Monday, March 07, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau: More Jewish Angels?

[Couldn't find an angel in a trilby, so I found a trilby with an angel on it]

(This article has a spoiler alert - don't read if you want to be surprised)

Just returned from seeing the movie The Adjustment Bureau. Well done. Damon and Blunt have good chemistry. It has Jon Stewart. Moreover, the plot - that there are unseen agents, slightly sinister, slightly less than omnipotent, not-quite omniscient enforcers of a higher order called "the plan," an order that controls many events, but hardly all, and mingles constantly with chance - is not so far removed from Jewish notions of the angelic. In fact this is a great movie with a religious theme that doesn't beat you over the head with religion, just the way I like it. More Stranger than Fiction than Left Behind, one can watch it for the pure entertainment value, of which there is a lot, but there is also a message for those willing to receive it.

Even better, the "adjustment" dudes (I'd call them angels) are more Jewish - even the WASPy ones - then most hollywood angels, and its not just because they wear fedoras like stylish Haredim. So what makes these entities MOTs? In most movies, the angels are either Christian or anti-Christian. They are unbendingly moralistic, completely humorless, relentless destroyers, fallen or not, good or evil. Many hollywood angels, even the ones in divine service, are effectively demonic (take Christopher Walker in Prophecy). In Jewish sources, especially in the Hechalot texts, but in other Jewish sources as well, angels are fearsome, stern, but not in constant battle with demonic realms. In fact, devils hardly factor into many legends. The Hechalot texts, especially, are all but bereft of the demonic. God reigns, angels are divine agents, and the only spiritual force who can thwart in angel (as in this movie) is a human being.

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, March 01, 2011

Brit Milah: Fast Track to Eden

In one of his more memorable shticks, the Jewish comedian Buddy Hackett would declare, "I know I'm going to heaven because a piece of my dick already went ahead of me."

Crudely put, for sure, but it's a sentiment remarkably in tune with one Jewish mystical tradition regarding the significance of brit milah, ritual circumcision. The meaning of this most arcane of Jewish aboriginal customs has largely eluded many modern Jews. Most people are reduced to saying either:

1) We do to maintain the traditions of our people, or...
2) God told us to do it, so we do it, or...
3) I want all the men in my family to match.

In the Torah itself, it is evident that the practice was thought to bring a measure of physical and spiritual protection (Ex. 4). In a piquant legend along these lines, when the fish who swallowed Jonah is about to be eaten by Leviathan, Jonah flashes the great sea monster and Leviathan flees from the sign of the covenant (I'd be startled too). The fish then releases Jonah in gratitude (PdRE 10).

But the medieval mystics of the Rhineland found another rationale - that circumcision ensures same-day service entry into Eden in the World to Come. How can they claim such a thing?

They demonstrate this is via a remarkably clever display of close reading of the Bible. For they take the wording of Deut. 30:12, "Who among us will ascend into heaven?", ignore the context (it's a rhetorical declaration that one need not enter heaven to know God's will), and instead examine the Hebrew to discover an occult message. Lo and behold, they find one. They note that the first letter of each word in the phrase,

מי יעלה לנו השמימה

spells MILaH, (circumcision). So, "Who among us will ascend into heaven?" The verse, it is claimed, provides its own answer - those who have been circumcised (Eleazar of Worms, commentary on Deut. 30:12)!

Not that those without the seal of the covenant (gentiles and women, for example) won't eventually get to Eden. Brit Milah, however, ensures one takes the short cut [pun intended]. Thus for the trimmed there will be no temporary stop in Gehenna, the Jewish purgatory (Gen. R. 21:9; Er. 19a).

Incidentally, the same interpretation also discovers the four-letter name of God,

מי יעלה לנו השמימה

in the last letters of each word of the same phrase. This in turn provides an explanation (beyond the shape of the letter) for why later Kabbalists associate the Hebrew letter Yod (the first letter of the Divine name) with the phallus.

Zal g'mor - to own the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism, go to: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050