Thursday, May 12, 2016
Thursday, March 19, 2015
Mystery Guests on the Seder Plate: Charoset, Lettuce and Egg
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
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.
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
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).
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
[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 primordial 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
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.
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:
The Sword of Metheusaleh: The miraculous demon-slaying sword gets a cameo in a flashback (literally) sequence, where we see the ante-deluvian "grandfather" wield it against evil hordes:
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:
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 ante-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
Thursday, November 21, 2013
Obama Psalm: Curses in Politics
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."