Friday, April 17, 2009

Choni the Circle Drawer: Rainmaker and Rip Van Winkle

[A patio with an inlaid circle outside of Choni's gravesite in the Galilee]

We are going to complete our current study of wonder workers and shamans of the Talmud...

...with the figure of Choni (or Honi) the Circle-Maker. Mishnah Taanit 3:8 and the accompanying Gemara tells of this 2nd Century BCE legendary rainmaker. In a fabulous and humorous episode, Honi literally draws a line in the sand (actually, a magic circle) with God, announcing he will not move from it until God opens the heavens and brings the people Israel rain:

It once happened that they said to Honi ha-M'aggel: "Pray that rains may fall." He said to them: "Go out and bring in the [clay] ovens for the Paschal sacrifices so that they will not dissolve." He prayed, but rains did not fall. What did he do? He drew a circle and stood within it and he said before Him: "Master of the Universe! Your children have turned their faces to me, for I am like a member of your household. I swear by Your great Name that I will not move from here until You have mercy on Your children." Rains began to come down in drops. He said: "I did not ask this, but rains [to fill] pits, ditches and caves." They began to come down angrily. He said: "I did not ask this but [for] rains of benevolence, blessing and generosity." They fell in their normal way, until Israel went up out of Jerusalem to the Temple Mount [high ground] because of the rains. They came and said to him: "Just as you prayed for them that they should fall, so pray that they should go away."...Shimon ben Shetach [the Nasi, or chief officer of the Sanhedrin] sent for him: "If you were not Honi I would decree a ban upon you. But what shall I do to you, for you act like a spoiled child before God and yet He does your will for you, as a son who acts like a spoiled child with his father and yet he does his will for him? And about you the verse says: "Your father and your mother shall be glad and she who bore you shall rejoice." (M. Taanit 3:8)

Another fabulous (and this time, poignant) story (Ta'anit 23a) about Honi seems to have inspired the tale of Vip Van Winkle:

All his life, Choni ha-M'aggel was bothered by this verse, "When God returns us to Zion, we will have been as dreamers," (Ps. 126:1) [Choni is thinking about the Babylonian exile of 70 years, how could it have passed as a dream?]. "Could it be," he asked, "that a person can sleep continuously for 70 years?" One day, as he was walking, he saw a man planting a carob tree. "How long will it be," he asked the man, "before this tree produces fruits?"
"Seventy years," the man answered.
"And are you certain you will still be alive then?" Choni ha-M'aggel asked.
"I was born into a world with carob trees," the man answered. "Just as my fathers planted trees for me to enjoy, so I plant trees for my children."
Choni ha-M'aggel then sat down a little distance away, to a meal. He ate, then dozed off. A wall of rock sprung up around him, and hid him from view. No one could find him, and so he slept for 70 years.

When he awoke from his sleep, he saw the same man picking carobs from the tree he had planted.
"Are you the man that planted this tree?" he asked him.
"no," answered the man, "I am his grandson."
"I see," said Choni, "that I must have slept for 70 years." He then noticed that his donkey had been given birth to donkeys, who in turn, gave birth to still other donkeys.
He went to his home.
"Is the son of Choni the Circle-Maker still alive?" he asked.
"No," they answered, "but his grandson is alive."
"I am Choni the Circle-Maker," he told them, but they would not believe him.
He went to the House of Study. There he overheard the rabbis saying, this teaching shines as brightly as in the days of Choni the Circle-Maker. For when Choni would come to the House of Study, he would solve for them in an excellent way, any difficulties they had.
"I am Choni" he told them, but they would not believe him -- and did not honor him as a scholar of his stature needs to be honored. This hurt him deeply. He prayed to God [to end his life] and he died.

In the writings of Josephus, the historical Choni meets a more mundane death at the hands of a political opponent. I like the mythic ending better.
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 14, 2009

Best Medieval Movies

(Gerald Butler and Company - Not a Jew among them)

The Best medieval movies? Someone asked me this question, knowing I love both the Middle Ages and movies. Not anything Jewish - or esoteric - in this, really (Only Ivanhoe really touches on the lives of Medieval Jews, as conceived by 19th Century Romanticism), but I feel like answering the question. All movies set in the Middle Ages are really about today and reflect our bias (egalitarian freedom/nationalism - Braveheart; religious pluralism/a politically correct view of Islam - Kingdom of Heaven) more than the real concerns of their historical subjects, but some offer more useful perspectives on the Middle Ages than others:

1) Monty Python's Holy Grail - Yes, the best. While the 10th Century knights have 13th Century garb, it satirically hits all the important elements of real medievalism - profound social stratification ("We don't 'ave a king"), pagan-derived mythic traditions ("The Lady of the Lake, dressed in shimmering..."), religious mythic traditions ("Of course...Joseph of Aramathia!"), dependance on Classical literature (the Trojan Rabbit), religious piety ("Stop that grovelling!"), chivalric pretense ("I'll bite you in the knee caps"), peasant populism ("Burn her, she's a witch!"), courtly sex ("Bad Snoot!"), skin disease ("I'm not an old woman"), religious relics ("The Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch"), political and economic alliances through marriage ("No singing!"), word magic ("We are the Knights who say 'Ni'"), untrammelled infectious disease ("Bring out your dead!"), ahh, the list goes on...

2) The Lion in Winter - Excellent study not only in dynastic dynamics, but also the formal powerlessness and informal power of women. And the wit! No ponderous, majestic "histo-speak." Smart powerful people talking about power smartly.

3) The Return of Martin Guerre - A true story told with a real bit of medieval psychology.

4) The Warlord - This forgotten Chuck Heston classic gets 11th Cent. British castle life (and haircuts) right, even if lords weren't really entitled to first sex with churlish women.

5) Flesh and Blood - The mean, brutish, and short lives of peasant bandits encapulated.

6) Robin and Marion - As real as the Robin Hood legend can get on film. Nice feel for the cloistered life of women in religious orders (a medieval Jew does appear in the film for about 20 seconds).

7) Name of the Rose - Takes us inside both monasticism and the medieval world of ideas. (Kabbalah gets a mention).

8) Mongol - This Mongolian-made film is by far the most accurate portrayal of the world-conqueror and takes us out of Europe for a different perspective on the Middle Ages.

9) Ran - Kurosawa reworks King Lear into the end of Japanese medieval period. Stunning. The themes of dynastic failure and betrayal also give a more realistic perspective on the myth of Samurai chivalry and loyalty.

10) - Beowulf and Grendal - (not the CGI abomination) Gerald Butler does the Saga hero a more realistic turn than he did the Spartan king. The scene of tall nordic warriors trotting into action on diminutive shaggy ponies is visually laugh-out-loud, but utterly authentic.

Not great, but entertaining enough I have to mention them:

A) The 13th Warrior - OK, so a cannibalistic Neanderthal bear-cult in the 10th Century is only slightly more plausible than a lake fiend and a dragon, but this version of Beowulf reconceived as a medieval platoon action reported by an outsider/journalist has some worthy features, especially the under appreciated role of cultural transfer between medieval societies (Greek-speaking Vikings with eclectic collections of armor, for example).

B) Braveheart - Anachronisms (Too early for tartans, too late for wode) and errors (Where's the bridge at the Battle of Sterling Bridge? And I bet William Wallace owned a comb) abound, but the truly outdoor nature of medieval life, the size, movements, and dismemberment of armies, the overlapping loyalties created by clan, class, and feudal oaths...all ring true.

I'll get back on topic next entry.