Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Vampires: Jewish Goth? Bloodsuckers in Judaism

Jewish vampires? Sure. The existence of blood lusting monsters is yet another folkloric belief that exists across cultures. Like zombies, Americans today have totally internalized the "vampire rules" of Bram Stoker/Hollywood - rules like: vampires are the undead; they have no reflection; they shapechange into bats; garlic and crosses repel them; and they can only be destroyed via sunlight or a stake through the heart.

Not surprisingly, Jewish vampire traditions do not adhere to these assumptions. Nor are Jewish vampires quite so romantic as the Twilight: New Moon / Vampire Dairies / True Blood heart throbs.

The earliest reference to a vampiric creature occurs in a text of Late Antiquity, the "Testament of Solomon" (this is also one of the paradigmatic texts for Jewish sorcerers, because it portrays Solomon as a kind of wizard).

Behold, when the Temple of the city of Jerusalem was being built, and the artificers were working thereat, Ornias the demon came among them toward sunset; and he took away half of the pay of the chief-deviser's little boy, as well as half his food. He also continued to suck the thumb of his right hand every day. And the child grew thin, although he was very much loved by the king. So King Solomon called the boy one day, and questioned him, saying: "Do I not love thee more than all the artisans who are working in the Temple of God? Do I not give thee double wages and a double supply of food? How is it that day by day and hour by hour thou growest thinner?"
4. But the child said to the king: "I pray thee, O king. Listen to what has befallen all that thy child hath. After we are all released from our work on the Temple of God, after sunset, when I lie down to rest, one of the evil demons comes and takes away from me one half of my pay and one half of my food. Then he also takes hold of my right hand and sucks my thumb. And lo, my soul is oppressed, and so my body waxes thinner every day."

Solomon responds to this threat by constructing a magic ring with which he enslaves this demon and, subsequently, higher orders of demons. In the end, the king uses these demon-slaves to help him construct the Temple!

Later, and very different, vampire traditions appear among the Jews of medieval Rhineland, not far from the areas where flourishing Christian beliefs in blood-sucking creatures would become the basis for Bram Stoker's story. But here again, Jews have their own ideas about the nature of vampires and how to combat them. These passages come from Sefer Hasidim ("The Book of the Pious"), a wide-ranging tract on Jewish piety that includes stories about ghosts, liliths, and other paranormal things that go bump in the night:

1465: There are women that are called estrie... They were created at sunset [before the first Sabbath before creation]. As a result of this, they are able to change form. There was one woman who was a estrie and she was very sick and there were two women with her at night; one was sleeping and one was awake. And the sick woman stood up and loosened her hair and she was about to fly and suck the blood of the sleeping woman. And the woman who was awake screamed and woke her friend and they grabbed the sick estrie, and after this she slept. And moreover, if she had been able to grab the other woman, then she, the estrie, would have lived. Since she was not able to hurt the other woman, the estrie died, because she needs to drink the blood of living flesh. The same is true of the werewolf. And since....the estrie need to loosen their hair before they fly, one must adjure her to come with her hair bound so that she cannot go anywhere without permission. And if a estrie is injured or seen by someone, she cannot live unless she eats of the bread and salt of the one who struck her. Then her soul will return to the way it was before.

1466 There was a woman who was suspected of being a estrie, and she was injured when she appeared to a Jew as a cat and he hit her. The next day she asked him to give her some of his bread and salt, and he wanted to give it to her. An old man said to him (Ecc. 7:16) “Be not overly righteous.” When others have sinned one must not show kindness, for if she lives, she will harm people. Thus the Holy One, blessed be He created her for you [as a test]. This is similar to Amalek and Saul. Saul was punished for saving Amalek’s life. (see First Samuel 15).
As we can see, the nature of these vampires is strangely indeterminate. In the beginning of the passage, they seem to be regarded as demons, as in the Testament of Solomon. On the other hand, the end of the passage suggests that this is an ordinary woman (apparently, she has a soul) living within her community. There is a little of the "She's a witch!" quality to it. Other passages in Sefer Chasidim convey that same idea. Perhaps the resolution of this puzzle is that vampirism was understood to be a kind of demonic possession, though this is never said explicitly. A estrie wounded while in monstrous form would die unless she was able to to acquire bread and salt from the assailant while in human form. So...not the undead. Yet.

There is also one example of a judicial proceeding being conducted against a suspected estrie. Not surprisingly, conviction results in a death sentence. Apparently killing an estrie presents no particular challenge, but there is a potential post-mortem complication:

Toldot Adam v’Havah, 28

When a estrie that has eaten children is being buried one should observe whether her mouth is open, if it is, she will persist in her vampirish pursuits for another year unless it is stopped up with earth (cf. Sefer Hasidim 5)

This measure strikes me as stereotypically Jewish - The way to destroy a Christian vampire is through the heart; for a Jew, you just have to preventing him from talking and it kills him.

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

[Illustration: "The Sewing Machine" by E.M. Lilien]

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Walking Dead: Jews, Judaism and Halloween

So what do Jews, Judaism, and Halloween have to do with each other? Nothing, of course. Neither the holiday or the date has any Jewish connection whatsoever. None. The time when Jewish spirits come out to play is Sukkot (See - Sukkot: Gathering of the Spirits in the archive) and it has none of the tone of fear, terror, or deceiving the spirits that is associated with Halloween.

But that's not to say Judaism does not have a rich and vivid lore about spirits, monsters, and the undead. So I thought I'd share with you one aspect of this - Jewish lore on zombies. The term "zombie" comes out of West African tradition, but the idea of an re-animated corpse without it's neshamah ("soul") pops up in a few places in Jewish literature.

Director George Romero has defined how we think about zombies in the 21st Century, having set up the "zombie rules" in his movies Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead: Zombies are flesh-eating corpses who must undergo physiological decapitation (be shot in the head) to be stopped. Ok, so the Hollywood zombie is really more of a ghoul, a creature derived from Islamic folklore, but whether you call them zombies or ghouls, the walking dead are much different in Judaism.

Jewish undead traditions overlap the bigger and more prominent ideas of T'chiyat Metim, "Resurrection" (body and soul restored to perfected existence in the World-to-Come) and the Golem (an artificially animated being). Perhaps the reason there are not more than a few stories of the animated dead is that the very idea violates an aspect of Jewish law that most Jews take quite seriously - kavod ha-met, "showing respect for a corpse." Kavod ha-met is why Jews generally don't put our dead on display in open-casket ceremonies, why we don't embalm, why we are fastidious about collecting all the parts for burial (ever notice those in the films of bus bombings in Israel, the ones in reflecting vests picking through the debris? Most of those aren't Israeli CSI, they are ZAKA, a group of pious workers who ensure all parts of people get a proper burial), and why we are cautious about organ donation. Animating a corpse for the ephemeral needs of the living, even if possible, is unseemly.

Yet there are stories. According to most of the legends, animated corpses are created by an adept, rather then rising spontaneously. As in some Golem traditions, a divine name of power is used, either written on a parchment and then inserted under the tongue or sown into the skin, or inscribed on an amulet placed on the corpse (Sefer Yuhasin, Shivhei ha-ARI, Meisa Buch). Zombies are raised mostly so that they can talk: relating secrets about the World-to-Come, the divine spheres, or to solve a crime with knowledge known only to the deceased (Meisa Buch, Meisa Nissim, Jahrbuecher). In this last aspect, these traditions are also closely related to the hiner bet or hiner plet (Yiddish, "Catatonic"), a condition in which a person falls into a death-like state for days, or even weeks. Their only sign of life is that they speak sporadically, revealing the secret sins of people in the community, giving divine messages, or instructing us from the beyond about how we the living need to better oursleves.

So, if you are planning to attend someone else's Halloween party this year (should a Jew really be hosting his own?), a Jewish zombie is definitely an option; and its better then a run-of-the-mill zombie - they only groan, while you get to tell people off.

Also consider these Jewish costume options:

The Angel of Death (Jewish authenticity junkies go with a sword dripping gall, not a scythe)
The Sar (princely angel) Metatron (fiery body with 365,000 eyes)
Behemot (a gigantic ox)
Leviathan (a sea dragon)
Ziz (a giant chicken)
Dybbuk (ghostly style, but always be sure to be clinging or hanging onto someone living)
Lilith (hairy body, bald head - unless you want to do the "succubae" incarnation)
Golem (clay complexion, word "Emet" on your forehead, not much of a conversationalist)
Ketev Meriri, the demon "Bitter Destruction" (He is scaly and hairy and rolls about like a ball)

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

[Illustration: The Mourning, by E.M. Lilien]

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Aronofsky's Noah: Reaching Deep into Jewish Myth

[Illustration of a fallen angel from the French comic Noe, part of Aronofsky's project]

So on the strength of my book and this website, I get contacted from time to time by writers, producers, and creators of books, TV shows, and feature films, who are seeking to develop projects that draw upon Jewish myth for themes, creatures, and story lines.

By far the most prestigious of these was a conversation I had a couple of years ago with a screenwriter working with Darren Aronofsky, the director and creative mind behind Pi and The Fountain, two strange and wonderful movies that integrate Jewish myth and ideas into their story lines. 

Naturally, given my enthusiasm for these earlier films, I was intrigued that Ari (that's the the screenwriter) was interested in plumbing Jewish myths of the antediluvian period (Genesis chapters 1-9). There is a treasure trove of fabulous traditions.

So we discussed the rabbinic notions of the world before the Flood, a world populated with objects of power, semi-immortal humans, giants, sea monsters, centaurs, fallen angels and demon spirits. It quickly became evident that Aronofsky was envisioning a version of the Noah story that would incorporate authentic Jewish ideas and legends, and therefore more Lord of the Rings than Ben Hur. Very exciting. But that was it. The calls stopped coming, I returned to my day-job as a congregational rabbi, and Noah dropped from my mind. 

But now Noah is back with a vengeance (and this time, it's personal!). The International Movie Data Base indicates the movies is set for a March release in 2014. Things are starting to pop up on fan sites, and a few photos are even appearing (Russell Crow! Emma Watson! JENNIFER CONNOLLY!).

And a lot of sturm und drang about six-armed angels. Clearly, some people don't get it. This idea seemingly so defies their expectations for a "biblical" film, it's really bugging them. They need to read their Bible. 

The basis for the HUGE tradition of fallen angels that figures so large in the Christian tradition is Gen. 6:4, a cryptic bundles of ideas about the "Sons of God":

 There were nefilim [giants] in the earth in those days;
 and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, 
and they bare children to them, 
the same became heroes which were of old, men of renown.

This was the trigger for a massive outpouring of the Jewish imagination during the Second Temple Period. Books like Enoch, The Book of Giants, and Jubilees, seized upon the notion that the  "son of God" were not just lured by Bronze Age Kate Uptons, they were expelled from heaven. Hence, fallen angels. Then there are the offspring, nifilim, which seems to suggest "Fallen Ones" (Though linguistically that's pseudo-philology), a word that actually means "giants." Soon a whole menagerie of fantastic creatures were included, a ready biblical "explanation" for the monsters, demi-gods, and minor spirits spoken of in the mythologies of surrounding cultures. So too, objects of power - the garments of Adam, the book of Noah, the sword of Methuselah, the rod of Joseph, and tzohar gem - were all duly derived from the Genesis narrative. 

But I digress. Six-armed angels. So naturally, when angels "fall," they lose their wings (watch your Dogma, people!). Or, the wings decay into mere arms. How many? Consult Isaiah chapter six:

 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, 
high and exalted, seated on a throne; 
and the train of his robe filled the temple. 
 Above him were seraphim, each with six wings...

Get it? Six wings become six arms. Giants. Totally biblical. Or at least in keeping with biblical ideas. 
Now, I want to see Leviathan. This is going to be awesome!

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