The Long History of (Fictional) Jewish Magic

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.”

Read more at Investigations and Fantasies

More about: Anti-Semitism, C.S. Lewis, Fantasy, Kabbalah, Literature, Magic

Iran’s Calculations and America’s Mistake

There is little doubt that if Hizballah had participated more intensively in Saturday’s attack, Israeli air defenses would have been pushed past their limits, and far more damage would have been done. Daniel Byman and Kenneth Pollack, trying to look at things from Tehran’s perspective, see this as an important sign of caution—but caution that shouldn’t be exaggerated:

Iran is well aware of the extent and capability of Israel’s air defenses. The scale of the strike was almost certainly designed to enable at least some of the attacking munitions to penetrate those defenses and cause some degree of damage. Their inability to do so was doubtless a disappointment to Tehran, but the Iranians can probably still console themselves that the attack was frightening for the Israeli people and alarming to their government. Iran probably hopes that it was unpleasant enough to give Israeli leaders pause the next time they consider an operation like the embassy strike.

Hizballah is Iran’s ace in the hole. With more than 150,000 rockets and missiles, the Lebanese militant group could overwhelm Israeli air defenses. . . . All of this reinforces the strategic assessment that Iran is not looking to escalate with Israel and is, in fact, working very hard to avoid escalation. . . . Still, Iran has crossed a Rubicon, although it may not recognize it. Iran had never struck Israel directly from its own territory before Saturday.

Byman and Pollack see here an important lesson for America:

What Saturday’s fireworks hopefully also illustrated is the danger of U.S. disengagement from the Middle East. . . . The latest round of violence shows why it is important for the United States to take the lead on pushing back on Iran and its proxies and bolstering U.S. allies.

Read more at Foreign Policy

More about: Iran, Israeli Security, U.S. Foreign policy