Thursday, November 09, 2006

Reading the Bible with an Occult Eye

(A magical text from the Cairo Genizah. It appears at www.mfa.gov.il/.../0/MFAJ060y0.jpg)
Like any other Jewish tradition, Jewish occult tradition looks to ground itself and justify its teachings in the language of Scripture. And certainly, the Hebrew Bible provides plenty of obvious examples of the fabulous: angels, giants (Gen. 6), miraculous staves (Ex. 7), and monsters (Ps. 74). But the logic of the occult assumes that for all the wonders and forces that are visible and revealed, there are much more powerful things in the text which are concealed and must be detected. The proof text for this is Ps. 62 - "One thing God has spoken, two things I have heard."
This is not a purely esoteric assumption. Virtually all ancient readers of the Bible regarded it as fundamentally cryptic. Whether the reader was Jewish, Christian, or Gnostic, prior to the Protestant movements (which insisted that the meaning was transparent to any and all who possessed simple literacy), virtually all readers of the Bible assumed that hidden meanings abound. Moreover they believed that the concealed meanings were the more precious.[1] Certain Biblical passages point toward life itself being an occult enterprise (Job 28; Proverbs 25:11; Deut. 29:29)
And as it turns out, the rabbinic genius for paying close attention to the language of the Bible (see for example, the discussion of Ps. 8 in "Moses and the Angels") is ideal for discovering occult meanings embedded in the sacred word. Take, for example, the verse in the Psalms which reads, sh'giot mi yavin, ministarot nakeini (19:13). Conventionally this is translated as "Who can be aware of errors? Clear me of my unperceived guilt" but another fair translation would be, "Whoever understands errors will reveal of Me My secrets". This hints at the importance of reading the text "as it is." The TaNaKH in its original languages is actually riddled with spelling and syntax errors. Emendations and corrective readings for these quirks have existed in Jewish tradition since antiquity, but many traditional readers do not take these errors to be mere scribal mishaps, but deliberate markers of esoteric import. Some remarkable interpretations hinge on the presence of a linguistic curiosity in a verse.
A sample of this is the concept of the "evil eye." There are many aspects to the evil eye, but for our discussion it is important to understand the eye can be unleashed when one person looks with envy or jealousy upon another. In this sense, it is a form of unintended witchcraft. Belief in the evil eye crosses both time and cultures. Yet Jews find explicit reference to it in the Torah. Specifically, there is a tradition that of all the sons of Israel, Joseph and his descendants are impervious to the ill effects of the evil eye, as is discussed in this passage from Babylonian Talmud Ber. 20b:
R. Yochanan used to go and sit at the gates of the mikvah. When the daughters of Israel ascend from the bath, said he, ‘let them look on me, that they may bear sons as beautiful and as learned as I.' Said the Rabbis to him: ‘Do you not fear an evil eye?' ‘I am of the seed of Joseph', he replied, ‘against whom an evil eye is powerless.' For it is written, Joseph is a fruitful bough, a fruitful bough by a (Alay ayin) fountain, (Genesis 49:22) about which R. Abbahu observed: Read not "alay ayin [by a fountain]" but “oleh ayin [transcends the eye].” R. Jose b. Hanina said: [It is derived] from this passage, And let them grow [ve-yidgu] like fish in the midst of the earth, into a teeming multitude in the midst of the earth (Genesis 48:16; Jacob's blessing of Ephraim and Menasheh, the two sons of Joseph) Just as fish in the seas are covered by water and the eye has no power over them, so also are the seed of Joseph: the eye has no power over them.
So first of all, we have this strange behavior of R. Yochanan. He is the Brad Pitt of the Talmud, a man so beautiful that he arouses the "admiration" of both women and men. Apparently, when women would leave the mikveh, having purified themselves following menstruation and ready to once again sexually unite with their husbands, they would just have to look at Yochanan and it would fire their sexual imagination for the coming evening. Moreover, Jewish mysticism has long taught that one's thoughts and intention during coitus will be "imprinted" on any fetus conceived in that time (See Iggeret ha-Kodesh). So by fantasizing about him, a bit of his beauty would be transferred to the child. It’s actually a nice way to use the often problematic gift of sex appeal - rather then use it seduce women, Yochanan uses it to invigorate other people's marriages and to produce smart and attractive children. The potential downside being that all this desire and envy aroused by this man's attractiveness could backlash on him in the form of attracting the evil eye.
But not to worry. It seems that Yochanan is a descendant of Joseph (eye candy in his own right - Gen. 39:6) and on his death bed, father Jacob particularly blessed Joseph that he would be impervious to the eye. We know this because part of Jacob's blessing (49:22-27), usually translated as "Joseph is a fruitful bough, a fruitful bough by a fountain" can be also be fairly translated as "Joseph is a fruitful bough, a fruitful bough "transcending..." (the word here can mean "beside" or "rising over/transcending" depending on the vowels - and there are no vowels in the Torah)...the eye" (the word ayin means both "eye" and "fountain"). All you have to do is ask the next logical question, "What 'eye' is he transcending?" and the answer comes easily, "The 'evil eye' of course!" Who-lla, the evil eye appears in the Torah.
Not surprisingly, later magical adepts would be looking to make use of this attribute of Joseph. Hence we find an Aramaic/Hebrew amulet, which invokes the power of Joseph to protect the bearer again the evil eye:
In your name, O Eternal of Hosts, God of Israel, seated upon the cherubim, the 'explicit name,' in [all] the seventy names of God, merciful and compassionate, God who smites and heals; send healing and compassion to B'ninah daughter of Yaman....I adjure you...may she be healed of any evil eye...'Joseph is a fruitful bough, a fruitful bough transcending the eye'... (TS.K1.127, a text published in Schiffman and Swartz, Hebrew and Aramaic Incantation Texts from the Cairo Genizah; the translation is my own).

Thus a Biblical verse of blessing for Joseph (and his seed) is also claimed as an incantation to protect any and all in Israel. In its own way, this occult reading gives new life to this passage – rather than being an antiquarian account of matters past or even a miraculous gift privileged for only a few by the accident of parentage, in this esoteric interpretation the verse becomes immediately relevant to B’ninah bint Yaman and the adept who is trying to ease her suffering. Schiffman and Swartz write, “These texts demonstrate a level of popular religion which coexists with and draws…upon…Jewish law and learning…The magicians and their clients reshape and reuse these materials.” Exactly so, and we see this kind of reading, interpretation, and re-application of the Scriptures again and again in Jewish occult traditions.
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
[1] Kugel, James, How to Read the Bible, pp. 14-16.


Post a Comment

<< Home