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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.
Scot McKnight summarizes James D. G. Dunn’s concise, albeit heartbreaking, explanation of why the term “Jewish Christianity” is redundant—and why many Christians have forgotten that fact:
There is something of an oddity about the title ‘Jewish Christianity’. For in a very important sense, that is what Christianity is — at least in its beginnings, and integrally in its character. In an important sense, often lost to view, the adjective ‘Jewish’ is quite unnecessary, since Christianity, with a Jewish Messiah as its central figure, and its holy scripture predominantly written by Jews, can hardly be anything other than ‘Jewish’ in a crucially defining sense. The oddity, rather, at least arguably, is that Christianity so quickly lost sight of its Jewish roots and character, that ‘Jewish Christianity’ became just one form of Christianity, almost a primitive form to be lost increasingly to view as Christianity became more international and less definitively Jewish in character. The increasing loss of distinctively Jewish identity is one of the most striking features of the first two centuries of Christianity. The growth of a contradictory adversus Iudaeos tradition which came to dominate Christianity more or less up to the present day has a self-contradictory character. To reckon seriously with this fact is still one of the great challenges facing twenty-first-century Christians, when the memory of the Holocaust is still unspeakably raw.
I truly appreciated this post by Eve Levavi Feinstein that leads the reader through the many possible interpretations of the commandment in Exodus 22 for Israelites to offer their firstborn sons to God. As Dr. Feinstein notes, it is not at all obvious what this commandment originally meant for Israelites to do, and the Bible itself offers support for a number of different possibilities. She writes,
In the end, the biblical evidence does not point to a single conclusive interpretation of the law in Mishpatim. On one hand, it may express a requirement (albeit aspirational) that every Israelite family sacrifice its firstborn son. While it is difficult to accept that the Torah commands the ritual slaughter of children, we can at least see in the commandment’s development an attempt to modify a bad law (as Ezekiel put it) by requiring monetary redemption in place of actual sacrifice (Exodus 34:20).
If, on the other hand, what the law required was service at a sanctuary, it calls for an expansion of our understanding of sacrifice in biblical thought. Indeed, the very plausibility of this interpretation — and the fact of its apparent acceptance by P — argues for a view of sacrifice that is not centrally about slaughter but is equally, if not more, about the act of giving.
In either understanding, the law in Mishpatim expresses the idea that the first of all life properly belongs to God. Underlying its cryptic and challenging mandate we can detect a conviction that every birth, human or animal, is a gift from God, which is to be recognized through a partial, symbolic return of life to its Maker.
New book sighting courtesy of Scot McKnight:
I endorsed Rabbi Evan Moffic’s book as a good example of civil discourse and dialogue. I hope that we can engage in public discussions about Jesus.
Today Rabbi Evan Moffic releases a new book about the Jewishness of Jesus. Rabbi Moffic is a well-known congregational rabbi outside of Chicago whose first book answered the question What Every Christian Needs to Know About Passover. This second book, What Every Christian Needs to Know about Jewishness of Jesus: A New Look at History’s Most Influential Rabbi grapples with the bigger and more controversial questions: What do Christians need to know about Judaism, and what do Jews need to know about the Jewish Jesus? This book will challenge and enrich you. Here’s an intriguing excerpt from it.