Thursday, March 8, 2012

Magical Healing & a Consumer Society - Part 3

It should be noted that since time immemorial there has been a common conception amongst many people that pain, illness and sin can be transferred to stones, trees and even animals. Many magical customs are built around this idea. In many societies there is no differentiation between the physical and the subtler, spiritual realms. Of course, from personal experience and as a practising Kabbalist, I agree that matter and spirit are “one”; that matter is only “materialised spirit” and spirit only “subtle matter,” all being part of one consciousness manifesting itself “multi-dimensionally,” as it were without boundaries. One could say that for us the experience of these dimensions is like reading a ruler centimetre by centimetre in order to eventually discover that they are all part of the selfsameness of a single, vast, universal consciousness called “I Am.”
However, this idea was understood in a variety of ways by humans early in their long journey towards “civilisation.” Many felt that just as a heavy load, perhaps a sack filled with stones, could be transferred from one person to another, so could illness and sin be interchanged. The viewpoint here is that there are spirit intelligences everywhere. All things, i.e. trees, rivers, stones, air, planets, etc., are alive and filled with power. In fact, this belief is not so primitive as might be supposed by its would-be modern detractors. Even in Kabbalah we talk of Ruchaniyut in the stars or in anything really [Idel, M.: Hasidism: Between Ecstacy and Magic, SUNY Press, Albany 1995; Shulman, D.D. & Stroumsa, G.G.: Self and Self-transformation in the History of Religions, Oxford University Press, New York 2002], and that the smallest manifestation has an angel attached to it. In fact, we claim that even our thoughts and deeds are constantly creating “spirits” within the “fiery river of life” which is streaming into manifestation out of the “Being” of the Eternal Living Spirit.
Though this is a wonderful realisation, and one should think that it would lead to a greater respect for life around us, one has to sadly admit that our actions down the ages prove humanity to mainly comprise selfish opportunists, rarely ready to take personal responsibility for their deeds. If the opportunity presents itself, responsibility will be shifted to make the victim in fact the guilty party in the first instance. This behaviour does not only belong in the arena of modern-day, trigger happy politicians or that of global economics, but reaches way back to prehistoric man, who believed magical activity would grant him the power to control “Spirit Intelligences,” the power over life and death, and to achieve miracles. For example, through magical means involving all kinds of curious rituals, a bad spirit could be banished and directed off course into anywhere else. In this manner an infirm person could be liberated from the evil grip of baneful forces. If this did not work, propitiatory actions might do the trick, amongst which were ways of exchanging ill fortune with a surrogate, i.e. a stone, tree, animal, or even an unwilling victim. Of course, we might think this to be wrong, inconsiderate and rather deplorable, but our opinions will certainly not help much in societies around the world, where people always go for the chance of getting themselves “off the hook” so to speak, and where most of the populace are still thinking only of themselves as “people” and the rest of existence as the “consumables.”
Be that as it may, what we need to understand is that the magical transference of misfortune to both animate and/or inanimate objects, is not only a possibility but a reality generally enacted by many spiritual traditions around the globe. What is more, this often involves fowls, especially chickens. Why? It is traditionally believed that evil spirits are scared of light, and roosters frighten away these baneful entities with their early morning crowing which heralds the rising light. Thus the act of sacrificing roosters and hens was understood to not only placate baneful spirits, but to actually scare them off. This viewpoint was in fact very prominent in ancient Persia, which incorporated Babylonia where the majority of Jews had been living in exile for many centuries, and where the previously mentioned ritual of the Kaparot started. The Persians maintained that the creation of the rooster was for the express purpose of banishing demonic entities [Oliver, P.: Shelter, Sign and Symbol, Overlook Press, Woodstock 1977.].
By the way, the big, red comb of the rooster was another motive for accrediting this creature with a magical nature [Dennis, G.W.: The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism, Llewellyn Publications, Woodbury 2007.]. The colour red was then believed to keep evil at bay [Morgernstern, J.: The Rites of Birth, Marriage, Death and Kindred Occasions among the Semites, Hebrew Union College Press, Cincinatti 1966.], an echo of which can be found in the “red string” idea. Another point we should also note is that in Jewish folklore the devil has the legs and feet of a rooster. We might also remember that in Gnostic thinking the rooster was equated with the god Abraxas [Hoeller, S.A.: Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing, Quest Books, Wheaton 2002; Hoeller, S.A.: The Gnostic Jung and The Seven Sermons to the Dead, Quest Books, Wheaton 1982.].
There is so much information on the “divinisation” and “demonising” of the rooster in the folklore and spiritual traditions of the world, that it would make a most interesting and illuminating research for anyone interested in pursuing the subject.
It was inevitable that a rooster, having so much magical power, should have some of it transferred to the hen, and eventually both would be roped into the sacrificial custom of the transference of sins. What is more, while offering them in lieu of the human, they would at the same time chase the evil forces vying for the sinful soul, and thus was born the Kaparot ritual, even though the ultra-orthodox would have us believe that the rooster was chosen because the Hebrew word Gever means both a “man” and a “cock,” indicating that those who originated the ritual understood this to mean that a rooster could be substituted for a man. In this case this explanation came after the fact [Shkalim, E.: A Mosaic of Israel’s Traditions: Unity through Diversity, edited by Schiowitz, D. and Horwitz, F., Devora Publishing Company, Jerusalem & New York 2006]. There is simply no doubt that this is definitely a heathen custom which ended up in Jewish garb, as did many others.
Probably the main reason for it still being performed in our day, is because Yom Kippur initially did involve sacrifice. Sheep and other “kosher” animals were originally sacrificed in the Temple in Jerusalem as a repentance for the sins of the community. As you probably know, none of the animal species which were sacrificed in the original Temple were allowed to follow the same destiny after the destruction of the Temple in 70 c.e. when prayers replaced animal sacrifices.
Despite the fact that the Kaparot rituals persist within ultra-orthodox communities, this custom is not practised amongst the Sefardim, Holland being a case in point, and many Ashkenazi Jews elsewhere want nothing to do with it. Over the years many have discarded the practice, claiming that there is no history of substitutiary sacrifices in Judaism. These communities offer money instead of blood sacrifice, often placing these in bags or handkerchiefs, usually in values of 18 since this is the gematria of Chai, the Hebrew for “life” [Goodman, P.: The Yom Kippur Anthology, Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia 1971]. As in the case of chickens in the Kaparot ritual, the money is also waved around the head and afterwards given to the poor, usually for them to buy the foodstuffs they require for the sacred holidays.
Now, beside the Kaparot rituals, there are other expiatory customs associated with Yom Kippur, like for example the custom on Erev Yom Kippur (Eve of the Day of Atonement) of asking someone, such as the Gabbai (warden of the synagogue) or the Rabbi, for a portion of Lekach (honey cake). This is considered an exchange for the charity which an individual might have to request during the forthcoming year, as well as a wish that the new year be good and sweet. The custom is meant to cause us to pause and think of those who are in less fortunate positions, and to make us thankful for being the “givers” rather than the “receivers.” A thoughtful life is a thankful life. One can easily combine activity and contemplation, which is definitely one of the highest ideals in Kabbalism, leading to Communion with Eternal Nil. As mentioned in my "Book of Self Creation," the first volume of the "Shadow Tree Series," “the words 'think' and 'thank' derive from the same root meaning “to know,” thus, in terms of our Tradition, the person who really knows, should think and thank all the time” [Swart, J.G.: The Book of Self Creation, The Sangreal Sodality Press, Johannesburg 2009].
Now, another atonement ritual performed by all branches of Jewry during the High Holy Days, which is much more common than the Kaparot ritual, is Tashlich (literally to “cast away”). This is one of my favourite rituals, which is traditionally enacted on the first day of Rosh Hashanah (New Year), when the Rabbi escorts his congregants into nature, to a river or a running stream. Here prayers are uttered in the fresh air, while individuals symbolically divest themselves of past transgressions and detriments, as they pray for a life of blessing and peace in the forthcoming year. Pockets are turned inside-out and crumbs or pieces of bread thrown into the water, as a symbol that we are ridding ourselves, by word and deed, of past sins which may still adhere to us. The bread signifying the sins is cast upon the waters [Chill, A.: The Minhagim: The Customs and Ceremonies of Judaism: Their Origins and Rationale, Sepher-Hermon Press, New York 1979; Crompton, M.: Children, Spirituality, Religion and Social Work, Aldershot, Hants 1998].
The idea of the waters carrying away ones sins is not unusual at all, as the Christian baptism or water lustration clearly indicates. In a similar manner Hindus believe the Ganges washes away the sins of the bathers and carries them out to sea. In Britain folk used to “cast their sins” on the Severn tidal bore, which happened every seven years. The river god Nordens, Gwyn son of Nudd in ancient British, was said to ride this tidal bore [Mabinogian, trans. J. Gautz. Penguin Books Ltd., London 1976]. Although there is no reference in either the Bible or the Talmud to the ritual of Tashlich, which originated way back in antiquity, it is based on the scriptural injunction in Michah 7:19 which reads “And Thou shalt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.”
Now to end this deliberation on some Jewish expiatory rituals, I should point out that though there are no Kabbalistic origins to the custom of the Kaparot, Kabbalists like Isaiah Horowitz and Isaac Luria sanctioned the practice by finding all kinds of hidden meanings in the ritual formulas, but this does not mean that all Kabbalists agreed with these “special insights,” as noticed previously from Rabbi Joseph Karo’s objection to this reprehensible practice.

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