Rabbinic Altered States of Consciousness?

The subject of demonology has fascinated me ever since I first began reading scary stories as a child. In our culture today, the belief in demonic spirits continues to play a role in literature, movies, and religion. The recent stories about Rabbi Batzri and his exorcisms show that in Haredi and Hassidic communities, the belief in demonic possession is still very much alive and well–irregardless whether such malevolent entities exist or not.

In the world of the psyche, the imagination runs amok in our unconscious and conscious minds. Our dreams bear witness to this mysterious reality where the line between the real and the unreal seem to conflate. The Talmud actually has a pretty sophisticated treatment of demons. In one of the more remarkable passages of the Talmud, we find:

Abba Benjamin says, If the eye had the power to see them, no creature could endure the Mazikin [the “damagers”]

Abaye says: They are more numerous than we are and they surround us like the ridge round a field.

R. Huna says: Every one among us has a thousand on his left and ten thousand on his right (Psalm 91:7).

Raba says: The crushing in the Kallah lectures comes from them.  Fatigue in the knees comes from them. The wearing out of the clothes of the scholars is due to their rubbing against them. The bruising of the feet comes from them. If one wants to discover them,  let him take sifted ashes and sprinkle around his bed, and in the morning he will see something like the footprints of a rooster. If one wishes to see them, let him take the placenta of a black she-cat that is the offspring of a black she-cat that is the first-born of a first-born, let him roast it the placenta in fire and grind it to powder, and then let him put some into his eye, and he will see them. Let him also pour it into an iron tube and seal it with an iron signet that they the demons should not steal it from him. Let him also close his mouth, lest he come to harm.

R. Bibi b. Abaye did so,  saw them and came to harm. The scholars, however, prayed for him and he recovered.[1]

Most of you reading this probably think some of the rabbis may have been taking hallucinatory drugs. This is one interpretation we cannot rule out. As we suggested above, the rabbis might have been describing frightening dreams or nightmares they experienced. We do not really know the original context that fueled these interesting discussions. In the spirit of open-minded discussion, it pays not to rush and invalidate points of view that we make find disagreeable.  Continue reading “Rabbinic Altered States of Consciousness?”

Con-Versing with Jewish Mysticism: Maimonides’ Understanding of the Mezuzah’s Purpose

Philosopher Moses Maimonides believed that superstition undermines Judaism as a rational belief system.  For him, the purpose of mezuzah has nothing to do with protection, but rather, serves as a didactic device that teaches us about the importance of making ethical monotheism a part of our daily lives. There can be no doubt that Maimonides would have considered the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s mitzvah campaign of promoting the mezuzah as well-meaning, but theologically foolish–and perhaps even pagan-esque, since it devalues the purpose of God’s commandments.

The Psychology of Amulets

Maimonides contrasts religion and superstition in his discussion about using incantations to heal a wound:

“Anyone who whispers a incantation over a wound and reads a verse from the Torah, or one who recites a biblical verse over a child so he won’t be frightened, or one who places a Torah scroll or tefillin over an infant to enable him to sleep, are not only included in the category of sorcerers and charmers, but are included among those who repudiate the Torah. They use the words of the Torah as a physical cure, whereas they are exclusively a cure for the soul, as it is written, ‘they will be life to your soul.’ On the other hand, one who is enjoying good health is permitted to recite biblical verses, or a psalm, that he may be shielded and saved from affliction and damage by virtue of the reading.” [1]

He further states:  The ancient Sages said, “Whoever has tefillin on his head and arm, tsitsit on his garment, and a mezuzah on his door can rest assure that he will not sin,” for he has many reminders, and these are the “angels” who will save him from sinning, as it is said, “The angel of the LORD, who encamps with them, delivers all who fear God” [Ps. 34:8].” For Maimonides, the rituals of Judaism serve one purpose only: to teach the worshiper how to become mindful of God’s commandments. [2]

For Maimonides, the power of the mezuzah, tefillin (phylacteries), or other ritual items rests in their ability to convey the meaning of faith to its faith community. They are not magical amulets, nor do they have holiness in and by themselves.  Maimonides took a dim view of men who, in his generation, claimed to use God’s Names for theurgical (magical) purposes. In referring to the writers and hucksters  of magical healing amulets, he writes: “Do not let occur to your mind the vain imaginings of the writers of amulets or names you may hear from them or what you may find in their stupid books, names they have invented and… they think work miracles. All these are stories that it is not seemly for a perfect man to listen to, much less to believe.” [3]

Much in the same spirit as Maimonides, Josephus, (c. 37-100 C.E.) also attests to antiquity of the mezuzah,  and speaks of it as well-established custom. Inscribed with passages of the Torah which emphasize the unity of God, His providence, and the resulting duty of man toward Him, the mezuzah is an emblematic representation of Israel’s belief and practice. Thus Josephus says in speaking of the mezuzah (l.c.): “The greatest benefits of God are to be written on the doors . . . in order that His benevolent providence may be made known everywhere” [4].

The Nature of a Fetish

There is an interesting anthropological term that may shed some light on our discussion–the fetish. According to the ethnology of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the term “fetishism” was used to describe the veneration of certain objects (rocks, trees, teeth, and so on ) that were thought to possess spirits or to have special powers. Such veneration is said to be one of the defining qualities of the so-called tribal societies.

Other thinkers argue that the “fetish,” refers to  “irrational” modes of conduct in our own society. Thus, for example, I. Kant (1724–1804) said that a fetish is any form of worship that consists essentially not of moral principles but of mere rules of faith. We might add that any faith can become a fetish when its participants merely follow the rituals without ever contemplating the deeper meaning of what they are doing.

Even the Tablets Can Become a Fetish

Like Maimonides before him, Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (ca. early 20th century) recognized the dangers in transforming Jewish ritual objects into a fetish.  The writer raises an important question: How could Moses destroy  the Ten Commandments? Surely if one destroyed a Torah scroll, such an act would be considered sacrilege; how much more so with the Tablets, since the Tablets were written by God Himself!?  Rabbi Meir Simcha explains in his Torah Commentary:

“Torah and faith are the main aspects of the Jewish faith and all its sanctities, e.g., Eretz Yisrael (“the Land of Israel”), Jerusalem—are  only a means to an end, not ends in and of themselves. Do not think that the sanctuary and the Temple are holy objects in their own right. Far be it! God dwells among His people and if they were like Adam who violated the covenant, all their sanctity is removed and they become as profane objects. . . . Moreover, even the Tablets which were written by God Himself, are not holy per se, but are so only because of you–if you observe them. When the Israelites acted disgracefully under the bridal canopy by consorting with the Golden Calf,  the Tablets became as mere pottery. By themselves, they have no sanctity. The Tablets become holy only if it inspires a religious life suffused with ethical behavior.  There is nothing in this world that is holy except for God. Nothing in Creation is holy in itself; through Torah, Creation becomes sanctified and made holy. I wish these words would be written on the walls of every synagogue!” [5] Continue reading “Con-Versing with Jewish Mysticism: Maimonides’ Understanding of the Mezuzah’s Purpose”