If you think of yourself as anything like a thoughtful person — I can’t use the word “intellectual” without cringing — it’s not generally held to be in good taste to say you’re keenly awaiting the debut of Dan Brown’s latest, The Lost Symbol, on Tuesday. Yet I admit I put in my Amazon order for the book already, to be delivered on the publication date, September 15. I can’t wait.
Part of my anticipation comes from curiosity about the original working title of the novel, The Solomon Key. In the classical medieval Jewish rabbinic sources and earlier, there’s a certain theme of interest in magic, astrology, “nigromancy,” and the like. The latter terms refers to black magic. Certainly there’s no permission to engage in such things, yet neither do the rabbis universally hold them in contempt as sheer foolishness and nonsense. In fact, Nachmanides, the 13th-century Spanish sage, actually cites from a book of black magic, The Book of the Moon, a work that has another name as well, The Key of Solomon. Its authorship is attributed to King Solomon.
Everyone assumes that The Lost Symbol will have Freemasonry and the architecture of Washington, D.C., as its main themes. But some sort of Jewish element would seem to be involved too, unless the working title was a red herring, or unless perhaps the The Solomon Key has nothing to do with The Key of Solomon. The latter seems unlikely. The former, possible.
As for Nachmanides, also known by his acronym Ramban, he comments on the following verses in Deuteronomy (18:9-12):
When thou art come into the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not learn to do after the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch. Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For all that do these things are an abomination unto the LORD: and because of these abominations the LORD thy God doth drive them out from before thee.
Ramban is interested in rebutting the claim of Ibn Ezra, Maimonides and other “rationalists” that such magical practices are just hogwash and nonsense. Ibn Ezra held that if they weren’t false, God wouldn’t have forbidden them to us. So Ramban, no less eminent an authority, explains how and why, in fact, sorcery can and does produce non-imaginary results. As other Jewish authorities taught, there is a correspondence between the upper and lower worlds that God created such that His influence is channeled through heavenly bodies down to mortal creatures on earth.
Human beings who pursue a mature relationship with God are under the guidance of His providence. Other creatures seem to live and die under a more natural order, their destinies in some way guided by the stars. Ramban explains that this natural order can be manipulated — not that it should, but in theory it can. He then quotes and summarizes a long passage by “the author of The Book of the Moon [Sefer HaLevanah], the sage of nigromancy.” The passage has to do with the moon and the astrological sign Aries, with drawing certain magical shapes, inscribing names of hours and angels, burning incense, all with a view to affecting a change in an angel’s disposition, as expressed through the relevant star or stars, to cause harm or good.
I checked out from our local King County public library a translation of what purports to be the book in question, The Key of Solomon
. I can’t vouch for it. Gershom Scholem denied that the surviving text is the same as the one known to Nachmanides. Still, both books are highly astrological. The official government architecture of Washington, D.C., is also replete with both astrological and Masonic themes. The Masons, in turn, were obsessed with Solomon’s Temple. Go figure.
Anyway, it’s food for thought for Dan Brown fans, as well as a reminder that Judaism isn’t the pristine “rational” faith that you might have thought, which is one reason I love it.