Thursday, August 30, 2007

Speaking in Tongues: Channeling and Xenoglossia in Judaism

Xenoglossia (ha-Malakh ha-doveir bi; Maggid; Shem ha-Doresh) is the phenomenon of alien spirits speaking through or out of a possessed person while in a trance; “channeling.” Such experiences may have been part of some prophetic trances (see, especially, Zechariah chapters 2-4, ha-malakh ha-doveir bi/”the angel who spoke through me”), but the evidence is sparse and elliptical. The first explicit accounts of Jews experiencing xenoglossia appear in the Christian New Testament, where there are descriptions of both demonic spirits addressing Jesus and seizure by the Holy Spirit resulting in people “speaking in tongues.”

Later Jewish sources also equate automatic speech with prophecy (Sha’ar ha-Gilgulim). Xenoglossia is a defining characteristic of ghostly and angelic possession in most Jewish reports after the 15th Century. Joseph Taitazak provides the first detailed account of this phenomenon.[1] Perhaps the most famous Jew to experience it was Joseph Caro:

The eve of the Sabbath, 29th of Iyyar…I ate but little and drank the same and I studied the Mishnah at the beginning of the night…as I was reading the Mishnah the voice of my beloved knocked in my mouth and the lyre sang of itself. It [Caro’s maggid] began by saying, “The Lord is with you wherever you go [the maggid goes on to give Caro pious advice]…I speak to you as a man speaks to his neighbor…therefore my son, hearken to My voice and to that which I command you…” Afterward I slept for about half an hour and I awoke in great distress. [2]

The 17th Century pietist Samson Ostropoler also described the Shem ha-Doresh, the “Interpreting Name,” a similar form of automatic speech.

Zal g'mor /Go forth and learn - more can be found in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

1. Patai, “Exorcism and Xenoglossia among the Safed Mystics,” pp. 314-25. Also see Bilu, pp. 255-257.

2. Jacob, Jewish Mystical Testimonies, pp. 138-139.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Jewish Herbology and Natural Healing

I recently returned from the National Havurah Institute, a very lively event held in deepest, darkest New Hampshire. Not only was there some fine high level learning going on, but also some innovative programs. One I participated in was a walking herbology lesson.

[Lovely lady offers potent potion. Bookplate by E.M. Lilien]

We wandered amidst the roadside flora of the N.H., discussing wildflower medicinals, poisons, all the while weaving rope from milkweed fiber.

As in most world cultures that pre-date modernity, Jews have used herbs for far more than dietary supplements and flavoring. Selected herbs are common ingredients in medicines, potions, and poultices (Pes. 42b; J.A.V. 2:2).

Mandrake, for example, has been an ingredient in love potions since Biblical times (Gen. 30). But it is Rabbinic literature that preserves many herbal and dietary remedies. Medicinal uses for herbs found in the Talmud include:

Asparagus: beer or broth made from it is beneficial to both heart and eyes.
Bitter vetch: good for the bowels.
Black cumin: eases chest pain.
Dates: for hemorrhoids and constipation.
Radishes and lettuce: aid digestion.
Small cucumbers: laxative.
Garlic: improves virility, increases circulation, and kills intestinal parasites.
Milt: for teeth.
Lentils: prevent croup.
Mustard and asparagus: general preventatives.
Beets and onions: good for general healing.

(Ber. 40b, 44b, 51a; AZ 11a; BK 82a

In addition to these, some herbs were thought to have influence over supernatural forces. Fennel, for example, was prized for driving away evil spirits. Hebrew magical texts of antiquity, like their Greco-Roman counterparts, also use herbs in magical formulae and rituals (Sefer ha-Razim).

While most modern Jews no longer look to the herbal healing methods of their ancestors (pharmaceuticals are purer and involve better dosage control, among other things), the class I took at NHI reveals there is a renewed interest in the topic, and some herbal treatments are enjoying a revival.

Zal g'mor /Go forth and learn - the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism:

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Jewish vs. Christian Angels

["Two angels," postcard by E.M. Lilien]

Commenting on my entry on Uriel, (Uriel: Angel of the Presence, the Light of God) one reader asks:

Whats the difference of christian angels?

Its kind of a terse question. I assume the reader is asking, "what are some of things that distinguish Jewish angel traditions from Christian angel traditions?"

Well, first of all, the Christian tradition has been far more elaborate and taxonomic in its angelology. There are many, many lists of angel classes, their order, rank, and function found in Christian angel literature. While there are examples of this in Jewish writings (look, for example, at the 4th chapter of RaMBaM's Hilchot Yesodei-ha-Torah, where he identifies ten classes of angels), most of Jewish writings are episodic and narrative. It is also the case that in most Jewish passages that describe angels, something other than the angels themselves is of primary interest to the author. Comprehensive works on angels, such as Sichat Malachei ha-Shareit, were not compiled until the modern era. So in summary - Christians are just more fascinated and pre-occupied by angels and their functions then Jews.

Second, Judaism rejected the Apocalyptic sources, like Enoch I, that claim some angels "fell"(SEE: Did Satan Fall?: The Devil is in the Details ). This "fallen angel" tradition, of course, becomes a major feature of Christian mythic narratives about the cause of evil in the world. Judaism offers other notions of the demonic (SEE: Jewish Demonology: Demon Origins ).

A third is the Jewish tradition of a rivalry between humanity and the angels (that does not result in a heavenly revolt, because angels really don't possss that kind of freewill), with the implicit theme that being human is really superior to being an angel (SEE: Moses: Torah Warrior, Master of Angels and Moses: The Jewish Prometheus ). I'm not sure this is much found in Christian angelology, where the superiority of angels is assumed.

There are also nominal differences...literally. Lists of angel names vary enormously between Christian and Jewish sources. We share the 'biggies,' like Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, etc., but there are literally thousands of named angels that are found in one tradition but not the other. Even the famous term "Archangel" is Christian, not really having an exact equivalent in Hebrew.
Those are some things that spring to mind, though I freely admit I do not know all the nuances of Christian angelology.

Zal g'mor - to learn more, read the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism:

Monday, August 20, 2007

Armilus, Anti-Christ, Hollywood - The Unholy Trinity?

[Herod Agrippa, a failed messiah, as portrayed in the memorable video series, I Claudius]
In regard to my entry on Armilius, a reader asks:

What I find fascinating about this is all the pop-culture religion based literature that speaks of a "Son of Satan" (Namely the comic/movie Constantine). I wonder if there is also some relation between the Jewish Armilius and the Christian "Beast".

Its hard to say. To the extent that I am familiar with the Revelation of John, it never explicitly claims that the "Beast" is the offspring of the Devil. Of course, Christian theology of 'divine sonship' invites creating this kind of symmetry. What with Jesus being the "only begotten son of God," it seems logical that the Beast is somehow the "only begotten son of Satan."

In the Jewish traditions of Armilus (or Armilius), an inversion rather than a symmetry. Remember, Jews do not believe that the Eschatological Messiah will be either the "son of God" or divine in anyway [the Dead Sea Scrolls authors may have believed in an angelic messiah, but that notion never really transferred over into Rabbinic Judaism]. So in the absence of a 'sonship theology,' the Jewish author of the Armilius legend is more likely making a polemic by allusively equating Jesus and Armilius, suggesting that rather than being the unique "son of God," the Christian divine/savior may actually be a son of perdition.

It is striking, incidentally, that in the realm of vilifying polemics, Christianity has more than returned the favor. Frequently when I describe the Jewish vision of the Eschatological Messiah to a Christian audience, someone will remark, "Well, your description of your Messiah sounds a lot like the Anti-Christ." That response doesn 't surprise me. I suspect that the author of Revelations was making his own polemic against Jews and our rival notions of messianism in writing his description of the Beast.

But back to the topic at hand: I might speculate the notion of the Anti-Christ being the "son of Satan" actually appeared someplace within Christendom as ideas about the End Times evolved and developed. But frankly, it could entirely be a contrivance of Hollywood, a theme created for Rosemary's Baby and reinforced by The Omen, The Stand, and a legion of lesser apocalyptic horror films, like Constantine. I simply don't know enough about the history of Christian eschatology to say whether the Beast being the 'son of Satan' has any firm roots in Christian tradition.

If anyone has a useful insight to help answer Ms. Repp's question, please send it to me in the comment postings.
Zal g'mor - to learn more, read the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism:

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Mazzikim: Imps in Judaism

Mazzikim: (“damagers/afflictors”). A demon. In the Talmud, the terms shedim and mazzikim were used interchangeably for demons, but in some sources there is a differentiation of mazzikim into its own class of evil spirit. Compared to shed, mazzik is relatively uncommon in the Talmud, only appearing a few times, mostly in Tractates Berachot and Pesachim.

[When mazzikim go wild. Illustration by Alfred Feinberg]

For three reasons people should not go into a ruin, because of suspicion [of sexual misconduct there], because of the danger of collapse, and because of demons."
…."Because of demons" - And why not suffice [to discourage people] with the considerations of suspicion or collapse? You might have the case of a new ruin, and two people who are honorable. If there are two people, then what consideration of demons is at hand [mazikim are thought to strike the solitary traveler]? In a place which demons inhabit, there is danger [even to two] (Berachot 3b)

As is the case with most Jewish sources, demons are less a matter of earth-trembling, infernal weapon-wielding, balrog-like soul-ripping hell hounds, then they are impish creatures who inflict ill fortune and ill health. Like leprechauns and elves, Mazzikim take advantage of human carelessness, as in this humorous example of what can happen by ignoring the rule that doing anything in pairs is bad luck:

And if a man forgot himself [and drank exactly two drinks] and happened to go out, what is his remedy? Let him take his right-hand thumb in his left hand and his left-hand thumb in his right hand and say thus: You [two thumbs] and I, surely that is three! [i.e. an odd number] But if the demon hears him and replies, You and I, surely that is four!? [i.e. three plus the demon are four] let him reply to him, You [the demon that is now four] and I are surely five[he finds something to add to the grouping]! And if he hears one saying, You and I are six, let him reply to him, You and I are seven. This once happened until [someone reached] a hundred and one, at which point the demon exploded (Pesachim 110a).

The term mazzikim becomes more widely used in the Middle Ages, being RaSHI’s preferred term for imps.

The Zohar teaches that the term refers to the spirits of evil men after they have died.

Zal g'mor - Go learn more by reading the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050