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The Medieval Rabbis Who Thought They Could Understand God’s Will from Nature—and from Stories of Werewolves

March 14 2018

The Ḥasidey Ashkenaz were a relatively small group of 12th-century German Jews who cultivated distinctive mystical and ascetic practices and teachings; their theological and halakhic works had a lasting impact on European Jewish thought and observance. In A Remembrance of His Wonders, David Shyovitz examines these works’ attitudes toward nature and the natural world, and toward such legendary monsters as werewolves. Dana Fishkin writes in her review:

Shyovitz posits that German Jewish pietists assigned significant value to the created order as a source of theological truths. At the core of [his analysis] is Psalms 111:4, the eponymous verse “He has made a remembrance of his wonders,” which prompted pietists to identify “remembrances” in the natural world and to link them with God’s “wonders” in order to answer theological challenges. Through this unprecedented exegetical approach, pietistic authors gained insight into the enigmatic divine by way of parallels drawn from natural processes. Shyovitz argues against common scholarly views that medieval Jews of Ashkenaz were “at best apathetic and at worst overtly hostile toward exploration of their natural surroundings” by establishing that the German pietists believed enough in the consistency and stability of the natural order to draw theological meaning from all aspects of the universe—even the unpleasant ones like excretion.

To contextualize the worldview of Ḥasidey Ashkenaz, Shyovitz examines pietistic beliefs in comparison with other Jewish ideologies—rationalism and mysticism—as well with [the parallel] Christian interest in mirabilia, [or natural wonders]. During the cultural and intellectual renaissance of the 12th century, Christian concepts of nature were themselves evolving away from Augustinian notions that the wonders of nature are meant to inspire spirituality but were not to be examined or explained in themselves. Shyovitz pinpoints this same impulse in the writings on magnetism of Jewish thinkers in Spain, demonstrating that both German Jews and Christians were simultaneously deviating from the same ideological stance. . . .

Rescuing the werewolves, vampires, and other demons from the underworld of “folk culture and superstition,” Shyovitz [also] shows how pietistic interest in the monstrous and physical transformations stemmed from the perception of the stable human body as a source of theological truths, alongside a belief that demonic forces were disembodied and unstable. . . . Shyovitz indicates that while Jewish fascination with monstrous creatures is evident in many midrashic and talmudic tales, medieval Jews rarely engaged with metamorphoses in the Bible. [Medieval] exegetes generally glossed over such biblical narratives, or interpreted them metaphorically, [but] pietist authors devoted much time and ink to transformations, especially the werewolf and its mutation from human being into animal.

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More about: Ḥasidei Ashkenaz, Judaism, Middle Ages, Nature, Religion & Holidays

Germany’s Bid to Keep Israel off the UN Security Council

March 21 2018

The Jewish state has never held a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council. For the first 50 years of its existence, it was denied membership in any of the UN’s regional groups, which control candidacies for these rotating seats. Then it was finally admitted to the Western European and Others Group, which promptly agreed to wait another twenty years before approving Jerusalem for a Security Council candidacy. Now, Benny Avni notes, Germany is poised to block action:

As a good-faith gesture, the Western European and Others Group promised Israel that it and Belgium would run uncontested for the two open 2019-20 [Security Council] seats. Then, in 2016, Germany announced it would also run—even though it already served as a council member [multiple times, including] as recently as 2011-12. . . . [U]nless Belgium yields, Israel’s hopes for UN respect seem doomed for now—and maybe for the foreseeable future.

Why? Diplomats have been telling me Israel violates too many Security Council resolutions to be a member—as in the one passed during the last weeks of Barack Obama’s presidency, which marked Jewish holy sites as occupied Palestinian territory. But is building a porch in [the West Bank town of] Ma’ale Adumim really such a huge threat to world peace?

How about, then, a report released last week by UN experts on the Security Council’s North Korea sanctions? It found Germany violated a council ban on sparkling wines, exporting $151,840 worth of bubbly and other luxury goods to Kim Jong Un’s cronies. Or how about, as the Jerusalem Post’s Benjamin Weinthal reports, German companies exporting to Iran banned materials that were later used in chemical attacks in Syria?

Never mind. Germany (and Belgium) will surely benefit from the UN’s habit of magnifying Israel’s violations beyond all proportion. Thus, Israel’s petition to join the most prestigious UN club will likely be rejected, thanks to a late entry by a shameless [and] cynical German power play against the Jewish state.

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Read more at New York Post

More about: Germany, Israel & Zionism, Israeli-German relations, United Nations