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