Kingdom of Priests

Kingdom of Priests


The Fantastic Element in Jewish Law

posted by David Klinghoffer
Anyone who has spent time in the pages of the Talmud and other rabbinic literature will know the distinction between halachah and aggadah — law and story. The nature of Jewish law, while being everywhere tortuously argued, is assumed otherwise to be straightforward. In the Talmud, a discussion of halachah seeks to define the path of correct action, and nothing more. On the other hand, there is aggadah, comprising homiletic tales about the rabbis, about figures from Scripture, wisdom sayings, cryptic legends, and much more that is not legal in nature. The distinction between law and story is assumed to be rigid and clear. Is it really?
Much of aggadah is fantastic in nature. Yet so is much of halachah. Carl Jung, I think, would have something to say on this.
I’d never really thought about it but was reading the discussion in the tractate Shabbat (Sabbath) that has to do with the tightly constrained circumstances under which you can kill an animal on the Sabbath. Basically, it has to be a dangerous animal and it has to be in pursuit of you. There are practical ramifications. What if a bee gets into the house? Can you swat it? Trap it under a cup? That’s a question anyone can relate to, assuming you care about Jewish law in the first place. But the Talmud’s discussion centers strangely not on routine scenarios like that but on much more dreamlike ones. The question is posed: Can you kill a scorpion if it’s chasing after you? Answer: yes. 
But wait a minute. When I was a kid growing up in Southern California, before our town was more thoroughly built up as in more recent years, we would occasionally find a scorpion sitting in the kitchen. Not doing anything in particular, just sitting. You had to be careful not to go around barefoot since if you carelessly stepped on one, you’d be in for a painful sting. Maybe it could even make you sick. Sometimes I’d check my bed sheets before going to sleep, for the same reason.
Scorpions sting if molested but as far as I know, they do not give chase. The rabbis of the Talmud, who lived in the Middle East, would have been well acquainted with the behavior of scorpions. In the same passage, there’s a list of creatures so deadly they may be killed at will on the Sabbath. An example is the “Egyptian fly.” A deadly fly? Hailing from Egypt?

Now I haven’t looked into the natural history angle on this, but anyone who studies rabbinic texts will known what I mean about the fantastic quality of many halachic arguments in the classical sources. Fantastic but more specifically, as I said, dreamlike. I don’t know the explanation for this but it did make me think of some modern psychological speculation about what really lay behind medieval theorizing about alchemy.
Ostensibly concerned with a proto-scientific search to transmute base metals into gold, alchemy deals in arcane symbols. Typically, alchemical texts phrase the steps in the process in coded form, using obscure, dreamlike images. It was Jung’s intriguing suggestion that the alchemists were really involved in a quest much deeper than just to get rich quick. He speculated in great detail that alchemical symbols corresponded to archetypal structures in the collective unconscious.
I wonder. When I brought this up at our Sabbath table on Friday night, one of our guests proposed another Talmudic example. It’s in the tractate Berachot (Blessings), which deals in part with prayer. When someone is standing to say the Amidah prayer, his physical posture is intended to heighten concentration. You stand with your feet together and rooted to the ground, so that you should not be distracted. The Talmud, commenting on the Mishnah’s statement, says one should not move from this posture even if a snake is coiling around your ankles. 
Which, of course, happens all the time!
Does that not sound like a dream, and a richly symbolic one at that? What’s it about? I don’t know. But next morning, as it happens, I opened my little Portable Jung volume to the extract from the Collected Works about “Dream Symbolism in Relation to Alchemy.” Jung catalogued the dreams and “hypnagogic visual impressions” of one of his patients and sought their relationship to archetypal images found in the ancient alchemical tradition. Almost immediately my eyes fell on a particular “visual impression” that this particular young man experienced. It’s summarized concisely by Jung: “A snake describes a circle round the dreamer, who stands rooted to the ground like a tree.”
He explains, 

The drawing of a spellbinding circle is an ancient magical device used by everyone who has a special or secret purpose in mind. He thereby protects himself from the “perils of the soul” that threaten him from without and attack anyone who is isolated by a secret. The same procedure has also been used since olden times to set a place apart as holy and inviolable…

And so on. Interesting, huh? 
Make of it what you will.


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