Science, Demons, and Salamanders in the Mind of a Great Rabbi

Born in Frankfurt-am-Main, Moses Schreiber (1762–1839) spent the better part of his career as the rabbi of Pressburg (today Bratislava), and is best known as a fierce opponent of early Reform Judaism, a precursor of Ḥaredism, and the author of the talmudic work Ḥatam Sofer. Less known is his interest in kabbalah, astrology, and the latest advances of European scientists—subjects that in the early part of his life did not seem so far apart as they do now. Maoz Kahana presents a study of this aspect of Schreiber’s intellectual life:

Schreiber’s teenage years, which he spent [as a student of] Rabbi Nathan Adler in Frankfurt-am-Main, were interrupted during the years 1775–77, a period that he spent in Mainz, [engaged] in the study of various natural sciences—geography, mathematics, history, astronomy—under the patronage of a wealthy Jew in whose house he resided during this period.

Should we view the Schreiber’s clear interest in the study of sciences—in the original German, and perhaps also French, sources—which continued from this date onward, as standing in uneasy tension with his kabbalistic and magical training? Do these transitions—from Frankfurt to Mainz and, two years later, back to Frankfurt, reflect the inner turmoil of a young student caught between the lure of the scientific writings of Euclid and the power of Lurianic kabbalah, between magic and science, between old and new? The simple answer to this question is unequivocally negative.

For a talented Ashkenazi scholar of the mid-18th century, the study of secular fields of wisdoms was part of a wider interest in natural philosophy, and from this perspective there was actually much affinity between the Schreiber’s curiosity regarding these branches of knowledge—particularly physics and astronomy—and kabbalistic and magical lore. A look at the varied genres of writing produced by the Schreiber in his adulthood reflects a continued theoretical and conceptual preoccupation with a wide range of topics from the world of nature. Astronomy, astrology and alchemy, chemistry and physiology are present in his exegetical and homiletic writings, and closely intertwine with his religious interests and methods in what appears to be an almost purposeful confusion.

That intertwining can be found in Schreiber’s reluctant participation in an exorcism, and his analysis of the mystical properties ascribed by ancient rabbis (likely informed by Aristotle and Pliny) to the salamander.

Read more at Tablet

More about: Jewish history, Kabbalah, Magic, Moses Schreiber, Science and Religion

Israel’s Retaliation against the Houthis Sends a Message to the U.S., and to Its Arab Allies

The drone that struck a Tel Aviv high-rise on Thursday night is believed to have traveled over 2,000 kilometers, flying from Yemen over Egypt and then above the Mediterranean before veering eastward toward the Israeli coast. Since October, the Houthis have launched over 200 drones at Israel. Nor is this the first attempt to strike Tel Aviv, only the first successful one. Noah Rothman observes that the Houthis’ persistent attacks on Israel and on international shipping are largely the result of the U.S.-led coalition’s anemic response:

Had the Biden administration taken a more proactive and vigorous approach to neutralizing the Houthis’ capabilities, Israel would not be obliged to expand to Yemen the theater of operations in the war Hamas inaugurated on October 7. The prospects of a regional war grow larger by the day, not because Israel cannot “take the win,” as President Biden reportedly told Benjamin Netanyahu following a full-scale direct Iranian attack on the Jewish state, but because hostile foreign actors are killing its citizens. Jerusalem is obliged to defend them and the sovereignty of Israel’s borders.

Biden’s hesitancy was fueled by his apprehension over the prospect of a “wider war” in the Middle East. But his hesitancy is what is going to give him the war he so cravenly sought to avoid.

In this context, the nature of the Israeli response is significant: rather than follow the American strategy of striking isolated weapons depots and the like, IDF jets struck the port city of Hodeida—the sort of major target the U.S. has shied away from. The mission was likely the furthest-ever carried out by the Israel Air Force, hitting a site 200 kilometers further from Israel than Tehran. Yoel Guzansky and Ilan Zalayat comment:

The message that Israel sent was intended to reach the moderate Arab countries, the West, and especially the United States. . . . The message to the coalition countries is that “the containment” had failed and the Houthis must be hit harder. The Hodeida port is the lifeline of the Houthi economy and continued damage to it will make it extremely difficult for this economy, which is also facing significant American sanctions.

Read more at National Review

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