Monday, June 16, 2003

Deeper meaning of this blog's name

It has occurred to me that perhaps I should explain the deeper meaning of the name of this blog -- not only do I want to write about mysticism and politics, I also intend to write about the politics of mysticism and political mysticism. One of the phenomena I was thinking of was the use of amulets during Israeli elections. I've been in Israel several times during election campaigns (most recently this past January, 2003), and during one of the campaigns in past years I picked up an amulet that was being given out by the Shas party (the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi party). It urged the recipient to vote for the party and its leader, Aryeh Der'i (who subsequently had to leave politics because he was convicted of using his office as Minister of the Interior to enrich himself and various yeshivot [Jewish religious seminaries] that he was connected to; he served about three years in prison for these offenses). The amulet was a standard one for protection against evil forces, the evil eye, etc. -- the text obviously heir to the long tradition of Jewish amulets.

I was also living in Israel during the 1998-99 academic year (October-August), and there was an election then also -- if I recall correctly, when I was there the Labor Party, led by Ehud Barak, defeated Likud, led by Binyamin Netanyahu. Part of the electioneering of the Shas party during that election had to do with a supposed exorcism -- it was videotaped, the tape was subsequently played on national television and sold publicly. A woman was possessed by the spirit of her dead husband, and sought help from various quarters until she came to a rabbi affiliated with the Shas party -- he conducted an exorcism to rid the poor woman of her husband's spirit. The tape was used as part of the election campaign of the Shas party, I guess as a demonstration of their connection with heavenly forces.

Another way that I think of the intersection of mysticism and politics has to do with how contemporary politics in a broader sense affects the study of Jewish mysticism (indeed, of any subject in Jewish studies). In the academic world as a whole over the last thirty years there has been intensive attention devoted to issues of race, class, and gender and how one's own identity affects one's scholarship -- such as who it is that gets to do scholarship, who has access to college and advanced study, the topics one chooses to study, the methods one uses to approach those topics, etc. My current research has to do with women's involvement (or not) in early Jewish mysticism/ritual practices to gain power. The mere fact that I've chosen to address this topic is heavily influenced by the feminist movement of the last thirty years -- and the fact that others are interested in reading what I have to say also means that the field as a whole has been affected by feminism.

When I first started thinking about these questions, in the early 1990s, when I was writing the prospectus for my doctoral dissertation, one of the members of my committee did not even understand why the question of women's involvement had to be addressed -- his point of view was that there were no women in Jewish mysticism, so why bother about the question any further? In reply I attempted to say that I thought it worthwhile to consider why there were no women -- especially in comparison to the development of Christian mysticism, where there have been many significant women mystics. The rise of the feminist movement allowed me to raise this question as a valid question and attempt to answer it.

1 comment:

  1. Pardon me for popping into your archives, but a search for Jewish women mystics -- and my inability to find any evidence of such, as compared to other faith traditions -- has left me stunned.

    I'm in my first year of a Master of Liberal Arts program, and stumbled across this in the course of writing a paper on the medieval Book of hours.

    Was your professor accurate? While there may have been instances of "possession" among Jewish women, and magical practitioners in the Jewish tradition who were women, there's nothing about the mystical experience of the Divine by Jewish women?

    I'll scan through your blog for related info, but I have found zero, nada, zilch about Jewish women having had mystical experiences the way certain Beguine Catholic women did, for example. And "zero" is such a suspicious number when looking for data-points.

    If you'd like to take this off-blog, my email is lwitzel (at) austin (dot) rr (dot) com.

    Thanks in advance for any kind help or light shed.

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