Rebecca Lesses

Associate Professor, Philosophy and Religion
School: School of Humanities and Sciences

Jewish Folk Religion: Magic and Ritual Power examines the Jewish magical tradition from antiquity through the Middle Ages, and investigates how it survived and underwent transformation in the modern world. In the ancient and medieval worlds, Jews were reputed to possess much knowledge about magic: amulets and spells to heal from sickness or harm one’s enemies, mystical incantations to ascend to heaven or bring angels down to earth, and information about the beneficent angels who assisted humans in their fight against the demons of illness and madness. Jewish magic has been part of folk Jewish knowledge and elite rabbinic practice in many cultures.

The term “magic” is problematic, because it has generally been used to describe the religious and ritual practices of people whom the speaker disapproves of. Other suggested terms are “folk religion” and “ritual power.” The course begins by examining these terms and whether they can replace the word “magic.” We read a variety of historical and anthropological approaches to this question, in order to discover the history of the term and the ways it has been used by modern researchers since the 19th century. We then turn to different Jewish definition of magic and ritual power to see how ancient and medieval Jewish authorities judged magic – was it an acceptable activity, or wholly outside normative Jewish practice? The course then gives a survey of Jewish magical texts that range from the Bible to medieval stories and amulets. We consider the use of amulets and other magical techniques for healing, and explore the relationship between magic and Jewish mysticism. The course finishes with an examination of possession and exorcism in the early modern world, and the ways in which the Jewish magic tradition still persists in the modern era.

Students in the course in Fall 2011 created very interesting final projects and papers, and this page provides a link to Powerpoint presentations and videos produced by the students, as well as a photo gallery of some of the projects (including Tori Caserta's Babylonian magical incantation bowl, and Abby Laden's children's books, Sweetening the Spirits: Health and Healing among Sephardic Jews).


This is Sarah Mansfield's project: "Spirit World In Jewish folk religion and Native American Shamanism"

Powerpoint Presentations

Suzanna Slavin - Golems and Their Connection to Western Literature and Modern Science

Amelia Reynolds - A Serious Man: Depictions of Jewish Folklore

Sarah Mansfield - A Common Understanding of the Spirit World: Native American Shamanism and Jewish Folk Religion

The text of Tori Caserta's magical bowl

This day from every day, years, and generations of the world, I, Tori bat Robin, have divorced and dismissed and banished you, you Lilith, Lilith of the desert, ghost and kidnapper. I have decreed against you with the curse that Joshua ben Perohia sent against you. I adjure you by the name of your father and by the name of your mother. Amen Amen Selah.

A Serious Man: Depictions of Jewish Folklore

Amelia Reynolds wrote on Jewish folklore in the Coen brothers' film, A Serious Man. Folklore motifs in the film included the depiction of a dybbuk as the opening scene of the film, demons, the likening of main character's life experience to that of Job in the Bible, and Abraxas (a Gnostic deity).

Suzanna Slavin - Golems paper

This is the title slide from Suzanna Slavin's presentation on her paper on "Golems and their connection to Western literature and modern science."

A Babylonian Magic Bowl

Tori Caserta made a Babylonian Incantation Bowl for her project. These were bowls, inscribed with protective incantations, and buried in the house or on its threshold, to guard the inhabitants of the house from demonic forces.