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Reviewed by:
  • Jewish Mysticism and Magic: An Anthropological Perspective by Maureen Bloom
  • Dustin N. Atlas

Jewish Mysticism, Jewish magic, magical bowls, Merkhavah, Hekhalot, structural analysis, Emile Durkheim, Robertson Smith

Maureen Bloom. Jewish Mysticism and Magic: An Anthropological Perspective. Routledge Jewish Studies Series. New York: Routledge, 2007. Pp. 231.

In the ambitiously entitled Jewish Mysticism and Magic: An Anthropological Perspective, Maureen Bloom seeks to apply an anthropological technique— structural analysis—to ‘‘certain themes and topics’’ that are found in Jewish texts from the biblical period to the completion of the Talmud’s redaction (p. 3). This is a big project, and the book could have benefited from a clearer articulation of what, exactly, were its core arguments. I cannot help but think that the reams of data would have been easier to synthesize if the author had provided a definition of ‘‘structural analysis,’’ or magic, or mysticism. While this book explicitly seeks to dissolve the boundaries between the categories of religion and magic, some idea of what is being dissolved would have made the process easier (p. 32) Thus, reversing the standard order for a review, I will first enumerate my difficulties with the book, which largely concern Sections 1 and 2; readers should note that my own work is primarily in Jewish Studies, and my concerns issue from that perspective. In conclusion, I will speak to what I did find of value in the book: the third section.

The first two sections read like introductions. They are replete with examples, summaries, and paraphrases and are held together by thematic concerns rather than arguments: Jewish history in Section 1, the sacred/profane pure/ impure binaries in Section 2. This is, I assume, a problem of audience: while such summaries may be needed in the field of anthropology, there is no shortage of texts that do this work for either Jewish history or the Bible. And, in areas as thoroughly analyzed as Jewish history or the Bible, such summaries will invariably disappoint scholars in the field. Unfortunately, this situation is exacerbated by the author’s confusing vacillations between traditional stories and a properly historical-critical approach. Bloom describes her reading strategy as ‘‘adopt[ing] the anthropological gaze . . . to expose ‘the grain of the culture,’ taking what may be called ‘the native view’ . . . deal[ing] with ‘biblical’ literature as a quasi-historical record’’ (p. 20). However, the anthropological structures Bloom seeks to elucidate require supplementary data, if only because of her bringing together of several textual sources, which are not bound together in a single corpus or tradition. [End Page 85]

The first two sections are not short on important historical claims. However, the work does not engage much contemporary scholarship, and this creates problems, in that highly contestable points are made without argument or citation.1 Further, if this work is for anthropologists new to the Bible, mentioning that it is unlikely that the laws or rituals described in the texts ever had widespread acceptance might be useful (p. 156).2 The majority of citations in Section 2 are directly from the Bible, most of the remaining being Durkheim and Robertson Smith. This would be troubling for even a strictly ‘‘literary’’ reading of the text. However, Bloom, after providing a list of eminent Merkhavah scholars, including Scholem, Elior, Deutsch, Wolfson, Gruenwald, and Halprin, writes: ‘‘Essentially, though, these scholars provide purely literary analyses of the texts that they study, without providing the sort of deep descriptive analyses commonly found in anthropological syntheses and analyses’’ (p. 163). After such a dismissal, it is fair to expect either a new structural analysis, one unavailable in either Durkheim or Robertson Smith. Instead, we are told that the Midrash ‘‘operated on a symbolic level,’’ that the Mishnah are a ‘‘repetition of the scriptural texts,’’ and are treated to a set of, admittedly very interesting, citations in order to explicate the rabbinic relationship to magic and mysticism (pp. 4, 22). This is unfortunate because there are important relationships between reading techniques and magic that the author could have unfolded during her analyses of magical bowls.

This text’s most interesting work appears near the end of the second section, and is developed in Section 3. It is...


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