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

For Israelis, Anti-Zionism Kills

Dec. 14 2018

This week alone, anti-Zionists have killed multiple Israelis in a series of attacks; these follow the revelations that Hizballah succeeded in digging multiple attack tunnels from Lebanon into northern Israel. Simultaneously, some recent news stories in the U.S. have occasioned pious reminders that anti-Zionism should not be conflated with anti-Semitism. Bret Stephens notes that it is anti-Zionists, not defenders of Israel, who do the most to blur that distinction:

Israelis experience anti-Zionism in a different way from, say, readers of the New York Review of Books: not as a bold sally in the world of ideas, but as a looming menace to their earthly existence, held at bay only through force of arms. . . . Anti-Zionism might have been a respectable point of view before 1948, when the question of Israel’s existence was in the future and up for debate. Today, anti-Zionism is a call for the elimination of a state—details to follow regarding the fate befalling those who currently live in it. . . .

Anti-Zionism is ideologically unique in insisting that one state, and one state only, doesn’t just have to change. It has to go. By a coincidence that its adherents insist is entirely innocent, this happens to be the Jewish state, making anti-Zionists either the most disingenuous of ideologues or the most obtuse. When then-CNN contributor Marc Lamont Hill called last month for a “free Palestine from the river to the sea” and later claimed to be ignorant of what the slogan really meant, it was hard to tell in which category he fell.

Does this make someone with Hill’s views an anti-Semite? It’s like asking whether a person who believes in [the principle of] separate-but-equal must necessarily be a racist. In theory, no. In reality, another story. The typical aim of the anti-Semite is legal or social discrimination against some set of Jews. The explicit aim of the anti-Zionist is political or physical dispossession.

What’s worse: to be denied membership in a country club because you’re Jewish, or driven from your ancestral homeland and sovereign state for the same reason? If anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are meaningfully distinct (I think they are not), the human consequences of the latter are direr.

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More about: Anti-Semitism, Anti-Zionism, Hizballah, Israel & Zionism, Palestinian terror