Scholar-In-Residence- March 16-18, 2012
During the weekend of March 16th-18th, the Adult Education Committee had the honor and pleasure of hosting Dr. David Shyovitz, assistant professor of history at Northwestern University, as this year’s Sophie and Jack Edwards Scholar in Residence. His knowledge, command of his subject, his ability to engage and interact with the audience, as well as his warmth and enthusiasm, certainly earned him our admiration as an outstanding educator and drew the largest audience we’ve seen in recent years.
The theme for the weekend, “Judaism and the Occult, from the Middle Ages to Middle America,” fascinated us and challenged us to think from a medieval world view and find connections that make some of those findings relevant to today’s Jewish world.
On Friday night, he intrigued us with the magical powers medieval thinkers believed could be found in the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, which when combined, made artistic designs, created the heavens and earth and the genetic code. He also discussed the Golem, a “lump of clay,” with the Hebrew word emet (truth) on his forehead. The basic idea is that a lump of clay became a Golem, a Superman in ancient Prague that did not know its own strength. Golems became endowed with super powers, such as great intelligence. When fear was engendered, a golem could be turned back into a lump of clay by erasing the first letter of emet, the aleph; what remained was meth, meaning death, and the Golem died. He also made the point that the Torah is not in correct order. If it was, then man could do anything Adonoi can do, even create a person.
Saturday morning, David discussed Jewish concepts of Hell, in Hebrew Gehenna, also the name of a burning valley near Jerusalem used at one time for ritual sacrifice.
After citing many ancient references to “hell,” David related a story about the origins of saying Kaddish. Rabbi Akiba supposedly met a black man running and carrying a heavy crown of thorns (later discussed as reminiscent of Jesus Christ). Rabbi Akiba called on him to stop, but the man said not to delay him because the spirits overseeing him would punish him with whips of fire. He said he had been a tax collector who favored the rich, and killed the poor.
When Rabbi Akiba asked how to free him, the man said that he would be free if his son stood in front of a congregation and said “Let us bless God, who is to be blessed.” and the answer would come back, “May his great name be blessed”; the man would immediately be released.
There are three other references in Talmud which say that if a man says the magic phrase, he is released from Gehenna.
Then there is the belief that as Shabbat is ending, the Kaddish (praising Adonoi) is said to prolong Shabbat as the fires of Gehenna ceased on Shabbat.
David then commented that in the Christian world, the concept of Purgatory was starting to circulate. In Purgatory, one is purified so as to qualify for Heaven. The Jewish equivalent is temporary Gehenna. Christianity and Judaism influenced each other theologically.
On Saturday evening, the program focused on the possibility of proving the existence of God. David cited Martin Buber’s famous differentiation between believing in God, ie, trusting God (where there is a relationship) and believing that God exists (which is something to be proved). After discussing arguments dating back to the 11th century, including fascinating efforts of Maimonides, St. Anselm, and Pakuda, the conclusion was this: People believe in God because they want to believe; whether God’s existence can be scientifically proven is irrelevant.
Sunday morning’s session, The Lion, the Witch and the Werewolf: Midieval Jewish Monsters and their Meaning, responded to the question of whether Jews believe in monsters. Much of the discussion revolved around the werewolf who was endowed with characteristics of humans and wolves, and the idea that transformation between the two existed. Certain parts of the body do not change in man-wolf transformations: The eyes of both retain their essence, regardless of outside appearance, so the transformation is not complete or irreversible. It is important to remember that theological assumptions were made on observations; this was the best science they had, and they valued scientific inquiry.
The hey-day of exploring this question was the 1100’s, and not only Jews were exploring transformation. Christians were thinking along the same lines. For Christianity, changes were/are massively important. Jesus changed from God to man at birth, and presumably back to God after his crucifixion. Similarly, a wafer changes into the literal body of Christ, and wine changes into the literal blood of Christ. In the early centuries of Christianity, wars were fought over the question, is the above literally true (transubstantiation) or figurative (consubstantiation).
It is interesting to note that Jews and Christians were developing and interacting, sharing their ideas.
No pun intended, Dr. Shyovitz held us spellbound throughout this weekend of learning. He was extremely engaging and articulate, and left us with pages of material and much to think about, much more than could be summarized here. It was a delight to meet him and his lovely young family as well, wife Adina, daughter Aziza (nearly 5) and son Ari (two and a half).