From medieval legends of churchmen making pacts with Satan, to 20th-century authors of popular occult novels, Jews have been portrayed as having access to esoteric, supernatural lore, used more often than not for evil purposes. Michael Weingrad explores this legacy in a series of blog posts, which connect this literary tradition both to Christian Hebraists’ fascination with kabbalah and, obliquely, to modern fantasy writers such as C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and J.K. Rowling.
The association of Jews with magic in the Western imagination dates back to the Middle Ages, and was very much bound up with anti-Jewish hostility and suspicion. Medieval and early modern Christians accused Jews of abducting, torturing, and using the blood of Christians, especially children, for their rituals (i.e., the blood libel); of stealing and desecrating Christian sacraments; of causing plague and disease by poisoning wells; and of being servants of the Devil. Sorcery is predictably included in this anti-Jewish lexicon.
After the Renaissance, attacks on Jews reflected the new awareness of kabbalistic texts and traditions. Charges of sorcery against Jews became more common rather than less as the medieval period gave way to the early modern.
These tropes would appear in Gothic novels and other literary genres, but also in the occult societies that cropped up in Europe in the 19th century:
England’s preeminent occult society, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, was founded in the 1880s and known for its dramatic rituals, celebrity membership, and penchant for bitter schisms. Initiates of the order were required to learn the Hebrew alphabet and the names of the ten kabbalistic s’firot [divine emanations], as well as the symbolism and divinatory potential of the tarot, which they believed was linked to the kabbalah.
Much of this “Jewish wisdom” was spurious. . . . Indeed, one feature of many modern occult circles is the striking contrast between the importance ascribed to Hebrew as symbolic imagery, on the one hand, and the resistance to acquiring literacy in the language. Consider satanist groups today that chant the Hebrew phrase shem ha-m’forash in their rituals, as a means of flouting divine authority and religious propriety. They believe that they are pronouncing and thereby profaning the holy name of God. Shem ha-m’forash, however, is not the name of God but means, literally, “the explicit name,” i.e., a reference to the [ineffable] or mystical name. Satanists who chant it are therefore a bit like confused rappers who think that they are offending people by saying the phrase “explicit lyrics.”