Could It Be Magic?
Spertus scholar Dean Bell reflects on what Jewish magical
practices can teach about- Jewish culture and Jewish-Christian
interactions in the Middle Ages.
chill went through the crowd even before
Dean Bell, dean of Sperms Institute of
Jewish Studies in Chicago, spoke Oct. 3
on "The Role of Magic in
Medieval Jewish Life" in the Janice
Charach Epstein Gallery.
Bell's appearance at the Jewish
Community Center in West
Bloomfield was sponsored by Wayne
Star University's Cohn-Haddow Center
for Judaic Studies (see accompanying
story) and the Agency for Jewish
Education of Metropolitan Detroit.
Introducing the speaker, Tilden
Edelstein, former vice president for
academic affairs at Wayne State
University, mentioned that Bell had
performed some 20th century magic of
Edelstein told how in 1999, a gun-
man randomly shot Bell five times at
close range as he walked home from
synagogue. Five other Jews also were shot. All of
them survived. -
Bell, 35, a married father of three, won't say that it
was something divine that saved his life. But then
again, he won't say it wasn't.
His interest in magic, he told the audience of
about 100, is not so much about magic itself, but
what magical practices can teach us about Jewish
culture and the interaction between Christians and
Jews during the Middle Ages.
Bell acknowledged that though there are talmudic
prohibitions against magic — some acts were even
punishable by death — medieval historians and
Jewish scholars wrote about magic and Jews kept
finding ways to practice it.
"Magic is a yearning to understand the inexplica-
ble. It plays a similar role that science and religion
play today," said Bell, a prolific author whose most
recent book is Sacred Communities: Jewish and
Christian Identities in 15th Century Germany.
A variety of remedies, amulets and omens were in
use by Jews during the Middle Ages, the period
between the late 5th and 15th centuries. Some Jews
got around the prohibition against magic by calling
it "charms" and "signs." Even great scholars were
part of the discussion of magic.
Bell said Maimonides, the Jewish philosopher and
physician, was asked if a person who carried around
a wolf's tooth (an amulet) could carry it on Shabbat.
Yes, said the scholar, because it gave relief.
Medieval Jews believed in the golem, a huge and
powerful man made from clay who could be
brought to life to protect the Jewish people. A
halachic scholar of the period wrote about whether
or not a golem would count in a minyan (prayer
quorum), Bell said.
As unusual as these ideas sound, some current
practices have roots in
concepts from medieval
Why does Jewish law
require Jews to bury the
v, dead quickly? Said Bell,
so souls are not floating
around for demons to
Jews still recite incanta-
tions to ward off the evil
eye (saying, "tu, tu, tu''),
and kiss the mezuzah,
originally an amulet with
magical pagan roots to
ward off the evil eye. The
wedding custom of
breaking a glass is taken
from non-Jewish magical
practices, Bell said.
Practices of the Kabbalah (Jewish mystical study)
"fit in nicely," he added. "The greatest Kabbalist,
Chaim Vitale, talked about the transmigration of
Many of Bell's articles and courses, such as "Between
Crescent and Cross: Jewish Under Islam and
Christianity in the Middle Ages," reflect his interest
in the Middle Ages and the relationship between
Jews and non-Jews.
Bell said the medieval tension over the unknown
expressed in magic reveals the dynamics between
Christians and Jews.
Unfamiliar with Jewish customs, language and rit-
uals, some Christians accused Jews of harmful magi-
cal practices and ritual murders (using Christian
blood to make matzah, a common one).
Christians both feared and coveted what they saw
as Jewish "power," Bell said. While Jewish doctors in
medieval literature were thought of as evil, they were
the most popular doctors during the Middle Ages.
He also discussed some old Jewish practices that
exist today, like tashlich, the ritual casting away of
sins before Rosh Hashanah, which comes from
pagan, non-Jewish, sources.
Bell told a story of medieval origin from Germany
that shows how the belief in angels has permeated
Jewish lore. On a deeper level, the tale also illus-
trates how Jews contested non-Jewish authority
without taking up arms.
The tale begins with a Christian procession
through the Jewish quarter of town. Though cus-
tomary at this time for Jews to stay in their houses,
someone from a Jewish house tosses out toilet water
and it lands on the cross. Very upset, the Christians
give the Jews a week to send them the person who
did it. Two strangers show up and say they are
responsible for the act. They are executed, and the
town is saved.
Were the men angels? And what does - the story tell
about the boundaries between Christians and Jews?
Bell said people still explore these issues today.
"He gave us a fabulous insight into a mysterious
world we as Jewish people may find new," said
Shoshana Goldschlag, 65, of Southfield after Bell's
Jack Adler, 80, of Oak Park agreed. "It was a bril-
liant speech, especially his knowledge of medieval
Jewish history. And I'm so glad he could do magic
In A Contemplative Fashion
Cohn-Haddow Center is WSU's link to the Jewish community.
Copy Editor/Education Writer
n 1999, more than 200
attended a 50-year retro-
spective of the Nuremberg
Trials sponsored by Wayne State
Center for Judaic Studies in
The center's International
Conference on Jews and Medicine
in 2001 drew physicians from
throughout the world, who
received continuing education
credits for the two-day event.
In its 14-year history, the Cohn-
Haddow Center has tackled every
facet of Judaic studies — except
offering curriculum for WSU stu-
dents. "Our idea was to create a
center for Jewish studies, not a
degree-granting department," said
George "Mike" Zeltzer of West
Bloomfield, co-chair of the
Center's advisory board and for-
mer president of the Jewish
Federation of Metropolitan
In 1987, Federation awarded
$130,000 for starting a WSU
Judaic studies program. The uni-
versity's contributions included
the services of a director, office
space and staff
By this time, Federation already
had sponsored the first professors
in Jewish studies at University of
Michigan, Zeltzer said, but he
envisioned very different goals for
CENTER on page 18