Friday, 28 January 2011

Project Update: Dream Answers and New Project on Sefer Yetzirah


Whilst I’m in the midst of my rather extensive reading project, I like to reflect once in awhile to see how my magical career is progressing as a whole. So with that in mind I’ve decided that whilst gaining theoretical knowledge of the ancient school of Jewish mysticism called Ma’aseh Merkavah (work of chariot – based on the visions by the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah) is all well and good – it would be even better to get some practical experience.

Workings of Creation versus Workings of Chariot

However, getting a teacher in this area is rather tricky. As can be seen from this Mishnah below:
"One may not expound…the Work of Creation to more than one student [at a time]; the Work of the Chariot not even to one student - unless he is wise and can understand these matters by himself" (Mishnah Chagiga 2:1)
So I have more chance of getting a teacher for the Work of Creation (Ma’aseh Bereishit) than one for the Work of the Chariot (Ma’aseh Merkavah). Which to be honest suits me just fine. Risk managing encounters with angels is a real pain and a cursory glance at biblical narratives of angelic encounters with humans does not really give it much appeal.

I’m not talking about angels in the shape of cute small children with wings as found in paintings make for the Christian church, but rather beings of fire in the Tanach whom midrashic legend paints as quite hostile to humans.

Books, plants, Graves and Fire in dreams

If you do happen to summon an angelic (or other being) for advice in a dream, here is an excerpt from the excellent book by Rebecca Lesses called:  “Ritual Practices to Gain Power: Angels, Incantations, and Revelation in Early Jewish Mysticism” where she talks about the oxford manuscript that relates to the “Binding of Ragshi’el”: pp. 248-9
“…The manuscript reveals additional details about how the Hekhalot tridents thoughts about dreams. While the dreamer in MS New York receives an answer to his question either by symbolic means or direct discourse, in this manuscript he asks not only for a “sign or a wonder or a verse,” but also requests that particular items appear in the dream as signs of positive or negative answers to the question. In this way, the angel can fulfill the dreamer’s request to see “a dream whose interpretation I will know when I rise from sleep.” As before positive signs are “open books and gardens and delicacies,” while negative signs are “graves and bones.” Most of these items seem self-explanatory, although mention of “open books” deserves further explanation; it stems from the respect for book-learning and scholarship in Jewish society in late antiquity and the Middle Ages. The Greek dream-revelation adjurations from late antiquity also employ the same technique, but mention different signs for positive or negative answers. One of them reads, for example: “Reveal to me concerning the NN matter. If yes, show me a plant and water, but if no, fire and iron.” …”
Anyway, whilst dream questions are a fascinating subject I know next to nothing about it. Hence I’m merrily dancing in to another domain of ignorance – namely more practical things to be done in the school of Ma’aseh Bereishit (Work of Creation).

Memorization of Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Creation)


Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Creation) is the oldest book in Jewish mysticism / Kabbalah and the basis of the school of Ma’aseh Bereishit (Work of Creation). If you’ve not read the translation and commentary by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan and have referred to yourself as a Kabbalist in the past – well, not wishing to mince words - I’d recommend that you go out, buy and read this book with all due haste. It is one of the most important books in Jewish mystic / Kabbalah. Arguably it is THE most important book.

Anyway, taking inspiration from a Kabbalist by the name of Rabbi Joseph Karo - he had an angelic messenger who would speak to him and this was recorded in writing by other kabbalists of his era. This angelic messenger (called a Maggid) was the personification of the Oral Law (Mishnah) that Rabbi Karo would repeat (Mishnah literally means repetition).

So as a stepping stone to better understanding Sefer Yetzirah, I’ve started a project to memorize the first chapter. I’m not hoping for a Maggid to pop up and start teaching me, but rather to gain a better understanding of the text and to be able to do meditative exercises based off the text without needing to crack open a copy of the book.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

New Project: Memorize chapter 1 of Sefer Yetzirah (which deals with 10 Sefirot)


Chapter 1 of Sefer Yetzirah is the only one that mentions and goes in to any detail of the 10 sefirot that Kabbalists believe explain the Mystery of Creation. In fact, Sefer Yetzirah forms part of the body f Kabbalistic work called Ma’aseh Bereishit which translates to “Workings of creation”.


Sefer Yetzirah teaches how to meditate on the ten sefirot in chapter 1and within what parameters. It warns of what not to do and hints at what the experience will be like without actually spelling it out (such an experience is apparently not one that can be properly put in to words in any case).

The purpose of this memorization is to be able to prepare for meditation exercises based from the verses in Chapter 1 without needing to refer back to the book and thereby interrupting the flow of one meditative exercise to the next.

Since the information in each of the verses is interrelated, my aim was to know and understand all of them together before focusing on particular verses. The best way I know of holding all the verses in my head at the same time is to memorize them.
Scope: Memorize all 14 verses Chapter 1 of Sefer Yetzirah (Gra version) in Hebrew
Time: estimate 5 or 6 iterations of 14 verses in chapter 1, i.e. 84 days at rate of 1 verse per day. Started on 15 January 2011.
Cost: Daily 15 minute meditation slot for next 3 months (or less)
Quality: The success criterion for this project is the ability to repeat from memory the first chapter of Sefer Yetzirah (Gra version from Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s book).  Communication: Status updates approximately once per month, plus verbal test at end to ensure that full and correct memorization has succeeded.
Risks:
1. Failing to memorize the text.
2. Meditation slot used for memorization may not reduce stress levels - which normal breathing exercises done at this timeslot do reduce.
3. Hebrew letters from verses in chapter 1 may intrude in to thoughts at inappropriate times.
4. Not focusing on the later chapters will lessen or cancel the success of meditative exercises planned for the verses in chapter 1.
5. Only one commentary read on far on Chapter 1 of Sefer Yetzirah and that is by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. I have Glotzer translation and commentary as well which I still need to read.
It would be ideal to have read other commentaries such as Abraham Abulafia’s Gan Naul, Rabbi Elazar of Worms or for example the Vilna Goan. Translating and understanding those commentaries would be a whole project in their own rights.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Navigating Your Magical Career


At a conference last year I sat next to another Project Manager and part way through the conversation the other chap paused to reflect:
“Looking back at my career having been a Project Manager for five years - I have to stop and ask the question; ‘How did I get here?’”
I call this the Accidental Project Manager and come across this sort of thing all the time. It’s only now that Project Management has become an established part of the business world that Project Management is being taught as its own discipline
   
This brings me on to the related subject of magical careers. You may not think of your worship, studies or magical practices as being a career. Chances are it’s not your primary source of income and I’m not even going to speculate on your reasons for following your particular path. However, what I would like to focus on is:
  1. Reflecting (briefly) on how you go to the point where you are now and
  2. Considering planning where you’d like to be in the next 5-10 years
Reflections from another time

 Reflecting is a common phase to move through as a Project Manager in the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle. Only by looking at the past can you reasonably plan for the future.

Looking back at my magical career, it started with an interest in Kabbalah. First I tried Hermetic books such as those by Regardie which I then put aside as they seemed to conceal more than they revealed. Instead I focused on academic books by Gershom Scholem, Moshe Idel. Then I added authors such as Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan and Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh which has led me to the area of what I label as Jewish Kabbalah in which I am growing in knowledge and practice.


If you’re struggling with trying to piece together how you got to be where you are now (in terms of magical development), here is a short list of questions to get you started:
  1. Which is your favourite author?
  2. What area are you currently reading about?
  3. Do you have a daily practice or calendar with special days of worship?
  4. Who are your major influences and why?
  5. What would you label yourself as now and what labels might have applied previously?
  6. If you could give yourself 5 years ago some advice, what would it be?
Fail to Plan, Plan to Fail

“Fail to Plan, plan to fail” is a old military saying, It’ been adopted in Project Management as well as many other disciplines. I’ve struggled in the past knowing what I was going to be doing in 5 years time as I did not even know what I’d be doing next week. Sometimes life seems so chaotic and changeable that it seems like madness to try to plan too far ahead when everything is likely to change.

I said that this is how I used to think as my training and experience as a Project Manager have proven this thinking as misguided. There is a probability associated wich how likely any factor in one’s life and if you can broadly group those factors then you can start to manage them better.

For example, if you’re thinking of starting some gardening then things like: seasons, soil composition, irrigation and vegetable varieties could be classed as less likely to change, whilst pollination, crop disease, water supply and availability of free time might be classed as more likely to change.

What is your specialty?


To change the subject ever so slightly, a number of computer games have the concept built in that you can make your character a specialist in particular skills and abilities. This is called a Tech Tree.

We each have a tech tree although I personally have never tried to think of my development along my rather rambling magical path as a tech tree. However, if I gave it a go – it would look a bit like this:


The points are based on a personal guess out of 10 in total. So as you can see I have a lot of scope for development and you can also hopefully see the areas where I would like to grow stronger in.

Choose Your Path Wisely

So my challenge to you is: can you draw out your own Tech Tree? Which areas are you looking develop in further and which areas have you chosen not to invest in? Remember folks, at the end of the day you are competing against yourselves. We all live within the constraints of Time, Cost and Scope.
  • Time – how much time can you and will you spare to invest in your magical career?
  • Cost – how much money can and will you invest in your magical career?
  • Scope – what area of the Tech Tree are you going to specialize in? There’s never enough time to develop all areas to the same degree.
You may have other constraints such as opportunity, motivation, life circumstances, etc but as long as you know what they are – you can plan accordingly to get the best chance at meeting your goals.

Ashes of the Great Library of Alexandria


The Metro free newspaper had the following article on Friday 21 January 2011 pp.31:

>Upset the library gods at your peril

BEAN-COUNTERS looking to save money by closing libraries have been warned they’re running the risk of upsetting the gods. Trustees of Glastonbury’s Library of Avalon said three Egyptian deities – Djehuti, god of libraries; Maat, goddess of righteousness and order; and Seshar, goddess of documentation – could be provoked in to action. They warned shutting libraries in Somerset was ‘tantamount to sacrilege’ and ‘grossly impious’. The Library of Avalon, has 10,000 books on subjects ranging from runes to reincarnation, is not directly affected by the proposal.


Any regular reader of Metro knows that it's not the worlds greatest newspaper. Some of the articles are cut & paste with a few edits from the previous evening's news and it fits a niche in the London commuter need to:
  1. Read something that is free
  2. Have something to stare at so as to be excused from making eye contact with one's fellow commuters.

Having read the above article in the Metro, this did leave me wondering... Where were these gods when the Great Library of Alexandria was destroyed (possibly on multiple occasions)?

Monday, 17 January 2011

Spell Failure - what defines success?


In the Project Management world there have been a series of processes and ways of working that have come in to fashion and gone out of fashion. One example of a way of working that is still in fashion in some circles is: Six Sigma. (see here for a recent article advocating the Six Sigma approach).

Originally this started off as a process in manufacturing to set the standard for how many things rolling off the production line could have a fault with them. Six Sigma sets the standard at 99.99966%. Which in everyday language means that for example if you have a pen making factory and want to use the six sigma standard of quality - then it’s ok to have up to 3.4 per million pens produced that are faulty.

OK, so what’s the big deal with Six Sigma? It’s a way of setting quality goals and trying to achieve those. That’s great!

The often-used Six Sigma symbol.(copied from Wikipedia)
However, what has happened is that this process for manufacturing has been taken and applied to other fields such as software development. If for example you have a program that does word processing or is a web browser, if there are 3.4 lines of program source code with mistakes in them out of a million – the result could be that the WHOLE program fails to work. The reason being that those crucial lines contain the instructions that allows the whole function to work (in geek speak it could be the Main loop).

In other words, a process for measuring success applied to manufacturing does not necessarily work for software creation.

The same idea can be applied to the realm of mysticism and magic. An area that I’ll admit is quite difficult to measure success in any case as it’s rather subjective. But…. (there’s always a but), if the working whose success is being measured is meant to have an effect on say the weather – then there’s not much point looking at the psychological effects it has on the practitioner. Either the weather changes or it doesn’t.

However, let’s elaborate on the example above by supposing that the ritual was meant to make it rain so that the practitioner did not have to take part in a race on sports day. If the weather did not change but instead the initiate’s attitude towards competitive sports was transformed such that they now no longer even considered the possibility of losing a race – was the ritual a success? If subsequently during the race it started raining and the race was cancelled, would that be a measure of success or not of the original ritual?

In summary my point is that measuring success is difficult although it’s something that all project managers (and I would also encourage all practitioners) of magic and mysticism to take seriously. Actually coming up with good criteria of success is challenging and care should be taken when taking one domain’s techniques for measuring success and transplanting them in another. Without success criteria it’s hard to improve one’s skills and abilities, which means that self-development is progressing only at a perceived rate with no evidence whatsoever to support such a belief.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Bake it like a mystic


So far the most practical of books in the Merkavah genre that I have read as part of the Project: Understanding the Merkavah User Manual in 2000 pages or less is the book by Rebecca Macy Lesses titled: Ritual Practices to Gain Power: Angels, Incantations, and Revelation in Early Jewish Mysticism.

In Chapter 3 the author describes Ascetic Preparations for Hekhalot Adjurations. The sub-headings of the chapter give you a bit of insight in to what these preparations involve:
  1. Introduction pp.117
  2. Avoidance of Seminal Emissions and Sexual Activity pp. 119
  3. Avoidance of Women pp.134
  4. Food Restrictions pp. 144
  5. Immersions pp.155
  6. Length of Time pp.156
  7. Conclusions pp.158
Here is an extract from pp.144-145:
“…Most of the Hekhalot adjurations require some kind o fasting prior to performing the adjuration. The requisite period of fasting ranges from one to eighty days. Generally speaking, the texts do not require complete abstinence from food (except for a one-day fast). Instead, the practice seems to be that the adept should eat nothing during the day, and only bread and water in the evening. The texts prohibit a number of specific foods, most commonly meat, wine, and “any kind of vegetable”. The instructions for the man who finds the “book of names” add several other forbidden foods: fish, strong drink (in addition to wine), onions, and garlic. The texts also call for the avoidance of “loathsome things” (food that is defiled in some unspecified way). The Sefer ha-Razim adjurations also prohibit wine and meat, as well as fish. Some Greco-Egyptian rituals insist upon abstention from meat and wine, but otherwise do not include the same food prohibitions as the Hekhalot adjurations. There is no restriction of food to bread and water in the Greco-Egyptian ritual texts, and no prohibition on vegetables…”
So as you can see, not a very fun diet being a mystic. From what I have read so far it appears that this abstention from certain foods and fasting was only done for a specific period rather than as a way of life. Nothing of what I’ve read so far indicates that the writers of the Hekhalot held Gnostic ideas of the evilness of the body that would promote a long term ascetic lifestyle.

Anyway, let’s look at another quote from the book and then I’ll share with you the results of my bread making mini-project. In the book Ritual Practices to Gain Power: Angels, Incantations, and Revelation in Early Jewish Mysticism pp.115 in reference to the “The Book of Power Names” (345) it states:

“…This man must also accept various dietary restrictions, most notably avoiding food and drink prepared by a woman:
He should not eat bread (baked) by a woman. He should not drink water (poured) by a woman. Rather, he should knead (the dough) with his own hands, and should grind with his own hands, and he should bake one loaf each day and eat it. He should not eat meat, and he should not eat any kind of fish, and he should not drink wine or strong drink. He should not eat onions, garlic or garden vegetables…”
Reading all this information about making one’s own bread reminded me that I’d been taught at school when I was 14 or so to bake my own bread. Since then many, many years have passed and I’ve not made any bread until last week. Inspired by the material above I wanted to prove to myself that I could bake bread. Here is the results:


The recipe for making this bread is taken from “The Essential SEED Cook Book… Recipes from many kitchens” pp.192, recipe by Ayalla Grunfeld. Please note that I used only half the ingredients listed below.

Ingredients:
1.5 kg of strong white flour
2 oz yeast
1Tbsp sugar plus 5.5oz
2Tbsp salt
5 fl oz oil
2 eggs (plus one beaten egg)
1 cup plus 18 oz warm water

Challah Recipe – Method:
Place the flour in a bowl and make a “well” in the centre.
Crush the yeast, place in the well, add I tbsp sugar onto yeast and pour 1 cup of lukewarm water on top, wait approximately 10 minutes for the yeast to bubble.
Mix lightly with a spoon.
Add eggs, oil, salt, rest of sugar and 18 oz warm water, briefly mix with spoon.
Add the rest of the warm water and knead very well, cover with a towel and leave to rise for 2 hours.
Take challah without a bracha.
Divide the dough into 4-5 portions and plait to make large challah – split in to 8 potions to make small challahs.
Paint with beaten egg and sprinkle with sesame seeds or poppy seeds.
Leave to ris for half an hour.
Bake on 180 degrees C till golden brown.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Starting a New Project: "Trainee Chariot Rider?"

Project: Understanding the Merkavah User Manual in 2000 pages or less has been an ongoing project to gain a greater understanding of the early Jewish mystics who were around from the time of the destruction of the second century up towards the 9th century. The literature is focused mainly on heavenly ascent and adjuration of angels.

Based on the challenge of reading 10 pages of academic literature per day, I should my goal of 2000 pages by June 2011. However, if the current rate of reading continues then I could be done by end of April.


Anyway, as part of my drive to do more practical things (last year was a bit of "a little more conversation a little less action please" year) I’ve been trying to think of how to do something more practical with this knowledge of Merkavah mysticism. Not feeling equipped yet to attempt to adjure an angel or make a heavenly ascent, I would like to pitch my next project at a more manageable and safer way of using this knowledge.

Having looked in a couple of places I was beginning to despair of finding any examples of modern uses of hechalot (heavenly palaces) & merkavah (fiery chariot as per Ezekiel’s vision) mysticism. That is until I saw this post by Prof. James Davila of the superb PaleoJudaica blog:

DID THE HEKHALOT LITERATURE AND KABBALAH INVOLVE MEDITATION?


I would say yes, more or less. Simon Holloway discusses the question in The Silent Mind: A Jew’s Views on Meditation in Galus Australis. Excerpt [removed for brevity, please follow link above]


The Hekhalot texts to a large degree consist of instructions for ritual practices that promise to give the user access to and some control over the spiritual realm. This is pretty close to the generally accepted understanding of meditation as a mental or spiritual discipline. There is an influential school of modern scholarly thought that regards the Hekhalot texts as exegetical tractates rather than practical ones, but I think (and have argued extensively in print) that this is correct in what it asserts but wrong in what it denies. The Hekhalot literature, like all meditation traditions, is deeply rooted in exegesis of its native scriptures and mythologies, but it is also much concerned with spiritual ritual practices. For more on this and related issues, see my earlier posts here, here and here.

This made me realize that perhaps there was indeed a way to make use of this Merkavah knowledge in the form of meditation. But how? The sources used for my studies are based on academic literature, not the primary texts (which are out of my price range, see here for amazon price).


Thankfully that same night I looked up the only book of practical Kabbalah advice that I own and found a chapter dedicated to Merkavah meditation. Once again Rabbi Ariel Bar Tzadok (of KosherTorah.com) came to the rescue with his phenomenal book: Walking in the Fire

Chapter 5: The Kavanot of the Merkava pp338-355

A Kabbalistic Meditation / Prayer to Unite the Holy Name Havaya with the Ten Sefirot. From the Writings of the Ari’zal, the Rashash And the Ben Ish Hai.

Now all I have do is turn this idea in to a project. To decide on the 3 project constraints (iron triangle):
  1. Scope
    • How much preparation is required
    • What success criteria might be used to measure success
  2. Time
    • When this meditation was going to be done
    • For what duration of dates this meditation would be done
  3. Cost
    • See if anything in addition needs to be purchased
    • Work out when in the week I’d have time for this meditation.

I guess you could say that project Trainee Chariot Rider has been initiated but it’s still in the early stages as I have yet to read up to and including Chapter 5 of this book.

The other thing that came out of this discovery is the talk I'd planned to create and present having read all this academic literature comparing Merkava mysticism to shamanism has been done - much better than I ever could have done - by Prof. James Davila already. The link can be found here: Hekhalot Literature and Shamanism

Monday, 10 January 2011

Keter and the Respiratory System


A friend asked for some advice on how to deal with a respiratory problem. Not knowing the details of the problem or too much of this person's circumstances in life, it's not easy to give advice. Besides I'm a Project Manager with some interest in Kabbalah so that hardly qualifies me as a subject matter expert and certainly not a physician of anything physical or metaphysical.

from www.ketubbahart.com
However, putting that disclaimer aside here is an extract from Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburg's “Body, Mind and Soul: Kabbalah on Human Physiology, Disease and Healing” that may shed some light on the possible root of respiratory issues.
Chapter Three: Mystical Physiology
The Physiological Systems of the Body
“...The first property, that of the keter, the super-conscious “crown”, corresponds to the respiratory system, the physical conduit through which the spirit of life enters the body.
When God created Adam, He “formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.”(Genesis 2:7). Thus, we learn that the breath of life comes from God on high, the source of all life. In breathing, we internalize that which is exterior to use; we inhale from that which is above us.
The Hebrew word for “inhaling” (she'ifah) also means “aspiration.” Thus, breathing is an expression of the soul's innate desire to ascend and go beyond its conscious self into the realm of its super-conscious link to God, as experienced in its super-rational faith, pleasure, and will.
Thus, a lack of pleasure and will in life (reflecting a lack of faith in the Divine purpose of life) may well result in dysfunction of the respiratory system. One should attempt to “breathe” into his being newly inspired aspiration to live...”

There's further mention of the lungs made in Supplementary Essays: 1. Right and Left of this same book. If the above quote did not clarify the matter enough then I can send this additional chapter.

Do you need be an expert to use Kabbalah?


There’s a big thread of discussion going on in Project Management Institute on LinkedIn.com titled: “A project manager does not have to be a technical expert. What is your take on this?”

What this boils down to is: can a Project Manager be effective in an area that they do not have much, if any, knowledge of? I’ve stopped following this debate after the number of responses topped 600. My view is that yes the PM needs some domain knowledge to be able to manage risks, etc properly.

However, I’d like to take this question a step further and ask: how much do you need to know of Kabbalah to make use of it?

It’s a bit of a controversial question for a number of reasons. Partly because Kabbalah is a bit of a vague term that needs definition.

Rather than try to answer this question in a single BlogSpot posting, I’m going to take the Project Management approach and turn answering this question in to a project. This will be broken down in to the following areas:
  1. Examining the history of Kabbalah
  2. Exploring the different branches of Kabbalah
  3. A deeper look in to Practical Kabbalah
  4. Risk analysis of use of Practical Kabbalah with regards to initiate’s knowledge of Kabbalah
So only by looking at the context of Kabbalah, namely its history, branches and practical applications, can the original question be answered about how much an initiate needs to know to make practical use of Kabbalah.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Magical battles: both ancient and modern



Inspired by watching Disney's Sorcerer's Apprentice last night and having recently completed reading the book and watching the DVD of "The Men Who Stare at Goats" - I started thinking about other magical conflicts and battles.

Ancient magical battle:
Last week’s Torah reading from Vaera in the Book of Shemot (Exodus) includes a magical battle. It occurs at the start of the ten plagues that herald the exodus of the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery.

See battle of the staves and plagues is described starting in Exodus Chapter 7, Verse 8.

Part of that narrative involves a magical battle involving staves turning in to snakes and back, as well as one snake swallowing the staves of the other adepts. There are also the first few plagues that the sorcerers and necromancers of Egypt could re-create. However they come undone during the plague of lice and are unable to reproduce any of the plagues that follow. See Exodus chapter 8, verses 14-15:
14. And the necromancers did likewise with their secret rites to bring out the lice, but they could not, and the lice were upon man and beast.
15. So the necromancers said to Pharaoh, "It is the finger of God," but Pharaoh's heart remained steadfast, and he did not hearken to them, as the Lord had spoken
An interesting idea that I once heard Rabbi Tatz present is that the ten plagues are in the reverse order of the ten sayings that are in the first chapter of Genesis. The Egyptians with their sorcerous might had attempted to overturn the order of nature and the plagues were a reversal of that process.

See the following Wikipedia link for more details on the ten utterances:
Rabbi Johanan taught that the ten utterances with which God created the world account for the rule taught in a Baraita cited by Rabbi Shimi that no fewer than ten verses of the Torah should be read in the synagogue. The ten verses represent God’s ten utterances. The Gemara explained that the ten utterances are indicated by the ten uses of “And [God] said” in Genesis 1. To the objection that these words appear only nine times in Genesis 1, the Gemara responded that the words “In the beginning” also count as a creative utterance.
So the second of the utterances is the creation of light. The second to last plague was darkness. The first “utterance” refers to the first cause, namely God. The last plague was the God manifesting in such a way that the thing that was considered holy in Egyptian society, namely the first born, was destroyed.

Modern magical battles:

In the past I’ve come across references to the “Magical Battle of Britain” mentioned in places such as Wikipedia and the Fortean Times.

More recently I came across battle reports in the Chaos Magic community as mentioned in these links:
If you know of any other sources that describe magical battles then please let me know by posting a comment. The topic of “Magical battles” may not make an appearance on the History channel, but it is certainly a topic I’d love to find out more about.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Treadwells Lecture: Gnostics: A Spotter's Guide, Pre-Lecture notes


I’m attending the following lecture tonight at Treadwells Bookshop:

05 January 11 (Wednesday)
Gnostics: A Spotter's Guide
Dr Jonathan Hill
Gnostics of the ancient world leave an intriguing body of texts and ideas - and incited horror in their detractors. But what was gnosticism in the first place, and where did it come from? What did the gnostics believe, and why? What do we know about them, and how? This talk introduces gnostics, the extreme radicals of the ancient world.  A religious and philosophy scholar, Dr Jonathan Hill studied and taught at Oxford University, and is the author of numerous books, including The Big Questions, The History of Christian Thought, The Crucible of Christianity, and Christianity: How a Despised Sect from a Minority Religion Came to Dominate the Roman Empire. He is a gifted and engaging speaker with a appreciation of the pagan ancient world, who returns to Treadwell's due to popular demand.
Price: £7.00
Time: 7.15 for a 7.30 start

Normally I write up lecture notes after the lecture is finished and publish them to my LiveJournal and BlogSpot accounts. However, since I’ve been doing some reading that overlaps with tonight’s lecture topic, I’m posting this as a reminder to myself to see if the lecture “Gnostics: A Spotter's Guide” will also make mention of Jewish Gnosticism.

I came across an interesting quote in Prof. Gershom G. Scholem’s book “Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition” pp. 33-34 he writes:

“The point that I wish to make is this: In the few details that I have described, we have demonstrated proof of the contact with non-Jewish conceptions; and every analysis of the texts furnishes still more material of the same character. But it is essential to note that this contact is always with Hellenistic (specifically, Hellenistic-Egyptian) elements, and that not a single Christian element appears in them. There is no reason whatever to assume that Christian descriptions of such ascents to heaven have been judaized. The logical conclusion seems to be, given the historical circumstances, that, initially, Jewish esoteric tradition absorbed Hellenistic elements similar to those we actually find in Hermetic writings. Such elements entered Jewish tradition before Christianity developed, or at any rate before Christian Gnosticism as a distinctive force came in to being. Later, when Judaism and Christianity finally parted ways, these elements, whose development, once borrowed, had been within and in the manner of a distinctly Jewish esotericism, were taken over in to Christianity and into early Gnostic circles, rather than the reverse. It is difficult to assume that during the period of extreme strain between the Synagogue and the Church in the second century, Jews who were bent upon keeping their distinctly Jewish character would borrow from Christian circles. And indeed, as I have said, there is no evidence for such borrowings. The contrary, however, would be easily explained by the steady stream of converts from Judaism to Christianity, some of whom could have been recipients of Jewish esoteric doctrine. I shall return to this point, to which I have attached much relevance, at a later stage.”

Project Update: Rolling in to 2011


The holidays are over and I’m back at work, still waiting to find out whether I have a job next week or not. A colleague told me that he was rather stressed about the uncertainty of the last 6 months, but I’m feeling quite Zen about the whole thing. As Nachum Ish Gamzu used to say: “This too is for the best”.

This post is a brief update on various projects:

Reading Project Update
Project: Understanding the Merkavah User Manual in 2000 pages or less” – this project is about reading academic literature to understand the Jewish school of Mysticism that existed around the 2nd to 9th centuries in Palestine and Babylonia based around the vision of the Divine in the Books of Ezekiel and Isaiah.

Currently I’m reading Rebecca Lesses’ book “Ritual Practices to Gain Power: Angels, Incantations, and Revelation in Early Jewish Mysticism”. Having a book title with ““Ritual Practices to Gain Power” means that I do get a few odd stares on the underground during my commute.

Response to Rune Soup’s 2011 Hacks for the New Year post
See: http://runesoup.com/2010/12/upgrade-yourself-in-2011-eleven-hacks-for-the-new-year/

1. Locate the good stuff
Creative, self aware, relatively open minded and good listener.
2. Be aware of the bad stuff
Lazy, addicted to computer games, love studying theory but not very good at putting it in to practice.
3. Surround yourself with right thinking
Done this already in the past couple of years. Plan to look in to honing Project Management skills helping a volunteer/charity organization.
4. Accept new things
Not sure how to plan this one, just looking out for opportunities to fulfill this one.
5. Explore the unknown
Not sure how to plan this one, just looking out for opportunities to fulfill this one.
6. Get better at digital
This needs some work, just creating a blog and updating it was a big step. I’ll need to investigate Twitter more. But I suspect that I’d prefer to try to create a phone app to meet this criterion.
7. Read the core texts of the major western religions
So that’s the Torah, The New Testament and The Koran. Done the first, plan to read the others. Question is: which version of the New Testament or Koran?
8. Get fitter without spending money
Currently do some rollerblading with a relative on ad hoc basis. Plan to make exercise more of a regular part of my weekly routine and do at least 30 minutes walking at lunch time each day as part of my daily walking meditation / walk-about.
9. Subscribe to The Economist
It’s not so much a question of cost as of time. My reading time for commuting is very precious to me and hence I’ll start by trying to read some articles weekly online. If I manage that for 4 months then I’ll subscribe to either the full electronic or print edition.
10. Learn 3 new skills
a. Creating a proper Hebrew amulet
b. Growing my own vegetables
c. Write a sit-com comedy episode script
11. Devote more time to your appearance
Ongoing. Already bought a smart coat, I’ve got a mental image of the look I’d like to adopt in 2011. Part of that look is losing weight so that the clothes will not look ridiculous on me.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Late Night Blog Search Caller


I’ve just finished a very surreal conversation, not affected in the least by the fact that I was woken up at 1am by the caller. Rather than paraphrase the conversation I’ve woken myself up enough to write down most of what was said the late-night caller and I.
“Hallo?” The voice sounded American but muffled as if the speaker had placed a handkerchief over the receiver. “Is this Shimon Tomski, the Trainee Golem Builder?”

“Yes, this is Simon Tomasi.” I tiptoed out of bed and headed downstairs in order to carry on the conversation without waking up anyone else.

“Listen Shimon!” the called shouted ecstatically. “I found your vlog!”

Having just woken up by a strange caller and fumbling for the light switch downstairs this was all a bit too much to take in at once.

“Do you mean my blog?”

“Vatever,” suddenly his voice became a lot clearer. “Anyvay, let me introduce myself. My name is Rabbi Bar-zel Arieh Tzion, perhaps you might have heard of me?”

I sat down, paused and the gears in my brain slowly started turning. “Sorry no, but for some reason it reminds me of a song by Bob Marley.”

“Ya, Ya,” he continued excitedly. “I need you to make me something…”

“Wait a second Rabbi,” my brain was still several minutes behind in the conversation. “How did you say you found my blog? If you found out about it by an online search, can I assume that you are not part of the communities that shun the use of the internet?”

“Sure, Sure,” he whispered. “The world wide interveb is forbidden. I got a flyer through the door explaining all about how it is treif and corrupts the young people. But don’t you vorry about me Shimon; I did a search on Google in something, my son assured, me is called Cyberspace.”

“Uh Rabbi,” I was about to attempt the herculean task of trying to explain the internet to a Rabbi at 1am when he interrupted me again.

“Listen Shimonelle,” he cooed. “I search this Google thing with the words Agile, Self Regenerating and Golems. Then guess what?”

“You found my blog?” I answered hoping that I could finish the conversation quickly and cordially. My bed was calling to me and my legs had already decided to go to sleep without waiting for the rest of me.

“Yes, your vlog.” He sounded very pleased with himself. Which for someone I pictured as a white bearded Luddite calling from across the Atlantic would be considered an achievement.

 “Just a moment Rabbi,” something was very wrong here I realized. “How did you get my number?”

 “Oh,” he responded sounding even more pleased with himself. “I asked a Maggid”.

“A Maggid,” now he had my full attention. “Do you mean the human type of Maggid that goes from town to town as a preacher? Or do you mean the angelic type of Maggid who teaches secrets?”

“I dialed 0800-Maggid”, he said as if speaking to a child. “I thought you were the smart one with technology Shimon.”

I stamped my feet less out of frustration than to try to get the circulation going again so that I could go to the kitchen and make some coffee.

“Anyvay Shimon, vat can you tell me about my search words?” has asked. “I came up with them after some delicate Divination work”. I could tell by the background noise that he was holding his breath.

“Well…” I answered feeling the gears finally warming up. “Agile is a term in Project Management that refers to a way of working in which the development can respond quickly to change. It means that the work adapts quickly to change and promises greater chance of delivering what the customer wants.”

During my answer I could hear the breathing commence and the sounds of a pencil scribbling furiously in the background.

“Self Regenerating….” I pondered. “This to me means the ability to rebuild, to repair oneself in the way that some lizards that lose their tails are able to re-grow them. You might like to do some research on Totipotency and the ability to regenerate plants from a small number of cells.”

“Gut, Gut,” he answered whilst the scribbling continued. His repetition of words was beginning to get on my nerves. “And Golem I know already. You use Sefer Yetzirah to make a man of clay come to life. That is great Shimon, you have linked all three vords together.”

“Actually Rabbi”, I corrected him rather tersely. “I’ve not combined the search phrases.”

“Oh,” he sounded rather deflated. “But I need to know what they mean together. Whatever it is, I need you to build it for me by Tuesday.”

I was about to remind him that he was the one who came up with the search phrases when a moment of Chochmah inspiration blazed in my mind like a mini-supernova.

“What! You want me to make you a self regenerating golem that is able to adapt quickly? What you are describing sounds very much like the Borg.” My patience had finally run out. “They are a fictional race in the Star Trek universe of man-machine hybrids that had a hive mind and are hell-bent on assimilating everything in their path to make it just like them.”


 “The Vorg?” he sounded perplexed.

“Vatever,” I shouted and slammed down the phone. I then picked it up again and pressed the “end call” button before storming off to bed.