Monday, July 13, 2015

The Origins of Wiccan Sabbat

How are Judaism & Wiccanism connected?
Could it be that Judaism somehow spawned Wiccanism?

The Origins of Sabbat;

Or, Modern Witchcraft, its Jewish Mother, and Why It Should Call More Often

By Race MoChridhe

The Heathen writer and activist Alyxander Folmer, attending a Renewal Jewish Sukkot with his wife, once found himself sitting next to an energy worker and holistic healer with whom he struck up an interesting conversation. “Here,” he later wrote, “was the most WICCAN individual I’ve ever met in my life, and she was Jewish…” It was the capstone of an evening in which he had watched a rabbi invite the ancestors to a feast at a crystal-laden altar, call the quarters, and invoke God’s feminine aspect in the form of the Shekhinah–experiences which powerfully impressed upon him the close ties between Witchcraft and Judaism and the possibility for greater dialogue between Jews and Pagans.

Aliyah bat Stam, a practicing Jewish Witch, argues passionately for the common ground between Orthodox Judaism and Witchcraft. Both, she writes, are ethnically focused traditions in which what you practice is more central than what you believe. Both rely heavily on kabbalistic thought and both practice magick (though Orthodox Jews don’t always call it that when they do). Both have reverence for nature and mark the turning of the year through religious feasts. Both have strong animistic and henotheistic tendencies. Of seemingly greatest importance to Bat Stam is that both struggle to make their own voice heard in a society dominated by Christianity–a religion that has, all too often, had no interest in hearing any voice other than its own.

The English Egyptologist Margaret Murray wrote the book that made modern Witchcraft possible–The Witch Cult in Western Europe–a book very much about Christianity and suppressed voices. When the First World War closed Allied access to Egypt, English (and other) scholars were forced to turn to other interests to keep themselves afloat in the publish-or-perish world of academia. Murray turned to the records of the Inquisition of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, combing them for evidence of the real beliefs and practices of those tried and condemned as witches.

From those records, she argued that medieval witches were the last remnants of a widespread, unified pagan religion that had been practiced throughout much of Western and Northern Europe in pre-Christian times. This pretty romance deeply inspired the founders of modern Witchcraft traditions but, as numerous scholars have since shown, the truth was not so glamorous. Executed “witches” were not sage elders mistrusted for their ancient wisdom or beautiful priestesses feared for being female and free. They were almost always simply marginalized individuals–the elderly, the insane, the eccentric–who were tortured and murdered by communities that neither understood nor accepted them. The remarkable agreement in their testimony and confessions, which impressed Murray as evidence of a shared system of beliefs, instead came from the inquisitors’ use of a standard script filled with leading questions.

The inquisition, satirical
A satirical, but far from humorous look at the inquisition. Public domain image.

The medieval Church was a creature of habit, and the Inquisition early on ceased bothering with the specifics of the groups it persecuted. When dealing with Christian heresies, it tended to slot every new outbreak into patterns written around the heretical movements of the first three or four centuries after Christ. When dealing with something alleged to be outside the sphere of Christianity altogether, such as the accusations of witchcraft brought to it by prejudiced and uncharitable peasants, it instead used the model offered by the original non-Christian religion–Judaism.

The inquisitors thus demanded that accused witches tell them how they had kidnapped the children murdered to make their ritual meals, precisely as Jews were accused of using Christian children’s blood to make the leavened challah bread served with wine after their services (which contains no children’s blood, but a lot of chicken eggs). The inquisitors insisted that witches tell them on which Friday they had met to worship the Devil, because Jewish shabbat services are traditionally held on Friday evenings, since the Jewish calendar starts each day at the coming of darkness the night before. Such things were, centuries ago, charges leveled against the helpless and the terrified to force and to form their confessions. But from the resulting recounts, Murray took what she saw to be the traits of a great, long-lost religion, and Gerald Gardner, among others, then made them the traits of a dynamic new one based on her work.

Very few Wiccans today realize that when they attend a “sabbat” service held the night before the holiday to eat leavened bread (very different from the unleavened Eucharist with which the ritual is often compared) they are, in a very roundabout way, carrying on the legacy, not of ancient magick, but of medieval synagogues and of the pogroms that burned them.

So when a Renewal rabbi, like the one Alyxander Folmer met, takes altar layouts and quarter calls from modern Wicca to make her service more intimate and moving, we may remember that it is only the payment of a debt, and when the records of the Inquisition, which was both the product and a producer of fear and hate, are now used as models for communities of perfect love and perfect trust, meeting in celebration of all that is good and holy, we may remember that there is indeed nothing in this world beyond redemption.


In closure, the editor was curious as to what compelled Mr. MoChridhe to use the word 'debt' in the closure paragraph of this tasty article; he explained:

"I did not mean that the rabbi was repaying a debt, but rather that Wicca loaning their practices to Renewal rabbis who use them (as that one did) in their services, is the repayment of a debt on Wicca's part in giving practices back to the religion that (accidentally) gave it many of its own." 

Well said.

1 comment:

  1. Bear in mind that, before the time spent in Egypt, Jews were largely Pagan too. Yahweh was only one tribal god among many until Moses and Aaron singled him out to be the one god of the new unified tribe they were creating. If a lot of Pagan rituals and pantheons are similar, it's because of similar experiences at a time when most people were small farmers -- plus some fishermen, herders, hunters, and craftsmen. According to the OT, a lot of Pagan remnants hung on in Judaism for a good long time. Of course the Christian Inquisitors would have seen similarities!

    It's pretty well accepted today that, no, there was no one great universal Pagan tradition that covered all of Europe; there were only common features. It's perfectly fitting that there's such a wide variety of Pagan cults and sub-cults today. The advantage of Paganism is that there's a god/goddess and "tradition" for every need and every social group.


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