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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

 

Hamas’s Dangerous Escalation in Gaza

June 22 2018

As Hamas has stepped up its attacks on communities near the Gaza Strip—using incendiary devices attached to kites and balloons—Israel has begun to retaliate more forcefully. In response, the terrorist group has begun firing rockets and mortars into Israel. Yoav Limor comments:

What made Wednesday’s rocket salvo different is that ‎unlike previous flare-ups on the border [since 2014], this time it ‎was Hamas operatives who fired at Israel, as opposed ‎to Islamic Jihad or the ‎rogue terrorist group in the coastal enclave. ‎Still, Hamas made sure the attack followed most of ‎the familiar “rules”—only [firing] at night and only at the ‎ communities in the vicinity of Gaza, and apparently while also ‎trying to minimize any casualties, to avoid further ‎escalation. ‎. . .

The first reason [for the shift in tactics] is Israel’s own change of policy ‎with regard to kite terrorism. It took Israel far ‎too long to define the incessant waves of incendiary ‎kites sent over the border as actionable acts of ‎terror, but once it did, the IDF began ‎systematically countering them, including firing ‎warning shots at terrorist kite cells and targeting ‎Hamas assets in Gaza in retaliation.‎

The second reason is Hamas’s own frustration and ‎distress in Gaza. Since the border-riot campaign was ‎launched on March 30, some 150 of its operatives ‎have been killed and the Israeli military has ‎carried out over 100 strikes on Hamas positions in ‎the coastal enclave, all while Hamas has nothing to ‎show for it. ‎In this situation, Hamas is searching for [some sort of victory] by declaring that “bombings will be ‎met with bombings,” as Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum ‎said Wednesday, in order to portray itself as defending Gaza from ‎Israel.‎ . . .

Hamas is banking on Israel opting against a military ‎campaign in Gaza at this time so as not to split its ‎focus from the [developments in Syria], but it is sorely ‎mistaken if it thinks Israel will simply contain ‎kite terrorism or shy away from action given the new ‎equation it has presented. ‎At some point, Israel’s patience will expire.

Read more at Israel Hayom

More about: Gaza Strip, Hamas, Israel & Zionism, Israeli Security