A 16th-Century Collection of Kabbalistic Magic, and the Story behind It

The great scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem distinguished between “speculative” Kabbalah, which focuses on understanding the esoteric meanings of Jewish texts and the mysterious workings of the Godhead, and “practical” Kabbalah, which focuses on harnessing esoteric knowledge to achieve useful results—healing the sick or arranging successful marriages, for instance. Zsofi Buda describes a rare handwritten 16th-century volume belonging to the latter genre, written by one Elisha ben Gad of Ancona. What makes this codex unusual is its introduction, in which Elisha describes how he collected the spells it contains:

Elisha is overcome with a great thirst for knowledge, and he starts on a journey to satisfy it. He wanders from town to town until he arrives in Venice, a great city full of wise and knowledgeable sages. There, thanks to God’s mercy, he wins the trust of Rabbi Judah Alkabets, and gains access to the rabbi’s library. He soon discovers that the rabbi’s collection contains precious kabbalistic volumes “that emerged for fame and praise, and all written with the finger [of God].” So he swears in his heart that he will not leave the library until he has collected all its secrets.

As he is looking through the books, he notices “a book hidden and sealed, in a chest within another chest covered with a cloth and sealed.” When he opens this hidden book, he finds in it all sorts of magic spells, and decides to copy them. After Alkabetz’s death, Elisha leaves Venice and continues his journey, and eventually arrives in Safed, in the Land of Israel. He spends a long time there before he gains the trust of the [local] sages, but eventually they share their secret wisdom with him. His book, which he calls the Tree of Knowledge, is based on the secrets he acquired in Venice and in Safed.

Among the 52 spells using divine names contained in the [book’s] first section, there are many amulets providing protection against illnesses like nosebleeds, fever, and earaches, spells for enhancing intellectual capabilities, . . . and various other incantations.

Read more at Asian and African Studies Blog

More about: Kabbalah, Magic, Rare books, Safed

How to Save the Universities

To Peter Berkowitz, the rot in American institutions of higher learning exposed by Tuesday’s hearings resembles a disease that in its early stages was easy to cure but difficult to diagnose, and now is so advanced that it is easy to diagnose but difficult to cure. Recent analyses of these problems have now at last made it to the pages of the New York Times but are, he writes, “tardy by several decades,” and their suggested remedies woefully inadequate:

They fail to identify the chief problem. They ignore the principal obstacles to reform. They propose reforms that provide the equivalent of band-aids for gaping wounds and shattered limbs. And they overlook the mainstream media’s complicity in largely ignoring, downplaying, or dismissing repeated warnings extending back a quarter century and more—largely, but not exclusively, from conservatives—that our universities undermine the public interest by attacking free speech, eviscerating due process, and hollowing out and politicizing the curriculum.

The remedy, Berkowitz argues, would be turning universities into places that cultivate, encourage, and teach freedom of thought and speech. But doing so seems unlikely:

Having undermined respect for others and the art of listening by presiding over—or silently acquiescing in—the curtailment of dissenting speech for more than a generation, the current crop of administrators and professors seems ill-suited to fashion and implement free-speech training. Moreover, free speech is best learned not by didactic lectures and seminars but by practicing it in the reasoned consideration of competing ideas with those capable of challenging one’s assumptions and arguments. But where are the professors who can lead such conversations? Which faculty members remain capable of understanding their side of the argument because they understand the other side?

Read more at RealClearPolitics

More about: Academia, Anti-Semitism, Freedom of Speech, Israel on campus