Magic of the Ordinary: Recovering the Shamanic in Judaism by Gershon Winkler.
Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2003. Index; notes; 238 pp.; $14.95 (paper).
Reviewed by Roberta Louis.
Reprinted from Shaman’s Drum, Number 66.
In Magic of the Ordinary: Recovering the Shamanic in Judaism, Rabbi Gershon Winkler makes a persuasive case for the controversial viewpoint that shamanic principles and practices were integral to ancient Judaism—and that Judaism, at its roots, was more akin to other indigenous shamanic cultures than to Christianity. Many Shaman’s Drum readers undoubtedly are aware of Kabbalah (lit: “receiving”), which is considered the esoteric mystical branch of Judaism. However, Winkler’s central premise—that the very fabric of Judaism is based on shamanic principles—will be new territory to most.
Winkler, a former ultra-Orthodox rabbi whose personal spiritual journey led to his initiation into Kabbalah, has at his disposal a great body of Judaic knowledge from both mainstream and esoteric sources. He has written six previous books on Jewish mysticism, philosophy, and folklore. In this book, he draws upon a wealth of information to show that shamanism—including shamanic healing and what he calls ‘sorcery’—is a central part of Judaism. However, this book is not an academic discussion of ancient religious history. Instead, Winkler’s intent is to introduce long-hidden Hebrew mystery teachings to today’s spiritual seekers, and he offers guidance for those readers wishing to incorporate some of these ancient principles into their own contemporary spiritual practices.
In Winkler’s introduction, he states that the ancient ancestors of today’s Jews were “masters of sorcery and shamanism” who “knew the language of the trees and the grasses, the songs of the frogs and the cicadas, the thoughts of horses and sheep. They followed rivers to discover truths, and climbed mountains to liberate their spirits. They journeyed beyond their bodily limitations, brought people back from the dead, healed the incurable, talked raging rivers into holding back their rapids, turned pints into gallons, brought down the rains in times of drought, walked through fire, even suspended the orbit of the earth around the sun.”
He later explains that such activities are a part of the Jewish tradition that has been suppressed for centuries, largely under the influence of Christian doctrine that persecuted Jews for their practice of occult arts and sorcery—which he defines simply as the process by which “supernatural events occur through mortal intervention.” Since the time of the Crusades, numerous Church-directed campaigns—from the Inquisition to massive book burnings—have been waged to eradicate both the Jewish people and their teachings. “Especially by the middle-ages,” Winkler states, “Christians considered the Jew as the magician par excellence, a reputation that ultimately turned against them since, as practitioners of the occult, they were regarded by the Church as demonic.”
Winkler suggests that, in order for occult teachings to survive, they had to be hidden underground or in various disguises, until, over the centuries, many of their true meanings and functions were obscured in popular culture. Today, many of the surviving teachings can be found only in inaccessible texts, often available only in their original Hebrew or Aramaic. Centuries of suppression—combined with inaccurate or biased translations—have resulted in the misinterpretation of teachings from more readily available sources, such as the Bible and the Talmud, the sacred texts on Jewish law. One such incorrect interpretation is the commonly held view that Jewish law forbids sorcery; in fact, Winkler explains, only certain types of sorcery were forbidden, and sorcery that acknowledged the Creator as the ultimate source of occult feats was generally allowed.
Not only is the Bible replete with tales of sorcery—such as Moses turning his staff into a snake or parting the Red Sea, and Elijah resurrecting the dead—but accounts exist of rabbis throughout history performing paranormal feats. A fourth-century account cited in the Babylonian Talmud stated that Rabbis Chanina and Hoshia would enter into meditation every Friday, create a heifer, cook it, and eat it at the Sabbath meal. Certain rabbis—including the twelfth-century Rabbi Shmu’el Ha Tsadik and the sixteenth-century Rabbi Eliyahu Ba’al Shem of Kel’m—are even said to have created golems (lit: ‘clay figures’), humanlike creatures of clay animated through Kabbalistic incantations, who walked about and performed various activities but usually lacked the gift of speech.
The practice of sorcery is discussed at length throughout the book, but is focused on in a chapter aptly named ‘Sorcery.’ This chapter begins with an interesting admission by Winkler: “I have no proof that it works. I’ve never seen it happen. Sorcery, that is. All I have to go on is the written and oral traditions of my people and of other peoples. Maybe it’s all a bunch of bunk. Hocus-pocus. And maybe the ancestors are laughing their spirits off at how we scurry to and fro in search of shamans and sorcerers, hoping to get a hit of some magic, of something supernatural.”
The general tone throughout the book makes it clear, however, that Winkler is not professing disbelief. The book draws on those “written and oral traditions” to validate strongly the existence of Jewish sorcery, and it is well referenced, citing a large number of source documents so that interested readers can explore the subject further—although I do not know how many of the cited texts are available in English.
Moreover, in the next paragraph, Winkler’s personal view on sorcery is revealed. Although he acknowledges that he “never really tried any of this stuff” i.e., the performance of paranormal feats, he explains his reason for not doing so. He has chosen instead to focus on the ‘magic’ of the ordinary world. He proposes that there are two distinct methods of performing sorcery: “mind altering herbs and ceremonies, and being so present in the known world that the unknown becomes second nature.” Winkler’s preference is for the latter method.
Although Winkler does not discuss what, if any, “mind altering herbs” were used in Jewish shamanism, the book offers accounts of both types of practitioners, those who employ ritual and those who do not, drawn from Judaic texts. Practitioners of the latter type perform paranormal activities—healing the sick or walking across rivers—simply by their will, their touch, or their gaze.
From early on in the book, it is made clear that what Winkler calls Jewish shamanism is not limited to the practice of occult or paranormal activities. In fact, the book’s title, “Magic of the Ordinary,” refers to a mindset inherent in Jewish shamanism that perceives “magic” in ordinary, everyday events. In Winkler’s view, the essence of the Jewish shamanic tradition is “to experience the so-called ordinary, mundane material existence as the carrier of the very mystery we expend so much of our life quest seeking in other more transcendent realms.” This is a mindset that, by definition, includes nurturing one’s relationship with the earth and all one’s fellow beings upon it.
Winkler’s picture of archaic Judaism diverges sharply from the contemporary image of the “Judeo-Christian tradition.” He explains that the ancient Hebrews were a “tribal, earth conscious people engaged in an intimate relationship with the land” who viewed the earth and all of creation as alive and sacred. In fact, Winkler states, the term Judeo-Christian is an “oxymoronic fiction,” in that much of what is considered Judeo-Christian is significantly more Christian than Jewish, and Judaism has more in common with other tribal, earth-centered traditions than with Christian spirituality. Like many other indigenous shamanic traditions, the Jewish tradition honors the feminine principle, and it teaches about the powers of the four directions (or the four winds), and the medicine attributes of minerals, plants, and animals.
Winkler states that Jewish shamanism “emphasizes the sacredness of the earth, and that all organisms, even stars and planets, are imbued by the Creator with a divine consciousness. Every blade of grass is empowered by a spirit being. All trees speak to one another, and all rocks and plants have healing powers that can be accessed through their spirits.”
Moreover, Jewish shamanism involves direct communication with these spirits. Hillel the Elder, a renowned rabbi of the first century b.c.e., is recorded to have mastered communication with trees, grasses, spirits, and animals. The eighteenth-century Rabbi Pinchas of Koritz taught the languages of birds, animals, and plants. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1813) is said to have mastered the language of the animals.
One special category of spirit that might be called upon during the practice of shamanism was the sheydim: half-human, half-angel spirit beings who could manifest in both the material and spiritual worlds. These spirits had a tendency to do tricks or perform magic, and could be used for either good or evil purposes. In Jewish mystical lore, they are placed into such categories as the “night sheyd” and the “tree sheyd,” and Winkler suggests that the sheydim may be the Jewish equivalent of elves, fairies, gnomes, and trolls in the indigenous cultures of northern Europe.
Judaism was once, according to Winkler, a very shamanic religion, one that in its original form “would today be pronounced paganistic and pantheistic, and rightfully so.” Today, vestiges of these shamanic roots can be seen in some rituals that still are performed by many Jews, who may be unaware of the metaphysical meanings of their actions. One example can be seen in the rituals of Sukot, the autumn harvest rites, in which observant Jews wave palm, willow, and myrtle branches to the four directions.
Mainstream Jews no longer perform certain shamanistic rituals—such as the Red Cow ritual, a cleansing ceremony for ancient Israelites who came into contact with death, through warfare or burying a corpse. In a manner reminiscent of some Native American traditions today, these Jews were not permitted back into the community until seven days had passed, during which they were cleansed by a shaman. In this cleansing ritual, called parah adumah (red cow), the shaman would use a cedar branch wrapped in special wool and part of a hyssop plant to dab the patient with water containing ashes from a rare, purely red cow. This would free the individual and the community from any negative effects that otherwise could have resulted.
Ancient Jews also engaged in practices akin to the Native American vision quest. For example, a prophet (nahvee, lit: “one who brings”) in ancient Judea was someone who had visions during solitary wilderness sojourns that often involved fasting from food or water, and who then shared those visions with the community.
One of the most renowned prophets, Yeshayahu the Vision Bringer (commonly known as Isaiah the Prophet), who lived in the sixth century B.C.E., received a vision of the four directions, or four ruchot (“winds” or “spirits”), and their powers and attributes. The four winds are sacred in the Jewish tradition, as they are believed to join together to form the spirit that “animates all of Creation.” Each of the winds also is associated with a spirit being (or angel), a color, and an animal, which Winkler states is “more than some arbitrary symbol reflecting the attribute of that direction, but is an actual teacher/guide animal.” In a chapter titled “The Wheel of the Four Winds,” Winkler discusses these attributes and powers at length, explaining how they form a cycle, or a turning wheel, that moves each of us forward throughout our lives. Another chapter, “Animal Powers and Attributes,” focuses specifically on the teachings of the animal powers.
In the cosmology of Jewish shamanism, the physical and spiritual worlds are separated by a “veil of illusion” (par gawd), through which the shaman travels in order to reach the state of “infinite mind” (mocheen d gadlus), where everything is possible. Beyond this veil, according to kabbalists, there are eighteen thousand parallel universes, each filled with spirit beings that the shaman could call upon for help in influencing reality here on earth (keeping in mind, however, that their powers originate from the Creator). In order to pass through this veil, Jewish shamans often drummed and chanted to enter ecstatic states. They entered into communication with the spirits “either through meditative trances or through the invocation of any variety of Sacred Names that serve to call into being specific changes in the external environment.” Chanting had a significant role in Jewish shamanism, and Winkler includes insightful discussions on the power of names, and the importance of sound in chanting.
Having presented an excellent case for the importance of the spirit world in Jewish shamanism, Winkler turns his attention specifically to healing in the chapter “The Soul Knows: Shamanic Healing in the Judaic Tradition.” He begins the chapter by discussing the vital roles of expectation and the placebo effect in healing, and equates shamanic healing with faith healing—stressing, however, that the faith required for effective healing is not religious faith but “a capacity for trust in the intelligence and self-sufficiency of the body and in the notion of a parallel universe that has its own principles and suppositions in forms other than the ones with which we are most familiar.”
As suggested in the quote above, he emphasizes the body’s innate ability to heal itself, and he explains that part of the power of healing rituals—and even herbal remedies, which were common in ancient Jewish medicine—lies in awakening that innate ability and eliminating any resistance to it: “Shamanic rituals for healing are therefore not about any magical cures, but about helping the patient break through the psychic and emotional barriers that stand between their illness and their wellness. Ancient and early-medieval Jewish healing rituals include drumming, chanting, blowing the ram’s horn, or shofar, shaking myrtle branches around the patient, smudging them with herbal smoke through a shofar, drawing circles around them, hanging stones or amulets around their neck, and so on. The ceremonies, then, become very powerful experiences for the patient that shatter their resistance to the healing forces within their own body because they ‘shock’ the patient out of their prevalent state of being, thinking, and assuming.”
Jewish shamanic healing was not simply psychosomatic, however; it also involved accessing the spiritual realm and addressing any imbalances between the soul and the body. In this chapter, Winkler discusses the need for the soul and body to be in alignment in order for psychological and physical health to manifest. He explains that it was “through their understanding of the complex anatomy of the human soul” that the ancient rabbis exercised their healing of the human body. However, he also stresses that Jewish healing involved addressing all aspects of a person’s life, including lifestyle, environment, body, mind, and spirit.
This chapter is rich in information, including mystical teachings on healing, based on permutations of the Hebrew word for illness; examples of ancient rabbis who performed shamanic healings—from hands-on and distance healings to raising the dead; discussions on the power of prayer, meditation, and channeling the Creator’s Will in healing; and examples of remedies found in ancient and early medieval Hebrew manuscripts.
Winkler explains that both the Talmud and Kabbalah contain myriad remedies, from herbal medicines to sorcery, and he states that there are many shamanic healing rites in the mystical tradition. He also provides basic instructions for conducting two rituals that “reflect the most ancient ceremonies of healing and transformation.” The first of these is quite complex, including eight “movements” to be performed on the patient by the healer, accompanied by drumming, Hebrew chanting, and a variety of shamanistic elements. This is followed by instructions for a self-healing ritual that includes a meditation focusing on the “primordial sparks of divine light” that appear when one’s eyes are closed. There is also a brief description of an “earth ritual,” in which, after completion of the eight movements mentioned above, earth is placed over the patient, and the shaman journeys “to meet the person in the earth and guides her through the seven chambers of the earth”—although no descriptions are given as to the details of the actual journey.
I am not at all certain Winkler’s instructions are sufficiently in depth to allow novices to effectively conduct healings, but this seems to be in keeping with his view of Jewish shamanism. He stresses that studying technique alone is insufficient for a mastery of shamanism, and he cites accounts throughout the Talmud that emphasize “moral conduct and conscientious behavior” are prerequisites to mystical mastery. Winkler indicates Magic of the Ordinary was intended simply as an introduction to Jewish shamanism, and he states his plans to write more books on the subject. Based on this book, I, for one, will look forward to these future offerings.
By bringing to light the long-hidden teachings of Jewish shamanism, Winkler has opened a way for Jews to look within their own spiritual heritage for the shamanic teachings that previously seemed to be available only within other traditions. He offers guidance for living in accordance with the Sacred Walk, a way of life that includes sensitivity towards and respect for all the living beings around us in the physical world—plants and animals, as well as other humans. Moreover, because Magic of the Ordinary serves to redefine the contemporary picture of aboriginal Judaism, this book may appeal to a more general readership, and it should be of interest to many students of religion and cross-cultural shamanism.
Roberta Louis is associate editor of Shaman’s Drum.