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

Salman Rushdie and the Western Apologists for Those Who Wish Him Dead

Aug. 17 2022

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder and supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, issued a fatwa (religious ruling) in 1989 calling for believers to murder the novelist Salman Rushdie due to the content of his novel, The Satanic Verses. Over the years, two of the book’s translators have been stabbed—one fatally—and numerous others have been injured or killed in attempts to follow the ayatollah’s writ. Last week, an American Shiite Muslim came closer than his many predecessors to killing Rushdie, stabbing him multiple times and leaving him in critical condition. Graeme Wood comments on those intellectuals in the West who have exuded sympathy for the stabbers:

In 1989, the reaction to the fatwa was split three ways: some supported it; some opposed it; and some opposed it, to be sure, but still wanted everyone to know how bad Rushdie and his novel were. This last faction, Team To Be Sure, took the West to task for elevating this troublesome man and his insulting book, whose devilry could have been averted had others been more attuned to the sensibilities of the offended.

The fumes are still rising off of this last group. The former president Jimmy Carter was, at the time of the original fatwa, the most prominent American to suggest that the crime of murder should be balanced against Rushdie’s crime of blasphemy. The ayatollah’s death sentence “caused writers and public officials in Western nations to become almost exclusively preoccupied with the author’s rights,” Carter wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times. Well, yes. Carter did not only say that many Muslims were offended and wished violence on Rushdie; that was simply a matter of fact, reported frequently in the news pages. He took to the op-ed page to add his view that these fanatics had a point. “While Rushdie’s First Amendment freedoms are important,” he wrote, “we have tended to promote him and his book with little acknowledgment that it is a direct insult to those millions of Moslems whose sacred beliefs have been violated.” Never mind that millions of Muslims take no offense at all, and are insulted by the implication that they should.

Over the past two decades, our culture has been Carterized. We have conceded moral authority to howling mobs, and the louder the howls, the more we have agreed that the howls were worth heeding. The novelist Hanif Kureishi has said that “nobody would have the [courage]” to write The Satanic Verses today. More precisely, nobody would publish it, because sensitivity readers would notice the theological delicacy of the book’s title and plot. The ayatollahs have trained them well, and social-media disasters of recent years have reinforced the lesson: don’t publish books that get you criticized, either by semiliterate fanatics on the other side of the world or by semiliterate fanatics on this one.

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Read more at Atlantic

More about: Ayatollah Khomeini, Freedom of Speech, Iran, Islamism, Jimmy Carter