Monday, December 25, 2006

Llewellyn, Levanah, and Love

I am thrilled and delighted that Llewellyn Worldwide Ltd. Has agreed to publish the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism. For those of you unfamiliar with Llewellyn, it is the world’s largest publisher of occult and New Age books. Now at first glance it may seem an odd match, a publisher devoted to

[Woodcut of Jews blessing the New Moon]

works on witchcraft, Neo-Paganism, and the occult, publishing a book devoted entirely to Judaism. And indeed, this is a new venture for the folks at Llewellyn. But as far as I am concerned, Llewellyn and the EJMMM are perfect for each other. I knew it the moment I saw the Llewellyn logo. For those of you who don’t already know, it’s a crescent moon.

Llewellyn chose this symbol because...well, I'm really not sure. I suppose it's because many people in the West associate the moon with paganism (to a lesser extent, people also connect it to Islam). Few realize it is an ancient Jewish symbol as well. In fact, the moon (Heb. levanah) is central to Judaism. Our sacred calendar is based on its monthly cycle, as the Hebrew Bible reveals with its frequent references to keeping time via “New moons and Shabbats.” But there are deeper, more esoteric Jewish meanings. So what is some of the Jewish occult lore concerning levanah?

The moon is a symbol of the Jewish people:
The Midrash (a kind of Bible commentary written in a particular style) compares the Jewish people to the moon. Like the moon, the Jewish people often find themselves outshone by more powerful nations and empires (which the Midrash compares to the sun) who have dominated us. Like the moon, we wax and wane in our fortunes. Yet like the moon, we always return; and visible or not, we are always strong spiritually (Genesis Rabbah 6:2).

The moon is a symbol of God’s authority:
The crescent moon is the same shape as the Hebrew letter kaf, which is also the first letter of the word kissei, “throne” (Batei Midrashot 2:406). Because of these associations, Jewish esoteric tradition imagines the moon to be a visible sign of God’s throne (and therefore, God’s sovereignty) set in the sky, shining on us all.

The moon is a symbol of love:
In the teachings of Jewish mysticism, the natural order here in this plane, the "world of action" (Asiyah), is a reverberation of the divine structures. That includes the most powerful forces in human life: love and sex. These forces are part of the divine dynamics also. For the universe to be sustained, the masculine and feminine aspects of God must undergo constant union – what is termed zivvuga kadisha, “sacred coupling,” in Kabbalah. The moon in its beauty signifies the Shekhinah, the feminine dimension of God (Rabbi Abayye says in the Talmud that to look upon the moon during the blessing of the new moon, it is as if that person has received the face of the Shekhinah {Sanh. 42a}). Its waxing and waning signifies the cycle of the heiros gamos, the cosmic union of the male and female principles On High that lovingly nurtures creation below.

So as you can see, the moon is, both in its mainstream and its esoteric traditions, a powerful symbol in and of Judaism.

To learn more, go to the entries Moon, Calendar, and New Moon in the EJMMM.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Did Satan Fall?: The Devil is in the Details

I just received a call from a university student doing a research paper on Judaism. Fielding such calls is part and parcel of the everyday duties of a congregational rabbi, but I suspect I do more of these then your average rabbi simply because the greater Dallas area has a whopping population of Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians who are looking for ways to incorporate religious topics into their school assignments and research papers (in my duties as a teacher at the University of North Texas I deal with this phenomenon from the other end also, deciding whether to green-line student proposals). Anyway, you never know which way these interviews are going to turn. In this case, the student became very hung up on the idea that Judaism has Satan but no Devil. At first she didn't understand what I was saying, and followed up by asking, "So how did Satan fall, in your tradition?" "Well, he didn't fall - that's what I meant when I said we have Satan but no Devil. Jews don't believe there is any spiritual force that opposes God (except us). Satan is God's prosecuting attorney." (Long silence on the other end of the phone). "I don't understand..." "Do you ever watch Law and Order?" I ask. "Sure." "Well, you've seen how Jack McCoy presses and wheedles, manipulates, even deceives people to uncover their guilt? He's mean as a snake, but still works for the good side?" "Yes, I guess." "Well, in Jewish tradition, Satan is Jack McCoy" (the very Hebrew word, ha-satan, means "the adversary" - but that's the adversary of man and his sin, not God). And just as Jack never takes a fall for his highhanded but necessary work, so too Satan remains in good standing with the Bar On High." "But the Bible tells of his fall," She responds, sounding defensive. "Well, actually, no, the Hebrew Bible doesn't." "I'm sure it does." "And where exactly does it say that 'Satan was expelled from heaven'?" I ask helpfully. "Wow" is all she says and we move on to another topic.

Actually, in the spirit of Law and Order, I did not provide her with a full 'discovery' on falling from heaven, primarily because I don't consider these verses truly exculpatory. For I know that according to Christian exegesis, Satan’s fall from heaven is said to be found in Isaiah 14:12-14 and Ezekiel 28:12-18. But that requires a highly exegetical (deriving something from a text that isn't explicitly stated) reading and could arguable be called 'eisogetical' (projecting something into the text that isn't there). For these two passages are explicitly referring to the king of Babylon and the king of Tyre, respectively. Christians argue that they also reference the spiritual power that was behind those kings - Satan. But neither text ever speaks of Satan, even in an allusive fashion. Instead, both texts are laser focused on these kings and both use the image of falling out of heaven as a literary trope for how low these two powerful kings are going to be brought down. The connection to Satan is (in my opinion) entirely inferred by Christian readers. In Judaism, we do not read these passages as referring to Satan.

While he is indeed a dark and menacing figure (would you want to be in Jack McCoy's sights?), he is still God's agent, just like the other two major mythic and personified 'dark' forces in Jewish tradition, the Malach ha-Mavet and the Yetzer ha-Ra (the Angel of Death and the Evil Desire). All three of these forces are the 'severe' aspect of God's inscrutable will, but part of God's will they are, nonetheless. All of them are subordinate and subservient to the Blessed Holy One.

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

[Illustration: Detail of dark angel from E.M. Lilien's "Die Engel"]

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Judaism, Eroticism, and Zionism - the art of E.M. Lilien

Many of my postings here have been accompanied by vivid pen and ink illustrations. These dreamy, evocative images are the work of Austrian illustrator and photographer, Ephraim Moses Lilien (Born 1874 in Galicia - died 1925). Lilien was one of the most influential Jewish artists of the 20th Century and a founding father of the Bezalel Art School in Jerusalem. As part of the Jungenstil (“Youth-Style”) art movement, he produced innumerable periodical and book illustrations, bookplates and posters. His work illustrating the three-volume Die Bucher der Bibel with a series of bold, moody and - at times - erotic images both shocked and delighted readers and ensured his fame.

He was a member of the Zionist movement and undertook several journeys to Palestine and the Middle East between 1906 and 1918. While there he produced a series of exquisite photographs of traditional Jews and Arabs, some of which have become iconic images of Ottoman-era Palestine. His photograph of Theodore Herzl in profile, fixing a visionary gaze on an unseen horizon, is perhaps the most famous image of the Zionist thinker and activist. Herzl's face also pops up in a number of Lilien's illustrations, usually as an angel.

Lilien’s work often re-conceptualized Judaism in mythic and esoteric terms. A classic example of this is his illustration of the “Sabbath Queen” which appears in my first posting.

To see more of Lilien's work, visit the "Lilien Study Group" on the Web.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Here in time for Chanukah, Hanukkah, Hanukka, Chanukka, Hanuka - whatever

The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism is now available. Those who ordered one in advance should be seeing it shortly, and those who were waiting for the perfect gift for Hanukkah to come along - Vola! (as my youngest son would say, hands thrust dramatically to the side, palms upturned). My beloved editor Karl informs me the quickest way to get a copy EJMMM is to order it directly from the publisher - 1-800-THE-MOON or www.llewellyn.com.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Secret Kabbalah of Mensa

We live in an age of unprecedented Kabbalah consciousness. Jewish esotericism is immensely popular. This month I was invited to speak on the topic of the esoteric in Judaism at the Texas regional Mensa conference. It was a very nice experience. I frankly had no idea what a Mensa conference would look like. Would it be a crowd of severely and profoundly gifted people? Would there be a surfeit of intellectual acumen and social maladjustment? As it turns out, a Mensa conference most resembles an Elder Hostel; wide-ranging programming for lots of ordinary people in sneakers and relaxed fit jeans, munching pretzels.

So to test their pop genius, in my introduction I asked the assembled to see if they could identify the ascendant Kabbalah master who uttered this insight:

"[Kabbalah] helps you confront your fears. Like, if a girl borrowed my clothes and never gave them back and I saw her wearing them months later, I could confront her."

I was about to give them multiple-choice options: A) Madonna, B) Paris Hilton, or C) Britany Spears, but I was gratified that several people knew the answer without prompting - it was Paris. These folks certainly have a very high pop-Kabbalah IQ.

I shared with them my opinion that Kabbalah is a lot like a favorite family-owned restaurant: the more success it enjoys, the more danger there is that it will go into serious decline, quality-wise. It doesn't have to be so, but the risks are great, as the Hollywood fad for Kabbalah amply demonstrates.

But I also shared with them how the authentic practitioners of Jewish mysticism are themsleves partly to blame for this. When it comes to Kabbalah, there are secrets and then there are secrets. And many Jewish mystics seem to experience an irresistible urge to put their secrets down in writing. Oh, occasionally there is a genuinely occult teaching that remains a mystery to this day. A few secret teachings, such as the meaning of the priest-king Malchizedek or the symbolism of Boaz and Yachin, the two pillars in front of Solomon's temple, remain concealed from us. Today, we have only hints of what these things signify. On the other hand, most of the sodot and razim, the great secrets of Kabbalah, are readily available to the diligent researcher.

See, the problem for people with secret revelations is that Judaism has basically put the kibosh on new revelations for the past 2300 hundred years. Since the end of institutional prophecy around 300 BCE, the power of revelation has been, as the Talmud puts it, "given over to children and madmen." Judaism has a "parenthetical" theology - though we are bracketed by the past experience and future promise of direct revelations from the Blessed Holy One, we now live in an era when God chooses not to speak to us. So when a Kabbalist gets a new insight (by means of a bat kol, a visitation of Elijah, or a vision) into the supernal realms, the divine plan or the cosmic order, how does he convey it in a way that will be taken seriously?

The solution is to publish - but not in his own name. Thus Jewish esoteric texts have a long tradition of pseudepigraphia, of the authorship of a work being credited or ascribed to a worthy figure of the past. Examples are legion: Enoch, a book composed in Late Antiquity, is credited to the anti-deluvian patriarch of the same name, Sefer Yetzirah is credited to Abraham, Sefer Raziel to Adam (who got it through the angel Raziel) and Sefer Zohar to Shimon bar Yochai. By crediting the authorship to a time and place where revelation was commonplace, the teaching has a greater chance of getting a serious hearing from its readers. The end result, however, is that whatever secret knowledge you may holding on to is now accessible to anyone who is literate. Admittedly, in the ancient and medieval world that meant that it was still inaccessible to the bulk of the population, but as literacy spread, so did any "secret." By the Renaissance, everyone and his brother was privy to the secret teachings of Jewish Kabbalah, giving rise to Christian "Cabbalah" and, later, spiritualist and theosophical "Qabbalah." And now we have things like the Kabbalah Centre, with offices on three continents.

Is having the secrets out good or bad? What can I say? I've got a book and a blog devoted to such mysteries, so I guess on balance I think it's a good thing. I just recommend caution. Kabbalah has teachings that are certainly useful to us today, but one has to be a thoughtful consumer. Authentic insight still requires more than just a search engine and the fee for a weekend seminar. There is no lazy man's path to enlightenment in Jewish tradition.

Learn more by consulting Prophecy, Pseudepigraphia, Secret and Vision in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism.

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

[Illustration: The priests offer the birkat kohanim. Die Buch der Bibel by E.M. Lilien]