Photo of Rebecca Lesses

Rebecca Lesses

Associate Professor, Philosophy and Religion
School: School of Humanities and Sciences
Phone: 607-274-3556
Office: Job Hall 318
Specialty: Jewish Studies

Welcome to my faculty web page!

On this site, you can read information about my book, Ritual Practices to Gain Power, about my current courses, course policies, and about my family history (letters of historical interest, and columns written by my grandfather Richard Wilson, who was the Washington bureau chief for the Des Moines Register from 1933 to 1970).

Current Research

In the summer of 2019, I will be giving papers at two conferences in Europe. I will be presenting at the 7th biannual conference of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism, to be held in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, from July 2-4, 2019. My paper is entitled, "Visionary religious experience in the Hekhalot literature." 

I will also be presenting at the annual conference of the European Association for Biblical Studies, which is being held in Warsaw, Poland, from August 11-14. My paper for that conference is "Demons, Evil, and Illness in the Babylonian Incantation Bowls."

Abstracts for both papers

Visionary religious experience in the Hekhalot literature

The Jewish Hekhalot literature, dated from the 4th to the 7th centuries CE (Palestine and Babylonia), has two main focuses: instructions for and descriptions of ascents (also called descents) to the Merkabah (the heavenly chariot-throne of God), and detailed instructions to invoke high angels (e.g., Metatron) to descend to earth and obey the one who adjures them. The term hekhal originally referred to an inner chamber of the Jerusalem Temple, but in this literature the hekhalot are the heavenly temples/palaces of God and the angels closest to him. The ascent/descent is accomplished by several means, including the recital of hymns in praise of God and adjurations of angels. Adjurations of angels to descend to earth are accomplished by pronouncing the names of God and the angels. The principal goal of the ascent/descent to the Merkabah is for the human being to enter the divine throne-room and participate in the praise of God together with the angels. The goal of the invocation of angels is to gain revelatory wisdom and power over them.

The Hekhalot literature as whole, therefore, defies the conventional distinction between magic and mysticism, as mystical goals can be attained through magical means. This literature, at the time of its composition, was largely esoteric in audience (limited to a small number of learned men), although there is evidence that aspects of it were more widely known (as shown by the use of passages from the Hekhalot literature in the Babylonian incantation bowl texts). This paper will discuss the visionary experiences of God and the angels in this literature and how they might be understood as “extraordinary religious experiences,” in particular addressing the question of whether and how it is possible to gain knowledge of the nature of these experiences through the examination of instructional and literary texts.

Demons, Evil, and Illness in the Babylonian Incantation Bowls

Many types of demons, both named and unnamed, appear as threats to human beings in the inscriptions on the Babylonian incantation bowls. These are earthenware bowls discovered in archaeological excavations in Iraq, and usually dated to the later Sasanian and early Islamic periods (5th-8th centuries CE). Most inscriptions are written in Babylonian Jewish Aramaic, with a smaller number in Syriac and Mandaic, although the names of most of the clients are Persian. The paper will focus on the bowls with known provenances, but when bowls without known provenance are discussed, they will be flagged.

This paper will examine how the incantations on the bowls depict the varieties of demons, both named and unnamed, who cause an array of evil occurrences, including illness and death, to women, men, and children. Most of the bowls function to protect the people named upon them, and the paper will focus on this type to the exclusion of aggressive texts where the demons are directed to injure other people.

Questions the paper will address include: how do the bowls describe the ills, both physical and psychological, that befall people? In which instances do the demons cause particular illnesses (like migraine), and when do they threaten death, especially to children? How do the demons destroy relationships between people, especially between husband and wife? Are there gender or age differences among the dangers the demons offer to men, women, and children, or are they mostly common dangers? How do the incantations conceive of the spatial locations of the demons – are they located in the body, in the house, within the larger household, or outside the home area? How closely must they approach in order to endanger people? The goal of the paper is to construct a taxonomy of the dangers demons offered to human beings in late antique Babylonia.