Jews and the Occult: 5 Demystifying Insights from a New York Museum Exhibit

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(New York Jewish Week) — If you take the The Torah word for it – not to mention generations of rabbinical literature – astrology, witchcraft, ghost hunting and the like are expressly forbidden in Judaism and have no place in Jewish practice or culture.

And yet, like the current exhibition at Dr. Bernard Heller Museum at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Highlights, the occult has always been an integral part of Judaism – and continues to be today.

“In every civilization there is evidence of belief in superstition, mystical figures who can both protect and harm, or rituals that can ward off evil,” museum director Jeanie Rosensaft told Jewish Week in London. New York. “It’s just a fascinating thing, and we wanted to investigate.”

For the exhibition “Magical Thinking: Superstitions and Other Persistent Notions,” Rosensaft and her team of curators issued an open call to hundreds of contemporary Jewish artists for artwork exploring Jewish superstitions. The result features the work of over 50 artists in a range of mediums – including oils, watercolours, acrylics, collages, paper cuts, multimedia and photographs.

From hamsas to “menstrual slapping,” the artworks intimately tackle Jewish practices that have been both carefully preserved through generations and, at the same time, considered mere “old wives’ tales.”

Overall, however, the aesthetic diversity of the pieces reflects the complicated reality of Jewish tradition: encompassing many varied and sometimes opposing perspectives that nonetheless remain in conversation.

Inspired by the exhibit, which is on view through January 5, 2023, New York Jewish Week spoke with Rosensaft, participating artists, and other scholars in the field of Jewish material culture and demonology at the plaza. of the occult in Jewish culture, both past and present. They helped us debunk five critical misconceptions.

1. The occult has no place in Judaism.

One of Rosensaft’s favorite quotes from the 13th century Sefer Chasidim – an ethical and legal guide to Jewish daily life in medieval Germany – perhaps best sums up Judaism’s true approach to occultism: Don’t believe in superstitions, but it’s always best to pay attention to them.

In other words, just because the Torah forbids belief in and participation in the occult doesn’t mean you have to look a gift golem in the mouth.

According Sara Ronis, author of the recent book “Demons in the Details: Demonic Discourse and Rabbinic Law in Late Antique Babylonia”, the supernatural has in fact long been a significant and powerful part of Jewish life. “Many Ashkenazi Jews today have an understanding of Judaism as highly rational, scientific and spiritual rather than material,” she told New York Jewish Week. “This understanding emerges from the particular conditions of nineteenth-century Western Europe and constitutes an important part of Jewish history. But that’s not the only part. »

“[Even] Talmudic rabbis recognized that the world was filled with phenomena beyond their comprehension,” she added, “and demons and other intermediate beings play an important role in rabbinical narrative and law.”

The truth is that since the first mention of the demon Lilith in the book of Isaiah to red ropes sold at the Wailing Wall today – presumably to ward off ayin hara, or the evil eye – the occult has a long history in Judaism.

Claire Jeanine Satin’s multimedia work ‘Hamsa’ is one of many featured in the exhibition ‘Magic Thought: Superstitions and Other Enduring Notions’. (Courtesy of the artist)

2. Jewish superstitions are just old wives’ tales.

PSA: Old wives’ tales – bubba meises, as they are called in Yiddish – are a derogatory term for the carefully preserved and handed down traditions and material culture of Jewish women (you know, half of all Jews).

These customs and traditions, preserved and transmitted from generation to generation over the centuries, are actually very important. From this point of view, a hamsa amulet in the shape of a hand could have the same religious significance as a kiddush cup or a prayer book.

According Noam Sienaauthor of “A Rainbow Thread: An Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts From the First Century to 1969”, “reading” artefacts (i.e. examining Jewish material culture) in addition to Jewish texts is crucial to painting a inclusive image of Jewish tradition.

“Reading objects is a way to give voice to subjects who may otherwise be deprived of the ability to speak through textual tradition – women, craftsmen, farmers, practitioners of folk magic – and to make space for experiences and perspectives not expressed by the literary record,” he said. said.

The hamsa, as well as other amulets and incantation bowlsare also deeply linked to this textual tradition: “For a North African [North African] As a Jewish beholder, the hamsa hand evokes a dense web of biblical and rabbinical associations centered on the twin concepts of protection and blessing – warding off bad energy and attracting good energy,” Sienna said.

3. If you have a tattoo, you cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

While many are quick to dismiss the role of superstition in Jewish practice and tradition, the reverse can also happen: sometimes a superstition becomes so entrenched in Jewish culture and imagination that it is taken for fact.

When illustrator Steve Marcus was prompted for the exhibit, he immediately thought of the widespread belief that tattooed Jews could not be buried in a Jewish cemetery. This is what inspired his piece in the exhibition, “Consequenceswhich depicts a heavily tattooed man in a yarmulke, crying.

The truth is that while the Torah forbids tattoos (Leviticus 19:28 states, “You shall not cut your flesh for the dead, nor incise any mark on yourselves: I am the Lord”), it does not. actually prevent Jews from being buried with their community.

“The misconceptions I wanted to convey in this piece go beyond superstition,” Marcus told New York Jewish Week. “No matter what kind of Jew one is and the choices one has made, he is Jewish. They are Jewish regardless of race, whether they are kosher or shomer Shabbat or whether they have tattoos or not .

“Bubba Meises” by Deborah Lynne Amerling is one of many works on display as part of “Magical Thinking: Superstitions and Other Persistent Notions.” (Courtesy of the artist)

4. Jews can’t have baby showers.

Many of the exhibits relate to Jewish superstitions about childbirth, a potentially dangerous time in the lives of parents and babies. Like the misconceptions surrounding tattoos, many Jewish superstitions related to childbirth – such as Jewish aversion to baby showers – have been widely accepted as law. In fact, this practice stems from the superstition that fussing over the unborn child might cause the evil eye.

Deborah Lynne Amerling’s collage “Bubba Meises” combines the traditional elements of a Jewish birth amulet (meant to protect a mother and her newborn from the demon Lilith, who could take the child away), but also adapts the tradition to a contemporary setting.

“Amerling celebrates the role of women as artists and activists and includes the name of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, calling her out as a sort of protective force for our present, for our future,” Rosensaft said.

While Amerling said she doesn’t believe in these Jewish superstitions, she does believe in passing them on — she didn’t have a baby shower either. “I’m not religious,” she says. “I don’t believe in superstition, but it can’t hurt. I feel like honor my parents so I continue the traditions.

5. This exhibition caused the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rosensaft was working on the catalog for “Magical Thinking: Superstitions and Other Persistent Notions”, when the pandemic hit. Originally scheduled to open in May 2020, the museum has postponed the exhibit due to COVID-19 until fall 2022 – after an exhibit honoring the 50th anniversary of female rabbinical ordination.

Which kind of makes us wonder: Much like the infamous treasure trove of mummies discovered at Saqqara in 2020, some have wondered if the curse of the pharaohs had something to do with the COVID-19 pandemicdid this exhibition accidentally attract the evil eye?

Rosensaft argued that perhaps the opposite is true: the pandemic has actually rekindled our relationship with the occult. “I think the experience with COVID has clearly shown us that there are limits to human understanding,” she said. “Human beings want to find meaning or solutions, or cures for the things that literally torment us. And I think there’s this undercurrent of superstition, a belief in magical thinking. Humanity yearns for a sense of protection and security.

That “magical thinking” ending up perfectly aligned with that societal sentiment — not to mention the current season being spooky — was just a happy coincidence.

“Magic Thinking: Superstitions and Other Persistent Notions” is presented at the Dr. Bernard Heller Museum at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion1 West 4th St., until January 5, 2023.

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