SA-5 [missile] batteries that wound up shooting down its plane, and now it must demand explanations from Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. That won’t happen; Russia was quick to blame Israel for knocking over the first domino, and as usual, sent conflicting messages that make it hard to parse its future strategy. . . .

From now on, Russia will [almost certainly] demand a higher level of coordination with Israel and limits on the areas in which Israel can attack, and possibly a commitment to refrain from certain actions. Syria, Iran, and Hizballah will try to drag Russia into “handling” Israel and keeping it from continuing to carry out strikes in the region. Israel . . . will blame Iran, Hizballah, and Syria for the incident, and say they are responsible for the mess.

But Israel needs to take rapid action to minimize damage. It is in Israel’s strategic interest to keep up its offensive actions to the north, mainly in Syria. If that action is curtailed, Israel’s national security will be compromised. . . . No one in Israel, and certainly not in the IDF or the Israel Air Force, wants Russia—which until now hasn’t cared much about Israel’s actions—to turn hostile, and Israel needs to do everything to prevent that from happening. Even if that means limiting its actions for the time being. . . . Still, make no mistake: Russia is angry and has to explain its actions to its people. Israel will need to walk a thin line between protecting its own security interests and avoiding a very unwanted clash with Russia.

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More about: Hizballah, Israel & Zionism, Israeli Security, Russia, Syrian civil war