Friday, 18 February 2011

Synthesis or Syncretism - On whose Authority?


In every community there are certain subjects that generate a lot more debate than others. Whether they are sore points, cross-roads of common interests or other reasons for sparking a lot of discussion; every so often the crop up.

In the past few days bloggers have been busy with the question of whether energy working was essential and what it meant. This morphed in to a discussion on the synthesis and syncretism.

You can find some of the latest posts linked here: Rufus Opus, Gnostic Conjure, Strategic Sorcery, Queen of Pentacles Conjure & Witchery

The question that arose in my mind whilst walking to view the Book of the Dead exhibition at the British Museum was: “Who decides what syncretism is permitted and what is not?”

It's not an original questions and something that the Rabbis have struggled with on and off throughout the centuries. Their attitudes towards magic and mysticism has varied in any case, and since there is no Pope-like figure it comes down to a consensus normative behaviour.

Here are some extracts from the amazing: “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism” by Rabbi Geoffrey W. Dennis. These quotes are from the entry “Law and the Paranormal”:
“Jewish law (Halakhah) has had an ambivalent relationship with most magic and mysticism. The Bible itself forbids many magical, mantic and spiritualist spiritualist practises (see Ex. 22:18; and especially, Duet 18). The Talmud reconfirms many of these prohibitions (Tos. Shab. 7, 8:4-12). Still despite some controversy (M. Sanh. 10), Jewish legaists opened the door to many paranormal practises with their liberal attitude toward virtually any method for healing illness, as well as their willingness to recognise spiritual visitations, omens, and veridical dreams (Shab. 67A-b; Ber. 55b-57a).
In time, even as Jewish law continued to emphatically condemn the practise of witchcraft, it came to tolerate both sorcery and mediumship in various forms: medical theurgy. astrology, and the summoning of and consulting with spirit guides, such as an angel or a maggid. In the case of one medieval legalist, the enslavement of demons for beneficent purposes is also permitted.
Repeated attempts are made in Halakhah to draw distinction between licit and illicit paranormal practises and beliefs (the so-called Ways of the Amorites) (Shab. 61A-b, 67a-b; Rashba, Teshuvah 408, 409, 413), but in the descriptions of the various practises preserved in Jewish texts, it is evident that the boundaries between permitted and forbidden become quite blurry...”
“...Still in contrast to magicians, Kabbalists have almost universally worked within the parameters of Jewish normative practice, which Jewish mystics have sought to uphold and validate the value of Jewish practice...”

“...Often Jewish mystics have taught and practised at the boundaries of Jewish law, but rare is the example of a mystic who crossed over into full-rejection of all rules and norms of behaviour – Shabbatai Tvi and Jacob Frank being two notable exceptions...”
Another way to look at the question of who determines what syncretism is acceptable or not – is to look at the person or people engaged in such activities from a community point of view. In Project Management terms, who are the stakeholders that can influence the outcomes of attempts at synthesis or syncretism?

If someone is developing their own spiritual path outside the context of a community that is aware or cares about such – they can pretty do what they want. However, if they are working within a community that has established norms for accepting changes in spiritual practises, then they can either win over key stakeholders or try go their own way.

One example of a mystic who tried and failed in his generation to win support for his Ecstatic/Prophetic Kabbalah techniques was Abraham Abulafia. His techniques did receive acceptance by later Kabbalists in Tzefat and elsewhere but to my knowledge not in Abulafia's lifetime.

An example of a mystic who did win some measure of support was the Baal Shem Tov. He and his followers brought about a spiritual revival of the Jews in Eastern Europe but came up against fierce opposition from the Vilna Goan and his followers. It's only in this day and age that the communal fault lines caused by the birth of modern Chassidism are starting to heal (and there's still some tension).


There's lots more examples that I will not go in to at this point in time. However, the question in my mind remains whilst I have some understanding of how change is processed and accepted when it comes to syncretism in the realm of normative Rabbinic Judaism – for those of you on a path from a different belief system “on whose authority is it decided what syncretism or synthesis is acceptable or not?”