Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Holy Magic & Their Curse Dealers

"Magical thinking is sometimes symptomatic of a mental disorder. Obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, schizotypal personality disorder, and psychosis are just a few diagnoses that include magical thinking as a possible symptom. If the magical thinking suggests homicidal or suicidal associations, you should seek help."

 Sigmund Freud believed that magical thinking was produced by cognitive developmental factors. He described practitioners of magic as projecting their mental states onto the world around them, similar to a common phase in child development.[12]

...Magical anthologies, like family recipe books, were typically supplemented from generation to generation by their inheritors, but in this case the publishers had gone beyond their predecessors in extensively restructuring the work.  

The deletions, however, and their rationale are what concern us here. The first edition had been published just months before the assassination of Israel’s Prime Minister Yizhak Rabin in 1995. In the aftermath of the tragedy, Israelis tried to understand how the “unthinkable” had happened. What were the precursors of the assassination? One of the most commonly noted was the placement of a magical curse upon the prime minister not long before the assassin struck. The media popularized the rather arcane fact that the curse had been none other than pulsa de-nura, the “fire-stroke,” turning this esoteric Aramaic idiom into a household word for the first time in history. The event was to become a canonical element of any recounting of the tragedy; even the brief official Israeli government biography of Rabin does not fail to mention the curse by name as part of its treatment of the assassination.

Even more surprising, perhaps, was the frequent obfuscation in public discourse of the distinction between curse as incitement to violence and curse as criminal ritual. Under such circumstances, the publishers feared that they might be vulnerable to prosecution as “curse-dealers.” In a flourish of political and financial acumen, the publishers released the new edition. Free of potentially incriminating curse formulae, it was also sans Kadoori and thus available on the open market. The late-20th-century publication of a venerable Jewish book of magic was thus the occasion for ambivalence and anxiety on all fronts: from Rav Kadoori, concerned that the book’s power would be abused, yet willing to consent to the printing; to the publishers, charged with a sacred duty to limit the sales of their merchandise by scrutinizing prospective buyers only to be subsequently spooked by the prospect of prosecution; to secular media and security services, now disposed to regard magical curses as threats to Israel’s very political stability.

If Rav Kadoori is a distinctly late-20th-century Israeli phenomenon, then, the printing of magical materials has been a complicated affair for centuries. At once inviolable, sacred, and unlawful, magic is the object of what Sigmund Freud called “holy dread.” That magic was taboo, however, does not mean that its adepts were viewed as evil or in rebellion against the authority of Jewish tradition. Magical adepts could be cultural heroes, and magical prowess so attractive and impressive that its attribution to rabbinic saints was a sine qua non of hagiographical traditions. The move beyond “holy dread” to the practice of magic situated the practitioner in a transgressive but awe-inspiring position, at the nexus of the forbidden and the sacred. Such transgression need not have been viewed as the denial of the taboo, however, but, in Georges Bataille’s terms, as its completion or consummation. Bataille’s position has been well summarized by Michael Richardson:
Transgression is associated with the sacred, the moment of rupture when the excluded element that is forbidden by the taboo is brought into focus. In earlier societies, transgression was an inherent part of social life, given form in the festival, where transgression was given free play and so functioned as part of the regulatory function of the taboo. As Bataille says, “transgression does not deny the taboo but transcends and completes it.”
If most historical Judaisms have taken a transcendental approach to the magic taboo, the transgression-consummation dyad accounts for the simultaneous attraction and repulsion to magic one finds in so many Jewish sources. The highly charged polarity is responsible for producing myriad expressions of anxiety, the tracing of which may shed light on familiar facets of Jewish culture.

The binary status of magic gave rise to contested formulations of its cultural position among rabbinic authorities. Was magic the most profound degradation of the spirit, or the highest actualization of human potential? Medieval German pietists, whose eponymous piety may have been ultimately conceived as preparatory to engagement in magical activity, seem to have favored the latter evaluation, as did the Italian Renaissance rabbis who placed the study of magic at the apex of their ideal curriculum.

A charged polarity born of proximity and parallelism is already implicit in the biblical mirroring of prophets and forbidden diviners (see, e.g., Deut. 18:9–22) and surfaces with great clarity and sophistication in Talmudic sources. Although the rabbis set out to define forbidden forms of magic, they issue anything but a flat-out condemnation; on the contrary, they are well aware of how closely their highest values mirror forbidden paths and seem irresistibly drawn to making the parallels explicit. The difficulty of practicing “holy magic” is thus cause for lament; Rabbi Akiva would cry in frustration, we are told, when reminded of the relative ease of inducing “impure” as opposed to “pure” forms of spirit obsession. Yet such difficulty could not deter the truly righteous from wielding God-like magical power, creating a world if they so desired. Though much has been made of the euphemisms for magic (kishuf) found in Jewish sources because of the negative associations borne by the term, the Talmudic discussion in fact concludes unapologetically: The laws of magic (kishuf), like those of the Sabbath, distinguish between magic illegal and punishable, illegal yet not punishable, and permitted ab initio. Rav Hanina and Rav Oshaya are mentioned in this context as having practiced permissible kishuf when, at Friday afternoon meetings, they would create a third-grown calf and eat it (B.T. Sanhedrin 67b).

The exposure in print of “practical” techniques to produce ecstatic states of consciousness (as in works of the Abulafian school) or to manipulate divine forces (names, angels, demons, etc.) has been limited but not entirely suppressed by rabbinic authorities. A herem (ban) on the 16th-century publishers of the Zohar, including a call for the publishers to suffer the pulsa de-nura punishment, is evidence of such attempts to keep the genies in their bottles. The publication of practical (or “useful”) magico-mystical works—shimush (“usage”) being one of the most common terms for licit magic in the Jewish lexicon—has been done in a defensive mode, accompanied by distinctive rhetorical practices marking the profound ambivalences surrounding such projects. How might we understand a statement to the effect that a magical book “has never before been published due to its great holiness”? And what—in addition to a keen market sense—is to be made of the mixed message of holy books introduced by grandiose promises overshadowed only by dire warnings and guilt-ridden justifications? Indeed, centuries before the printing press, an elaborate preparation ritual in the Hekhalot literature had warned of the dire consequences of selling the manuscript in which it appears. The age of print amplified rather than invented admonitory tropes that had long flanked magical material.....

Standard tropes asserting that the techniques are not enough, or that the techniques are corrupted, or that the techniques require red heifer ashes, or that the techniques are mortally dangerous might then be viewed as an attempt to distance the ideal image of Jewish magic from its inevitably limited and even disappointing textual representations. R. David ibn Zimra (1479–1573) said this and more: The real stuff is not in the books at all.
And be exceedingly wary, my son, and refrain from using the Names. For you will squander your life with no help and no salvation, and you will dishonor the Holy Names. For no one knows anything about this, and nothing of what you will find of it written in books is reliable. Moreover, the essential has been omitted and left unwritten, as such matters are only transmitted orally.
At the very least, then, opposition to the distribution of this lore or warnings to keep the books closed were tantamount to an insistence that the effectiveness of Jewish magic was to be considered ex opere operantis [from the work of the doer] rather than ex opere operato [by the work done]. The inevitable hagiographical transformation of rabbinic sages into magical masters, a tendency that spared not even Maimonides, might thus be viewed as another expression of the conviction that, even more than in arcane formulae, Judaism’s magic resided in its saints.