Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Jewish Zombies: The Walking (and Talking) Dead

[Max Brooks - the world's leading zombie expert is a Jew. What - he couldn't get into medical school?]

So some occult themes seem manifestly not-Jewish. One that immediately comes to mind, given I'm watching the new show on AMC, the Walking Dead, is the zombie. The term "zombie" comes from West Africa. Of course the idea of the undead is not limited to there and the Caribbean. From vampires to Frankenstein, western culture has envisioned various ways the dead could return.

Jews too. A fair case could be made us being early contributors to zombie culture. After all, Judaism introduced the Western world to the concept of resurrection, the bodily restoration of the dead to life and consciousness. That belief transferred to the Roman empire with the whole Jesus back-from-the-dead scenerio. Now Resurrection assumes the complete, even perfected, return of the deceased, which is a far cry from our conception of ambulatory corpses without a neshamah (soul), but these ideas sit on a spectrum, nonetheless.

In our own time George Romero has defined the "zombie rules" we have all internalized: Zomies are human-created, slow moving, simple-minded flesh-eating ghouls who must be physiologically decapitated ("Head shot! Head shot!"). None of this applies to the Jewish phenomenon.

There are relatively few Jewish stories of animated corpses - probably because such stories offend Jewish notions of kavod ha-met (respecting a corpse). Jews don't display corpses, lavish them with make-up, or attempt to preserve them. Every part of a body deserves proper burial, which is why you see those guys in yellow reflective jackets at the aftermath of every terrorist bombing in Israel. That's ZAKA, and those guys are trying to ensure all human flesh is gathered and treated with respect. So making a zombie for the ephemeral needs of the living is unseemly. Still, there are some stories in Jewish traition that overlap the concepts of resurrection with the golem tradition (making an artificial human).

According to these stories, the zombie is created by an adept (a baal shem), usually by using divine names (Maaseh Buch 50b). Most often the name is written on a parchment and inserted under the tongue or under the skin of the deceased, or inscribed on an amulet worn by the body (Sefer Yuhasin, Shivhei ha-ARI).

The most common motivation for performing this radical deed of power was so the corpse could talk: revealing who murdered them, telling of goings-on in the celestial spheres, or to convey vital information and warnings to the living (Maaseh Nissim, Jahrbucher). In this the tradition parallels stories of the hiner bet or hiner plet (Yid. "catatonic"), a condition where a person falls into a death-like coma for days or even weeks, but alien spirits speak through the body, revealing the secret sins of people in the community and calling for the witnesses to repent. In one case, in Sefer Yuhasin, the sage revived a travelling companion out of shame that he had allowed the youth to die, despite a promise made to the parents.

None of these undead creatures are fully-realized people. A give-away is that the animated corpse cannot pray properly. In almost all these stories, the wise come to recognize the unnatural state of affairs and return the corpse to clay by removing the name of power. In the story of the son restored to life, the father poignantly ends his son's pseudo-existence with a kiss, allowing him to extract the name from under the boy's tongue.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Moses: Torah Warrior, Master of Angels

In my last entry, I wrote that there are many versions of the story that Moses had to ascend into heaven to receive the Torah and that the angels resisted giving it to him.

[E.M. Lilien illustration of angel gripping the Torah (is Moses tugging on the other end?) from Die Bucher der Bibel]

Today I thought I’d show you some examples from the Midrash:

At that time [when Moses ascended to Heaven to receive the Torah] the ministering angels sought to strike Moses. The Blessed Holy One caused his face to resemble Abraham's. Then the Blessed Holy One said to them, "Aren't you ashamed before him? Is he not the one to whom you descended and in whose home you ate?" (Genesis 18:1 8). The Blessed Holy One then said to Moses, "The Torah is given to you only in the merit of Abraham." (Shemot Rabbah 28:1)

And then there is this version found in the Talmud as told by Joshua ben Levi, a Talmudic expert on angels and himself an occasional visitor to the celestial realms:

Rabbi Joshua b. Levi said, "When Moses ascended on high, the ministering angels spoke before the Blessed Holy One, 'Sovereign of the Universe! What business has one born of woman among us? ''He has come to receive the Torah,' answered God to them. They said to Him, 'That secret treasure, which You have concealed for nine hundred and seventy-four generations before the world was created. You desire to give it to flesh and blood! What is man, that You art mindful of him, and the son of man, that You visit him? O' Lord our God, How excellent is Your Name in all the earth! Who has set Your glory [the Torah] upon the Heavens!' (Ps. 8:1-2).
The Holy One said to Moses, 'Return them an answer.''Sovereign of the Universe' replied Moses, 'I fear, lest they consume me with the [fiery] breath of their mouths.'' Hold on to the Throne of Glory,' said God to Moses, 'and return them an answer. '

Moses [then] spoke before God, 'Sovereign of the Universe! The Torah which You give me, what is written in it -- I am the Lord Your God, who brought you out of the Land of Egypt. ' Said Moses to the angels, 'Did you go down to Egypt? Were you enslaved to Pharaoh? Why then should the Torah be yours?''
Again, what is written in it? You shall have none other god. Do you dwell among peoples that engage in idol worship?''
Again, what is written in it? Remember the Sabbath day -- to keep it holy. Do you then perform work, that you need to rest?''
Again, what is written in it? You shall not take [tissa] [the name ... in vain]. Is there any business [massa] dealings among you?''
Again, what is written in it? Honor your father and your mother. Have you fathers and mothers?''
Again, what is written in it? You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. Is there jealousy between you; is the Adversary [working] between you?'

Immediately the angels conceded to the Holy One, for it is said, [Ps. 8:10, after it meditates on the significance if humanity] 'O' Eternal, our Eternal [God], How excellent is Your Name throughout the land, [but] 'Who has set Your glory upon the heavens is not repeated.' Immediately each angel saw Moses as beloved..." (Talmud, Shabbat 88b).

I am amused by the first in that it shows God pulling pranks on His angelic retinue – God loves a good laugh, though always with a point. But I particularly love that in the second version the angels quote Psalm 8 (“…You have made him [humanity] little lower than angels”) to make their argument against humanity. Angels have a sense of irony. And always, I love the genius of rabbinic close reading and imagineering; that it finds Ps. 8 to be a narrative of how the Torah passed from heaven to earth.

There are many things we can take away from this mythic story, but perhaps my favorite is this – The Torah is meant for humanity, not for angels. If God wanted the Torah to be observed perfectly, She would have kept it for the angels. God gives it to us knowing we will be imperfect in our practice of it (I guess that’s why we “practice Judaism”; we just keep doing it until we get it right). Here, as in many other places, we are reminded that Judaism teaches that God looks for our devout service not our perfect service.

Let me also add that, given this legend, the old King James translation of Psalm 8, “…little lower than the angels” actually misses the sense of the Hebrew. A more accurate translation is the NJPS “…little less than divine.” Literally, we are low only in comparison to God while implying we are (potentially) closer to God then the angels themselves.

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

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

JMMM Ranked 16th Best Jewish Blog on the Net

I was delighted to learn that the Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism Blog has been honored as one of the 50 best Jewish blogs for 2010 by Guide To Online Schools. In fact, the site ranks us as number 16! They write:
"We scoured the web to find the best blogs pertaining to Judaism and came up with this list of 50. These blogs were selected because they demonstrate expertise and passion, and frequently updated, and provide a wealth of information and other resources."
A great way to close out the secular year. Hag Urim Sameah, all!