Monday, July 18, 2011

On Practical Kabbalah being termed "Black Magic" revisited

I simply could not resist visiting the following "incident" on the net to which I was alerted by an observant friend. Since it pertains to a message I posted here, and since I am somehow personally involved, though not directly so by "name," I thought I would share the mentioned "incident."
In February 2010 I posted a short essay titled "Practical Kabbalah vs Black Magic." I am delighted to discover, if somewhat belatedly, that my little essay was crossposted on an "official" Chabad forum, where opinions were being sought on its contents. I did notice that the crosspost was edited in order to eliminate the link to my blog which was defined a "non-Jewish religious site." Since I am a Jew, I find this definition of my blog quite hillarious! Furthermore, whilst dealing with spiritual matters of "Jewish concern," my blog is not actually a "religious site" per se. Otherwise, though not cited by name, I am listed as "an academic whose impact outside of the university has been nil," yet I cannot be sure whether the commentator was referring to me personally, or to J.H. Chajes, the "real academic" mentioned in my missive, considering the fact that I have discarded my "academic mantle" some decades ago, and no longer make any pretensions in this regard.
Be that as it may, I was amazed at witnessing the incoherence and inability of those who, other than hiding behind their utmost rigid fundamentalist religious stance, have failed to deal with my essay in any meaningful manner. The strongest allegation is that I posited Abraham Abulafia, Shabbatai Tzvi and Jacob Frank against Josef Karo, which is plainly not the case, and which the commentator might have realised had he actually READ and UNDERSTOOD my original missive.
What I found most surprising of all is unfamiliarity with the contents of Moses Cordovero's "Pardes Rimmonim," by the one who was seeking indications of "Practical Kabbalah" in the writings of the great rabbi, and who very obliquely hinted at familiarity with this text. All right, lets give him the benefit of the doubt! In the mentioned text Moses Cordovero dealt with "early Kabbalah" from the broadest, most inclusive perspective possible, and his extensive essays on Divine Names and their practical applications in this book may not have been directly termed "Practical Kabbalah" (Kabbalah Ma'asit), but these were certainly recognised to be just that by other equally "orthodox," equally "frum," and equally respected Rabbis.....and of course those scholars whom the commentator considers to have no influence outside their acadamic institutions. Come to think of it, I made reference in my essay to some of these seemingly "mainstream" rabbis who openly indulged their minds, souls and bodies in the dreaded "non-Kosher" domain of "Practical Kabbalah," including the great Josef Caro himself, who do not appear to have been unduly bothered by his personal nightly "channellings" of a "spirit intelligence," although he did so in absolute secrecy, and details of which were discovered only after his demise.
It is quite telling that my detractors who carefully avoided commenting on these "anomalies," would rather, in accordance with the norm when it comes to dealing with "uncomfortable" issues, divert attention and focus on a personal assault on the poor chap who posted my "offensive" essay on the said forum. Come to think of it, perhaps they thought HE wrote it! I actually feel a little sorry for this guy who held out very bravely against the onslaught, but what chance would he have had discoursing with anyone whose consciousness does not extend beyond the length of his nose? I would say "ZERO"!
Yet, I believe it would have been interesting to have queried the said forum regarding the "occult" activities of the Besht, the very founder of modern Chasidism, who was in fact proud of being a "Baal Shem," a "wonder worker" in the traditional "practitioner of magic" or "wonderworker" sense, as recently highlighted by those who no longer follow the general inclination of suppressing evidence [See "The Besht: Magician, Mystic and Leader" by Immanuel Etkes].
All of this notwithstanding, I am absolutely delighted to have witnessed my essay "making it" on the Chabad forum, and those who would like to "revisit" it on this site, AND read the entire diatribe themselves, may access the "thread" on the forum at:


Simon Tomasi said...

From the original post in that thread, it appears that Toviah is quoting your essay as if they are his words.

It's interesting to see the responses. The lack of specific sources, the different frames of reference about what magic is and ignorance of what particular Kabbalists have actually written.

Personally I don't think that Toviah did a very good job of defending the original post. Then again the whole thread reminds me why I only discuss Kabbalah with someone with an open mind and hopefully some understanding based on texts and not hear-say.

Jacobus G. Swart said...

Thanks for this clarification Simon! I got the impression that, beyond the very obvious belligerent stances of the "antagonists," the actual interaction between them, both offensive and defensive, were rather flimsy and incoherent! I also found the peculiar exposure of the nakedness and vulnerability of their "inner beings" most odd!

Simon Tomasi said...

A few things I thought about last night...

1. Although the Halachah looks like it is black & white about magic, it gets a lot more gray (from what I know) when it comes to the detail of what is allowed and not.

2. There are differences in what one rabbi to another practiced and permitted/allowed in the same time & community, e.g. Vital and Luria.

3. I speculate that perhaps because of the warnings of how many people to teach at the same time in Chagigah 2:1 people are cautious (and feel vulnerable) discussing what is labeled as the inner secrets of the Torah on a public forum.

Jacobus G. Swart said...

Absolutely! There was actually, as it were, a greater "freedom of thought" as far as Jewish Magic is concerned, amongst the North African and Middle Eastern Jewish communities, e.g. Morocco, Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, etc., i.e. the Sefardi sector. However, one should not sideline those incredible Eastern European "Baalei Shem."

Concerning the lives and actions of the latter, Rabbi Moshe Hiller released a most interesting and detailed investigation in Hebrew. I believe it warrants translation into English, and I wish somebody would undertake this task. Had I the time, I certainly would do so, but with the next volume of the "Shadow Tree Series" appearing to be equally as time consuming and difficult as was the second volume, I cannot envisage myself focussing on anything else for the foreseeable future!

Simon Tomasi said...

If you could please point me to Rabbi Moshe Hiller's investigation - I'd be happy to have a go at trying to translate it. If it's not online, you can always email me at simontomasi at hotmail com

Jacobus G. Swart said...

I have just retrieved my copy, and noticed that I got the author's name wrong. The work is:

"Baalei Shem" by Mosheh Hillel, Publisher: Mechon B'nei Yishachar, Jerusalem 1993.

I have sadly not seen an electronic version of the text, but I am sure it must still in print, and fairly readily available. I will check what I can find, and get back to you directly.

As an aside, have you chanced upon the work titled "Toldot Baalei Shem Tov" by Michael Levi Rodkinssohn? I have found it most informative regarding the East European "wonderworking" Rabbis. You can download a facsimile of the 1876 edition from The direct link is:

Simon Tomasi said...

Thanks Jacobus for confirming the title, author and publisher of the book. At the moment I'm holding off buying new books as I'm slowly saving up for Scahfer's Synopse.

In the mean time, I'll try to read and translate Rodkinssohn's book that you've recommended.