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Alan Brill reviews Yuval Harari’s recent book Jewish Magic before the Rise of Kabbalah and interacts with the author in a brief online interview. He argues that the practice of magic was very much a part of early Judaism (and Christianity), even though we’re predisposed not to see it. (What I do is “ritual”; what the people I don’t like do is “magic.”) Here’s one small snippet:
Magic is may be considered as pre-scientific technology, a scheme of technical practices founded on the belief in the way reality is run. Given the traditional premises concerning what forces that reality, magic behavior was rational.
Jewish magic is founded on a belief in human aptitude to affect the world by means of rituals, at the heart of which is execution of oral or written formulas. It is not different from Jewish normative religious view, which ascribes actual power to sacrifice, prayer, ritual, and the observance of law. Magic also does not differ from the normative views regarding God’s omnipotence or the involvement of angels and demons in mundane reality. It has elaborated as a system parallel to, and combined with the normative-religious one, a system that seeks to change reality for the benefit of the individual, commonly in order to remove a concrete pain or distress or to fulfill a certain wish or desire.
Books of magic recipes from antiquity as well as from later periods show that magic was pragmatically required in every aspect of life. Magic fantasy of the kind of One Thousand and One Nights or Harry Potter is missing almost all together from recipe books, which usually offers assistance in achieving targets that may be achieved also without magic. According to these Jewish books, magic power can be implemented personally or by an expert. Expert magicians offered their help in choosing and performing the right ritual and in preparing adjuration artifacts and other performative objects, such as amulets of roots and minerals.
Brent Eric Davis has written a brief summary of all that can be surely known of the original language of the Philistines before they adopted a Semitic tongue during the Iron Age. Spoiler: This is a rather brief article.
Next week, I’ll once again explain to my New Testament students that all of first-century Judaism was thoroughly Hellenized, even among those who despised Greco-Roman culture. This article by Burton L. Visotzky at The Bible and Interpretation outlines some of what I’ll be talking about.
To summarize thus far: vocabulary, institutions, hermeneutics and exegesis, rhetoric, law, philosophy, art, and architecture were all adapted from the broader Greco-Roman world in the service of reshaping Judaism to become a viable religious force following the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE.
According to the Times of Israel, a Hebrew-language version of the Epic of Gilgamesh is underway:
In writer Shirley Graetz’s mind, the Akkadian figure who stars in the ancient poem “Epic of Gilgamesh” sounded a lot like her eldest son. Big, strong, and not always able to delicately avoid things in his path.
“I got to thinking about Gilgamesh,” said Graetz, who at the time was finishing up her PhD on cuneiform, an ancient form of writing from the Mesopotamian region. “He was half human, half god and he was a tyrant. Until he found his match, and then he calmed down and went on adventures.”
Graetz then went on to write a chapter book geared to children aged 8–11.
Best sentence in the article? This one:
Ever practical, the academic turned popular fiction writer also considered the fact that neither Disney nor Pixar had ever touched the story of the Mesopotamian figure.
I wonder if the bit with Shamhat might have something to do with that.
So what does God have to do with all this? In his quest for answers, [physicist Jeremy] England, of course, finds himself at the center of the classic struggle between science and spirituality. While Christianity and Darwinism are generally opposed, Judaism doesn’t take issue with the science of life. The Rabbinical Council of America even takes the stance that “evolutionary theory, properly understood, is not incompatible with belief in a Divine Creator.”
For his part, England believes science can give us explanations and predictions, but it can never tell us what we should do with that information. That’s where, he says, the religious teachings come in. Indeed, the man who’s one-upping Darwin has spent the past 10 years painstakingly combing through the Torah, interpreting it word by word much the way he ponders the meaning of life. His conclusion? Common translations are lacking. Take the term “creation.” England suggests we understand it not as the literal making of the Earth but rather as giving Earth a name. All throughout the Bible, he says, there are examples of terms that could be interpreted differently from what we’ve come to accept as standard.
The Platties honor ideas that are interdisciplinary: a bit duck, a bit beaver, a bit otter. These are the new ideas and innovations that made us do a double take. At first, we wondered whether they could be real. And when they proved to be, it wasn’t just the little idea, but the little idea’s enormous potential that delighted us.
Learn a foreign language! From The Guardian:
The Swedish MRI study showed that learning a foreign language has a visible effect on the brain. Young adult military recruits with a flair for languages learned Arabic, Russian or Dari intensively, while a control group of medical and cognitive science students also studied hard, but not at languages. MRI scans showed specific parts of the brains of the language students developed in size whereas the brain structures of the control group remained unchanged. Equally interesting was that learners whose brains grew in the hippocampus and areas of the cerebral cortex related to language learning had better language skills than other learners for whom the motor region of the cerebral cortex developed more.
…and what it used to be is better than what often goes by that name today, according to Dennis Hayes. In fact, his latest column at The Conversation is titled “Let’s Stop Trying to Teach Students Critical Thinking.”
As a teacher, you have to have a critical spirit. This does not mean moaning endlessly about education policies you dislike or telling students what they should think. It means first and foremost that you are capable of engaging in deep conversation. This means debate and discussion based on considerable knowledge – something that is almost entirely absent in the educational world. It also has to take place in public, with parents and others who are not teachers, not just in the classroom or staffroom.
The need for teachers to engage in this kind of deep conversation has been forgotten, because they think that being critical is a skill.
It isn’t, Hayes says. It is a trait of character or even, perhaps, a way of life. He goes on to argue that the word “criticism” is often misapplied.
The idea that critical thinking is a skill is the first of three popular, but false views that all do disservice to the idea of being critical. They also allow many teachers to believe they are critical thinkers when they are the opposite:
- “Critical thinking” is a skill. No it is not. At best this view reduces criticism to second-rate or elementary instruction in informal and some formal logic. It is usually second-rate logic and poor philosophy offered in bite-sized nuggets. Seen as a skill, critical thinking can also mean subjection to the conformism of an ideological yoke. If a feminist or Marxist teacher demands a certain perspective be adopted this may seem like it is “criticism” or acquiring a “critical perspective”, but it is actually a training in feminism or Marxism which could be done through tick box techniques. It almost acquires the character of a mental drill.
- “Critical thinking” means indoctrination. When teachers talk about the need to be “critical” they often mean instead that students must “conform”. It is often actually teaching students to be “critical” of their unacceptable ideas and adopt the right ones. Having to support multiculturalism and diversity are the most common of the “correct ideas” that everyone has to adopt. Professional programmes in education, nursing, social work and others often promote this sort of “criticism”. It used to be called “indoctrination”.
- “Critical theories” are “uncritical theories”. When some theory has the prefix “critical” it requires the uncritical acceptance of a certain political perspective. Critical theory, critical race theory, critical race philosophy, critical realism, critical reflective practice all explicitly have political aims.
What, then, is criticism?
Criticism, according to Victorian cultural critic Matthew Arnold, is a disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world. We should all be as “bound” by that definition as he was. We need only to teach the best that is known and thought and “criticism” will take care of itself. That is a lesson from 100 years ago that every teacher should learn.
Critical thinking seen as Arnold defined it is more like a character trait – like having “a critical spirit”, or a willingness to engage in the “give and take of critical discussion”. Criticism is always about the world and not about you.
I’m going to have to ponder this when I get out of my current Galatians tunnel. At first blush, it would seem to provide some relevant insights into how the early Christian communities remembered and passed on the stories of Jesus during the period of oral transmission of the Gospel materials.
Although it might seem a good idea to work with other people to remember important information, the evidence suggests that this typically isn’t so. Individual recall is most efficient whereas social remembering comes with drawbacks, tripping up our flow and inhibiting memories. But this evidence mostly comes from asking people to collaborate with a stranger. What happens when you know each other really, really well?
Citing research from Celia Harris and others at Australia’s Macquarie University, the article continues:
Their data showed that on standard tasks, such as reproducing words from studied lists, couples working together often did as well as when they worked alone. This lack of a penalty from social remembering is itself notable, but it’s just a gateway into more intriguing findings.
During another study, the researchers noticed that although couples did more poorly at listing their shared holidays when recalling together, these social sessions were filled with anecdotes and tangents that weren’t generated in the solo sessions. This inspired them to depart from testing memory for lists of words and events, and to explore the amount of rich, in-depth information remembered by couples about experienced events. They found these social exchanges led to clear collaborative memory benefits, which could take three forms:
1. “New information” such as finally snatching an elusive name of a musical thanks to a chain of prompts between the two parties.
2. Richer, more vivid descriptions of events including sensory information.
3. Information from one partner painting things in a new light for the other.
The focus of the article is on romantic couples, but I wonder if the same dynamics might apply to family systems or co-workers who have been together for a number of years and have high regard for each other.
Thinking of the churches of the 30’s and 40’s in terms of an “interconnected memory system” may be a path worth exploring.
From Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses:
The loftier meaning [of the Israelite’s plundering the wealth of Egypt] is therefore more fitting than the obvious one. It commands those participating through virtue in the free life also to equip themselves with the wealth of pagan learning by which foreigners to the faith beautify themselves. Our guide in virtue commands someone who “borrows” from wealthy Egyptians to receive such things as moral and natural philosophy, geometry, astronomy, dialectic, and whatever else is sought by those outside the Church, since these things will be useful when in time the divine sanctuary of mystery must be beautified with the riches of reason.
Those who treasured up for themselves such wealth handed it over to Moses as he was working on the tent of mystery, each one making his personal contribution to the construction of the holy places. It is possible to see this happening even now, for many bring to the church of God their profane learning as a kind of gift. Such a man was the great Basil [of Caesarea], who acquired the Egyptian wealth in every respect during his youth and dedicated this wealth to God for the adornment of the Church, the true tabernacle.
In this classic of Christian mysticism, Gregory reads the entire story of Moses as an allegory of the spiritual life. Whenever the bare historical details of the text create moral or rational difficulties, he finds a “spiritual” meaning beneath the surface. This is what he did with the detail that the Israelites on their way out of Egypt plundered the wealth of their former oppressors. He equates the “Egyptian wealth” with the learning of pagan cultures–the Egyptians of Moses’ time and the Greeks and Romans of his own. He praised Basil the Great for his extensive learning in pagan arts and sciences.
One of my majors in college was geography, and as a Neutestamentler I have also had some training in the study of history. Both are “field-encompassing fields.” You can’t just learn history or geography; studies in those fields will eventually lead one to dabble in a handful of other disciplines. Sociology and linguistics are more or less obvious examples, but sometimes a historian must go even further afield. He or she may be called on to learn a little astronomy to interpret the timing of events such as comets and eclipses as an aid to establishing ancient chronology, agriculture and animal husbandry in order to understand farming practices and technology, medicine in order to interpret physical conditions described in texts written before the advent of modern medicine, and so on. The field-encompassing nature of these disciplines is probably one of the main reasons I am personally drawn to them, which may be a highly academic way of confessing that I have a very short attention span.
Hopefully, however, I’ve acquired a small bit of “Egyptian wealth” in this sense. A liberal arts education exposes one to a little bit of a lot of disciplines (science, economics, history, mathematics, etc.)—for some, enough to make them think they know something; for others, enough to convince them there is much more to learn. In the spirit of Gregory, I would like to think that my meager “wealth” is at God’s disposal, to bring beauty to his spiritual house.
Not every Christian would agree with Gregory about the value of this “Egyptian wealth,” however. Tertullian famously asked, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” By that he meant, What does profane learning have to do with the things of the spirit? There are plenty of Tertullianists around today who reject the idea that Christians can learn anything from unbelievers. There was a fairly recent outbreak of this attitude at Patrick Henry College when a couple of faculty members wrote a paper about “The Role of General Revelation in Education.”
Others—thankfully the majority over the course of Christian history—have seen the wisdom of learning whatever can be known, even if pagans teach it. Justin Martyr was an early proponent of this view, which is also found in Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and many others. These heroes of the faith would have agreed with the concluding paragraph of the paper cited above:
When we examine the writings of any author, professed Christian or otherwise, the proper question is not, “Was this man a Christian?” but “Is this true?” Nor should we spend much time looking for points of disagreement. Rather we should focus on taking what has been rightly said and submitting it to the service of Christ.
I hope my students figure this out early in their college careers. When they take their classes in economics, physics, or English literature, they are storing up treasure they can place at Christ’s disposal. It doesn’t matter where that knowledge came from. It only matters if it’s true.