BP, the Bible, and the Butterfly Effect

Over the years I have noticed that when it comes to the recitation of the Shema prayer, most Jews readily chant the first paragraph of the Shema with enthusiasm. The first paragraph reads:

Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone! Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.  Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today. Drill them into your children. Speak of them at home and abroad, whether you are busy or at rest. Bind them at your wrist as a sign and let them be as a pendant on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates (Deut. 6:4-9).

The recitation of the second and third paragraph of the Shema  generally fails to inspire the same kind of enthusiasm. Here is the passage in question:

“If, then, you truly heed my commandments which I enjoin on you today, loving and serving the LORD, your God, with all your heart and all your soul, I will give the seasonal rain to your land, the early rain and the late rain, that you may have your grain, wine and oil to gather in; and I will bring forth grass in your fields for your animals. Thus you may eat your fill. But be careful lest your heart be so lured away that you serve other gods and worship them. For then the wrath of the LORD will flare up against you and he will close up the heavens, so that no rain will fall, and the soil will not yield its crops, and you will soon perish from the good land he is giving you. “Therefore, take these words of mine into your heart and soul. Bind them at your wrist as a sign, and let them be a pendant on your forehead. Teach them to your children, speaking of them at home and abroad, whether you are busy or at rest. And write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates, so that, as long as the heavens are above the earth, you and your children may live on in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers he would give them” (Deut. 11:13-21).

Simply put, actions matter. Actions have consequences. Moderns might feel uncomfortable with the carrot-and-stick approach of Deuteronomy, but its message is still compelling.

Our scientific age is certainly far more sophisticated than anything the ancients might have imagined, yet the meaning of the second paragraph of the Shema conveys an idea that is surprisingly modern and contemporary.

An ecological appreciation of the world reveals that all lifeforms are interconnected. The old paradigm of Newtonian and Cartesian physics conceived of the world through the metaphor of the clock. The universe was once seen as  a set of simple systems resembling a well-tuned ticking pendulum. These systems, if disturbed, may malfunction if their behavior is veers from normalcy. Their movements seemed predictable and manageable in its very nature.

Now we have discovered that there are in a manner of speaking, clocks within clocks–exponentiated. The inner workings of our world are so  exquisitely sensitive to circumstance that even the smallest disturbance produces large and ever-growing changes in their behavior that are difficult to fully calculate.

The meteorologist Ed Lorenz observed while studying  the earth’s weather systems that the smallest variation in the input to his equations produced exponentiatingly large deviations in the behavior of his solutions.  He referred to this cascade of changes as the “butterfly effect.”  Thus, a butterfly stirring the air with its wings in the African jungle today will generate consequences for the storm systems affecting Boston within three weeks. Since our knowledge about African butterflies is limited, detailed long-term weather forecasting will prove to be difficult to anticipate–but the effects are nevertheless in a perpetual state of causality. (By the way, this same kind movement can also be applied with respect to economics, as seen this past year’s gyrations of the stock market.)

Actions matter–and what applies to the realm of natural events especially applies to the moral events we as individuals make. With the recent BP oil spill disaster, we can see an ecological impact that effects not just the Gulf region, but ultimately the lifeforms of the entire planet! Continue reading “BP, the Bible, and the Butterfly Effect”

The Sabbath as an “architecture of sacred time”

Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907–1972) posits that the Sabbath is an “architecture of sacred time.”[1] He poignantly argues that while it is true that all peoples of antiquity venerated certain places as holy, the Torah places a far greater emphasis on the sanctification of time versus the sanctification of space. It is no coincidence that the word for sanctity is first associated with the Sabbath. When God blesses the Sabbath day (Gen. 2:3), it literally becomes, “a sanctuary of holy time.”

Sabbath rituals exemplify Judaism’s quest to sanctify time. To the pagan, the notion of holiness is inextricably related to sacred space; as a result, there is a tendency for the primal psyche to project its concept of the divine into an object that is found in the phenomenal world. But the Sabbath is radically different. With the Sabbath, as Heschel notes, human beings leave the realm of holy space and enter into the realm of holy time.[2]

Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn; a shrine that even apostasy cannot easily obliterate.[3]

The Sabbath also exerts a profound economic impact upon a society. As a symbol of sanctified time, the Sabbath releases men and women from the tyranny of a consumer-driven market economy. Keeping the Sabbath must be more than just a mere activity—it must foster a renewal of the soul. The Sabbath symbolizes the ideal state of creation where every creature great and small, stands in cosmic unity together in honor of the Creator. As a symbol of rest and renewal, the Sabbath signifies an inner serenity that permeates the spirit. Continue reading “The Sabbath as an “architecture of sacred time””

Tales From the Hollywood Zone: Was Jesus actually married?

You probably heard the story before a hundred times before.

A Catholic scholar, devoted to the Church and its doctrines throughout his life, died and went to Heaven, where he was greeted by St. Peter. For his heavenly reward, the scholar asked to see the heavenly archives where he could examine the original manuscripts of the New Testament. Hours later, St. Peter discovers that the scholar is distraught by what his eyes had discovered. One of the main tenets of the manuscript that was believed to state that all members, “…should stay celibate in all matters of sex…” has been found to be in error. The new translation has found the phrase to more accurately read that members, “…should stay, and celebrate in all matters of sex…” In other words, “Celebrate,” not “Celibate!”

The Church and sex . . . it sort of reminds me of the biblical prohibition against mixing meat and milk together–well, guess what? They don’t mix!

Well recently at my Introduction to Judaism class, one of my conversion students asked me the following two questions: “After reading the Da Vinci Codes, I began to wonder: Was Jesus actually married? Was a rabbi of that era supposed to be married? Secondly, what did you think of the movie’s overall premise?”

Let me say from the outset, that in ancient times, there was no official office of the rabbinate in the first century; generally speaking the epithet “rabbi” was an honorific title. Oftentimes, a wise person was called a “Chacham” (a Sage), or “Abba” since a spiritual teacher was considered to be like one who had given birth to a child or a disciple. Let us now examine the issues this person raised.

Now with respect to the old question, “Was Jesus ever mary-ied?” (great pun on “Mary”) The Talmud records an interesting question about Rav Huna (216-296) of Babylon. He is recorded as saying to one of his student, “‘See to it that you do not appear before me again before you are married,’ said he.” The Talmudic redactor observes, that R. Huna felt that “A man who has reached twenty years of age and still has not married, he will spend all his days in sin. ‘In sin’ — can you really think so? — But say, spends all his days in sinful thoughts.”

Another teacher, Rava (Abba ben Joseph bar Ḥama, ca. 280-350) adds, “The Academy of R. Ishmael also taught until the age of twenty, the Holy One, blessed be He, sits and waits. When will he take a wife? As soon as one attains twenty and has not married, he exclaims, ‘Blasted be his bones!’”  In the discussion that immediately follows, the Talmud cites a view from R. Hisda, who got married at a much younger age than 20. He recalls, “The reason that I am superior to my colleagues is that I married at sixteen. And had I married at fourteen, I would have said to Satan, ‘An arrow in your eye.’” [1]

It would be fairly safe to say that many Jews in the first century generally got married at a fairly young age so that they could fulfill the precept of raising a family. One rabbinic aphorism attributed to Ben Azzai (ca. 2nd century) reads: “Whosoever abstains from the precept of procreation is considered as if he shed blood” (T.B. Yebamoth 63b). Despite Ben Azzai’s endorsement of marriage, Ben Azzai remained a bachelor for all of his life, although some rabbinic traditions claim that he was married for a short period of time and got divorced. When accused of not practicing what he preached, he answered: “What shall I do if my soul yearns for Torah? The world can be performed by others” (Ibid.).

After Ben Azzai died, people used to say, “With the passing of Ben Azzai, diligent scholars passed from the earth” (Sot. 9:15). His intellectual pursuits were intensely passionate; he never wanted to be distracted from his Torah studies.

Perhaps Jesus had a similar attitude; and for that reason, he never married. On the other hand, perhaps he did get married; in all likelihood we cannot  know for sure. New Testament scholars readily admit that we know practically nothing about Jesus’ formative years.  This question is of little importance to Jews per se, but is obviously important to Catholics who have long rejected the idea of marriage as a biblical ideal for all of its spiritual leaders, which would explain why celibacy is so important in the Catholic faith.

Now, with respect to the Da Vinci Codes, Brown seems to take the goddess imagery a bit too far.  The protagonist Professor Langdon, observes, “The Grail,” Langdon said, “is symbolic of the lost goddess. When Christianity came along, the old pagan religions did not die easily. Legends of chivalric quests for the Holy Grail were in fact stories of forbidden quests to find the lost sacred feminine. Knights who claimed to be “searching for the chalice” were speaking in code as a way to protect themselves from a Church that had subjugated women, banished the Goddess, burned non-believers, and forbidden the pagan reverence for the sacred feminine.” [2] Continue reading “Tales From the Hollywood Zone: Was Jesus actually married?”

What Inspired the Rabbis to say, “Thank God for not making me a woman!”? (Part 2)

A Greek Should be Thankful for Three Things . . .

At this point one could ask: What sort of teachings might have inspired Rabbi Judah to formulate these three blessings? There may be two possible sources: Greek or early Christian writings. Of the two choices, I believe the Greek influence is more dominant. However, as we shall soon see, the liturgical texts found in the Cairo Geniza  suggest that the early medieval liturgical scholars may have had Christianity in mind, since the  Graeco-Roman culture was supplanted by the Catholic Church. This, I think, is pretty historically plausible.

The 3rd century biographer Diogenes Laertius  writes,  “In his Lives, Hermippus refers to Thales (what has been sometimes attributed to Socrates) . . . .He thanked fortune for three things: first of all, that he had been born a man and not a beast; secondly, that he was a man and not a woman; and thirdly, that he was a Greek and not a barbarian.” [1]

One could argue that the negative rabbinic statements concerning women must be seen within a broader social context; that is to say, the rabbis’ opinions were formed to a certain extent by the dominant cultural attitudes of its time, which happened to be decidedly Graeco-Roman.

Moreover, the originator of this liturgical blessing, Rabbi Judah HaNasi, (ca. 135-219) used to frequent the company of many of Romes’ high society members, and was believed to even been intimate with the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (ca. 122-180 CE.).

Charles Carlston sums up the Greco-Roman world’s view of women: “ . . . on balance . . . the picture drawn is a grim one. Women . . . are basically ineducable and empty-headed; vengeful, dangerous, and responsible for men’s sins; mendacious, treacherous, and unreliable; fickle; valuable only through their relationships with men; incapable of moderation or spontaneous goodness; at their best in the dark; interested only in sex–unless they are with their husbands, in which case (apparently) they would rather talk. In short, women are one and all ‘a set of vultures,’ the ‘most beastly’ of all the beasts on land or sea, and marriage is at best a necessary evil.” [2]

A Second Possible Source of Rabbi Judah’s Statement

As we mentioned above, Rabbi Judah may have been directing his criticism to new Christian faith. According to Paul, “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian,  slave, free; but Christ is all and in all” (Col. 3:11-13). In Paul’s vision of the new Christian faith, the traditional distinction that characterized the old rabbinic view of Judaism no longer applied. For him, the gospel doesn’t confer on one class of people a privileged position in the social order–God doesn’t play favorites; God saves us all in the same way and for the same end.

Do not think for a minute that Paul was necessarily a social liberal–he definitely wasn’t. But he did know how to appeal to perspective converts! For the record, Paul had no problem encouraging slaves and women to mind their societal places–all of which he wholeheartedly endorses. Paul was the world’s greatest salesman–he knew what to say in order to sell his faith–but we shall have to return to this point in another discussion.

This passage is interesting because if we read the Geniza texts of the Siddur, we find language that is very similar to the Pauline passage cited above: ברוך אתה יי אלהינו מלך העולם אשר בראת אותי אדם ולא בהמה ואיש ולא  אשה וישראל ולא גוי מל ולא ערל חופשי ולא עבד “Blessed are You …who has created me a human and not beast, a man and not a woman, an Israelite and not a gentile, circumcised and not uncircumcised, free and not slave.”

Early rabbinic passages also do not reflect particularly well on women: Continue reading “What Inspired the Rabbis to say, “Thank God for not making me a woman!”? (Part 2)”

What Inspired the Rabbis to say, “Thank God for not making me a woman!”? (Part 1)

As we have pointed out in other postings, a strong case can be made that one of the most serious  “deadly sins” of history is the sin of misogyny. Every faith grapples with this problem in one form or another. In Judaism, there is a well known blessing men say every day upon getting up in the morning:

“Blessed are you, Lord, our God, ruler the universe who has not created me a woman.”

The Original Rabbinical Source of the Blessing

The origin of this prayer is found in the Tosefta to Berakhot 6:16 that reads:

R. Judah says: “A man is bound to say the following three blessings daily: (1) ‘[Blessed are You . . .] Who has not made me a heathen’, ‘. . . . (2) Who has not made me a woman’; and  (3) ‘ . . . who has not made me an uncouth person.’”

The Tosefta then explains its rational:  (1)    “. . . a heathen,” because it is written:  ‘Before him all the nations are as nought, as nothing and void he accounts them,’” (Isa. 40:17). (2)   “. . . an uncouth person,” because it is said, “an uncouth person cannot be pious” (Avot 2:5). (3)   “. . . a woman,” for women are not legally required to observe all the precepts.

To what is this matter (i.e., gentile, uncouth people, women who perform the precepts) analogous to? A mortal king once said to his servant, ‘Go cook a meal for me.’ However, unbeknownst to the king, the servant had never cooked a meal in his life! After cooking a meal, the king got upset with him. Another analogy: A king once asked his servant to hem a garment for him, but having never hemmed a garment before, the servant ruined the garment, thus angering the king. [The moral of the story: Let those who are unfamiliar with the observance of the commandments be exempt from observing them, lest they be an affront to their Maker.]

It is interesting to note that unlike the canned apologetic responses seen in subsequent rabbinic literature, which purports that women are essentially exempt from the performance of certain time-bound precepts because of her family obligations, the Tosefta dismisses such a perspective. Her legal exemption from the commandments is because of incompetence and not because of the lack of opportunity.

Re-interpreting the Tosefta

The Talmud discusses part of the Tosefta in BT Menachot 43b:

A learned discussion began: “ R. Judah [1] used to say, ‘A man is bound to say the following three blessings daily: ‘[Blessed are You . . .] who has not made me a heathen’, ‘. . . . who hast not made me a woman’; and ‘ . . . who hast not made me a brutish man.’

One of the Sages, R. Aha b. Jacob, once overhead his son saying ‘[Blessed are You. . .] who has not made me a brutish man’, when he immediately said to him, ‘Isn’t this blessing a tad bit presumptuous?’ (Who says the rabbis didn’t have a wry sense of humor?) His son retorted, ‘OK, what would you have me say instead?’ Surely it is better to say, ‘. . . Who has not made me a slave.’ Once again his son retorted, “ How is this blessing different from that of a woman (seeing that neither one is fully obligated to carry out the precepts of the Torah; in fact they are on equal footing in terms of their obligations)?  His father rejoined, “A slave is more contemptible” (since his character is generally prone to licentious behavior, which is not the case with women).

Now the 2nd century Roman emancipated slave Epictetus would have certainly took serious offense to the Talmudic discussion, had he been included as one of the respondents–but that too, is another discussion for a future date.

Can a Golem be counted as part of a minyan?

Childhood Memories

As a child, I used to love reading the golem stories attributed to Rabbi Judah Lowe, a.k.a., the famous “Maharal of Prague” (1525-1609).  Since my father came from Czechoslovakia, I grew up hearing many family tales about the golem. These stories were especially delightful since my father was a naturally talented storyteller.  The golem was something like a medieval super-hero who protected the Jewish community from pogroms in its time.  It is interesting to note, that despite the numerous tracts Maharal wrote on various philosophical, talmudic, and mystical themes, never once does he ever refer to the golem that is associated with his name.

What is a Golem?

The term gōlem is a “shapeless mass” (Ps. 139:16), but according to Jewish folklore, a golem is a creature that is made from clay, and is animated by magical and mystical means. One of the more apocryphal stories of the Talmud relates how a 4th century scholar named Rava, magically created a man through the Sefer Yetzirah and sent him to Rabbi Zera. The latter tried speaking to him, but the poor golem could not speak. When there was no response, he declared: ‘You must be a  product of our colleague. Return to your dust!’ and so he died (BT Sanhedrin 65b).

Ironically, it is with no precedent in the Bible, except for the creation of Adam–except, now, it is man who is attempting to act as a mini-creator. How could such hubris not fail?

Indeed, in nearly all the golem legends, it appears that anytime mortals attempt to create human life, it is an activity that is fraught with danger. It seems that our ancestors felt suspicious about the full extent of man’s creative powers. In many of the stories, the golem goes out of control, destroying everything in sight.

Adaptations of the Golem in Western Literature and Cinema

The Frankenstein story is a European re-adaptation of the golem legends. In J. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Hobbit Gollum devolves into a treacherous shape-shifter under the malign influence of the Ring, it seems obvious that the author had these legends in mind.

In Star Trek: The Next Generation, the character Data personifies  the golem legend. When attempting to integrate the emotional chip, he becomes capable of erratic behavior–even violence. Countless sci-fi films have developed this theme in numerous tales about humanoid-like robots turning against their masters, i.e., like the Terminator series. Even the X-Files had an interesting episode of a betrothed woman who turns her murdered husband into a golem, in order to avenge his death.

According to some medieval tales, the golem is indestructible; if the golem had been created by writing the Hebrew word “אמת” (emet; “truth”) on its forehead, it could be destroyed by erasing the first letter to produce the word “מת” (met; “dead”). If one had created a golem by placing the name of God in its mouth, all that was needed was to remove the parchment. Continue reading “Can a Golem be counted as part of a minyan?”

Rethinking the Theology of Prayer (Part 2)

Human beings, since the earliest stages of its history, has always participated in a world of prayer. The English word “prayer” derives from the Middle English preiere, which derives from Medieval Latin precāria, from feminine of Latin precārius, “obtained by entreaty.” In the last posting, we briefly talked about some of the difficulties modern people experience with prayer.

One of the most intriguing critiques regarding prayer expressed in Late Antiquity, comes from one of the most famous and brilliant of the Early Church Fathers–Origen (c. 185-254). Deeply influenced by Hellenistic thought, Origen felt that the idea of asking God for things seemed absurd, for if God is omniscient, He knows what we need without us having to tell Him so. Furthermore, if God is good, He will give us want we need without being asked. He writes:

God knows all things before they come into being and there is no nothing becomes known to him from the fact of its beginning for the first time when it begins, as though it were not previously known. What need then is there to send up prayer  to him who knows what we need even before we pray? For the Heavenly Father knows what things we need of before we ask him (Matthew 2 6:8). And it is fitting that he, being Father and Maker of all who loves all things that are, and abhors nothing which he has made (Wisdom 11:24), should order in safety all that has to do with each one, even without  prayer, like a father provides for his little children, and does not wait for them to ask, either because they are quite unable to ask, or because through ignorance they often want to receive the opposite of what is of use and help to them. And we fall short of God more than those who are quiet children fall short of mind of those who begot them.” [1]

Among modern philosophers, Immanuel Kant wrote nothing about the efficacy about petitional prayer in any of his three great critiques, but in his  philosophic classic, Religion Within the Limits of Reason, Kant  blasted petitionary prayer much in the style of Origen and Maimonides:

“Praying, thought of as an inner formal service of God and [183] hence as a means of grace, is a superstitious illusion (a fetish-making); for it is no more than a stated wish directed to a Being who needs no such information regarding the inner disposition of the wisher; therefore nothing is accomplished by it, and it discharges none of the duties to which, as commands of God, we are obligated; hence God is not really served. A heart-felt wish to be well-pleasing to God in our every act and abstention, or in other words, the disposition, accompanying all our actions, to perform these as though they were being executed in the service of God, is the spirit of prayer which can, and should, be present in us ‘without ceasing.’ But to clothe this wish (even though it be but inwardly) in words . . . ”

He notes, “It is no more than a stated wish directed to a Being who needs no such information regarding the inner dispositions of the wisher; therefore nothing, is accomplished by it, and it discharges none of the duties to which, as commanded of God, we are obligated, hence God is not really served.” [2]

As we mentioned above, Maimonides probably would have agreed.

However, not every modern Jewish thinker thinks so critically about prayer. Rabbi Eliahau Dessler, one of the 20th century’s greatest  Judaic teachers of  the Mussar Movement, takes a different tact. According to Rav Dessler, utilizing prayer as a means for obtaining goods is nothing more than spiritual consumerism; such religious devotion cheapens the very act of worship.

Once this happens, the worshiper becomes what he terms as “a spiritual taker” and that all his/her prayers will  inevitably be by definition, devoid of sincerity. True prayer must divest itself from any tinge of selfish interest for profit. Every worshiper should specifically pray that, “May God’s Name be sanctified through me.” He adds, “If we are to be solicitous of anything, we should pray our prayers should enable us to pursue our ultimate goal and concern: to increase the light of God’s Presence in the world.

The goal of all worship should not be aimed at taking from God whatever we want but instead ought to be dedicated towards giving, for it is by giving we can discover Transcendence. We become most like God only when we give of ourselves. Rav Dessler’s point reminds me of a well known aphorism of the 20th century preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick, who  often said, “God is not a cosmic bellboy for whom we can press a button to get things done.”

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Notes:

[1] Origen and Eric George Day (trans), Treatise on Prayer (London: SPCK, 1954), 94.

[2] Immanuel Kant and Stephen R. Palmquist (trans.), Kant’s Critical Religion (Farnham, UK: Ashgate Pub Ltd, 2000), 456.

Life is a Series of Rebirths

As I have written on other occasions, life is a series of rebirths. What we start out in life is often different from what we ultimately become. Let me tell you a well-known story that illustrates this point about the life of Moses. The origin of this story is unknown, but I have seen it mentioned in many books containing medieval rabbinic tales about the famous personalities of the Bible.

Here is how it begins . . .

The whole world was shaken and enthralled by the miracle of the Exodus. The name of Moses was on everyone’s lips. Tidings of the great miracle reached also the wise king of Arabistan. The king summoned to him his best painter and bade him go to Moses, to paint his portrait and bring it back to him. When the painter returned, the king gathered together all his sages, wise in physiognomy (the art of judging human character from facial features), and asked them to define by the portrait the character of Moses, his qualities, inclinations, habits, and the source of his miraculous power.

“King,” answered the sages, “this is the portrait of a man cruel, haughty, greedy of gain, possessed by desire for power, and by all the vices which exist in the world.” These words roused the king’s indignation. “How can it be possible,” he exclaimed, “that a man whose marvelous deeds ring through the whole world should be of such a kind?”

A dispute began between the painter and the sages. The painter affirmed that the portrait of Moses had been painted by him quite accurately, while the sages maintained that Moses’ character had been unerringly determined by them according to the portrait.

The wise king of Arabistan decided to verify which of the disputing parties was right, and he himself set off for the camp of Israel. At the first glance the king became convinced that the face of Moses had been faultlessly portrayed by the painter. On entering the tent of the man of God he knelt down, bowed to the ground, and told Moses of the dispute between the artist and the sages.

“At first, until I saw thy face,” said the king, “I thought it must be that the artist had painted thy image badly, for my sages are men very much experienced in the science of physiognomy. Now I am convinced that they are quite worthless men and that their wisdom is vain and worthless.”

“No,” answered Moses, “it is not so; both the painter and the physiognomists are men highly skilled, and both parties are right. Be it known to thee that all the vices of which the sages spoke have indeed been assigned to me by nature and perhaps to an even higher degree than was found by them from my portrait. But I struggled with my vices by long and intense efforts of the will and gradually overcame and transcended them within myself until all opposed to them became my second nature. And in this lies my greatest pride.” Continue reading “Life is a Series of Rebirths”

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?”

Is the Mezuzah an Amulet?

The ancients believe that an amulet is supposedly charged with magical power that can ward off misadventure, disease, or the assaults of malign beings–whether demonic or human. A talisman is an object similarly used to enhance a person’s potentialities and fortunes. Amulets and talismans are two sides of the same coin. The former are designed to repels evil; the latter, to attracts blessing and prosperity. Historically, the mezuzah combines both features in rabbinic folklore and history.

The Mezuzah as an Amulet

Since Late Antiquity, our ancestors believed in mezuzah’s ability to supernaturally protect a Jew no matter where he or she happens to be.  The mezuzah combines both the aspects of the amulet and talisman that we mentioned above. In one well-known Talmudic passage, we discover that some of the Sages believed that the biblical promise of a long life depends upon the observance of the mezuzah. As a proof text, the rabbis explain the verse  “And you shall teach them your children … and you shalt write them upon the door posts of your house (mezuzot) … that your days may be multiplied and the days of your children” as a conditional promise. That is to say, if someone wants to enjoy a long life, then he had better be scrupulous in his observance of the mezuzah.[2]

In another Talmudic passage, the King Artaban of Parthea one day sent a gift to Rabbi Judah.  The gift was an exquisite and quite expensive pearl.  The king’s only request was that the rabbi send a gift in return that was of equal value.  Rabbi Judah sent the king a mezuzah. Artaban was displeased with the gift and came to confront the rabbi.  “What is this?  I sent you a priceless gift and you return this trifle?” The rabbi said, “Both objects are valuable, but they are very different.  You sent me something that I have to guard, while I sent you something that will guard you.” [3]

Pagans Once Wore Phylacteries

As a side note, the meaning of the original Greek term φυλακτήριον ( “phylacteries”) a preservative or safeguard, an amulet: (cf. Demosthenes, p. 71, 24; Dioscorides (ca. 100 C.E.) 5, 158f (159f), and appears often in the writings of Plutarch.  The ancient pagans believed that the wearing of phylacteries (as seen in some of the pictures of the goddess Ishtar), helped keep the evil spirits away. In all likelihood, ancient Jews were influenced by these pagan practices but later came to redefine their religious significance in light of Judaism’s sacred teachings. Archaeologists discovered these boxes in the caves of Murabbaat, which further confirms literary evidence of the ritual practice existing sometime in the century preceding the Common Era. Whether the members of Qumran actually wore such things is by no means clear. It is possible certain Pharisees who joined this sect, brought them with them to Qumran.

Fortunately, no Jew calls tefillin “phylacteries” today–but in the days when Jews spoke Greek, they called tefillin by a different name.

The Ancients Lived in a Demon Haunted World

The  ancients believed that they lived in a demon-haunted world. They probably had good reasons to do so. The average human lifespan was dramatically less than what we now enjoy. Infant mortality probably resembled what it presently in the Third World countries. Yes, the world was  a much more of a dangerous place. The belief in demons seemed only natural and even logically plausible to the pre-modern mind. Despite the advancements made in science and technology, we often find ourselves unconsciously believing in the protective power of these ancient tools. If for nothing else, they serve as psychological props for people undergoing psychological difficulties in their lives. Seeing a mezuzah on a door offers a feeling of protection.

Given what the ancients had to work with, it is only fitting we judge charitably when evaluating their belief systems. However, we have every right to expect more from our modern rabbinic scholars–especially in light of Jewish rational thought as championed by Maimonides and Gersonides (ca. 14th century). Even in the Israeli news media, rabbis boldly promote the use of the mezuzah as an amulet as though we are still living in the Dark Ages.[1] Continue reading “Is the Mezuzah an Amulet?”