The Occult Jew, pt. 2

The association of Jews with magic in the Western imagination dates back to the Middle Ages, and was very much bound up with anti-Jewish hostility and suspicion. Medieval and early modern Christians accused Jews of abducting, torturing, and using the blood of Christians, especially children, for their rituals (i.e., the blood libel); of stealing and desecrating Christian sacraments; of causing plague and disease by poisoning wells; and of being servants of the Devil. Sorcery is predictably included in this anti-Jewish lexicon.

Yet, because antipathy toward Jews was so pervasive in medieval Christian culture, it can be difficult to isolate the specific trope of the Jew as sorcerer from all the other calumnies directed at Christendom’s most reviled minority. Other groups besides Jews in the medieval and early modern periods were also linked with black magic, including lepers, heretics, priests, popes, and women and men accused of witchcraft.

Because antipathy toward Jews was so pervasive in medieval Christian culture, it can be difficult to isolate the specific trope of the Jew as sorcerer from all the other calumnies directed at Christendom’s most reviled minority.

Irrespective of what Christians thought about them, Jews, like other groups in the pre-modern world, held magical beliefs. Despite biblical constraints on the practice of magic, the use of amulets and magical charms was generally not considered by Jews to be a problem in and of itself, so long as its use did not flout the famously capacious structures of Jewish law. Yet neither the ancient Greeks nor the Romans after them saw Jews as particularly given to magic, even if Jews, Christians, and other rival sects in antiquity regularly accused each other of sorcery and charlatanry. The medieval attribution to Jews of supernatural power, while providing material for later figurations of Jews, has at times less to do with perceptions of Jewish magical ability than with a range of concerns about Church authority, communal boundaries, and bodies of knowledge derived from sources outside of the Christian world.[1]

An example of this is the Theophilus legend. Widespread in medieval art and literature, this story tells how Theophilus, a Church official, makes a pact with the Devil in order to secure a promotion. His meeting with the Devil, which takes place in his town’s Roman amphitheater (a symbol of pagan culture), is effected by “a certain wicked Jew, a practicioner of all sorts of diabolical arts.”[2] Different versions of the story vary in their imputation of magical power to the Jews, who are sometimes reluctant intermediaries between Theophilus and the Devil, sometimes active agents in his perdition. But all versions juxtapose the illegitimate supernatural forces of the Jew and the Devil with legitimate, Christian ones: in this case the intercession of the Virgin Mary, who saves Theophilus’s soul.[3]

Introducing Theophilus to the Devil

In a similar story told by the twelfth-century abbot Guibert of Nogent, a monk who went to a Jew for medical advice repeatedly demanded that the Jew also teach him witchcraft, until the Jew agreed to set up a meeting with the Devil. The Devil commanded the monk to renounce Christianity and drink his own semen, after which he gained sorcerous powers which he used to seduce a nun.

As in the Theophilus legend, the Jew in Guibert’s story is a go-between, not clearly a source of magical power himself, though his medical knowledge makes him both compelling and suspect. Elsewhere in his writings, Guibert attacks Jews not for sorcery but for their unbelief and their challenging of Christian doctrine. Sorcery here seems to be less the framing concern than was heresy, though the two were linked.

A new phase in Christian attitudes towards Jews and esoteric knowledge begins in the Renaissance. At that time, cross-cultural encounters between Jews and Christians led to the incorporation of Jewish ideas and symbols into Christian thought. Christian thinkers developed a Christian Kabbalah that was understood as the recovery of a primal tradition, lost to Christendom but preserved in Jewish texts and teachings. This ur-tradition was associated with various figures from antiquity: Pythagoras, Moses, Hermes, Zoroaster, Plato, Enoch, and others. Rather than a vindication of Judaism, however, this Renaissance Kabbalah was usually understood by its Christian expositors to demonstrate the antiquity of Christian ideas, and therefore to have polemical use for the conversion of Jews.[4]

Johannes Reuchlin’s De Arte Cabbalistica (1517), a key text of Christian Kabbalah

After the Renaissance, attacks on Jews reflected the new awareness of kabbalistic texts and traditions. Charges of sorcery against Jews became more common rather than less as the medieval period gave way to the early modern.[5] Yet such accusations were not all of a piece. Martin Luther, whose diatribes against the Jews are a landmark in early modern Jew-hatred, emphasized the connection between the Jews, magic, and the Devil. Rather than warning against the efficacy of Jewish sorcery, though, he expressed contempt for what he saw as the absurdity of Jewish magical superstitions.

In his 1543 tract Vom Schem Hamphoras—a reference to the magical name of God—Luther denigrates the gullibility of Jews and their reliance on what he calls “empty, void powerless letters.” If Jewish kabbalism is so potent, he asks, “How is it possible that during fifteen hundred years of misery they did not use the art and power of the Shem Hamphoras” to triumph over their enemies?[6] Luther’s denigration of Jewish magic was in part because the very challenges to Church authority that Luther was fomenting made Jewish textual traditions look enticing to some Christians. Rather than Jews moving toward a Protestant understanding of Christianity, as Luther once expected would take place, he saw the danger that Protestant Christians might move toward Judaism. In fact, he compares Jewish superstitions to Catholic ones (“we reject the Pope together with his whole church, for he filled the whole world with similar tricks, magic, idol worship, for he too has his particular Shem Hamphoras”) while emphasizing that the sacraments of Protestant Christianity are not magical in nature.

Not that this explains the furious, scatalogical register of anti-Jewish hatred to which Luther gives voice. He is particularly given to images of Satan and the Jews eating each others’ feces and vomit. His overall judgement of the Jews is that “they are the devil’s children damned to hell.” But he emphasizes that Jewish magic, kabbalistic or satanic, is no more than stupidity and backwardness: “a Jew is so full of superstition and magic as nine cows have hair, that is, untold and infinite, like the devil their God, full of lies.”[7]

The “Jews’ Sow,” a German church decoration referenced by Luther, showing Jews doing obscene things with a pig

Luther shows that Christians in the early modern period could deny that Jews had any particular magical potency, yet still see them as dangerous and malignant. On the popular level, Jews were still accused of ritually murdering Christian children and various other crimes. But anti-Jewish hatred and magical belief were not inextricably bound. One could hate Jews without thinking them magical; less commonly, one could think them magical without hating them.

From the Enlightenment on we find a growing split between perceptions of Jews as supernatural and perceptions of them as all-too-worldly, reflecting attitudes toward modernity itself. This ambivalence finds literary expression in the Gothic novel, which gives us the fully developed trope of the Occult Jew, who inhabits an uncertain zone between the magical and the material.

In fact, when Horace Walpole published the first Gothic novel (The Castle of Otranto, 1764), there was a real live Jewish magician residing in London. Haim Samuel Falk, sometimes known as Doctor Falckon, had made a name for himself on the continent with such feats as causing objects to float through the air, and uncovering buried treasure. Accused of witchcraft, he moved to England in 1742 and continued to perform his wonders. While some doubted his conjurings—and he was attacked by some rabbis as an alleged follower of the Sabbatian heresy—Falk was nevertheless visited by admirers and praised for his charitable contributions. A portrait by John Singleton Copley made before his death in 1782 shows Falk with intense gaze, dressed in a wizardly robe and turban, and holding a mason’s compass.[8]

Copley’s portrait of Falk

On the other hand, Jews appear rather less mystical in Walpole’s political memoirs, wherein Walpole, who mixed easily with wealthy British Jews and approved the removal of barriers to their citizenship, recalls the vociferous opposition to the so-called “Jew Bill” of 1753 that would have allowed Jews to be naturalized as English citizens. Opposition to the Jew Bill was, he wrote, an unfortunate reminder of “how much the age, enlightened as it is called, was still enslaved to the grossest and most vulgar prejudices.” Walpole based his support for Jewish citizenship not on any sorcerous reckoning, but on an assessment that Jews constituted “a body of the most loyal, commercial, and wealthy subjects of the kingdom.” Opponents of Jewish naturalization at the time also framed their arguments in political and economic terms. Magic, black or white, was not part of the controversy, which was quickly forgotten after the bill was repealed in 1754.[9]

The juxtaposition of Falk’s wizardry and Walpole’s commercial and political assessment, the occult and the utilitarian, characterize the portrayal of Jews in several Gothic novels. In Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), for instance, the Christian narrator Monçada repeatedly assumes that the Jewish characters Solomon and Adonijah are practitioners of black magic, each time being disabused of the notion. Entering Solomon’s home, Monçada sees “a book, into whose pages I looked, but could not make out a single letter. I therefore wisely took it for a book of magic, and closed it with a feeling of exculpatory horror.” A moment later and we learn that it was no “book of magic” but “a copy of the Hebrew Bible.”[10]

Charles Maturin

Adonijah’s underground lair is even creepier, stocked with skeletons and taxidermy:

At the end of the table sat an old man, wrapped in a long robe; his head was covered with a black velvet cap, with a broad border of furs, his spectacles were of such a size as almost to hide his face, and he turned over some scrolls of parchment with an anxious and trembling hand; then seizing a scull [sic] that lay on the table, and grasping it in fingers hardly less bony, and not less yellow, seemed to apostrophize it in the most earnest manner. All my personal fears were lost in the thought of me being the involuntary witness of some infernal orgie.[11]

Here is the very image of the Occult Jew, ensconced in his shadowy lair of death and diabolical knowledge. Monçada fears for his life, yet Adonijah turns out to be quite hospitable. “Thou art in my power,” Adonijah tells him, “yet have I no power or will to hurt thee.” We learn that the odd décor of the Jew’s home pertains to an interest in science and medicine more than to his past trafficking with “Egyptian sorcerers.”[12]

In the course of the nineteenth century, negative representations of Jews in English literature were in no short supply. But Jews were less commonly portrayed as magicians than as criminals, clowns, and parasites.[13] By the end of the nineteenth century we do see a growing Jewish mystique, a threat or promise ascribed to the Jews, that is political and economic rather than sorcerous—though it is at times hard to tell them apart. Some of these developments are reflected in Victorian and early twentieth-century fantasy, as we will see.

Coming up: Jews and the Modern Occult

Sources

Adler, H. “The Baal Shem of London.” Transactions (Jewish Historical Society of England), vol. 5, 1902, 148–173. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/29777630.

Bohak, Gideon. “Jewish Magic in the Middle Ages,” in Collins 2015.

Collins, David J., ed. The Cambridge History of Magic and Witchcraft in the West from Antiquity to the Present. Cambridge University Press, 2015. e-book (Cambridge Histories Online).

Davies, Owen. Magic: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2012.

Falk, Gerhard. The Jew in Christian Theology: Martin Luther’s Anti-Jewish Vom Schem Hamphoras, Previously Unpublished in English, and Other Milestones in Church Doctrine Concerning Judaism. Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland, 1992.

Flint, Valerie I. J. The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Ginzburg, Carlo. Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches Sabbath. Trans. Raymond Rosenthal. New York: Pantheon Books, 1991.

Guibert of Nogent. Monodies and On the Relics of Saints: The Autobiography and a Manifesto of a French Monk from the Time of the Crusades. Trans. Joseph McAlhany. New York: Penguin Books, 2011.

Hanegraaff, Wouter J. Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture. Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Hsia, R. Po-chia, The Myth of Ritual Murder: Jews and Magic in Reformation Germany. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988.

Idel, Moshe. Kabbalah in Italy, 1280-1510: A Survey. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011. eBook Collection (Ebook Central).

Kahlos, Maijastina. “The Early Church,” in Collins 2015.

Katz, David S., The Jews in the History of England, 1485-1850. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.

Kieckhefer, Richard. Magic in the Middle Ages. Second edition. e-book, Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Maturin, Charles Robert. Melmoth the Wanderer. Ed. Victor Sage. Penguin Books, 2000.

Palmer, Philip Mason and Robert Pattison More. Sources of the Faust Tradition from Simon Magus to Lessing. New York: Oxford University Press, 1936.

Rantzow, George Louis Albert. Mémoires du comte de Rantzow. Volume 1. Amsterdam: Pierre Mortier, 1741, 197-224. Ebook (Internet Archive).

Root, Jerry. The Theophilus Legend in Medieval Text and Image. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2017.

Rosenberg, Edgar. From Shylock to Svegali: Jewish Stereotypes in English Fiction. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1960.

Rubenstein, Jay. Guibert of Nogent: Portrait of a Medieval Mind. New York and London: Routledge, 2002). eBook Collection (Ebook Central).

Schuchard, Marsha Keith. “Falk, Samuel Jacob.” Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, edited by W.J. Hanegraaff, et al., Brill, 2005. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.proxy.lib.pdx.edu/lib/psu/detail.action?docID=3004029.

Stratton, Kimberly B. “Early Greco-Roman Antiquity,” in Collins 2015.

Trachtenberg, Joshua. The Devil and the Jews: The Medieval Conception of the Jew and Its Relation to Modern Anti-Semitism. Second paperback edition. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1983.


[1] On the category of magic as illegitimate and pernicious in the medieval and early modern periods see Kieckhefer 2014, Flint 1991, and Ginzburg 1991. On Jewish magical practices see Bohak 2015. On perceptions of Jewish magic in antiquity see Davies 2012, Stratton 2015, and Kahlos 2015. Trachtenberg 1983, first published in 1943, is still the indispensible survey of medieval and early modern Christian accusations of Jewish sorcery and diabolism. Because Trachtenberg’s concern is to sketch a tradition of anti-Jewish calumny that culminates in modern genocidal antisemitism, he pays less attention to the different historical contexts and variations within this tradition, as other scholars have pointed out.

[2] Palmer 1936, 62. This source is a translation of a Latin edition of the story.

[3] For analysis of the Theophilus legend see Flint 1991 and Root 2017. See Guibert 2011 for the episode and Rubenstein 2002 for broader historical analysis.

[4] Idel 2011 surveys these developments within the Jewish world. Hanegraaff 2012 puts them into a wider Christian context to explain their significance for European intellectual history.

[5] See Trachtenberg 1983 and Hsia 1988 on these developments in the context of the history of European Jew-hatred.

[6] Falk 1992, 177, 181, 177. Luther mistransliterates the Hebrew hameforash.

[7] Op. cit., 167, 184.

[8] An up-to-date summary of the scholarship on Falk’s colorful career is given by Schuchard 2005. I have relied on Adler 1902, Rantzow 1741, and Katz 1994. The Copley painting is reproduced in Adler 1902.

[9] Walpole’s comments are quoted in Katz 1994, 240.

[10] Maturin 2000, 272.

[11] Op. cit., 292.

[12] Op. cit., 295, 300.

[13] See Rosenberg 1960.

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