The magical mystery tour

The stage is set for the final battle between the mystical mode and the magical one.

The magical mystery tour (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
The magical mystery tour
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
WHILE PURSUING academic research and his own spiritual journey in the late 1960s, the Peruvian American anthropologist and author Carlos Arana Castañeda asked the Yaqui Native American shaman don Juan Matus to teach him to use the peyote cactus.
Castañeda hoped to experience the hallucinogenic powers of that wondrous plant and what a “Westerner” might call a psychedelic sense of reality. Castañeda assumed that by using the peyote, or to phrase it more generally, by being introduced merely to the technique of don Juan’s Native American religious world, he would gain insight into the world of the shaman.
Initially, Castañeda was naïve enough to think that brief visits to a shaman and consumption of peyote would immediately open the door to the mysteries of the “other world” but he soon found it would take more than that. In the years that followed he visited don Juan time and again, extending his stay and deepening his connection with him. Eventually, he found himself engaged in a lifelong learning process that radically changed him. When don Juan finally agreed to let Castañeda use the peyote, the writer had already become a “Native American” and was ready for shamanhood himself.
From the point of view of the main streams of Jewish mystical tradition, there is a clear distinction between religious mystical engagements that seek “to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord, to frequent his temples” (Psalms 27:4) that require a long spiritual preparation over time, such as Castañeda achieved, as opposed to what is considered a “lower” and, at times, even sinful and transgressive abuse of the deity’s powers for magical, i.e. humanly motivated, self-serving outcomes. This tension between the use and abuse of mystical knowledge is not foreign to the Jewish Kabbalist tradition of Safed such as that of R. Moshe Cordovero (1522-1570) or the founder of Hasidism, the Ba’al Shem Tov (1698-1760) and others.
For example, we have accounts from as early as the Heikhalot literature of the first centuries CE and later records of more developed techniques from medieval and renaissance kabbalah, of practices that involve combining letters of holy names with talismans for heavenward ascents. Rabbis do not debate the potency of these techniques but rather their proper use, approving of what they perceive as pure and higher purposes, and disapproving of immediate self-serving goals.
The essence of this predicament is found in our Torah portion, in the character of grand magus Balaam. Balaam was summoned by Balak, king of Moab, who “saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites” and was “overcome with dread,” to curse the Israelites and weaken their powers. Balak knew that Balaam possessed superhuman powers and “that he whom [Balaam] blesses is blessed, and he whom [Balaam] curses is cursed.” Thus, Balak hoped, Balaam’s sorcery would help the Moabite armies to “smite” Israel and “drive them out of the land.”
Several times Balak sends messengers to Balaam, trying to lure him to the task. At first, Balaam refuses.
He seems to be an honorable keeper of mystical sacred knowledge when he says to Balak’s servants, “If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord my God, to do anything, small or great...” However, he does tell the messenger to stay the night while he prays to God for instruction on the matter. Balaam, it would seem, maintains that the powers invested in him can be used only in accordance with divine will and that there is a distinct line between magic and the befitting use of divine influence.
In the end however, he gives in to his hubris that stems from his own superpowers. Balaam indeed had a revelation: “God … said unto him: ‘If the men are come to call thee, rise up, go with them.’” But the men did not come to him. Instead, eager to interpret his vision as permission to proceed, he “rose up in the morning, saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moab.”
Thus the stage is set for the final battle, but not between Israel and Moab – it is instead between the mystical mode and the magical one, between seeking God’s nearness and the self-interested exercise of occult powers for personal glory.
The mystical mode triumphs: it is not Balaam but his donkey who is honored first with a revelation. In consequence, the humbled grand magus’s sorcery and rituals produce not magical curses but a series of glorious blessings to Israel, the highlight of which became engraved in our collective memory and opens every Shachrit service: “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel.”  Rabbi Haim O. Rechnitzer is Associate Professor of Modern Jewish Thought at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati, and a poet. He is the author of ‘Prophecy and the Perfect Political Order: The Political Theology of Leo Strauss’ and ‘Songs of the Third Exile’