Friday, May 25, 2007

Havdalah de-Rabbi Akiva: Jewish Sorcery

[woodcut of havdalah ritual. The man is examining his fingernails by the light of the candle. There are both halakhic and magical rationales offered for this practice]

I have never seen an English translation of Havdalah de-Rabbi Akiva, a Hebrew theurgic text of late antiquity-early medieval origin. So, over the summer I will attempt to produce my own. We will see if I can sustain this ambition. If anyone knows of an existent English translation, please let me know. These will also be draft translations. I welcome any insights into how to improve on wording or arrive at a better translation.

I am using the printed edition text that appears in the collection Abia Chidot published by Backal Publishers, Jerusalem. There are quite a number of textual versions of HdRA, but this is the one currently on my shelf.

Page 1

(1) This is the Havdalah[1] of Rabbi Akiba against all witchcrafts and against injury from an evil spirit, or for [one] who his woman is forbidden him,[2] or to open a heart.[3] The one who desires to remember at the going out of Shabbat[4] needs to wash in water and to dress in clean clothes and sit in a pure place[5] or in a synagogue. He will have pure hands,
(5) so when he is about to recite it, he will place before him a clean vessel and he will pour pure water once upon his hands. The one pouring will recite, “To Jews let there be light, celebration, joy, and dignity,” while the recipient [of the water] will say, “Bring to us help from distress and falsehood; the deliverance of humanity.[6] Through God may we do virtue and may He trample our enemies.”[7] And they will be observing the water before him until he completes reciting the entire havdalah. And he needs to wash and rinse a cup clean and fill it from a
(10) full pitcher of good wine. But the wine-bearer is not to speak until it [the cup] is given in to the hand of the one reciting [the ritual]. And he will grasp the cup in both his hands and will focus his attention into the cup (There are those who recite in a house alone and there are those that recite it in the presence of everyone). And after he has received the cup, he will speak beginning from “A song of David: Ascribe to the Eternal, O divine beings…” the entire psalm, until “…may He bless His people with peace” (Ps. 29). [Then] “Untie the fetters of wickedness, loosen the binds of tyranny, and send away liberty crushers[8] and all oppression
(page 2 printed ed., line 15) be cut off.”

The translation continues:
The Havdalah of Rabbi Akiba, pg. 2: Angelic Names,...
Habdalah of Rabbi Akiba, page 3
Defense Against the Darks Arts (Jewish Division): ...

[1] Havdalah may have a dual meaning here, referring both to the ritual that ends Shabbat, but also to the literal sense of the word, “separation,” as this ritual separates the adept from all the negative forces described in the text.
[2] This translation of ul-mi she-asur mei-ishto is speculative. I suspect the phrase has become abbreviated over time. I am currently looking to see if there is similar phrasing among the many love spells found in other Hebrew magical books. Possible meaning include: there is a loved one who is alienated from him, or that he actually desires a woman legally forbidden to him (a married woman) -- though given the moralistic tone of the rest of the book, this seems doubtful. The word ausar (transpose the holam) means "fettered" or "shackled." This is an idiom in other magical texts for erectile dysfunction. So perhaps it means, "...for one who is impotent with regards to his woman..."
[3] This usually refers to improving memory, specifically for the purpose of study, especially religious and/or [other] magical spells (See Swartz, Scholastic Magic).
[4] It is not clear whether this refers to retaining what he learned over the Sabbath [but could not write down] or it refers to remembering to perform the theurgic ritual of Rabbi Akiba itself.
[5] Other sources, such as Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael (be-Shallach 1) and Hekhalot texts specify an outdoor body of water as a “pure place.” There is also evidence that many synagogues of late antiquity included water installations – either a mikveh or other reservoir for hand [and feet] ablutions (see Levine, The Ancient Synagogue and Fine, This Holy Place).
[6] This may also be meant as a divine title: …”O Deliverance of Humanity!”
[7] Or “crush our sorrows.” The use of the martial chiyil for “virtue” suggests a more militant tone to this invocation.
[8] Yeah, I know, that’s hardly a felicitous translation. I am open to any more elegant phrasing of v’sh’lach r’tzutzim chofshim.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Congregation Beth Shalom: A Lovely Experience

I have just returned from a weekend as visiting scholar at Baton Rouge's Beth Shalom congregation. I had a delightful time. Rabbi Stan Zamek, my friend and host, was gracious as always. Rabbi Z, as his congregants call him, is a gifted spiritual leader. He is also a teacher of wide-ranging interests, being well-versed in Jewish meditation and deeply conversant in Sufism and its interface with Judaism. Stan's wife, Martha, is also a rabbi and serves as the Director of Education. That's a powerful intellectual lineup in a small Southern shul.

Anyway, I did a series of presentations on Jewish traditions of sorcery, angelology, and the monstrous. Beth Shalom is a remarkable congregation, with a deeply committed, knowledgable and pious membership. If you happen to be in the Baton Rouge area and are looking for a place to daven, check out Beth Shalom. I wish it and its rabbis long life and continued success.

Zal g'mor - to own the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism, go to: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

Monday, May 07, 2007

Jewish Demonology: Demon Origins

A number of Jews are quite appalled to learn that Judaism has such an elaborate demonology, as I have been describing in past entries:
3. Exorcism II: A Jewish Ritual Against Demonic Posse...
2. Jewish Exorcism I: Defeating Demons
1. Samael: Demon Prince, Consort of Lilith

["The Occult and Love," illustration by E.M. Lilien]

Unrelated to the blog, I have been writing an article on Jewish erotic theology for a proposed book on Jews and sexuality. The editor of that project was just as puzzled when I made reference to mystical doctrines that link sexual transgression to the demonic. In critiquing my draft, he wrote back, "Can you justify the use of the word ‘demonic’ here? I’m not sure it fits what you have said, not least because according to some (e.g. Pagels), ‘demons’ are an early Christian invention."

All of which shows how successful and complete was our reworking of Judaism into an Enlightenment religion in the 19th Century. Most modern Jews, even academics, now think of belief in evil spirits as something alien to Torah.

Truly, demons [1] are not a large feature of Hebrew Scriptures, but they are present: satyrs, spirits, and lilits (Lev. 16: 10; I Sam. 16:14-16; Isa. 34:14). It is indeed remarkable how small a role they play, considering the prominent role of the demonic in surrounding cultures, and in that regard, the puzzlement of modern Jews has some basis. It is indeed not until the post-Biblical period that we see a fuller elaboration on the theme of spirit beings. This explosive interest in demonology found in the pseudepigraphia, rabbinic literature, and Hebrew and Aramaic amulets no doubt was in part stimulated by the pervasive preoccupation with demons in Zoroastrian and Greco-Roman religions. But it is a mistake to think the concept of the demonic was alien to Israelite religion.

It also doesn't mean that malevolent spirits are not problematic in a Jewish context. The problem with the demonic in Judaism has always been the problem of monotheism. If there is only one God, presumably beneficent toward humanity, from where do evil spirits originate?

The authors of works like I Enoch and Jubilees make the first attempts to account for the existence of the demonic by drawing upon the cryptic passage in Gen. 6 about the antediluvian "Sons of God" who copulate with mortal women and produce the race of nefalim, "fallen ones." The "Fallen Angel" thesis proves immensely popular in Early Judaism and many non-canonical works reiterate and elaborate on this idea, eventually bequeathing this tradition to both Christianity and Islam.

Rabbinic and mystical Judaism, however, essentially rejects this idea. While there are many portrayals of angelic "willfulness" in Midrash, the idea of fallen angels rebelling against God virtually disappears from later Jewish literature. In its place, the Sages situate the origins of spirits among the initial works of creation. Avot 5.6 asserts that demons were created on the "twilight of the 6th day." This has the virtue of placing them inside, rather than outside, God's creative prerogative, but it begs the question, why would God do such a thing?

Perhaps the answer can be found in a cognate rabbinic tradition that Adam and Eve committed their primeval sin at precisely that time, the twilight of the sixth day. This suggests that the unspoken rabbinic premise for the origins of demons is that they are not a direct creation of God; rather, they are a byproduct of human sin. Such an idea of the demonic draws upon the Biblical image of sin stalking us like a beast (Gen. 4:7). Variations on this idea, that demons are actually our creation rather than God's, appears elsewhere in rabbinic literature, such as the claim in Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer 34 that most demons are actually the souls of the sinful generation that drowned in the Flood.

Kabbalah most fully develops this idea of the human origins for the demonic. Starting with the Treatise of the Left Emanation, Kabbalists argue that the potential for the demonic is rooted in the divine economy that requires justice, strictness and severity in creation alongside mercy, love, and forgiveness. But what transforms these strict but still godly attributes into palpable evil is that we "feed" these forces through our transgressions and sins. Like a healthy cell gone cancerous and feeding on the body's hormones, this aspect of the divine architecture metastasizes through the energy of our own moral actions. In the kabbalistic scheme, the named demons of Jewish tradition are the perverted, cancerous divine structures, while the lesser spirits their toxic mitosis that poison the "body" of creation.

Because they are rooted in the divine structures (Megillah 3a informs us, for example, that demons cannot take God's name in vain), some mystics even go so far as to eschew the language of "demon" and simply call such spirits "destructive angels." Thus the modern Kabbalist Adin Steinsaltz writes:

It follows then, that just as there are holy angels, built into and created by the sacred system, there are also destructive angels, called "devils" or "demons," who are the emanation of the connection of man with those aspects of reality which are the opposite of holiness. Here, too, the actions of man and his modes of existence, in all their forms, create angels, but angels of a different sort...These are hostile angels... (Thirteen Petalled Rose, p. 16).

So while traditional Kabbalists would call this a gross simplification, I would characterize the realm of the demonic in Judaism as a mythic retelling of the great truth that the greatest demons are the demons found inside ourselves.

To learn more, read the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism. 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

[1] "Demon" is a catchall term for the many Hebrew terms for spirits such as sheidim, mazzikim, and lilin (djinns, imps, and night spirits). Yet the word is problematic, because these Hebrew terms do not carry same the infernal, satanic, essence of evil connotation of the English word "demon." While these spirits usually spell trouble for humans, they are as much like fairies as they are like devils. Nevertheless, "fairy" has too mild a connotation in itself. In addition, there are a few extraordinay entities, such as Samael and Lilith, who do fit the criteria of "demons." Therefore I choose the word "demon" as a global term for all spirits in Jewish tradition that are not angelic.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Malchut Shamayim II

A reader, Echo, writes:

Wouldn't it also be correct to say Dr. Liviu Librescu is the Kingdom of Heaven, or was at that fateful moment. Or the moment, also a forever, is the Kingdom?

Beautifully put and all true. He embodies the Kingdom, and through himself, he has added that moment to our knowledge of the Kingdom. In him it converges in place, person, and time. A precious insight and a lovely summa. Kol ha-Kavod.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Malchut Shaddai: The Kingdom of Heaven in Judaism

[Job's Wealth, illustration by E.M. Lilien]

Ever been to the Magic Kingdom? To see it, you have to go to Anaheim, Orlando, or even out of the country. And what’s the Magic Kingdom all about? “It’s the place where all your dreams come true,” one of my Hebrew school kids told me. “It’s about taking your money,” observed another.

Jews also have a magic kingdom of sorts, one hopefully not so facile as a “dream factory” nor so susceptible to cynicism – Malchut Shaddai or Malchut Shamayim, the Kingdom of Heaven. We’ve all heard the term, but what does it mean? Jews mention it throughout our Siddur (prayerbook), but for me the most memorable reference appears as part of the evening Geulah prayer – malchutekha rau banekha bokeiakh yam lifnei Moshe, “Your children saw Your kingdom before Moses at the shores of the sea.” They did? What the heck does that mean? God’s kingdom is located in the Sinai, on the edge of the Sea of Reeds? Its something we can see?

I think about that prayer a lot, and this is what I’ve concluded. What the people saw on the shores of the Sea of Reeds was a triumph of good. The pervasive power to oppress and enslave was momentarily overturned, and for an instant, the people “saw” something extraordinary – a world without taskmasters, tormentors, or the supremacy of cruelty. Of course the world soon returned to it normal inequities, but that was the Kingdom of God, glimpsed for but a moment, for that generation. And what that implies is that we too can “see,” can experience the Kingdom for ourselves. It can appear anywhere, under any circumstances.

The great philosopher and congregational rabbi Leo Baeck, who despite having other options, willingly chose to join his congregation in the Nazi concentration camps and survived to tell about it, once wrote of the Kingdom that,

…It is not a secret divination of the future, nor is it an announcement of something which will descend to earth from some other world. It is rather a demand and a certainty arising from the very depths of life’s significance. The kingdom of God is the world as it should be in the eyes of God.

I think that this modest definition reflected his own experience. I suspect during the 2 years he was in camps, he had to look long and hard for anything that might resemble the Kingdom of God amidst the Nazi’s Kingdom of Death, but apparently he did. He saw people under continuous assault, but he also saw a few people who, despite the overwhelming forces arrayed against them, acted in ways that affirmed life’s significance, people who refused to give up on the world as it should be, however terrible it actually was. Each small act was a visible token of the Kingdom, even if it was only momentary, even if it was swept away almost immediately by the enduring awful reality around them.

This month we too got to catch a glimpse of the Kingdom from afar. When Dr. Liviu Librescu, a 76 year old Romanian Jew and Holocaust refugee, interposed himself between his students and a deranged spree killer, he affirmed the Kingdom of Heaven. In a terrible moment, he acted in a way that embraced the world as God wants it to be. His resistance was brief and the sanctuary from terror he offered his students was infinitesimal. And in acting as he did he surrendered his place in this world, but also he gained the Kingdom for himself and he showed it to the rest of us.

May his memory be for a blessing, and may the Kingdom he exemplified come - fully realized, enduringly, and in our own time.