A Lesser Key
October 17, 2022 5:23 AM   Subscribe

FYMA: A Lesser Key to the Appropriation of Jewish Magic and Mysticism (PDF/text zine; name-your-price download) is an essay by Ezra Rose (a nonbinary queer artist, educator, Jewish mystic and recovering “Western esoteric” occultist) looking at the provenance of Jewish/Hebrew elements in the western occult and esoteric movements, and how many of those are the legacies of appropriation during periods of intense antisemitic persecution. The essay covers the (more Christian than Jewish) idea of Solomonic demonology, the path from Jewish Kabbalah to Christian Cabala and the Qabala of the hermetic underground, attempts to ahistorically equate Kabbalistic elements with Tarot and exoticised oriental mysticism, and the use of Hebrew inscriptions in scary/evil occult symbolism in fiction, and how this is rooted in the genocidal antisemitism of medieval Europe, which, in the wake of Qanon-adjacent conspiracy theories and rehashings of ancient antisemitic tropes, is far from consigned to history.

Rose sums up: “Kabbalah, a core and inseparable mystic element of Judaism, has been repeatedly appropriated and altered over hundreds of years, most often by people who participated in or directly benefited from the oppression of Jews. I believe the transformation of Jewish Kabbalah into both Christian Cabala and Hermetic Qabalah constitutes “sacrilege” under the Kluge-Ruhe Collection’s definition of cultural appropriation (when the meaning of sacred cultural elements is disregarded)”
posted by acb (33 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
See also white shamanism and 'plastic medicine men.'
posted by snuffleupagus at 6:03 AM on October 17, 2022 [2 favorites]

I'm no expert, but I've always thought that the paucity in the Christian Bible of information about angels and demons ought to be a signal about something or other to Christians who spend a lot of time thinking about angels and demons. I've long suspected that most of that stuff came via medieval Judaism.
posted by Aardvark Cheeselog at 7:04 AM on October 17, 2022 [1 favorite]

LOL at the hamsa on the cover
posted by latkes at 7:09 AM on October 17, 2022 [4 favorites]

I'm a secular Jew. I'm also friends with the author of this book. And I'm struggling with so many other, much more pressing, problems that I find it very hard to take on Mx. Rose's burden as my own at this time.
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:20 AM on October 17, 2022 [4 favorites]

Could you extend that disinterest to not promoting your friends thing that is literally what is criticized in TFA?

Or you’re going to deploy your identity to argue for the acceptability of these things, actually do so.
posted by snuffleupagus at 7:43 AM on October 17, 2022 [13 favorites]

I'm a secular Jew with a passing interest in Kabbalah, and I do find Mx. Rose's take on this interesting, because I like when people have passionate, considered takes about things they've thought about more than I have. Also I miss zines.
posted by Tom Hanks Cannot Be Trusted at 7:59 AM on October 17, 2022 [1 favorite]

I'm no expert, but I've always thought that the paucity in the Christian Bible of information about angels and demons

Well, that's been the problem from day one. Christians think the Tanakh is theirs and the Jews an embarrassing oversight that will surely be rectified with enough proselytization and/or persecution.
posted by star gentle uterus at 8:38 AM on October 17, 2022 [5 favorites]

I thought some of the angels and demons came from syncretism with Zoroastrianism?
posted by Schmucko at 8:38 AM on October 17, 2022 [1 favorite]

I'm a secular Jew. I'm also friends with the author of this book.
I would highly recommend that you take a look at Svara if you haven't. It's a queer (large portion trans) focused Talmud and other texts study community. I found them a great way to learn about Talmud during COVID isolation; they're still holding daily study... And many of them are also secular. They do a good job of really questioning religious assumptions and conventions, but they still do it from a Jewish perspective.
posted by Flight Hardware, do not touch at 8:44 AM on October 17, 2022 [7 favorites]

Or you’re going to deploy your identity
Queer people don't deploy identities. We simply have them, all the time. Let's keep the discussion compassionate and accepting, okay? This community embodies that.
posted by Flight Hardware, do not touch at 8:51 AM on October 17, 2022 [11 favorites]

Queer people don't deploy identities. We simply have them, all the time.

My read of the comment was that they were referring to Faint of Butt's "deployment" of their identity as a secular Jew to be dismissive of the article, Not anyone's identity as queer.
posted by Dr. Twist at 9:51 AM on October 17, 2022 [8 favorites]

Wasn't it Aleister Crowley who once complained that all too much of Victorian occultism consisted of swearing you to blood-curdling oaths, taking you into a dark room and teaching you the Hebrew alphabet?

Not that he was much better.
posted by tspae at 9:59 AM on October 17, 2022 [8 favorites]

I'm not a secular Jew, but I don't believe in God. I was raised Conservadox, and my parents were just here in the Midatlantic visiting our family during Yom Kippur and the beginning of Sukkot from the West Coast. I'm really into ritual (chose to go to the mikvah before by wedding, etc) and we built our first sukkah for our family now that we have the space (with the handyman help of my Dad, and now we have our own kit!). We even started a family tradition of buying a lulav and etrog (and we got plushie versions) and had mad friends/fam over every night.
The long point of that was that lulav and etrog IS SO WEIRD. And I kept talking about how if Judaism wasn't so institutionalized in the US and tied to Christian stuff, I think Jewish teens who seek Buddhism (WHICH IS FINE!) would find and love the weird mystical tribal stuff in Judaism. Because, wait, take your palm, mrytle, and willow, and citron and then flip, and shake them in a bunch of directions? Thats..... super weird (and fun!).
posted by atomicstone at 10:10 AM on October 17, 2022 [11 favorites]

Alrighty—I read through the zine! I found it very well-structured and interesting, though it focuses specifically on Cabala/Qabala in the negative: it is not an articulation of Kabbalah itself, it's a history of its Christian and occultist/New Age derivatives, accompanied by an argument that these derivatives are not only appropriate but sacrilegious (in the sense that they're actively destructive to Jewish tradition).

This is all rooted in the author's explanation, which opens the zine, of why they care about this to begin with: namely, they were alienated from Judaism as they were raised with it, were drawn to Wicca as a more accessible outlet for magic as they experienced it (and as a more effective way to discover and articulate their sense of self), but, over time, realized how much of what they'd discovered through Wicca was an appropriated and fetishized flavor of a Jewish practice, and one that actively incorporated a heaping portion of anti-Semitism in the process.

As a man who was raised Jewish but who felt a similar disconnect from it as a child—and whose recent interest in Kabbalah has been for somewhat similar reasons to Rose's—I identified with the story they told at first. I'm not an active practitioner in anything that I'd call "magic," but the idea of mystic experience has been extremely important to me; furthermore, I've known (and been friends with, and even dated) Wiccans whose practices "overlapped" with Kabbalah on some level, and have dealt with the discomfort of people who claims that their understanding of Judaism is "truer" than mine, even though I am Jewish and they are not. This feels like a good articulation of exactly how problematic the divorcing of Kabbalah from Judaism is: less a mind-blowing proposition than a well-documented scaffolding that organizes and clarifies the issues at play.

The most interesting thing I took from this was how the original appropriation of Kabbalah came from Christians who thought that the Tree of Life was similar enough, conceptually, to the Holy Trinity that it could be used to argue Jews away from being Jewish. Essentially, using Kabbalah to construct "proofs" that Christianity was indeed the evolution of Judaism, and that to deny that was essentially demonic in nature. From there came various less-directly-Christian appropriations that nonetheless "exoticized" their inventions by borrowing things that seemed vaguely Jewish or Hebrew-y, often in ways that were themselves anti-Semitic.

One of the major ideas, basically, is that magic appeals because of its "other"-ness, whether that has to do with mysticism ("that which can't be directly stated") or esotericism ("that which can be stated but is forbidden or secret"). Kabbalah serves as a convenient grab-bag for that, and has done so going back to early days of Christianity; because so many interpretations of Kabbalah are themselves anti-Semitic, the appropriations tend to both steal shallow fetishized versions of actual Kabbalah along with "versions" that are themselves anti-Semitic interpretations or inventions. People for whom mystique and mystery provide some sense of spiritual connection thus find these garbled and sacrilegious versions compelling despite a lack of deeper meaning; Rose argues both that Kabbalah itself does hold a deeper significance and that it definitionally can't be practiced by people who aren't Jewish (because its practice requires a sincere faith in Judaism to begin with).

Rose also maintains a tiny website dedicated to materials about genuine Kabbalah, though I don't find the websites they link to particularly compelling; they recommend books too, but obviously that's info that takes a bit more work to acquire and process. So a good starting-off point for Jewish people looking to learn more, rather than a general-purpose explainer, which is fine.

Overall, I'm glad I took the time to read this! Thanks for the link, acb!
posted by Tom Hanks Cannot Be Trusted at 10:13 AM on October 17, 2022 [15 favorites]

And Faint of Butt, while your friend seems like a lovely and enthusiastic practitioner of Wicca, I read the introduction to their book, which contains the following passage:
If I, a non-Jew, were to tell you that I know a better way to approach the Jewish devotional practice of Kabbalah, that would be cultural appropriation. I'm not going to do that. In this book, I will be staying in my lane as a Hermetic Qabalist and only mentioning Jewish Kabbalah where it's relevant to discuss the historical roots of Hermetic Qabala.
The entire point of the linked zine is that there is no Hermetic Qabala separate from anti-semitic appropriation. It flat-out does not exist. There is no "separate Qabalistic tradition," because Kabbalah is fundamentally and definitionally a Jewish practice.

My earlier tongue-in-cheek quip, it feels extremely tone-deaf to shit on Ezra Rose for caring about anti-semitism while promoting a book that fits Rose's definition of anti-semitic content. While the idea of queer explorations of Kabbalah are very interesting to me, Rose's entire point was that they found non-Kabbalah Judaism restrictive to their identity and sense of self, used Wicca as a means of self-discovery, and later on were upset to learn that the faith they were raised in contained a powerful system of practice that was in-line with their rejections of the gender and sexual binaries. (And the idea that anti-semitism can be perpetuated in the name of queer liberation is part and parcel with the fundamental idea of intersectionality, in the same way that Judaism can be used to assert and justify homophobic and transphobic beliefs.)
posted by Tom Hanks Cannot Be Trusted at 10:24 AM on October 17, 2022 [19 favorites]

Because, wait, take your palm, mrytle, and willow, and citron and then flip, and shake them in a bunch of directions? Thats..... super weird (and fun!).
Sukkot is my favorite holiday - strictly speaking Hoshanna Rabbah, where we beat willow branches to get rid of sin .
It's outdoor, uses natural materials... I've no doubt that it's partially cultural appropriation of its own from some ancient pre-Torah stuff. And I love it.
This year, I decided to find native plants to use... Stole a couple of willow twigs from a bank lawn, found a myrtle -like set of three branches, used an oak branch in place of palm, and a black walnut with a stem instead of an etrog.
Felt great. And just a little pagan.
I love that kind of subversion of traditional Judaism. I've got several study sheets in Sefaria on such subjects from a queer perspective. Good way to reclaim my faith as my own.
posted by Flight Hardware, do not touch at 10:47 AM on October 17, 2022 [2 favorites]

And then we make etrog-cello (also, etrog ice cream is an option!) out of the etrog!
posted by atomicstone at 11:21 AM on October 17, 2022 [2 favorites]

I'm kind of surprised you can eat an etrog! As a child I was always told they were basically inedible.

Also swearing you to blood-curdling oaths, taking you into a dark room and teaching you the Hebrew alphabet is the best euphemism for hooking up I have ever heard
posted by phooky at 12:10 PM on October 17, 2022 [3 favorites]

You just use the zest, but it's much more floral then a lemon. Like buddda's hand, which I actually think IS a citron with only pith inside?
posted by atomicstone at 12:18 PM on October 17, 2022 [1 favorite]

(I've had buddha's-hand citron with pulp and even seeds, but there wasn't much.)
posted by clew at 12:32 PM on October 17, 2022

Wow, clew, I didn't know they ever came with stuff inside. They also make a delish lemoncello.
posted by atomicstone at 1:55 PM on October 17, 2022

Anyone who liked this is also going to love Erica Lagalisse’s Occult Features of Anarchism, which is a compellingly detailed look at these odd ideas also emerging historically as other things (like politics), and which I love recommending people to read.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 2:00 PM on October 17, 2022 [4 favorites]

"Hermetic Qabalah" is at least 600 years old. While I appreciate the cultural appropriation argument, how old or widespread does a derivative spiritual practice have to be before it can be considered its own, separate thing? I mean, it's almost one-third of the age of Christianity, which could also be considered a spiritual practice of anti-semitic appropriation.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 2:14 PM on October 17, 2022 [6 favorites]

Speaking only for myself, my reaction was "do I have to care about this?"

And then it occurred to me that the mere fact of occult systems not converging towards each other suggests that there's very little there.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 2:23 PM on October 17, 2022 [2 favorites]

I would argue that the thread about anti-semitic appropriation isn't the best thread to discuss whether or not Judaism holds any meaningful truths at its center, but you do you!

A major part of the zine in question, which can in fact be downloaded and read, is a historic examination of the origins of Hermetic Qabala, covers many of its major origin points, and talks about the specific ways in which they not only stole or invented a bunch of Hebrew words and Kabbalist illustrations or concepts but also did so in a way that leaned into the anti-semitic notion that Jewish people are inherently occult, work dark magic, and so on. A lot of its major concepts are taken directly from Kabbalah, and noticeably so—I mean, it's not like Kabbalah gets a new edition every ten years—but divorced from the original context. It often additionally makes the claim that Kabbalah predates Judaism and that Jewish Kabbalists merely "drew from the same source" as Qabalists did, which has got some issues.

Cultural appropriation is a complex and fraught subject, which is why the zine also talks about that at length! I think that where you draw the cut-off line for "is it okay to take a bunch of ideas from Judaism, divorce them from their original contexts, mix them with some real weird ideas about the Jewish people, and then hope that time dilutes the bad bits down?" comes down to whether you think Jewish culture is worth respecting, and whether you think Judaism itself still suffers from serious oppression. The zine answers that by documenting just how much of QAnon and Pizzagate draws directly from some of the most classic anti-semitic wells, many of which were derived from the original misinterpretations of Kabbalah that prompted Christians to simultaneously crib from it while persecuting Jews for working their evil magics. This article by Talia Levin is cited, for example:
Digging through QAnon books on Amazon, of which there are an enormous quantity, I found a book called Q Anon and the Dark Agenda: The Illuminati Protocols Exposed. There was a 35-book series entitled Pedophilia & Empire: Satan, Sodomy and the Deep State, one volume of which expounded with total credence on the Jewish blood libel accusations, with chapter subheadings like “Talmudic Heresy Traditions Converge With Freemasonry to Deliver Luciferian Bloodlust of Pedophile Sex Rings.” The book also puts forward the belief that both “intelligent alien beings” and “demonic supernatural forces … thrive on the blood of defenseless children."
People have been shooting up synagogues over this shit. Actual Jewish people are getting murdered in cold blood over it. And a part of it is that attitudes towards Judaism as a faith are, well, appropriative and highly bigoted. Christians love trying to use "facts and logic" to prove that Judaism is the perverted wrong faith that wanted to be Christianity all along; Kabbalah is seen as basically free property for anyone else to mistranslate and exoticize. The notion that there can be a hermetic or occultist or Wiccan "branch" of Kabbalah divorced from Judaism presumes that the concepts of Kabbalah can themselves be removed from their original context.

That's not to say that every single practitioner of Qabala is a deep-seated anti-semite. They're probably mostly lovely and well-meaning! I tend to be quite fond of occultists. But the conclusion Rose comes to in their zine—which is available to read for the price of "free," though it felt worth my $5—is that practitioners should, at the very least, be asking themselves about the roots of their practice, and seriously questioning whether or not it is in fact possible to divorce a non-Jewish Qabala practice from the anti-semitism at those roots.

(The last two pages of the zine consists of a series of questions that such practitioners might ask themselves; I thought they were good and very thoughtful, but it feels excessive to quote them all at length.)
posted by Tom Hanks Cannot Be Trusted at 2:53 PM on October 17, 2022 [21 favorites]

For context, I'm not nearly as dedicated to Kabbalah as Ezra Rose is, I typically am not all that strongly opinionated about Judaism in general, and their conclusion that non-Jews should not practice Kabbalah is one I can empathize with but don't feel like I'm actually qualified to agree or disagree with. I read this (and have jumped into the thread over it) because it's an interesting and thoughtful read, and imo is worth reading. Dismissing it or arguing with it or casting scorn upon Kabbalah itself without actually reading the zine feels kind of pointless to me, especially because the zine was itself very thoughtful in anticipating and addressing pretty much all the criticisms that folks are making here, so I promise I don't mean to threadsit. I just personally would like people to read this because I'd enjoy an actual conversation about it.
posted by Tom Hanks Cannot Be Trusted at 2:59 PM on October 17, 2022 [7 favorites]

IS "Hermetic Qabalah" 600 years old? I'm seeing a lot of [citation needed] on the wikipedia page, and this diagram places it as something much newer.
posted by needs more cowbell at 3:14 PM on October 17, 2022 [2 favorites]

There's definitely a lot of discussion about the origin of it, and the Hermetics make some dubious claims that it was actually Greek or something before it was part of Judaism, which is almost certainly bullshit, but Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, who is also on your diagram, definitely did live in the 15th century. I see your diagram labels him as "Christian Kabbalah", but a lot of the origin of "Hermetic Kabbalah" comes from there.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 3:23 PM on October 17, 2022 [3 favorites]

Thanks for the read, acb. I don't know zines well, have really only read a couple, but I thought Rose's work was intriguing, and that the zine itself was formally clever.

It's hard for me to process much of the content here, in the same way that I have a difficult time with the vast majority of literature about religious appropriation. Typically it seems to come from people who are at best agnostic, at worst fighty atheists. Those are valid starting points for consideration of religion, but the idea that it's a purely cultural phenomenon, and/or the Marxist take, seems to me to blithely, callously ignore the metaphysics of it all. Which, to Rose's credit, they don't do! I thought their discussion of where their belief has come to rest on p. 5 was illuminating.

(Apparently I need to read more about religious appropriation. Which is a pretty good takeaway from a post, I think!)

That said, yes, there's so much bullshit occult genealogy out there, and Rose's discussion was a fascinating look at antisemitic roots that I had not previously encountered. It's a shame they've encountered pushback in these spaces, but I can't say I am surprised. Asking people to consider whether their spiritual practices are inherently problematic is a big ask, as it usually seems to come coupled with a "you should consider believing something else" (leaving aside belief-vs.-practice). That said, I do think this zine seems to do a very good job of talking about harm-reduction practices, and ways to strip out antisemitic elements.
posted by cupcakeninja at 5:21 PM on October 17, 2022 [3 favorites]

There's definitely a lot of discussion about the origin of it, and the Hermetics make some dubious claims that it was actually Greek or something before it was part of Judaism, which is almost certainly bullshit,

As far as I can tell, being no expert, a lot of the ideas of the mysticism that underlines Kabbalah is straight-up Neoplatonism. Which doesn't make it cultural appropriation on the part of the Jews, since Hellenistic culture was exported just about as hard as possible, and, besides, Plotinus cribbed a lot of his ideas from people in West Asia (and maybe as far east as India). Mysticism and magic in general tend to be really syncratic and grab ideas from other systems like velcro. However...

Modern magickal thinking more or less got its start with Éliphas Lévi, a failed Catholic priest who synthesized a lot of core ideas out of disparate hermetic ideas floating around mid-19th C France. This included Jewsish ideas that he seems to have incorporated in an Orientalist way without any kind of understanding of the religious structure (His name is a "transliteration" of his birth name using Hebrew letters.

While I have no reason to believe that Lévi was particularly antisemitic (although France in the 19th and early 20th C was might antisemitic), many of the groups that followed him definitely were, tending to have a foundation of ultra-Right Catholic Nationalism in their DNA. Not surprisingly, most of the strains of European fascist thought incubated in the esoteric stew of very late 19th and early 20th C Paris, and tthe occult ideas spread throughout Europe, where it mostly found fertile ground in the antisemitism of the various European countries.

So, while the origins of Jewish mysticism are a little murky, the Kabbalah has a pretty clear history of being a specifically Jewish practice, and grafting practices onto different faith traditions as if they were Lego bricks rarely goes well. And it takes a very dedicated and perceptive Western occultist to rid themselves and their practice of the antisemitism which is its birthright.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:16 PM on October 18, 2022 [1 favorite]

grafting practices onto different faith traditions as if they were Lego bricks rarely goes well.
Just going to point out that if I learned one thing from my thorough read through of the Jewish Publication Society's translation of the Five Books of Moses (probably the most definitive Conservative Jewish work on the subject), it's that that's literally what Genesis is (of early mesopotamian faiths). As one quick example, there were a heck of a lot of flood saviors, Noah being just one example. That said, I do get your point, and it's well made. I just try to be cautious in assuming that Judaism is pure stuff.
posted by Flight Hardware, do not touch at 11:48 AM on October 19, 2022 [2 favorites]

White appropriation of NAI spirituality is at least a couple hundred years old at this point (and came on alongside a very commercial turn in marketing various other syncretisms to freewheeling occult "seekers" via then-recent print media); will Sun Bear, Carlos Castaneda and The Celestine Prophecy gain presumptive sepia-toned authenticity in two hundred more? (or, Jews for Jesus?)

Non Jews should perhaps pause to consider that millenarian ecstatic sects like Chabad and etc. are late arrivals and not entirely non-controversial in the eyes of many other Jews; and that the divide between "secular" and other Jews is highly operationalized by antisemitism — including in the social media response to the current Kanye brouhaha (I can't believe I'm typing these words but it's 2022).

I don't want to suggest I'm overly personally offended, but there really is a whole lot bound up in all this, including with regard to things happening right now–and to respond to it with a shitpost linking to someone selling the objected to thing twigged me.

Also—kindly don't misuse the first person plural "we" to tell me what my own words mean. That is the bad faith maneuver 'We Don't Do Here.'

When one identifies as "queer" and a "secular jew" to authorize the posting of a link to a personal friend's product sale link that spits in the face of the TFA while also proclaiming disinterest in it, the "deployment" of those social identities is plain; and the unstated claim is that the particular intersectionality asserted conveys some authority that surpasses everyone else's concerns, presumptively. I disagree that it should. I don't think those are the norms here.
posted by snuffleupagus at 12:57 PM on October 19, 2022 [4 favorites]

Also—kindly don't misuse the first person plural "we" to tell me what my own words mean.
Okay, you're right. I'll correct what I said: your statement that a queer identity can be 'deployed' is transphobic and cruel. I hope that clarifies.
posted by Flight Hardware, do not touch at 9:59 AM on October 25, 2022

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