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.

Read more at Marginalia

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

The Danger of Hollow Fixes to the Iran Deal

March 20 2018

In January, the Trump administration announced a 120-day deadline for the so-called “E3”—Britain, France, and Germany—to agree to solutions for certain specific flaws in the 2015 agreement to limit the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. Omri Ceren explains why it’s necessary to get these fixes right:

[Already in October], the administration made clear that it considered the deal fatally flawed for at least three reasons: a weak inspections regime in which the UN’s nuclear watchdog can’t access Iranian military facilities, an unacceptable arrangement whereby the U.S. had to give up its most powerful sanctions against ballistic missiles even as Iran was allowed to develop ballistic missiles, and the fact that the deal’s eventual expiration dates mean Iran will legally be allowed to get within a hair’s breadth of a nuclear weapon. . . .

A team of American negotiators has been working on getting the E3 to agree to a range of fixes, and is testing whether there is overlap between the maximum that the Europeans can give and the minimum that President Trump will accept. The Europeans in turn are testing the Iranians to gauge their reactions and will likely not accept any fixes that would cause Iran to bolt.

The negotiations are problematic. The New York Times reported that, as far as the Europeans are concerned, the exercise requires convincing Trump they’ve “changed the deal without actually changing it.” Public reports about the inspection fix suggest that the Europeans are loath to go beyond urging the International Atomic Energy Commission to request inspections, which the agency may be too intimidated to do. The ballistic-missile fix is shaping up to be a political disaster, with the Europeans refusing to incorporate anything but long-range missiles in the deal. That would leave us with inadequate tools to counter Iran’s development of ballistic missiles that could be used to wipe Israel, the Saudis, and U.S. regional bases off the map. . . .

There is a [significant] risk the Trump administration may be pushed to accept the hollow fixes acceptable to the Europeans. Fixing the deal in this way would be the worst of all worlds. It would functionally enshrine the deal under a Republican administration. Iran would be open for business, and this time there would be certainty that a future president will not act to reverse the inevitable gold rush. Just as no deal would have been better than a bad deal, so no fix would be better than a bad fix.

Read more at Commentary

More about: Donald Trump, Europe, Iran, Politics & Current Affairs, U.S. Foreign policy