Some say that Madonna has abandoned Kabbalah. That may mean that she no longer wears her red bendel. Does it mean she no longer wants to be called Esther? What does all this really mean to us?
In an article in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion (2005 73(2):361-393): "Imagining Power: Magic, Miracle, and the Social Context of Rabbinic Self-Representation", Kimberly Stratton of Carleton University, Ottawa makes some ambitious claims:
In western discourse "magic" carries various negative connotations that stem from its use in ancient polemic and are reinforced by post-enlightenment biases against so-called primitive religious practices or superstitions. For this reason some scholars recommend dispensing with the term altogether (Janowitz: 18). Others see it as a potentially useful heuristic device if applied critically, noting the possibility that magic can be considered a source of power or prestige in certain societies (J. Z. Smith: 17). This article examines the ambivalent attitude toward magic in rabbinic discourse and argues that diverging portraits of it in rabbinic literature reflect different attitudes toward ritual power in Palestine and Babylonia. In other words, rabbinic writings indicate that magic could carry positive as well as negative connotations in certain parts of the ancient world and demonstrate the need to conceive of "magic" more broadly as a discourse of power- situating discussions of it in particular social contexts. Furthermore, this article seeks to illuminate the relationship between attitudes toward magic and social structure by delineating the evolving role of magic in rabbinic ideology and self-representation.Modern rabbis are still struggling with magic, with Madonna and with the "red bendel". Here is a March 2005 posting on the subjects at Mesora:
Judaism.com supports the notion that the Red String has been infused with mystical, Kabbalistic powers at the tomb of Rachel, promising the protection of the Evil Eye. Judaism.com wants to reclaim this Red String as Jewish tradition, when if fact they admit they are ignorant of its source. It is actually heathen and idolatrous. Judaism.com also displays a video claiming the Red String becomes blessed with special authentic and proven qualities; to remove pain, defend against the Evil Eye, to bless children, and to afford easier pregnancies. Mesora intends to reveal each of these views as falsehood, and contrary to true Torah ideals.This contemporary posting does not fit Stratton's interpretive model. I don't see how it is a "discourse of power" or in any way "ambivalent".
Speaking of magic and power, I found myself quoted in an essay on "Intercessionary Prayer, Healing and Jewish Shamanism" by Rosie Rosenzweig. She chose to illustrate her context with this passage from my Studies in Jewish Prayer (p. 17):
A primary issue at the outset of the Yavnean age was, in a word, local survival. The rabbinic leadership struggled to assert some authority against the forces of foreign political domination. Rabbinic Jews, like many other subservient subordinate populations, were essentially powerless and accordingly indigent. Day after day, the people had to struggle against the elemental forces of nature for rudimentary sustenance.Nice thoughts -- you need to read the whole book.
The rabbis turned their attention where they could. They espoused the view that through their knowledge and religious virtuosity, the Jew could help fend off the powers of nature, protect persons from the harm of the elements and of the unknown, of sickness, and of the dangers that lurked throughout the world inside the village.
The rabbis in the age of Yavneh afforded the Jews means to control the immediate vicissitudes of nature. Through their teachings and practices,through the rabbinic Torah, and mainly through prayer, the masters of this time postulated that they could for instance bring rain, or stop the rain. They could avert the dangers of the natural world or the likelihood of attack by bandits or other potential human enemies. They offered the people a way to cure their diseases, or at least to foretell the outcome of sicknesses. In the Yavnean period after the fall of the Temple, the rabbi who employed prayer and engaged in the study of Torah evolved by the necessity of the context in which he thrived into the local holy man par excellence of Judaic life.
[repost from 8/07]