The Long History of (Fictional) Jewish Magic

June 29 2022

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.”

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Read more at Investigations and Fantasies

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

 

Iran, America, and the Future of Democracy in the Middle East

Nov. 23 2022

Sixty-two days after the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s police, the regime has failed to quash the protest movement. But it is impossible to know if the tide will turn, and what the outcome of the government’s collapse might be. Reuel Marc Gerecht considers the very real possibility that a democratic Iran will emerge, and considers the aftershocks that might follow. (Free registration required.)

American political and intellectual elites remain uneasy with democracy promotion everywhere primarily because it has failed so far in the Middle East, the epicenter of our attention the last twenty years. (Iraq’s democracy isn’t dead, but it didn’t meet American expectations.) Might our dictatorial exception for Middle Eastern Muslims change if Iran were to set in motion insurrections elsewhere in the Islamic world, in much the same way that America’s response to 9/11 probably helped to produce the rebellions against dictatorship that started in Tunisia in 2010? The failure of the so-called Arab Spring to establish one functioning democracy, the retreat of secular democracy in Turkey, and the implosion of large parts of the Arab world have left many wondering whether Middle Eastern Muslims can sustain representative government.

In 1979 the Islamic revolution shook the Middle East, putting religious militancy into overdrive and tempting Saddam Hussein to unleash his bloodiest war. The collapse of Iran’s theocracy might be similarly seismic. Washington’s dictatorial preference could fade as the contradictions between Arab tyranny and Persian democracy grow.

Washington isn’t yet invested in democracy in Iran. Yet, as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has often noted, American hostility toward the Islamic Republic has been damaging. If the theocracy falls, Iranians will surely give America credit—vastly more credit that they will give to the European political class, who have been trying to make nice, and make money, with the clerical regime since the early 1990s—for this lasting enmity. We may well get more credit than we deserve. Both Democrats and Republicans who have dismissed the possibilities of democratic revolutions among the Muslim peoples of the Middle East will still, surely, claim it eagerly.

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Read more at Dispatch

More about: Arab democracy, Democracy, Iran, Middle East, U.S. Foreign policy