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 Covert War on Iran’s Nuclear Program Is Impressive. But Is It Successful?

Sept. 26 2023

The Mossad’s heist of a vast Iranian nuclear archive in 2018 provided abundant evidence that Tehran was not adhering to its commitments; it also provided an enormous amount of actionable intelligence. Two years later, Israel responded to international inspectors’ condemnation of the Islamic Republic’s violations by using this intelligence to launch a spectacular campaign of sabotage—a campaign that is the subject of Target Tehran, by Yonah Jeremy Bob and Ilan Evyatar. David Adesnik writes:

The question that remains open at the conclusion of Target Tehran is whether the Mossad’s tactical wizardry adds up to strategic success in the shadow war with Iran. The authors give a very respectful hearing to skeptics—such as the former Mossad director Tamir Pardo—who believe the country should have embraced the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Bob and Evyatar reject that position, arguing that covert action has proven itself the best way to slow down the nuclear program. They acknowledge, however, that the clerical regime remains fully determined to reach the nuclear threshold. “The Mossad’s secret war, in other words, is not over. Indeed, it may never end,” they write.

Which brings us back to Joe Biden. The clerical regime was headed over a financial cliff when Biden took office, thanks to the reimposition of sanctions after Washington withdrew from the nuclear deal. The billions flowing into Iran on Biden’s watch have made it that much easier for the regime to rebuild whatever Mossad destroys in addition to weathering nationwide protests on behalf of women, life, and freedom. Until Washington and Jerusalem get on the same page—and stay there—Tehran’s nuclear ambitions will remain an affordable luxury for a dictatorship at war with its citizens.

Read more at Dispatch

More about: Iran nuclear program, Israeli Security, Joseph Biden, Mossad, U.S. Foreign policy