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Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Tzohar: Gem of Noah, Light of Heaven



So what was that glowing, explosive rock stuff in Aronofsky's film Noah? Was it just a a lazy author's device of convenience, or does it actually have some authentic roots in Noah traditions? Based on it's movie name, zohar, I suspect it's the screenwriter's adaption the similar, but linguistically distinct tzohar, which actually APPEARS IN GENESIS. In Gen. 6, God instructs Noah to illuminate the ark by tzohar taaseh/ "A "brightness you will make." This term, (transliterated as either tzohar or tsohar), which literally means "Bright/glittering/noon light" (The Hebrew word for noon, tzohoriyim, is derived from the same root), is not further defined in the Hebrew Bible. Some translate this simply as "window." Jewish esoteric tradition, however, regards the tzohar to be a kind of luminous gemstone holding the primordial light of creation.

Much of the ambiguity and the imaginative use of the word tzohar is grounded in its status as a hapax legomenon, a word that appears only once in the Bible, and therefore lacking any further point of comparison for the purpose of fixing its meaning. By comparsion, for example, the word hesed is used hundreds of times, in many different contexts, in many books of Bible, allowing philologists to observe all its semantic nuances. All we have to go on with tzohar is one context, and that context is Genesis 6:16. In this verse it seems at first glance to refer to a structural feature. Based on this, some translators propose “roof.” Others use “window,” “skylight,” or simply “opening.” Each translation presents a problem in that we already have elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures other words for these objects. There are also logic problems: why put an opening in a structure that will subject to torrential rain for 40 days? And since the day and night provided little or no natural light during the Flood (Gen. 8:22; Gen. R. 25:2, 34:11), what would be the purpose? All this invites speculation the tzohar was something as unique as the word itself (Genesis Rabbah 31:11).

The fact that the word for “noon/zenith,” tzohoriyim, shares the same root, but especially because of its linguistic similarity to the word zohar (“shine/radiant”), triggered an assumption that it is a form of light source rather then an aperture to let light in.

Targum Yonatan may be the first source to claim the tzohar was a luminous stone, pulled from the primordial river Pishon (T. Y. Genesis 6:16). This is elaborated on in Genesis Rabbah 31:11:

During the entire twelve months that Noah was in the Ark he did not require the light of the sun by day or the light of the moon by night, but he had a polished stone which he hung up – when it was dim, he knew it was day, when it was bright, he knew it was night.

Another version of this idea appears in the Talmud, Sanhedrin 108b:

Make a tzohar for the ark.” R. Johanan said, The Blessed Holy One instructed Noah: 'Set there precious stones and jewels, so that they may give you light, bright as the noon [in Hebrew, this is a play on words between tzohar and tzohoriyim].The same idea is reiterated in the medieval Midrash Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer 23.

The matter might rest there, but elsewhere in the Talmud, there is another tradition that Abraham also had a miraculous stone:

R. Shimon b. Yochai said, Abraham had a precious stone hung round his neck which brought immediate healing to any sick person who looked on it, and when Abraham our father left this world, the Blessed Holy One hung it from the wheel of the sun. (Baba Batra 16b)

This naturally led to speculation that that the stones of Noah and Abraham were one and the same. And given Genesis Rabbah’s allusion to the river Pishon that flowed through the Garden of Eden, the logical origin for this tzohar would be with there, where God hid the supernal light of the first day for the sole use of the righteous:

It was taught, the light which created in the six days…cannot illumine by day, because it would eclipse the light of the sun. Where is it? It is stored for the righteous in the messianic future...He set it apart for the righteous in the future Gen. R. 3:6

And

The Holy Blessed One created many things in His world, but the world being unworthy to have the use of them, He hid them away...the example being the light created on the first day, for Rabbi Judah ben Simon said: Man could see with the help of the first light from one end of the world to the other. Ex. R. 35:1

(also see Talmud Hagigah 12a; Lev. Rabbah 11:7, Gen. Rabbah 41:3 and Zohar I:31b, all homiletically based on Gen. 1:3, Ps. 97:11 and Job 38:13).

Those who possessed the tzohar not only had illumination, but access to the secrets of the Torah and all its powers. Thus the "chain" narrative that emerges from this vearious threads is that God created it, but then hid it away for the sole use of the righteous. The angel Raziel gave it to Adam after the Fall. Adam gave it to his children. It passed to Noah. While in the passage we read, Abraham returned the tzohar to heaven and hung it on the sun, other traditions track its continued use by the righteous of each subsequent generation: Joseph used it for his dream interpretations. Moses recovered it from the bones of Joseph and placed it in the Tabernacle.

A text known today as "The Queen of Sheba and Her only Son Menyelek," translated by Sir E. A. Wallis Budge includes this verse:

"How the House of Solomon the King was illuminated as by day, for in his wisdom he had made shining pearls which were like unto the sun, the moon and the stars in the roof of his house."

Even that is not the end of the matter. The Zohar claims that Simon Ben Yochai possessed it in the Rabbinic era (Sanh. 108b; B. B. 16b; Lev. R. 11; Gen. R 31:11; Zohar I:11; Otzer ha-Midrash).


Zal G'mor: To learn more, consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism - http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Spawns of Satan, Children of Cain

One of the least known but very persistent Jewish folkloric beliefs is that of “changelings,” that there are human-appearing demoniods, offspring of human-demon couplings, that move among us. Darren Aronofsky's Noah plays with this by suggesting the lines of Seth and of Cain are of fundamentally different kinds of humans, though he posits both to be fully human.

                                     [Illustration: E.M. Lilien bookplate featuring satyr and woman]

This belief has its roots in a rabbinic tradition that believes demons (sheidim, creatures more akin to the Islam djinn than the earth-trembling terrors of Christian imagination) are unable to procreate without human “seed.” Thus Judaism has a robust tradition of succubae, seductive female demons who are the cause of male erotic dreams and nocturnal emissions. Adam was the first progenitor of demons:

When Adam, doing penance for his sin, separated from Eve for 130 years, he, by impure desire, caused the earth to be filled with shedim, lilin, and evil spirits (Gen. R. 20; Er. 18b).                                                                                                                                                                    
Since, like humans, sheidim are subject to death (Chagigah 16a), these “semen demons,” such as Lilith, Naamah, and Igrat, periodically re-populate the demonic realm through these sexual-spiritual assaults.

The flip side of this coin is a parallel tradition that mortal women are occasionally impregnated by incubae:

Rabbi Hiyya Said: “sons of divinity” (Gen. 6:2-4) were the sons of Cain. For when Samael mounted Eve (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 146a), he injected [semen of] filth into her, and she conceived and bore Cain. And his aspect was unlike that of the other humans and all those who came from his side [of the human family tree] were called “sons of divinity” (Zohar I:37a;also see I:54a).

According to this version of the nefilim tradition, Cain was descended from an angel (Samael is called the "Prince of Heaven" in Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer 13) but at the same time a “bad seed,” as were his descendants. The female descendants of Eve similarly can find themselves periodic victims of a kind of “Rosemary’s Baby Syndrome,” usually unknowingly. The changelings that result from such "spirit rapes" move among us largely undetected, until their evil nature is revealed through gross crimes or other evil enterprises.

Given the spiritual source of their malevolence, it was sometimes thought necessary to combat them by spiritual means alongside the usual police and judicial methods. Thus we see in some Hebrew amulets of protection that the person seeking angelic protection against evil spirits will identify him- or herself as “So-and-So, son/daughter of So-and-So, from among the children of Adam and Eve…” (Sefer ha-Razim). The implication being the amulet is directed against beings not from among the children of both primoridal ancestors.

This belief in demi-demon progeny persisted from Talmudic times right up to the start of the modern era, no doubt because this legend offers a ready explanation for why certain people are “bad to the bone,” much in the way we still today declare heinous serial killers and other violent criminal “monsters” (and therefore somehow not fully human).

To learn more, look up the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism available at Amazon. http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050/sr=1-1/qid=1159997117/ref=sr_1_1/002-7116669-7231211?ie=UTF8&s=books


Monday, March 31, 2014

Dream Work Noah: The Cinematic and Jewish Greatness of the Weirdest Story Ever Told

Now that Aronofsky's Noah, his decades-in-the-making auteur obsession about yet another visionary-yet-  monomanical character, is in the theaters, this seems to be the time for a parable from the Zohar - the parable of the master of wheat:

[Jennifer Connelly - Naameh indeed]

This may be compared to a man who dwelled among the cliffs and knew nothing of those dwelling in the town. 
He sowed wheat, and ate the wheat in its natural condition. 
One day he went into town and was offered fine bread. 
The man asked: What’s this for? They replied: It’s bread, to eat! 
He asked: And what’s it made of? 
They replied: Of wheat. 
Afterwards they brought him cakes kneaded with oil. He tasted them, and asked: And what are these made of? They replied: Of wheat. 
Later they brought him royal pastry kneaded with honey and oil. He asked: And what are these made of? 
They replied: Of wheat. 
He said: Surely I am master of all these, since I eat the essence of all of these! 
And because of that view, he knew nothing of the delights of the world, which were lost to him.
So it is with one who grasps the principle but is unaware of all those delectable delights deriving, diverging from that principle.
[Translation from the Pritzker Zohar by Dan Matt]

Hopefully with all the sturm and drang settling, people are finally coming to understand that the fundamentalist critics of this film are all masters of wheat as alluded to by the Zohar. They think that in cleaving only to the bare bones of the biblical narrative, they are masters of all aspects of the story, but in fact they are, to a great extent, suffering from a kind textual indigestion, or perhaps a spiritual ciliac disorder, in which they struggle to absorb the full nutritional value of the biblical narrative (and irritable about it, to boot) because of their restrictive way of reading. 
The Noah story as received is a mere one hundred verses, with little dialogue, minimal motivation, no character development or insight, no struggle; it is a skeleton of a narrative which the readers must flesh out with themsleves, projecting their experiences, emotions, and conflicts, and imagination onto the scaffold of plot to fully realize its many on complex meanings and implications. The movie Noah steps into those many gaps and fills them with clever, and sometimes crazed, midrashic storytelling. These are serious men (that's a shout out to you, Coen brothers, two other great biblical auteurs) who took the story before them, stepped back from the cultural pablum and childish pious-polyanna that has adhered to the Genesis narrative in the modern mind, and rebuilt it in a way so as to reclaim all its dark, dreadful, and dread-filled potency.

Noah is not without its flaws, but it is, all-in-all, the most daring, powerful, in some ways, truest bit of cinematic Bible I've ever seen. It's expansion of the story is, in many ways, extraordinarily supple. Some of most critical dialogue spoke by the characters is wording lifted directly from other parts of the Bible. At the end of the first act, an archly biblical event occurs (Spoiler Alert): the miraculous restoration of fertility to a barren woman. The wrenching second act where (Spoiler Alert) Noah concludes God wants him to slay his grandchild is appropriated from the Akedah of Isaac, making it completely biblical in spirit, and is artfully used by Hendel and Aronofsky to further their vision of Noah as a proponent of "deep ecology," the ideology that holds the earth would be better off if humans were extinct (or self-extinguished). And as for Aronofsky's insertion of "environmentalism" into the an Iron age story, well, he does no more violence to the integrity of the biblical ethos than the folks who retroject middle-class, industrial age "family values" onto the Bible, a document that regards polygamy, concubinage, and captive- and slave-brides as normative. Aronofsky's biblical hook is obvious - the world is "corrupted" by man's presence and God and Noah "conserve" all the animals, not just the ones that directly benefit humanity.

Of course, what captivated me most was the fearless integration of Jewish second-temple, rabbinic, and mystical traditions into the story. The film-makers, as is the norm in Hollywood, freely adapt these things, but they are there, none-the-less, in glorious homage to Jewish folklore and esoteric tradition. These are the ones I saw:

Watchers: The fallen angels, based in Gen. 6:4 and grandly elaborated on in the Book of Enoch and the Book of Giants, are a big part of the storyline; mostly cleverly, their presence explains how a family of 6 (it was 8 in Genesis) could build the greatest maritime project before the industrial age. Aronofsky elides the more lurid part to the tradition, their coupling with human women and producing giant offspring, focusing instead on their role in Enoch as the bringers of knowledge and technology to humanity.
http://ejmmm2007.blogspot.com/2007/02/nefalim-refaim-anakim-biblical-giants.html

Tzohar: The glowy-explosive substance used repeatedly in the movie is based on the tzohar, a miraculous gemstone that tradition tells us illuminated the interior of the ark. This concept, surprisingly, is linguistically embedded right in the middle of the Noah narrative, as you can read here:
http://ejmmm2007.blogspot.com/2008/10/tzohar-miraculous-light-of-noah-window.html

The Sword of Metheusaleh: The miraculous demon-slaying sword gets a cameo in a flashback (literally) sequence, where we see the anti-deluvian "grandfather" wield it against evil hordes:
http://ejmmm2007.blogspot.com/2008/01/demon-lovers-sword-of-power-children-of.html

The garment of Adam: Here the connection seems the most tenuous, but I assume this is where the idea for the magical-glowing-serpent skin-arm tefillin worn by the shamanic patriarchs of Seth is derived from. In Jewish tradition, the garment is made from the hide of Leviathan. Here, it's the sloughed-off, pre-corruption skin of the edenic serpent. Though we do not see this idea developed in the movie, the garment of Adam gave one the power to command animals:
http://ejmmm2007.blogspot.com/2009/02/nimrod-mighty-hunter-king-of-evil.html

Tubal-Cain: The terrifying and terrified king is constructed from a single verse of Genesis where he is credited as a worker of bronze and iron, but is then fused with the midrashic King Nimrod, the power-mad tyrant of rabbinic fantasy who attacks God's messengers. His stow-away on the ark is no doubt borrowed from the midrashic biography of King Og of Bashan, a anti-deluvian giant who survives the deluge by clinging to the exterior of the ark.

Of course, the big picture is all in my book:

Zal G'mor: To learn more, consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism -http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

These were the most obvious mythic elements borrowed from Jewish folklore. I'm going back to see the movie again, and I'll update you with what else catches my eye. You should see it too. Weird, wonderful, fantastic in all senses of the word. 

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Partzufim - Divine Personas, Holy Family

Partzufim: (Aramaic, “Countenances,” “Personifications”). First outlined in the Zohar, this metaphysical concept is more fully devel­oped by Isaac Luria. According to the Lurianic cosmog­ony, after the catastrophe of the Breaking of the Vessels, the shattering of the primeval structure of light, the ein sof reconstitutes the fragments of the cosmic order into five “countenances” or “visages” that are able to mediate between supernal and material realities in a way the pri­mordial vessels were not. Think of the Partzufim as analo­gous to a “patch” for a faulty computer program.1
The biblical proof text that Chayyim Vital offers for the partzufim is Gen. 2:4, where he reads the compound word behibaram, “when they were created,” as a notarikon, breaking it up into be-Hay-baram, “Through ‘5’ He created them,” “them” being all of positive existence (Etz Chayyim, Gate III, 39). 
The Partzufim interact with humanity in the work of tikkun. These countenances also constitute and encompass the personal dimensions of God that are described in bibli­cal and rabbinic writings, since they symbolize the male and female principles operating within the Godhead. In fact, the partzufim constitute a kind of “holy family,” a familial metaphor for the divine pleroma. In some writings, the various partzufim are assigned the names of biblical figures: Jacob and Israel; Rachel and Leah. Presumably, one can map the functions of the partzufim on the celestial level through studyingthe biographies and actions of those biblical characters. Other partzufim get titles, such as Yisrael Sava, “grandpa Israel,” for Abba.
 This aspect of Lurianic thought has a complex relationship with the sefirotic structure of classic kabbalah, not unlike the “wave/particle” phenom­enon in quantum physics. Thus whether the divine struc­ture manifests itself as the sefirot or as the partzufim de­pends on certain conditions, but they are essentially two aspects of the same divine force. The five countenances are:
Arikh Anpin: The “long/great countenance,” also called the Atik Yamim, “Ancient of Days.”
Abba: “Father,” the male aspect of the divine gamos is linked to the sefirot of Keter and/or Cho­chmah.
Ima: “Mother,” the celestial mother is tied to Binah.
Zer (or Zaur) Anpin/Ben: “The short/lesser countenance.” Product of the union of Abba and Ima, it is tied to the lower six sefirot: Chesed, gevurah, tiferet, netzach, Hod, and Yesod.
Kalah/Malcha/Bat: “Bride/Queen.” The feminine counterpart to Zer Anpin, she is linked to malchut.
The Partzufim, like their sefirotic counterparts, are also integral to the notion of the restoration of the Adam Kadmon, the cosmic human. In a kind of inverted “imi­tatio dei,” all human actions that advance the cause of cos­mic restoration are mimicked by the Partzufim.2 Thus humans help to activate them and ensure the healing flow of divine energies between higher and lower worlds.
Illustration by Ursi Eso



   1. Scholem, Kabbalah, 140–44.
2. Faierstein, Jewish Mystical Autobiographies, 28–29. Also see Green, Jewish Spirituality, vol. 2, 65–70.


Thursday, November 21, 2013

Obama Psalm: Curses in Politics


So I saw a bumper sticker the other day that read, "Pray for Obama" - a nice gesture - and is followed by the citation, "Ps. 109:8."
May his days be few; may another take over his position.

Pretty funny [though pointless, as of Nov. 6th]. But then one reads the context of the verse....

Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.
Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg:
let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places.
Let the extortioner catch all that he has;

and let the strangers spoil his labor.
Let there be none to extend mercy unto him:
neither let there be any to favor his fatherless children.
Let his posterity be cut off;
and in the generation following let their name be blotted out.
Let the iniquity of his fathers be remembered with the LORD;
and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out.
Let them be before the LORD continually,
that he may cut off the memory of them from the earth.



And things get considerably darker. And after a moment's reflection, another thought arises -- it that a curse? Yes it is. Turns out the Psalms, like the rest of the Bible, defies our stereotypes. The Psalms have all sorts of peculiarities. For example, Ps. 45 is neither a prayer nor a paean to God. It's a rather obsequious ode to a king. And the Psalms are sometimes just as surprising for what they don't contain. For example - the themes of brit (covenant) and mitzvah (commandment), so central to the Torah and post-biblical Judaism, are essentially non-entities in the Psalms. Virtually no psalm references these concepts as a framework for the writer's faith. Ps. 119 stands out as the exception. So does what does this imply for the centrality of Torah to ancient Israel?

And curses. There are actually several Psalms that are, or contain, extended curses. Ps. 35, 58, 137, all invoke hair-raising afflictions upon the writer's enemy, and 109 is the ultimate execration text.

This shocks our modern sensibilities...its seems so unreligious. But as I tell my students in my Bible as Literature course at UNT, this idea that religion only engages in the uplifting is a relatively modern rethinking of what constitutes "religion." For virtually every religion until very recently, God is expected to protect his own and punish their enemies. Truly, the idea that what God wants is the repentance of the sinner, not his destruction, is a theme already found in the Bible. But as for God's followers, well...they want satisfaction.

Of course some would argue that these aren't "curses" in the magical sense, but "prayers" venting anger. Perhaps. But, as I have discussed before in this blog, the distinction between an incantation and a prayer is very fine distinction indeed. Thus we read:

Moses is not mentioned in the parashah [Tetzaveh]....The reason for this is that Moses said to God: 'Wipe me out from Your book [Ex. 32:32]" and the curse by a righteous person is fulfilled, even if it is made conditionally. (Ba'al ha-Turim)

Many modern scholars of ancient religions would eschew the distinction entirely, lumping glamors and petitionary prayers together under the category of "rituals of power," speech-acts that will lead to constructive (or in this case, destructive) results. People want their pleas to be answered and the things they ask for, come to pass.

All this needs to be placed in historical context. Biblical Israel. The Psalms were written in a period of human history when most people lived either in a tribal environment, or one step away from it in farming villages or a fortified urban environment. Brutality from within and without the society was commonplace, armed conflict would visit people at least once in their lifetime, and at some point most tribes/nations fought using what amounted to atrocities directed against their rivals. The hope that one could escape persecution, plunder, or worse via the intervention of one's god was an understandable hope, and the idea that the deity would visit upon them what they planned to mete out to you was pretty appealing.

So much for history. We live in a different age, with different expectations for and from our enemies. In our time, law prevails by and large, and even the worst leaders are subject to election, re-election, and term limits. The time for asking for God's wrath to fall upon our political enemies and their families seems, well, a kind of curse of its own visited on our modern body politic.

The Talmud takes a stand against curses using it's customary pedagogic strategy, a story:

There was a non-believer who lived near Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi. This heretic would harass the sage by citing scriptural verses to prove sectarian doctrines or to challenge rabbinic traditions. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi was exceedingly agitated by his troublesome neighbor and decided to be rid of this heretic. He took a rooster and tied it between the feet of a bed. With the rooster in place, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi stared at it intently waiting for its comb to pale while it stood on one foot [according to an earlier comment, one can discern the time of  God's anger by the color of a cockscomb]. Wide-eyed and waiting for the auspicious moment, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi intended to utilize that flash of divine anger and curse the heretic. At the crucial moment, however, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi dozed off, missing the opportunity to manipulate God's anger. Opening his eyes, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi concluded: "It is not proper to act so." The sage continued, citing biblical verses to buttress his conclusion: "Moreover, it is written 'His mercies are on all His handiwork' (Psalms 145:9) and it is also written 'For the righteous to punish is not good' (Prov. 17:26)."  Berachot 7a.

Put with greater brevity, Nahal Kedumim teaches, "...even if a person has good intentions, he should not allow a curse to escape his lips."

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Herev: Mythic Jewish Swords

[The sword and olive branch symbol of the Israeli Defense Force]

I just watched the new preview for the Darren Aronofksy Noah. I expect the Jewish mystically-inclined director will be drawing not just from the Bible, but from Jewish traditions of the world pre-flood, and I don't think I will be disappointed. Ever-so-briefly we see Noah wield a flaming sword! Could that be the sword of Methuselah? Not sure, but I'm thrilled if it is.

It the same reaction I had to the 1980 John Boorman film Excalibur. When that sword pierces the surface of the lake for the first time, water streaming off it, gripped by the alabaster, fish-scale sheathed hand of the Lady of the Lake, well, the archetypal substrata of my brain grabs hold of the parasympathetic nervous system, yanks hard, and my hair still stands on end.

There's just something about swords. Maybe it's Freudian, but it's definitely something. A sword, it seems, is more than just a sharpened crow bar, it's got mythic power like no other weapon. I mean, look at ZaHaL, the IDF. Nobody, and I mean nobody in the IDF wears a sword, even for ceremonial purposes. Yet no rifle, tank, or plane [weapons they actually wield] is used as the IDF's central symbol - they chose a sword.

So what roles do swords occupy in Jewish myth? A symbol of power, force, and punishment, God has a sword of judgment which is given to the angels; it makes its first appearance in the hands of the Cherubim that guard the way back to Eden (Gen. 3). this may be the same sword that is wielded by the Angel of Death. Right now it “sleeps,” but woe to the world should God ever awaken it (Mid. Teh 80:3). God will use a "mighty and hard" sword, presumably this same one, to slay Leviathan at the end of time (Isa. 27:1). This “sword” is sometimes a figure of speech, referring to Divine speech (Deut. 32:41; 3rd Enoch 32).

Magical swords in the hands of humans are much rarer. It is actually the staff of Moses that serves as the Excalibur of Jewish folklore (SEE: The Rod of Aaron, Staff of Moses: Jewish Wondrous ... ), though tradition indicates that passed through Noah's hands, also. Nevertheless, swords inscribed with divine names wielded by humans in supernatural combat are mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls (The Children of Light will have such swords during the final apocalyptic battle against the Children of Darkness) and - and I'm hoping this is where Russell Crow and Jewish myth meet - in Midrash Abkir, Methuselah subdues demon changelings that torment primordial humanity with a divinely empowered vorpal blade (my eldest has been reading Alice through the Looking Glass). This sword, inscribed with divine names, might be the Jewish Jedi weapon I'm looking for. Or, maybe, Aronofsky has his own take of the Tzohar. 

Zal g'mor - To learn more consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Vampires: Jewish Goth? Bloodsuckers in Judaism

Jewish vampires? Sure. The existence of blood lusting monsters is yet another folkloric belief that exists across cultures. Like zombies, Americans today have totally internalized the "vampire rules" of Bram Stoker/Hollywood - rules like: vampires are the undead; they have no reflection; they shapechange into bats; garlic and crosses repel them; and they can only be destroyed via sunlight or a stake through the heart.

Not surprisingly, Jewish vampire traditions do not adhere to these assumptions. Nor are Jewish vampires quite so romantic as the Twilight: New Moon / Vampire Dairies / True Blood heart throbs.

The earliest reference to a vampiric creature occurs in a text of Late Antiquity, the "Testament of Solomon" (this is also one of the paradigmatic texts for Jewish sorcerers, because it portrays Solomon as a kind of wizard).

Behold, when the Temple of the city of Jerusalem was being built, and the artificers were working thereat, Ornias the demon came among them toward sunset; and he took away half of the pay of the chief-deviser's little boy, as well as half his food. He also continued to suck the thumb of his right hand every day. And the child grew thin, although he was very much loved by the king. So King Solomon called the boy one day, and questioned him, saying: "Do I not love thee more than all the artisans who are working in the Temple of God? Do I not give thee double wages and a double supply of food? How is it that day by day and hour by hour thou growest thinner?"
4. But the child said to the king: "I pray thee, O king. Listen to what has befallen all that thy child hath. After we are all released from our work on the Temple of God, after sunset, when I lie down to rest, one of the evil demons comes and takes away from me one half of my pay and one half of my food. Then he also takes hold of my right hand and sucks my thumb. And lo, my soul is oppressed, and so my body waxes thinner every day."


Solomon responds to this threat by constructing a magic ring with which he enslaves this demon and, subsequently, higher orders of demons. In the end, the king uses these demon-slaves to help him construct the Temple!

Later, and very different, vampire traditions appear among the Jews of medieval Rhineland, not far from the areas where flourishing Christian beliefs in blood-sucking creatures would become the basis for Bram Stoker's story. But here again, Jews have their own ideas about the nature of vampires and how to combat them. These passages come from Sefer Hasidim ("The Book of the Pious"), a wide-ranging tract on Jewish piety that includes stories about ghosts, liliths, and other paranormal things that go bump in the night:

1465: There are women that are called estrie... They were created at sunset [before the first Sabbath before creation]. As a result of this, they are able to change form. There was one woman who was a estrie and she was very sick and there were two women with her at night; one was sleeping and one was awake. And the sick woman stood up and loosened her hair and she was about to fly and suck the blood of the sleeping woman. And the woman who was awake screamed and woke her friend and they grabbed the sick estrie, and after this she slept. And moreover, if she had been able to grab the other woman, then she, the estrie, would have lived. Since she was not able to hurt the other woman, the estrie died, because she needs to drink the blood of living flesh. The same is true of the werewolf. And since....the estrie need to loosen their hair before they fly, one must adjure her to come with her hair bound so that she cannot go anywhere without permission. And if a estrie is injured or seen by someone, she cannot live unless she eats of the bread and salt of the one who struck her. Then her soul will return to the way it was before.

1466 There was a woman who was suspected of being a estrie, and she was injured when she appeared to a Jew as a cat and he hit her. The next day she asked him to give her some of his bread and salt, and he wanted to give it to her. An old man said to him (Ecc. 7:16) “Be not overly righteous.” When others have sinned one must not show kindness, for if she lives, she will harm people. Thus the Holy One, blessed be He created her for you [as a test]. This is similar to Amalek and Saul. Saul was punished for saving Amalek’s life. (see First Samuel 15).
As we can see, the nature of these vampires is strangely indeterminate. In the beginning of the passage, they seem to be regarded as demons, as in the Testament of Solomon. On the other hand, the end of the passage suggests that this is an ordinary woman (apparently, she has a soul) living within her community. There is a little of the "She's a witch!" quality to it. Other passages in Sefer Chasidim convey that same idea. Perhaps the resolution of this puzzle is that vampirism was understood to be a kind of demonic possession, though this is never said explicitly. A estrie wounded while in monstrous form would die unless she was able to to acquire bread and salt from the assailant while in human form. So...not the undead. Yet.

There is also one example of a judicial proceeding being conducted against a suspected estrie. Not surprisingly, conviction results in a death sentence. Apparently killing an estrie presents no particular challenge, but there is a potential post-mortem complication:

Toldot Adam v’Havah, 28

When a estrie that has eaten children is being buried one should observe whether her mouth is open, if it is, she will persist in her vampirish pursuits for another year unless it is stopped up with earth (cf. Sefer Hasidim 5)

This measure strikes me as stereotypically Jewish - The way to destroy a Christian vampire is through the heart; for a Jew, you just have to preventing him from talking and it kills him.

To learn more, look up the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism available at Amazon. http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050/sr=1-1/qid=1159997117/ref=sr_1_1/002-7116669-7231211?ie=UTF8&s=books


[Illustration: "The Sewing Machine" by E.M. Lilien]