The End

This particular journey has ended. This blog will no longer be updated (and hasn’t been since late summer of last year). Some posts will remain, as they have proven useful or helpful in the past, and the sentiments reflected in them are those that I still consider important and relevant (and perhaps still helpful).

If curious, this is where I’m writing now.

 

What it Means to be Jewish and a Polytheist

L’shanah Tova! Happy Jewish new year! Happy Canaanite new year!

The title of this blog post might seem strange, or controversial, or not possible to some people – but I find that, as the high holidays of Judaism roll around, and with my recent interest in connecting with the Gods of Canaan as per the urging of my ancestors, and my own heart, this is a topic I would like to discuss, and maybe make clearer for any and all interested in how one might be able to call themselves both Jewish AND a polytheist.

For those of you who have been following my journey for several years, and even for those of you who have been following this blog since its creation this past January, you will know two things: (1) how I came to Kemeticism initially, and how I realized I was a polytheist and (2) how I have since struggled to let go of the label “Jewish” despite my journey. Why this might be the case is a hard question to clarify: some people have told me that “monotheistic guilt” makes me this way. But if that were the case, why would I still insist on worshiping separate and distinct Deities? Perhaps I am somewhat of a soft polytheist, but I think that has less to do with whatever this “monotheist guilt” is, and more to do with my acceptance of Kemetic, as well as world, syncretism of Deities (that history attests to).  Never once have I woken up in a cold sweat, thinking, “but maybe I should only worship YHWH! Maybe what I mindlessly did in childhood IS really the true and right way!” No, that has never happened to me. I’ve questioned the origin of Deity before – and settled on somewhat of a Pantheistic explanation (from One Source – Nun, Ein Sof, The Big Bang, etc. – comes All Divinity)…but I’ve never once “turned back” from a generally polytheistic mindset to a “guilty monotheistic” one. I do believe YHVH is out there, a distinct Deity of true and great power, a God I would honor and respect as I would any other God…but He has not made me feel guilty.

“Jewish guilt” is a stereotype that has not yet played into my own religious life. I will be sure to let anyone know if and when it ever does.

But it hasn’t yet.

So, if it is not some weird sense of “monotheistic guilt” that drives my tendency to retain the identity “Jewish”, what does?

The truest, and most simple answer, is because of family.

Why Judaism isn’t Just a Religion

Judaism is more than a religion; it is a tribal affiliation.” –Jennifer Hunter (Magickal Judaism, page 1)

Judaism is, absolutely, a religion. Oftentimes a very orthodox one, oftentimes a much more reformed one. But over the years, as Jews have been persecuted and killed, diversified and dispersed, we have developed what I can only describe as “a culture.” The Jewish culture. Perhaps one could connect every cultural tradition a Jewish family partakes in back to a “monotheistic doctrine”, if one tried very hard to, but that does not mean that every Jewish family does every tradition with YHVH in mind. Not anymore. My mother lights the Sabbath candles, for example, and says the prayer out of “habit”. She told me she likes to say a silent prayer for her family in her head while she says the Hebrew words – with no mention of any God. When I asked her why she still sings the Hebrew, even if she says a different prayer in her mind and heart, she said, “because it’s pretty, and the melody is a comfort.”

I sometimes hum or sing Hebrew prayers or songs, also out of habit, and when I come across a lyric that perhaps translates to “glory be to the Lord” or something similar, it can be any Lord I want it to be. It can be El. It can be Wesir. It can even be a Goddess – Sekhmet or Anat. Because the nature of Deity is also gender-fluid in my mind. Original context of any Jewish prayer might dictate that it reference Just YHVH, but there’s no “Jewish police”, believe it or not. Perhaps in the Orthodox sects, but not when you’re a secular or cultural Jew, belonging to a much more reformed community. In the world of Judaism that I grew up in, and still take part in, all that truly matters is community and family.

A note on prayer: some prayers do NOT work for me anymore, please understand. I do not say the shema anymore, for example. It outright denies the existence of other Gods, and therefore, it would be hypocritical of me to say it simply out of “tradition.” There are boundaries. I am merely trying to explain, in the previous paragraph, that prayer can be interpreted when appropriate, to fit a person’s personal theology, if they still feel the desire to “sing along” with family and friends, in any given appropriate situation (and, for example, the prayer over the Sabbath candles does not directly reference a One God Only mandate like the shema does). But, I would not sing that which is blatantly against what I believe. Of course not.

In the end, though, I would say that you can believe and pray whatever you want, so long as you still live as a good person, and uphold the concept of mitzvot – which, if you are not aware, is nearly the exact same concept as Ma’at, in Kemeticism. Upholding justice, doing good deeds, making the best decision in any given situation. Loving kindness. Respect. Tikkun olam – repairing the world.

That’s what being Jewish means, in a cultural sense. I was raised to value these things.

And I was raised with a deep and fierce family pride. Many Jews are. To stop calling myself “Jewish” would mean a rejection of my ethnicity and my cultural upbringing. It would hurt my family, and it would hurt me.

And so much of what we do,  the Hebrew words we slip into conversation (mazel tov!), the holidays we celebrate, the candles we light, the bread we bake, the art we hang in our homes – they have, or have the potential to have, nothing to do with YHVH, or a Be-All-End-All theological mandate. Yes, there are Orthodox/conservative Jews who might argue with me on this. But there are many who would not argue me.

There are Atheist Jews. Buddhist Jews. Jew-“witches”. And even if you disagree with me, that’s ok – but I would call every single one of them, and any of us who call ourselves polytheistic Jews, still Jews.

Why? Because we still identify with our greater Jewish family. We are still culturally Jewish. We still value Jewish teachings and ethics. In the same sense that one could be proud to be American, proud to be from any nation or culture, one can be proud to be Jewish. The Jewish people are, in my case, as someone of a 100% Semitic blood, my tribe. My people.

As Jewish Pagans, we honor both our paths by shaping our beliefs and practices with creativity and inspiration. I’m sure many Jews would believe that Jewish Paganism or Jewitchery is a giant step toward assimilation. But among the Jewish Pagans I’ve met, and certainly, for me, this intriguing hybrid is a way to keep our Jewishness alive. If mainstream – especially Orthodox – Judaism were the only way to be a practicing Jew, most of us would abandon that tribal lineage entirely…my daughter is being raised as a Pagan, true, but also as a Jew, with a solid Jewish education and community. So much for assimilation!” –Jennifer Hunter (Magickal Judaism, page 19)

If a group of people can say, ‘We are the only ones who will determine what rules you need to follow in order to be one of us,’ which is what the rabbis have done, then you have to accept their definition of Jewish. Then, as a Pagan, you cannot be a Jew. If, on the other hand, you accept a broader definition, which is that Judaism is first of all a nationality, like being a Cherokee or Iroquois is a nationality – call it an ethnicity if you prefer – that happens to have a religion that characterizes it, but you can be, as most Israelis are, a nonpracticing, ethnically, nationally — in this sense, I am a Jew, yes, absolutely. Am I rabbinical Jew? Absolutely not. I’m not a Monotheist, for one. And I do not accept their authority. I respect their work, and they’ve done some very valuable stuff. I am certainly not hostile to them, but there are many ways in which one can be a Jew, and the rabbinical is just one of them.” –Elisheva (shofet of the Machane Am Ha’aretz Primitive Hebrew Assembly) interviewed in Magickal Judaism, page 14

And so you can see: I’m not the only one out there that feels this way. And there are even many rabbis, one of whom I am very close to (she may even officiate my wedding next Fall), that understand where I and others are coming from with our varying theologies and yet still Jewish identities. There are many rabbis who have taken a deep interest in Interfaith work, as well. In accepting and understanding other religions as valid and true and worth learning about.

How to be Jewish and a Polytheist

Now that we’ve covered the “why” – “why would one still identify as Jewish and yet hold a theology other than Monotheism” – I will move onto the “how.”

The short answer: it varies by Jew.

The longer answer: some Jewish Pagans (we’ll use Pagans here, rather than Atheists or Buddhists, etc., simply because I fall into the Jewish Pagan category myself) practice more Judaism-the-religion than they do a Pagan religion. Others practice more of a Pagan-religion, such as Wicca or a Recon religion such as Kemeticism, than they do Judaism-the-religion. It honestly depends. Some Jewish Pagans are Dualistic (like Wicca – Goddess and God, Shekhinah and YHVH, for example), some are still Monotheists, and others are, like me, Polytheists. And many are something else in-between (Animists, Pantheists, etc.). Some are Jewish and practice a Paganism very “unrelated” to Jewish ancestry, such as Hellenic Polytheism (I’ve known a Hellenic polytheist Jew! Her Patron was Athena); others, like me, stick to polytheistic traditions that originated in the ancient Levant and Near Eastern areas, the homes of mine – and other Semites’ – very distant ancestors (Egypt, Canaan, etc.).  Some Jewish Pagans prefer to simply study Kabbalah, and ceremonial magic, which is often related to Kabbalistic tradition. Others are fully Jewish in both culture and religion, and yet call themselves “witches”, with a preference for various magical traditions.

There are so many ways, and none is more right than any other.

Me, I’m a Kemetic and Canaanite polytheist. That means I practice Kemetic-style heka and ritual to honor the Kemetic Gods, and I also practice Canaanite-style ritual and magic to honor the Canaanite Gods. Both Pantheons have reached out to me, and I feel called to both of Them – perhaps at this time, you could say the Kemetic Pantheon has grown “quieter” than the Canaanite one. I am very much in a “Canaanite mode”. In many ways, it is Their more recent influence (especially the Lady Anat, Who I have recently approached) that drives me to speak out about the topic of Jewish vs. Polytheist. I should note: neither Pantheon, as far as I can tell, has shown any sort of distaste for me retaining the identity of “Jewish.” If anything, I can tell it makes my ancestors very proud and happy. In fact, it was my ancestors that pushed me, through meditation and ritual, to pursue Canaanite polytheism in the first place. “Aren’t happy with our God? Well, there are those of us, the eldest of us, who had many Gods once. Seek Them out.”

For Kemeticism, I use the ritual process of the Kemetic Orthodoxy’s Senut right now, as a weekly rite. I also use words and formats that appear in Richard Reidy’s Eternal Egypt. I celebrate the major Kemetic holidays. For Canaanite Polytheism, I use ritual outlines and suggestions from Tess Dawson’s Whisper of Stone (it is a useful book), and from independent studying I have done concerning the Canaanite mythos and religious life. I am currently still learning about the Canaanite holiday cycle – which, I am finding, wonderfully matches up quite nicely in timing with many of the Jewish holidays. I keep the Sabbath, or 7th day, as a day to mark both the Jewish day of rest as well as a day to give offerings to the Canaanite Gods. As Tess Dawson writes on her own website:

Many of us qadishuma mark a seventh day-of-rest per week, starting on Friday evenings and ending on Saturday evenings. This is a modern observance based on Jewish observance. During this day-of-rest, we make offerings to the deities, feast with our friends and families, and spend time in restive activities such as walks, meditation, study, and engaging in creative hobbies. I conclude that the days-of-rest in the ancient Canaanite calendar included holidays as well as new and full moons because of their sacred timings and the indication in primary documents of ritual offering and sacred activities. Instead of taking a day of rest on Friday night through Saturday night, some take days of rest on new moons and full moons.” –From Kina’ani (holidays section)

In addition, I celebrate many of the Jewish holidays with my family. And many of them, I have found, with research, have a place for ancestor veneration – an important thing to me, and many other Pagans, I know – and for fitting in a way to honor my Gods, rather than YHVH alone. I’m sure I will write more on these holidays and my own practices more specifically in the future, as this blog progresses.

In the end, it is not about “calling” my polytheistic practices “Jewish.” They aren’t. The worship of the Kemetic Gods is called Kemeticism, and the worship of the Canaanite Gods is called Canaanite Polytheism (or Natib Qadish, or even Hebrew Tribal Polytheism, depending on the person). But I am still Jewish. I still do Jewish things. I partake in Jewish culture. I align myself with the Jewish nation, or ethnicity. I try to fit Jewish tradition alongside my polytheistic practices because it gladdens might heart, and keeps Judaism alive in my life. I want my future children to know my Gods, but also know their own family history someday, to appreciate their ancestors, their living family members, and to understand why it’s a really cool and awesome thing to come from “the Jewish people.” Wouldn’t anyone – of any culture, any ethnicity, any race, any nation, any religion, any anything – want that for their own kids?

Is it hard sometimes, to reconcile Jewish identity and polytheistic practice? Yes, of course! Nothing is truly simple in the world of religion – our journeys are complex and ever-changing.

I have a very hard time with the holiday of Passover, or Pesach, for example. In Jewish tradition, this holiday’s mythos can often paint a very negative or troubled version of the ancient Egyptian religion, and Gods I know well and love. How does one reconcile this? By taking the parts that matter out from the parts that don’t. What Pesach is about is survival, and freedom. Freedom for all slaves, everywhere. I take the holiday of Pesach as a personal opportunity to work for peace and universal freedom in whatever ways I can – be it to volunteer somewhere, and help those less fortunate than me (those “trapped” in bad situations or held hostage by misfortune, a terrible economy, abuse, etc.) – or to simply pray for peace and freedom for all (sadly, many are still enslaved in this world we live in). And to remember all those who were once slaves – either historically or mythologically, because that should not ever happen to anyone, of any race/religion/ethnicity/etc, ever again (even if it already does, sadly). Pesach is also about rebirth and new beginnings. The Seder, the Pesach ritual meal, has many foods that represent Spring and the coming of new life into the world. This is something I also like to focus on during this holiday, rather than the story of Pesach itself, a story I feel many take much too literally.

And of course, there are many who look at the story of Pesach, and see a lesson about Interfaith. About Jews and other religions working together, rather than existing as enemies or strangers. “We were strangers in a strange land” is a quote commonly said during Pesach. Hospitality is a good lesson to take out of this holiday. Peace should be the goal, even if it is hard to come by.

So you can see: there is often so much more to be received from Jewish tradition than simply a “reminder of Monotheism”, or just one way to view these holidays and stories. It is multi-faceted.

A Day in my Life

Speaking of Jewish holidays, this Saturday marks the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. Another holiday that has always given me trouble. Repent for your sins! Fast! Suffer! Prepare for God’s judgement!

Why should I worry about YHVH’s judgement? I serve other Gods!

What about the judgement of my own Gods, though? What about Them? Does that matter too?

Yes, I think it does.

And so I go into Yom Kippur this year (as I have every year since identifying as Pagan, and as a Polytheist), a holiday my parents and grandparents have always requested I join them for, fast with them for, looking to my own Gods for judgement. Promising Them that I will be better. Promising myself that I will be better. I have not been good to myself this past year, and I have made many mistakes. I have areas to improve in as well. A fast helps us to realize how we are pampered, how much others do not have, how it feels to give up something important. These are lessons any of us can learn during this holiday, regardless of theology. I may not sing the prayers to YHVH, but I will fast for myself and for my Gods. And I will join my family in a break-the-fast feast afterwards.

And really, that is how I can be Jewish and a Polytheist. I pay attention to the lessons that can be learned in any given situation, in any given tradition.

And in the end, it is not about right and wrong, the “right way” to be Kemetic, the “right way” to be Jewish, or the “wrong way” to be a Canaanite polytheist. It is about what works for me. And what may or may not work for hundreds of other Jewish people, or Pagan people. Anyone has the right to disagree with me. Or to agree.

I will move forward regardless.

The only label that should matter, is whether or not I am a “good person.”

And I hope to always represent what that might mean to any given person I might meet, regardless of my religious or cultural identification.

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((NOTE: I will be going on a hiatus now, from this blog, for a few weeks. I need to take a break from online blogging and the Pagan blogging world, in general. This is nobody’s fault in particular, it is my own personal choice, for health reasons and for spiritual reasons. I need to re-charge my “spoons”, as many might say. I will be back, though. Look for me in a few weeks! ^_^))

Kabbalah: A 101 Guide

What is Kabbalah?

The literal English translation of the Hebrew word kabbalah means “receiving” or “that which has been received.” The study of Kabbalah, which can also be described as the study of Jewish mysticism, defines the content of what is or will be received – of what one might desire to receive. And what is that content exactly?

On the one hand, Kabbalah refers to tradition, ancient wisdom received and treasured from the past. On the other hand, if one is truly receptive, wisdom appears spontaneously, unprecedented, taking you by surprise. The Jewish mysticism tradition combines both of these elements. Its vocabulary teems with what the Zohar – the canonical text of the Kabbalah – calls ‘new-ancient-words.’ For example, ‘the world that is coming,’ a traditional phrase often understood as referring to a far-off messianic era, turns into ‘the world that is constantly coming,’ constantly flowing, a timeless dimension of reality available right here and now, if one is receptive.” (Matt, The Essential Kabbalah, page 1)

Judaism can be traditionally understood as a religion “of the book.” It is a religion of the tangible, corporeal world. There is a deep focus on the here-and-now; Jews are famous for not believing in an afterlife, after all. Jewish mythos likes to leave the unknown out of things – instead of focusing on life after death, young Jewish children are told to “make heaven on Earth” instead. This often leads to a wonderful sense of philanthropy and charity among Jewish people – the Jews I knew growing up were always involving themselves in volunteer work, nature clean-ups, food drives and cooking for the poor, etc. In short, modern Judaism tends to shy away from anything less concrete than what we can see and feel with our hands, “the physical world that God has made.” Books and texts are studied and interpreted over and over again, candles are lit, and people often gather to (yet another famous trend among Jews) eat. Judaism is a religion of and for the people, the people of Israel, a human vision – with the main goal, the longheld dream, being a mass return to the Holy Land (the very physical land of Israel). In many ways, Israel is the heaven of Judaism – located right here on Earth.

So what’s all this about Jewish mysticism then? The notion of Jewish shamanism, or mystical practice, might seem like an oxymoron to many, including many modern Jews. The sad thing is, many Jewish people don’t even really know that Kabbalah exists and is accessible to them. We are often told at a young age, especially growing up in more conservative Jewish families or communities, that Kabbalah is some crazy weird scary thing that only men above 40 are allowed to study. This is not true. Perhaps among the more Orthodox sects of Judaism, Kabbalah might still be restricted today, but contrary to popular belief, Kabbalah is not as ridiculously forbidden as it is sometimes made out to be. I’m a 24 year old woman, and I’ve studied it for several years already.

The History of Kabbalah: Why So Mysterious Today?

In many ways, it is not entirely the fault of modern Jews that they do not know anything about Kabbalah, or, more importantly, how to access it. Conservative Jewish scholars have been criticizing and ignoring Kabbalah for centuries. And ironically, as Gershon Winkler writes in his book Magic of the Ordinary:

What’s even more tragic is that the information lies suffocating in the dust of libraries and archives, in books and in manuscripts, often on the very shelves of those same scholars who dismiss the notion altogether.” (Winkler, Magic of the Ordinary, page 1)

Let’s back up for a minute, though. How did the practice of Kabbalah – that so many scholars then snubbed – begin, anyway?

In 1286, a Spanish Jew (a Sephardi in Hebrew) from Guadalajara named Moses de Leon met a wandering Palestinian mystic named Isaac ben Samuel of Acre (who later wrote about the experience in his diary, which is how we have the record), and confided in him that he had uncovered a centuries-old mystical text called the Zohar (of which de Leon claimed he did not know the exact author, but suspected it had been written by a man named Simeon ben Yohai). In truth, we know now that it was likely written by Simeon ben Yohai, who was one of the more eminent disciples of the martyred and famous Rabbi Akiba ben Joseph. In any case, de Leon promised to show the manuscript to Isaac ben Samuel, but died before he could do so. His death caused a bit of controversy, de Leon’s wife claiming later that it was actually de Leon who had written the Zohar, when that was not necessarily the case.  

After de Leon’s death, Kabbalah (which is what they called the tradition surrounding the study of that mystical and very mysterious manuscript of the Zohar de Leon had uncovered) remained an esoteric are of study in Spain for two centuries, practiced only by a few highly learned men (which, is in all likelihood where the more modern rumor began that only older men could study Kabbalah to begin with). In 1492, however, the Spanish Inquisition mandated that all Jews either convert or leave Spain, which forced many of the Kabbalah-studying mystics to flee to the town of Tzfat in the Galilee (what is now in northern Israel, and still the center of Jewish mysticism and magic in the world today). By the sixteenth century, Tzfat had become a center for mystical studies, with Isaac Luria, a shamanistic poet, as the leader of said studies. During this time, Kabbalah ended up developing a lot of the concepts that actually became, believe it or not, what we know of as European Chassidism (or “Jewish law”) today.

However…with the coming of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism began to suffer a significant decline in popularity. The rabbinical leaders of the time, due to a multitude of influences, were more interested in putting “superstition” behind them, rather than hold onto the depths of the Kabbalistic tradition. Winkler chalks a lot of this attitude up to Christianity’s long-time influence on Judaism historically, and during the many years to come:

Clearly, the Church did not tolerate any other form of spirituality than its own, and the Jews’ refusal to relinquish their ways and become Christian was then, and remains to this day, a theological irritation to Church doctrine in spite of well-intentioned latter-day papal apologetics. But in order to survive, the Jewish people had to compromise. For example, Jews had to tone down the roles of their women in religious life and function to avoid suspicions of witchcraft, a suspicion held of all women – their religious affiliation notwithstanding – who exhibited independence, learning, and mystical prowess.” (Winkler, Magic of the Ordinary, page 3).

Winkler also talks about the famous quote, that appears from within both Christian and Judaic scripture, which states that, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”, and how the quote actually reflects more the intentions of the Anglican translators of the Bible, rather than the intentions of those who originally wrote the Bible. He goes on to compare the Hebrew translations, showing that the more accurate translation would say, instead, “Thou shalt not sustain a witch”, meaning instead, that one should not rely on a witch: don’t get into a habit of supporting the livelihood of a magician – at the time, to spend money on a fortune teller or anything similar was thought foolish, and it was seen as waste for one to spend so much time trying to figure out the future, when they could be living their life actively and fully. So in the end, the phrase had more to do with historical occupation and financial pursuits originally than with magic as something evil or worthy of death (clearly the sentiment was never meant to be that dramatic).

Regardless of whether or not the decline of Kabbalah and mystical study from within Judaism had more to do with a change in tradition or with Christian influence and cultural persecution (likely both, in my opinion), the fact of the matter remains that Kabbalah began to disappear from modern Jewish religion…with more and more scholars either ignoring it or writing it off, so much so, that today, many Jews have forgotten about it, don’t know anything about it, and/or see it as something foolish, beyond them, or forbidden.

When really, Kabbalah has so much to teach, and so much to explore.

What Kabbalah Has to Say

Kabbalah is a window into the very oldest, very primal beginnings of Judaism: beginnings that were directly influenced by the polytheistic, ancient religions and cultures of Canaan and its surrounding areas. Very simply, Kabbalah provides the wisdom to establish a link between the soul and the mysteries of the living Earth. As Winkler describes it:

My ancestors were a tribal people, they lived and practiced a Judaism that in very few ways resembles the more urbanized Judaism of today. Once upon a time, my people enjoyed a relationship with the earth that was more about spirituality than about commerce or industry. Our visionaries came not from rabbinical seminaries and academies of higher learning but from solitary walkabouts and vision quests deep in the wilderness and far from the reaches of civilization. They were masters of sorcery and shamanism, dancing comfortably between the realms of spirit and matter, celebrating the magic of the worlds around them and the worlds beyond them.” (Winkler, Magic of the Ordinary, XIX)

Despite its obviously complex nature, the study of Kabbalah can be categorized into the following major topics:

  • Eis Sof (and the mysteries of creation: the Torah re-told)
  • The Tree of Life (and the Ten Sefirot)
  • Meditation and Enlightenment (connecting with Ayin, or Nothingness)
  • The Magic of the Hebrew Alphabet (Gematria) and Shamanistic healing
  • The Four Elements (and the study of angels, demons, and animal associations)

All of these things are discussed in the two primary texts of Kabbalah: The Zohar and the Sefer Yetzirah. What do these texts contain exactly?

Well, the Zohar (remember Moses de Leon?), which is the foundational text of Kabbalah, is actually an entire re-write of the Torah, or what many know of as the Old Testament. The Zohar is believed to be, essentially, the “true story” of the Torah – think of it like, the Old Testament we know (what is contained in the Torah) as the outer layer of an apple: the thick, red skin. It is only the surface layer, the literal interpretation, only what we can see with our eyes upon first glance. The Zohar, though, is the depths of juicy fruit within, the spiritual meaning of the Torah –  that we can not just see, but taste, feel, and smell. If the Torah is the base description of the experiences of the Israelites with the essence of God, then the Zohar is that experience, is that essence. The Zohar is the metaphysical, intangible, experiential, poetic version of the very literal, straightforward, surface-layer Torah.

The Sefer Yetzirah, on the other hand, is believed to have come after the Zohar, and is the supplemental stories and commentaries on several Kabbalistic themes, notably the origin story of the Hebrew Alphabet. The letters of the Hebrew Alphabet are believed to not just be constructs of language created by humans, but also breathing, living, and in many ways, sentient entities. Such is the reason why magic can be done with them, and why names and words are so vitally important from within Kabbalistic tradition. Words literally have the power to heal, to create, to destroy – and the Sefer Yetzirah explores this. The Sefer Yetzirah also explores the Tree of Life, and the Sefirot – which are, in the simplest of terms, very much like the chakras of Vedic medicine/mysticism. In many ways, the Sefirot are also levels of reality – that with many years of practice and study, a human can learn to experience.

Ein Sof: And in the Beginning…

One of the core concepts from within Kabbalah is that of Ein Sof: which translates roughly from Hebrew to “infinity.” Ein Sof is believed to be the birthing place (entity, being, realm) and first emanation of Divinity, or God, and in many ways, it is similar to a Pantheistic concept, as the Zohar states: “Ein Sof is in everything, and everything is in Ein Sof.” Ein Sof itself is not God, or a God, however, it is the place-from-which-God-came.

To give you a good idea of what the Zohar sounds like, and how Ein Sof is described, here is an excerpt from the first chapter of Genesis (Bereshit), the very same chapter that many Christians and Jews know of today as being that first “And God said ‘let there be light’, and there was” chapter from within the Old Testament:

 Tune had begun. Its great pendulum, whose beats are the ages, commenced to vibrate. The era of creation or manifestation had at last arrived. The nekuda reshima, primal point or nucleus, appeared. From it emanated and expanded the primary substance, the illimitable phosphorescent ether, of the nature of light, formless, colorless, being neither black nor green nor red. In it, latent yet potentially as in a mighty womb, lay the myriad prototypes and numberless forms of all created things as yet indiscernible, indistinguishable. By the secret and silent action of the divine will, from this primal luminous point radiated forth the vital life-giving spark which, pervading and operating in the great, enteric ocean of forms, became the soul of the universe, the fount and origin of all mundane life and motion and terrestrial existence, and in its nature and essence and secret operation remains ineffable, incomprehensible and indefinable. It has been conceived of as the divine Logos, the Word, and called Brashith, for the same was in the beginning with God.” (Zohar, section I Genesis).

Ein Sof by Rhosauce (2010)

Ein Sof by Rhosauce (2010)

Pretty intense, isn’t it? Imagine reading an entire version of the Bible like that! You can see why only the more patient and learned scholars made time for such texts in the past. A lot of it hardly made sense – and it took a lot of time, interpretation, and meditation to figure it all out, so to speak. I personally find it to be deeply and poetically beautiful, and far more interesting to read and mull over than the plain old text of the typical Old Testament. I also find the above passage curiously similar to descriptions I have read of the Big Bang – the scientific explanation for the creation of the universe and everything in it. Perhaps the Kabbalah’s greatest secret is that the spiritual constructs of creation and the scientific ones really aren’t so different after all.

The Tree of Life & The 10 Sefirot

Tree of Life

Tree of Life by Richard Quinn

The Tree of Life, or Etz Chayim, is a blueprint – a map of all the varies levels of realities and existences one can experience throughout life (and perhaps even after death, too). It is said that when Ein Sof began creation, 32 “pathways” were built – 10 sefirot and 22 Hebrew letters, with there being 22 connections/possible combinations between the sefirot. These “pathways” make up the Tree of Life (one interpretation pictured above). I like to equate the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, in many ways, with the Norse Yggdrasil – as both act as bridges between worlds, and various existences.

Sefirot is plural for the word sefira, which means “a single emanation.” Each sefira is a concept or “chakra” that emanates from the place of Divinity, and appears tangibly on the physical plain in various different ways. Some are “higher up” on the Tree than others; there is a certain hierarchy to them, and certain order by which they were originally emanated from Ein Sof. Those with any former knowledge of Kabbalah may be familiar with the following type of image:

The 10 Sefirot

The 10 Sefirot

The 10 Sefirot are as follows:

  1. Keter – Crown
  2. Chokhma – Wisdom
  3. Binah – Understanding
  4. Chesed – Lovingkindness
  5. Gevurah – Power
  6. Tiferet – Beauty
  7. Nezach – Endurance
  8. Hod – Majesty
  9. Yesod – Foundation
  10. Malkhut – Knigdom

It is said that Malkhut (kingdom) is the closest sefira to Earth (as we know and experience it), to the physical and material plane, the one we encounter the most in our daily lives. As we climb the Tree, we reach higher and higher into the metaphysical, into the conceptual, into the Divine. We leave the tangible, and seek out a higher existence. The uppermost sefira, Keter (Crown), is said to express the highest form of understanding, of enlightenment, that we (as humans) are able to reach…beyond that, there remain only the mysteries of Ein Sof to discover and comprehend (if full comprehension is even possible). It is said that “one who has attained Keter has reached God.”

Like with the more well-known Vedic chakras, the Sefirot are also often assigned colors, parts of the body, and other correspondences that can be used to meditate on, do magic with, heal, etc. I won’t list all of them here, but instead, recommend any of the sources listed below in my bibliography as good places to start learning about the ways in which the Sefirot can be used to better the self (through meditation, medicine, etc.).

Ayin: The Power of Nothing

Speaking of meditation, the Kabbalah has quite a lot to say about Nothing…or rather, how to achieve Nothingness, which, like the Buddhist concept of Enlightenment, is something to be desired. Ayin is actually a Hebrew letter – this one: ע. Remember what I said about letters having both personality and power? Well Ayin is the “silent letter” – it is the only letter in the Hebrew Alphabet, save perhaps Aleph (who has a different story, and “speaks with action”),  that “does not speak at all.” And while speech and words are certainly considered powerful from within a Kabbalistic context, there is a place for silence too. In fact, it is a very important place: as the Kabbalistic scholars are known to say – “Wisdom comes into being out of Ayin.” Remember the Sefirot? Wisdom (Chokhma) is the second highest on the Tree – the last step before Keter is reached.

Kabbalah reinforces and recommends the need for humans to meditate and focus on Ayin often, harnessing our own abilities to attempt enlightenment on the road to Keter. As Daniel C. Matt writes in The Essential Kabbalah:

Think of yourself as Ayin and forget yourself totally. Then you can transcend time, rising to the world of thought, where all is equal: life and death, ocean and dry land. Such is not the case if you are attached to the material nature of this world. If you think of yourself as something, then God cannot clothe himself in you, for God is infinite. No vessel can contain God, unless you think of yourself as Ayin.” (Matt, The Essential Kabbalah, page 71).

There is a belief that runs deep within Kabbalah, as it does in Buddhism, that letting go of excess material desires leads to a better understanding of the spiritual, and of “truth.” By letting go of selfishness, of baggage and lavishness, one is able to become a better person, and by default, become able to do more for the physical world around them. As Jennifer Hunter writes in Magickal Judaism:

The Kabbalist considers herself a partner in creation with God. When material existence was created, the vessels of the Sefirot, unable to hold in such a powerful force as the splendor of the Divine, shattered, causing sparks of Divinity to fly apart into time and space. Luria taught that when this happened, sparks of holiness (nitzotzot) got mixed up with more base matter (klipot, or husks). It is considered the Jews’ job to raise up the sparks so that they can be joined with each other again. This process is called tikkun ha nefesh, mending the soul, or tikkun olam, mending the world.” (Hunter, Magickal Judaism, page 71)

Remember what I said earlier about Judaism being a religion very much concerned with the physical and material world? With making “heaven on Earth?” And how that has caused Jews (in general) to become some of the most charitable people in the world? Remember how I also said that a long time ago, Kabbalah was the direct influence and foundation for what became modern Judaism (the Chassidic Judaism of Europe)?

Starting to see some connections here? The influence still shines through, despite so many having forgotten Kabbalah and its place within modern Judaism.

Kabbalah teaches that we can make the world a better place by bettering ourselves first – not just through focusing on the 21 “loud” letters of the material world, but also by focusing on the nothingness, the spiritual level, of Ayin. In the end, Kabbalah reminds us that Judaism has always had a place for the mystical and the spiritual, that the focus on the physical only is merely an illusion, a product of forgotten roots. It’s very much about balance: the seen and the unseen, the material and the spiritual, the human and the Divine…and this balance has been affecting us all along. Bettering the world around us is inherently tied to the process of bettering the inner world within us.

The Magic of the Hebrew Alphabet 

The Hebrew Alphabet alone has a multitude of mysteries and magical uses surrounding it: by now it’s likely clear how deep the story of the Alphabet goes – each letter has its own personality, its own origin story (which can all be read in the Sefer Yetzirah), and its own numeric value.

Jewish mysticism teaches that the Hebrew letters are the very building blocks of the world, and hidden within Torah are the answers to all questions. It is said that the Torah was written with “black fire on white fire,” that even the spaces between the letters have power and meaning. It requires a certain amount of creativity and persistence to puzzle it all out, however. First, Torah is written without vowels, so although most of the words can be deciphered based on context, there are some occasions where they are unclear. This leaves room for mystical speculation. Some letters may be codes symbolizing other letters. And since each letter has a numeric value, words with the same total value can be seen as related.” (Hunter, Magickal Judaism, page 78).

The system of assigning numeric values to the Hebrew letters is called Gematria. There are many different types of Gematria, but the most common system, called the Standard Method (or Mispar Gadol), is as follows:

Standard Method Gematria

Standard Method Gematria

And so, with such a method, every word in Hebrew has a double meaning – a numeric value, an equation. The magical possibilites for this are endless. One of the main ways of using Gematria magically is through sigil creation. Kabbalah teaches much on letter and number combinations, and the outcomes of such combinations. Remember the Sefirot? Remember the 22 Hebrew letter pathways of the Tree of Life? Sigils can be created with each of those combinations in mind, with certain Sefirot in mind. Invoking the power of the Hebrew letters and their number associations is a powerful way to use Kabbalah to influence the world around you.

Numbers have power in Kabbalah as much as the letters do. The famous name of God in Hebrew – YHVH – the name that no-one knows how to truly pronounce, is a sigil in and of itself…a secret code that, in fact, can be interpreted using the number associations in several ways. Some interpret the number associations as standing for four major aspects of Divinity: The Father/King, The Mother/Queen, The Son, and The Daughter (said to originate with the Canaanite Deities of the ancient past – El, Asherah,Ba’al, and Anath – which many religious scholars believe to have merged and became what modern Jews know of as YHVH, or Adonai, today. It should be noted also, that Kabbalah recognizes a definitive female aspect of the Abrahamic God, called Shekinah, Who has also been forgotten in much of modern Jewish practice, which I find to be a great shame). Others see the sum of the YHVH name as being connected to the holy number four. As Rabbi Jill Hammer writes on the Tel Shemesh website:

One of the building blocks of Jewish time, space, and soul is “fourness.” There are four letters of God’s name, four matriarchs, four promises of liberation, four cups at the Passover seder, four prayer times that span the Sabbath, four mystical worlds of being, four guardian angels, and, according to some, four layers of the spirit. On a more physical level, there are four elements, four winds, four seasons, four phases of the moon, and four directions. There are four corners on the ritual garment called the tallit, four species of plants gathered together for the ritual bundle called the lulav, and four poles to hold up the Jewish wedding canopy known as the chuppah. There are four ways of interpreting Torah: pshatdrashremez, and sod (the plain meaning, the allegorical meaning, the interpretive meaning, and the mystical meaning). There are four rivers in the garden of Eden. Fourness reflects the ages of human experience: youth, maturity and generativity, reaching one’s full power in mid-life, and the challenges and joys of old age. The Jewish world-tree, the etz chayim or tree of life, passes through four levels of existence on its way between heaven and earth.” (Hammer, TelShemesh.org)

It is to “Fourness” that we now turn.

The Four Elements, Angels, Demons, and All the Rest

The most important “foursome” in Kabbalah is that of the four natural elements: Earth, Air, Water, and Fire. Those familiar with Wiccan practice, as well as other traditional witchcraft and/or shamanistic paths, may find this to be a fairly recognizable and familiar approach to mysticism and magical practice. The four elements are age-old constructs, and they are just as important to meditate on and study the mysteries of as the Sephirot and the Gematria.

Like with other witchcraft and/or shamanistic traditions, in Kabbalah, the four elements are inherently tied to the four seasons, to the four directions, and to various animals and symbols. However, unique to Kabbalah, is the associations the four elements have with four very important angels. Jill Hammer mentions them in the quote above: the four guardian angels, or rather, Archangels. They are:

Michael (Meecha’el), who is associated with the direction of South, and the element of Fire. He/She is the Angel of Cleansing and Reflection, and appears on your right. His/Her animal is the human.

Uriel (Uree’el), who is associated with the direction of North, and the element of Water. He/She is the Angel of Mystery and Illumination, and appears in front of you. His/Her animal is the Eagle.

Raphael (Rafa’el), who is associated with the direction of West, and the element of Earth. He/She is the Angel of Merging and Healing, and appears behind you. His/Her animal is the bull.

Gabriel (Gavree’el), who is associated with the direction of East, and the element of Air. He/She is the Angel of Shining and Balance, and appears on your left. His/Her animal is the lion.

Angels are deeply complex beings, unlike Gods, and yet still unlike spirits – they are androgynous, and their own entities, and it is through Kabbalah that we can get to know them better, and call upon them for magical aid, protection, guidance, and wisdom. There are hundred of angels, minor and major, and learning about them, and invoking their names for practical use, is not an easy process, and takes time and patience. Like with any magical technique or summoning, it should be taken seriously.

After all, angels are not the only metaphysical beings the Kabbalah teaches us that we can summon for magical use. Sheydim are another type of entity that Kabbalistic mystics of the past focused on and studied. In the simplest of English vernacular, the word sheydim can be translated to “demons” – but I personally dislike using that translation, as sheydim are neither as negative, nor as controversial, as the word “demon” might make them out to be. Some sources say sheydim are “half-angel-half-human”; other sources say they are simply “shadows.”

They eat and drink like mortals, engage in sexual relations like mortals, and die like mortals; they have wings like angels, can foresee the future like angels, and journey from one end of the universe  to the other like angels. The dual nature of sheydim is a result of their having been created during twilight, referred to in ancient Judaic lingo as bein ha-arbayyim, or the time “Between the Blendings,” a period which is neither day nor night.” (Winkler, Magic of the Ordinary, page 89)

Both angels and sheydim have the potential to be dangerous, and helpful. Studying Kabbalah is a way to get to know their natures, and learn the ways in which they can be dealt with and studied. Yet another reason why perhaps Kabbalah had restricted learners for a time, and that the age of study was raised to a more mature level…however, these restrictions should be seen as”recommendations” only: in short, one should only study Kabbalah when one feels ready to (whatever age that might be). I do think a mature mindset is needed, but we all reach maturity and experience the world at different rates. Certainly Kabbalah is not for children, but it may very well have much to teach a young adult.

How to Learn More

The above information is merely meant to be a starting point for anyone interested in Kabbalah. A 101 guide is by no means the be-all-end-all of any topic…so I encourage those inspired by this post to continue reading and continue learning. All of the sources I list below in my bibliography I highly recommend. If you have any questions or comments, I would also be more than happy to hear them.

A Note on Spelling: Please keep in mind that I am coming from a Jewish context when I discuss Kabbalah. I grew up in a Jewish family, studied Hebrew as a kid, and have been studying Kabbalah for several years. Yes, I’m theologically a polytheist now (and this isn’t the post to discuss it, but polytheism actually works quite well with a theology called distributive pantheism, which I find can fit the Kabbalistic model of Divinity in many ways), as well as a Kemetic, but I spent the first 16 years of my life studying and living the religion of Judaism, and I still identify as a Jew (ethnically and culturally). I understand that Kabbalah has ties to what’s often spelled as Qabalah or Cabalah, but these traditions vary, and are based very much in ceremonial magic and Hermetic tradition. All of it’s related, yes, but I can’t speak to Hermeticism or ceremonial magic, or any other alternative Qabalistic or Cabalistic tradition. Spelling is a tricky thing, and I realize that other’s have their own views, but for me, Judaic Kabbalah specifically is always spelled with a K. And for me, the “original” Kabbalah is the Judaic sort.

A Note on Appropriation: As for whether or not Kabbalah is a closed tradition, it’s hard to say. Some of the more conservative Jews that also still study Kabbalah might say it is (see: why Madonna claiming to be a Kabbalist was deeply offensive and annoying for nearly all serious Jews). But as you can see, my religious views have changed since childhood, and I still study it (though I have 100% Jewish heritage). I think anyone can study it academically if they so wish – whether or not you can achieve magical or mystical results with Kabbalistic techniques if you aren’t of Jewish heritage, or have at least some working knowledge of Hebrew…well, I don’t know. I think a great deal of study is needed, and a great deal of understanding into what Judaism is all about is needed. I’m sure it might be possible for a convert to Judaism or someone who is able to connect deeply with its teachings to be able to perform Kabbalistic magic…but again, I’m no expert on this specific subject. This was meant to be a 101 Guide, and nothing more. In many ways, Judaism (and by default Kabbalah) is a closed religion unless you are serious about converting (since Judaism does not proselytize), but it becomes a grey area in some respects…since as I said, I’m Jewish by blood, but perhaps not fully by belief anymore. I promise you that I’m curious about this, though, and will continue to seek out answers.

Bibliography/Sources

  • Matt, Daniel C. The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism. HarperOne. 2009.
  • Hammer, Jill. The Jewish Book of Days. The Jewish Publication Society. 2006.
  • Hunter, Jennifer. Magickal Judaism: Connecting Pagan and Jewish Practice. Citadel. 2006.
  • Scholem, Gershom. On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism. Schocken. 1996.
  • Winkler, Gershon. Magic of the Ordinary: Recovering the Shamanic in Judaism. North Atlantic Books. 2003.
  • Encyclopedia Britannica: Moses de Leon
  • Hebrew Gematria
  • Peeling a Pomegranate 
  • Tel Shemesh
  • The Internet Sacred Texts Archive: Judaism (where the first-sources The Zohar and the Sefer Yetzirah can be found, with multiple translations)

Pagan Blog Project: “I is for Interchange – The Fluid Nature of Gods”

The other day, my friend, a Hellenic Polytheist and devotee of Persephone (who runs the proserpinas-garden tumblr blog) and I were talking about the nature of reconstructionism (or, rather, “historically-informed” Paganism) and how hard it can be sometimes, for us “modern folk,” to relate to the ways in which the Gods were worshipped or viewed in ancient times. We ended up talking about “how much has changed” and came to the conclusion that it just didn’t sit right with us that the Gods would be upset or less present because of the world’s changes, and how we worship Them now. So many of the Gods represent things that still exist, even if Their ancient cults don’t anymore (and the number of devotees has dwindled). We talked about how offering more modern items – notebook paper versus papyrus, store-bought bread versus bread made by hand at home – aren’t necessarily a bad thing. We joked that, in fact, the Gods must be so proud of us humans – how much we’ve accomplished, technology-wise, for example, over all these years.

“Hermes must be so pumped about e-mail!” my friend laughed.

And that got me thinking.

I tend to spend a lot of time researching “what my Gods mean.” I traverse websites like Henadology, taking notes on the imagery, the associations, and the mythology behind my Gods  – in an attempt to get to know Them better. Sometimes, I get so wrapped up in learning Their “history” that I forget that I interact with Them on a regular basis when I do ritual or pray. I interact with Them on a regular basis. In a modern world. In a modern context. With modern clothes on, and modern-made ritual items. Sure, the words are based in the ancient, and the ritual set-up and offerings are as close to the ancient “way” as possible, but it doesn’t remove me from the fact that I am talking to these ancient Gods in a modern apartment building in Philadelphia, not in a temple in the middle of Ancient Egypt.

And the Gods are responding.

Why are They responding? Because I’m trying my best to do things “the old way?” As a recon-slanted/revivalist Pagan, I believe invoking at least the essence of the ancient is a deeply respectful thing to do for the “Old Gods.” And part of it is for my own benefit – I love enacting some of the Ancient Egyptian practices, saying some of their words. But I don’t necessarily think the Gods are the sum of their ancient histories. They also exist in the here and now, as well. And that’s, in part, why it is easy for Them to “respond” to modern practitioners as much as They may have to the ancient practitioners.

Which brings me to the topic of this post: lately, I have been realizing that the nature of the Gods is a fluid one. Ever-changing. A constant interchange between the old and the new. The Gods are simultaneously ancient Beings and Beings of modernity. When it comes down to it, many of the aspects They embody or represent or are champions of mean the same things now as they did then. Love? War? The hearth and the home? The Sun? The Moon? Seasonal changes? Childbirth? Building and creation? Communication? Games and sports? Death? Judgement? Education? Knowledge? Justice? All of these things still exist. Their meanings, applications, and symbology has changed and morphed and evolved over the years, but I think, in many ways, the Gods have changed and morphed and evolved and adapted along with them.

This in part also explains the syncretic natures of many Deities, and how cultural/religious phenomena such as Greco-Egyptian Polytheism and Greco-Roman Polytheism and even Greco-Roman-Egyptian Polytheism are all valid and have existed for a long time, and can exist even now.  As P. Sufenas Virius Lupus writes, in the article, Syncretism Happens!:

It is difficult to imagine, if the original Hermes might have been abstracted from the cairns and herms which the Greeks set up as boundary-markers, that eventually Hermes would assume all of the forms he did simply within the Greek cultural spheres.  It is even more fascinating that he underwent the further changes he did as a result of continuing close contact between Egypt and the Hellenistic world.  The chthonic and psychopompic aspects of Hermes eventually fused with the Egyptian Anubis to form Hermanubis.  Hermes as the inventor of writing became merged with the Egyptian divine scribe Thoth to become Hermes Trismegistus, and to become a renowned wisdom figure at the fountainhead of Hermetic philosophy and theology, influential well into the Christian period and beyond.  And, in at least one case, Hermes even became fused with one of the other Greek deities in an Egyptian context, in the form of Hermekate–perhaps a non-dualistically gendered guardian of the crossroads, if nothing else.  While these syncretisms are certainly predictable and even expectable given the realities of cultural contacts in the past, and the rather archetypalizing tendencies of much post-Platonic Greek thought, nonetheless this puts forward the theological proposition that the gods are as changeable as the humans and the cultures who revere them.  If divine reality is as prone to evolution and transformation as much as the wider universe seems to be in a state of flux, then these two realities are in fact much more unified and influential on one another than many may have realized.  In Christian circles, this is known as “process theology,” and is reflected in ideas like the panentheistic presence of the divine, and yet the divine not being omnipotent.  While it took until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for the beginnings of this theological stream to be known in these mainline religious circles, one can look back to the days of late antiquity in Egypt and see that this, too, was not a new thing.  If the piles of stones that were once synonymous with Hermes have since given way, via Hermes Trismegistus and his heirs, to the very fine technologies of electronic information storage in silicon-based machines (and what is silicon if not very small stones of that element?), then Hermes of the Internet is a reality now which the ancients never would have imagined.  Humans have come a long way since late antiquity; and so too have the gods, and it will be so as long as humans are aware of the gods.” 

When I read Lupus’ article, I found myself physically nodding along with it. Yes! The Gods change all the time! The Gods are changed by our understandings of Them; and They change because of the way the world changes. They adapt to it; and we to Them. The Gods are as much “in for the ride” as we are. The ancient peoples of the past had no idea where they were going evolution-wise and technology-wise when they first started honoring these Gods, and in many ways, neither do we know now how and where we’re going to end up. In the next hundred years or so, human societies all over the world will very likely change again, and be much different than what we know as our reality now. And so long as we continue to honor these Gods – the “old Gods” of antiquity – the more They too will change.

And, this might be personal UPG here, but I think They do enjoy it. Upon deeper reflection, my friend’s joke about Hermes being proud of e-mail doesn’t strike me as a joke at all. I bet He is proud, and excited, and able to receive so much energy from the existence of the Internet and how fast and easy and immediate communication has become for us humans. If every letter sent in ancient Greece was once an offering – even simply a metaphorical devotion – to Hermes, then think about how many people, consciously and unconsciously, are offering/devoting to Him every time they press the send button on an e-mail or instant message. The numbers are mind-boggling.

And in that sense, it makes me proud to stand back for a minute and look at my world. The modern world has many flaws, yes;  and as Neil Gaiman’s American Gods so poignantly depicts (in a fictional way), many people have forgotten about the “old Gods”  – it’s true many of our Gods had more devotees in the past. But all that aside, I think we have so much to be proud of too, as humans, and so many new ways and constructs to see and feel and experience our Gods in, that I cannot help but be awed, even if I am only one from a small group who still love and worship these Gods. When I look at a skyscraper now, I think, “Dua Ptah! How Your creative spirit flows through our modern cities!” When I hear that someone I know recently had a baby, it still seems so right to me to thank Gods like Bes and Sekhmet, but instead saying, “Thank you, Bes, for watching over this new mother as she lay in the hospital bed giving birth, at her most vulnerable. Thank you, oh Sekhmet, for the medicine and the healing technologies that exist to make childbirth a much safer process nowadays.” When I read from my Kindle, I realize, “Dearest Seshat, how Your energy must flow through these e-books, how it must please You to see so many books archived in one object!”

In many ways, my eyes have been opened these past few days to a new and inspiring way to view my Gods: after all, They are still alive and well in all that we do. Yes, it is important to remember the past, the histories, and do our best to be informed. Yes, it is often appropriate to bring back some of those ancient words/practices into our modern rituals, mostly out of respect. But it’s important to also keep in mind that the Gods are not just Their ancient selves – They have modern selves, too. And we have the power to tap into all aspects of our Gods, if we are open to it. Especially when we are not in a ritual space, when we are simply trying to find our Gods in every day life.

Kemetic Round Table: Big vs.Little, i.e. Another Look At Community

The Kemetic Round Table (KRT) is a blogging project aimed at providing practical, useful information for modern Kemetic religious practitioners. This week’s topic: “You Don’t Have to be a “Big-Name Pagan” to be a Trend-Setter and Enact Greater Change in the Kemetic community. When you look at the Kemetic community as a whole, what flaws, hindrances, and negative trends do you see at work? Where would you like to see improvement most? What are some common, everyday things we as individuals can do to improve the current state of affairs? What suggestions do you have regarding bridging divides between different Kemetic factions and encouraging cooperation toward common goals? What methods and tactics should we employ to improve Kemetic presence on a local level; to encourage Kemetics to network not just online, but also in “the real world”?”

About a month or so ago, the topic of “community” was a hot one within the greater Pagan Blogosphere. A large number of very pertinent, articulate, and important posts were made. I contributed too, if you remember (though how “pertinent, articulate, and/or important” it was, that would be up to you to decide). One of the major topics that was a part of that greater community discussion that went on back in late March, and has now resurfaced as a part of the KRT, was/is the topic of “Big Name Pagans” vs. “The Little People.”

Who are the Big Name Pagans?

Come on, this one’s obvious: the people we all know the names of. The people who publish articles and books. The people who run podcasts and talk shows. The people who speak at conventions. The people who write for “larger” blogging projects/websites such as Patheos. The people who start organized religious movements from within Paganism (ADF, Kemetic Orthodoxy, various Wiccan covens/traditions, etc.). The people we view as “scholars of the faith,” who are, in fact, often academic scholars as well as religious ones. The people who run major forums. The people who get on the television news, or are written about on news-related websites. The people who have been doing this - being Pagan, or being Kemetic, and more importantly, being vocal about it – for a very, very long time.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time listing all of the names of these people, because chances are, even if you don’t want to admit it (for whatever reasons), you already know many of their names anyway. Depending on which “part” of Paganism you come from (be it a recon/revivalist tradition, something Wiccan, or something eclectic, etc.), you may know some of the names better than others…but you’ve still probably heard of most of them. We’ve all heard of them. Most of us Kemetics know the “Big Name Kemetics.” Why? Because of exactly what I’ve written above: these people are essentially “famous” from within Pagandom and/or Kemeticism.

So who are the Little People then?

You and me. The readers. The folks who haven’t been published, who haven’t been on the news, who haven’t yet founded any new organizations or groups, who haven’t planned or spoken at any large conventions or events, those of us who are (in many cases) young, and still very new to Paganism and/or Kemeticism (relatively speaking). Like in the case of celebrities or movie stars – somebody has to watch the movies and decide these people are worthy of praise (or criticism) and fame in order for them to become famous in the first place. The “Little People” are the people who allow Big Name Pagans to become as well known as they are. We talk about them, spread their names, join their organizations, and read their books and articles.  We support their Kickstarters and follow their blogs. We’re the “laymen/laywomen/laypeople” to their “Priest-like” statuses, in many cases.

And I certainly cannot provide a list of names in this case, because there are likely more “Little People” out there than I can count. You know who you are. From within both Paganism as a whole, and Kemeticism, I’m one of your ranks.

Ok, so What’s the Point? 

The point is that, in nearly every area of life (be it entertainment, academics, politics, business, religion, etc.), there are going to be the “Big Names” and the “Little People.” This is a fact of life, one that isn’t unique to just religion, or just Paganism, or just Kemeticism. No one person is better than any other person, in my opinion: it’s simply a fact that part of what defines the notion of “human society” in the first place is a sort of intangible hierarchy amongst people. What can we do to come to terms with this?

Coming to Terms with Big vs. Little

First, understand (as I said above) that nobody is better than anybody else. If we spend all day trying to compare ourselves to each other, we go nowhere, and we miss the point of living in the first place. “The grass is always greener” they say – but mostly as a caution: things are always going to look better for someone else, especially in times when we aren’t getting something we want or we don’t feel as successful as we could be. Instead of letting jealousy rule you, though, it’s better to take action and focus on the self. More likely than not, if jealousy of someone else is affecting you that much to begin with, you’ve got a lot to consider about your own life as it is.

So keep in mind, it’s not necessarily always easy to be “famous,” as much as it may not be easy to be a “nobody.” The Big Name Pagans often run into criticism as much as they do praise, and they often feel pressured (I would imagine) to “keep the peace” between many factions of people who listen to them. With knowledge – and power – comes great responsibility. The world of the Big Name Pagan (or anyone famous, for that matter) is a world of tension, a world of constant vigilance – say one wrong thing, use one unreliable source, support one questionable cause – and you are destroyed by the  people who were once your “fans.” And then it becomes a game of “fix the mistake,” which is a game that can take years to win. It’s a hard job, being well known. Don’t think for a second that it’s all roses and cake.

On the other hand, being a “nobody” from within Paganism – and from within Kemeticism – can be frustrating too. What if you have things to say? What if your dream has always been to create a new religious path, or write a book on something Pagan or Kemetic related, or speak at a convention about something you’re passionate about, or travel all over spreading knowledge (correct knowledge) about Paganism and/or Kemeticism? What if you feel like you can’t do much for the community without “being famous”? When we’re young – in our late teens or early 20s for example – it can sometimes be hard for us to be taken seriously in the first place. “Have you been researching enough?” one might ask. “Have you been Kemetic long enough?” Sometimes all we’d like is to be noticed by the Big Name Pagans, to contribute in some way to their work, but even that can fall through. What if they never notice us? What if we go nowhere from within our faith?

It’s not easy being known and it’s not easy being unknown. The first thing we need to do – no matter who we are – is accept that.

Then we move on to what we can do.

So What Can we Do?

Well, at this pont it should be fairly obvious what the Big Name Pagans can – and are – actively doing, but it’s a bit harder for us “Little People” to sometimes realize what we can do for Paganism as a whole and for Kemeticism more specifically.

The most important thing we can do is believe. Live our faiths. Honor our Gods. Do all the things we would normally do spiritually, because religion should never be about others first. Sure, community can be wonderful, but if your religion does not fulfill you even in the absence of the support and opinions of others, then what’s the point to begin with? Serving your God or Gods, serving nature, serving/working with the Fae – whatever it is that your religion is founded on, that should always come first. I’ve never trusted anyone who’s used religion to become famous…too many people in the world use religion already to start wars, and to spread hate and racism. Don’t give religion an ulterior motive. Understand that the most important thing is to forget what other humans are doing for a second, and let your Gods or whatever it is you believe in hold you up. Find sweet joy and spiritual nourishment from your religion. Until you are happy with yourself and your personal views on religion, how could you expect to engage with a greater community and a “greater sense of religion” in the first place? Many of the Big Name Pagans, believe it or not, spent a long time trying to figure out what worked best for them, and found their God or Gods only after years of deep, personal exploration and study. It works the same from within Kemeticism too – make sure Kemeticism works for you before you decide anything further about your “role as a Kemetic” in the community.

And you’d be surprised – many people who are going through that process (or who have gone through that process) end up deciding they don’t necessarily want to “go any further” in the community. Some people find being a “layperson” or Little Person extremely rewarding and fulfilling (I’m one of them). It is my personal opinion that one should never be ashamed of a lack of “greater ambition.” Do what makes you happy. The Little People are the foundation of Paganism, and of Kemeticism as a whole, anyway. Without them, the more well-known wouldn’t be well-known, would have nobody to teach to, write for, or talk to.

If you would like to achieve a more well-known status from within Paganism (and Kemeticism), though; if you truly want to become a Big Name Pagan: then my advice for you is to, first and foremost, be vocal. Write as much as you can – start a blog. Call in to podcasts and talk shows that others are hosting and ask questions, get your name out there. Join various Pagan forums and start talking to people – even non-Kemetics. Make friends from within the larger community. Go to conventions, go to meet-ups, go to events hosted all over your home town or city or anywhere closest to you that hosts such things. Don’t be afraid to let it be known that you are Pagan, too, and understand the consequences (both good and bad) of “coming out,” if you haven’t already. Consider your current stage of life, your career, your family – be mindful of what “coming out” as a Big Name Pagan would mean to not just yourself, but the others around you that you value and love. And if your dream is to do scholarly work, to be published – then go back to school if you need to. Spend years devoting yourself to your research. Learn to have a solid work ethic, if you don’t have one already.

And have patience. All dreams take time. Whether it’s becoming a doctor or a teacher or a priest or simply a Big Name Pagan…it doesn’t happen in a day. I wanted to be a translator all my life, and now, after 6 years of school, living in another country several times for long periods of time, test taking, studying, practicing, and job hunting (and working other jobs that were less desired), I’ve finally, finally only just begun to enter that field of work. Everything takes time.

Don’t give up, no matter who you are or what dreams you have.

Is That it Then?

Actually, I have one last thing to say.

I think, despite everything that I’ve written above, that we should stop focusing so much on the distinction between Big Name Pagans and The Little People, in general. That’s actually the best way for our larger Pagan community, and our smaller Kemetic one, to grow and become stronger, in my opinion.

Why?

Because when it comes down to it: we’re all Kemetics. We’re all fighting for the same things, in the end. And we all honor and serve and love and believe in the same Gods and the same values, no matter who we are or how well known we are. I think the obsession with Big Name Pagans vs. The Little People is one that we need to let go of, as a whole. Some people got to where they are, some people are getting there too, and others don’t want to go anywhere. And so many of us will always be somewhere in-between. I write a blog, for example, with no intention of becoming a Big Name Pagan. But maybe someday more people will know of me because of what I write. That might just be how it goes. What matters is that we do what makes us happy (writing a blog makes me happy), and learn to leave behind the constant worry of Big vs. Little.

Respect one another. In the end, that’s all I ask. Leave labels or statuses aside, for once, and have some respect. Everybody does their part in some small way.

It is the Christian Jesus who is famous for saying, “love thy neighbor.” I think that’s a lesson all of us – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Pagan, Kemetic, etc. – still, to this day, have much to learn from.

 

Kemetic Round Table: Coping With Inadequacy

The Kemetic Round Table (KRT) is a blogging project aimed at providing practical, useful information for modern Kemetic religious practitioners. This week’s topic:  “How do you Handle Inadequacy? There are times when even the best Kemetic practitioners feel inadequate. Do you ever feel inadequate in your practice/personal devotions, and of so, why? How do you handle these feelings?” 

[warning for the discussion of anxiety, and other mental health issues]

When it comes to inadequacy in modern Kemeticism, one of the first things that comes to mind is the question of “are you recon enough?” What is a “recon,” exactly? A “recon” (short for “Reconstructionist”) is someone who practices what was previously a “dead” or “dying” religion in as historically accurate a way as possible – they base nearly everything they do/believe on what was done/believed in antiquity, in an attempt to bring the religion back as it was “meant to be.”

This starts to get blurry when we take into consideration the undeniable fact that no matter how much we are willing to and attempt to recreate Kemetic religion as it once was, Ancient Egypt is long-gone…and many of us who feel drawn to Kemeticism are not Egyptian, nor do we live in Egypt, in the first place. And no matter how much we love what “once was” and desire to bring that back into our lives, we are blessed (or cursed, depending on your outlook) with modern minds, and modern points of view. So, in my opinion, it’s actually impossible to be “100% recon,” to literally become the past…we can’t do it. It’s impossible.

What we can do, though, is bring something back to life…with the understanding that it will be more a rebirth than a re-awakening. We can reach out to the Gods and say – “I’m here! I believe in You! I have bread and beer and water, and it’s not the same as it was, but it’s here, and I’m offering it to You! I remember!” We can attempt to remain ritually pure by showering in modern bathrooms, we can make homemade natron using salt and baking soda and boiling it on our modern stoves, we can honor the Egyptian seasons by trying to find correlating factors within the seasons we experience all over the world, we can study ancient texts and read the words in English (or German, or Spanish, or whatever languages we speak nowadays), we can wear Ankhs on sterling silver chains or tattoo them with modern ink onto our bodies, we can offer a variety of modern foods to our Gods in addition to the simpler offerings given in the past.

And this process, this process is what I like to call “Revivalism.” It implies nearly the same dedication to the past as “Reconstructionism” does, but without the pressure of “literally becoming the past.” It takes some of the strain off of pouring over books and academic sources and never actually interacting with the Gods themselves. Something to keep in mind: the Egyptian people were deeply, deeply spiritual, and spoke to and interacted with and “saw” their Gods every day, in everything they did. Just because the times have changed doesn’t mean we can’t do that too, in the modern age. I may not see a desert sun outside my window each morning, but I still see Re in all His Glory. A lot of it is perspective, as much as it is education and memory. A lot of it is balancing what is appropriate and important to do out of respect (getting the mythology right, understanding the history, etc.) with what is sometimes necessary to do for our modern lifestyles (most of us can’t even attend actual temples nowadays, because there just aren’t any yet!). And so I tend to focus less on “how recon is recon” when it comes to Kemeticism, and focus more on what I have chosen to call “the revival process” itself.

And I am happy. I have even found an organization – the Kemetic Orthodoxy – that works for me, and also seems to embody this “revivalism” approach to Kemeticism in much the same way that I do. I am excited to be joining their group as a Remetj soon (a “basic” member), now that the beginner’s course that I was taking has ended.

And you know? When it comes to my practice – to the offerings, to the rituals, to educating myself, to practicing tapping into my own “Godphone-methods”/UPG, I do not feel inadequate. I hardly ever do. Maybe that’s an arrogant thing to say: I certainly could be learning more, I could always be reading faster, memorizing facts about Ancient Egypt more efficiently, etc. etc. – but I like the rate at which I am moving forward. I read one book at a time; I take classes when I can. And when it comes to the other side of the spectrum – the world of mysticism and magic, I’ve already come to terms with my own deficiencies. I wrote about it already, and I encourage you to re-read that post if you’ve read it already. I have the utmost respect for those Kemetics attempting to break barriers: to foster an acceptance and a love of those who trance journey, astral travel, etc. from within Kemeticism. I know that that is something that not all modern Kemetics respect or think has a place within this religion. I think it has a place, even if I can’t and likely will never delve into it.

I’m not a shaman, and I’m not the most learned of scholars. And yet I am ok with this. I have been ok with this for some time. In many ways, when it comes to “how recon is recon,” we are as inadequate as we expect ourselves to be. Meaning: we judge the achievements or expectations of others and think, “I need to work harder, learn faster.” In reality, it’s the journey that matters – and it’s the rate at which we personally/individually can handle the journey. I look to those historians, scholars, and even the normal everyday Kemetics who have simply been Kemetic longer than me, and I thank them…because they inspire me. They don’t make me feel inadequate, they make me feel lucky to be a part of such an intelligent, dedicated community. For all our community faults, we have some pretty awesome hard workers too, in both the field of academics/Egyptology/scholarship, but also in mysticism.

So why write a post that’s supposed to be about inadequacy about not feeling inadequate?

Because, my dear readers, there are times when I feel inadequate as a Kemetic. They just aren’t the times I think some of you may have been expecting.

I feel at my most inadequate, not when I realize I haven’t read enough about Ancient Egypt or when I forget to pack natron with me on a trip to my parents’ house or when I can’t hear my Gods so well on some days or when I read the accounts of others’ astral travel and think about how I don’t/can’t do that…no, I feel at my most inadequate when I’m having panic attacks. Why?

Because when I am in a panic state, I don’t know how to uphold Ma’at. I lose my ability to judge correctly. I make mistakes.

And that’s when I feel my most inadequate, because that’s when I truly worry that I’m not “Kemetic enough.”

The rest? The “how learned am I,” the “how much heka can I or do I produce,” the “how I do rituals or offerings” – these are illusions of worry. I may feel inadequate about any one of those things on any given day, for maybe a few minutes or hours, but it’s “surface inadequacy.” Not to say worrying about those things makes anyone else not genuine – I understand that those areas can be legitimate causes for concern for many Kemetics. But for me, personally: my deepest, darkest feelings of inadequacy come when my anxiety takes over the rational part of my brain…the part of my brain that understands what Ma’at is, and how to approach and uphold Her.

I scare myself sometimes. When I have a panic attack, the usual control that I have over myself slips away. I cry, I breath too fast, I become immobile, and I put myself in danger sometimes – if I’m in a car driving, or if I’m in some sort of other risky situation (I’ve ended up in the hospital before). Now, granted, I’ve gotten better over the years – I have medication now (that I barely use, but I still carry around with me, which is a comfort in and of itself – the placebo effect and all that), and I have therapy, and I have the support of loved ones. All in all, I live a stable life. I have a good job, even. But I’m far from “fixed” – and I may never be “fixed.” It’s a chemical thing. And see, that’s where the inadequacy comes in – when my anxiety gets the better of me, I can’t hear the Gods. I can’t even hear my rational self. I can’t think straight.

And in my experience, so much of upholding Ma’at relies on judgement. But how can I judge what’s right or wrong if I can barely move from panic some days (sometimes the after-effects of a panic attack – even if the attack itself only lasted a few minutes – can stick with me for the rest of a day or night)? How can I feel “balanced” when a part of my brain is constantly worried, constantly on the look out for triggering factors, constantly trying to suppress what I consider my greatest weakness?

Did the Ancient Egyptians deal with anxiety, and other mental health disorders? I wonder.

The best thing that I’ve been able to tell myself is: I’m working on it. I think the most important thing for any Kemetic dealing with a mental health disorder or issue (even what might be considered the most minor of issues) to keep in mind is that upholding Ma’at doesn’t necessarily mean perfection. It means doing the best we can. I think the Gods know we aren’t perfect – that there’s not even really such a thing in the human world. The key is that we do our best to make the right decisions; what matters is that when we are faced with a hard decision – one of those “right or wrong” decisions (and I’m mostly talking about less severe ones, not life or death ones, since most of us don’t come into contact with such life or death decisions every day) – it’s not the outcome of the decision that makes the difference in the eyes of Ma’at, it’s the process. Did you think about it? Did you consider all outcomes? Did you even so much as try? Were you able to recognize your own failures, your own shortcomings? Did you ask for help? There are so many factors that go into it.

And another thing…Ma’at means balance, yes, but for me it’s always been about the balance between external and internal. And part of the internal, part of that’s me. Myself. My anxiety. The harder I work to help myself – and that includes the times when I just need to lie down and close my eyes and breath rather than do anything else “productive” – the more I’m actually upholding Ma’at, in the end. If I were to neglect others in favor of myself completely, then there’d be an issue; but there would also be an issue if I neglected myself completely in favor of others too. 

And so I continue on, proud to be a Kemetic Revivalist. And when the anxiety comes, when the panic takes over, I sometimes do feel inadequate…but I try to remind myself that, at least in my case, inadequacy can sometimes be a good thing. We can learn from it. And we can grow and improve because we learn from it. As my middle school teacher boyfriend likes to put it, “Every mistake is just another opportunity to learn.”

I think we can amend that for Kemetics: “Every mistake is just another opportunity to uphold Ma’at the next time.”

So, if you’re like me – with anxiety, or any other mental health issue – just know that I believe in you (Kemetic or not), and that I know what it’s like to feel at your most inadequate (in that sense). So try not to give up.

All we can do is try.

Pagan Blog Project: “G is for Group” (i.e. Why Your Words Matter)

Before you roll your eyes (another person writing about community? So many people have written poignant posts on this in the past few days, isn’t just one more a bit of overkill?), I want you to think about something.

I want you to consider two symbols: 団 and 体. Yeah, that’s Japanese. Bear with me. The first symbol, 団, is often pronounced “dan.” It means “association.” The second symbol, 体, is often pronounced “tai” and it has a few meanings, notably: “reality”, “identity”, and “shape” or “form.” Together (団体) the symbols make up the Japanese vocabulary word “dantai”, which means “organization” or “group.”

In Japan, kanji –  the Japanese version of traditional Chinese written language (as used above) – often denotes a cultural truth about Japanese society (which is often true about language in general – language reflects culture). In Japan, one’s group IS considered one’s identity. The word for “group” (団体) visually represents this. Which means that a “group” in Japan is considered, literally, “an association of identity.” Japan has its flaws (I would argue it often takes its group-mindset a little too far in some respects), but there’s a reason it’s one of the cleanest, safest, and most efficient countries in the world. There’s a reason people work so well together there, there’s a reason there’s so few crimes, and so few public arguments, and such an emphasis on respect and politeness. And there’s a reason religious life there is so fluidly and beautifully integrated with secular happenings…and there’s a reason few people ever comment on “the religious strife/disagreements in Japan.” And that’s because it doesn’t exist – not nearly as much as it does here in the West, or in other parts of the world.

Devo has already wonderfully commented on how Shinto can provide us with a great example to follow, so I won’t go into it here. The point is that if we’re going to talk about community, we need to think about what the word actually means. And like the Japanese, maybe it’s time we took our language more seriously. Sannion wrote that “too many of us are writers” (which I can agree with, to an extent), but maybe the issue isn’t how many are writing, but how many don’t understand the meaning of their own words.

Arya, a brave little soul from George R.R. Martin’s notable series A Song of Ice and Fire, is known for her mantra “fear cuts deeper than swords.”  So do words. The old “sticks and stones” saying is a lie. Words hurt plenty, and they cut down to the bone. I can’t even begin to describe how many times I’ve cried – been so deeply hurt – because of something someone has said to me or written about me, or said to or written about others. Verbal bullying is real. And it needs to stop.

I could go on and on and talk about the same relevant topics others have already covered – about what needs to stop and who needs to stop doing it and how you even begin to build individual religious organizations in the first place – but I won’t, because others have done so well already in literally taking the words right out of my own mouth. I guess if I really wanted to state my opinion on the subject at large, I could link to all the posts I’ve already read and simply caption it as “I agree wholeheartedly.” Because that’s how it would go down.

What I want you to bring away from this particular post, on this particular blog, written by nobody important – just some 24-year-old girl in Philadelphia who spends more time translating insurance applications from Japanese-to-English than she does doing anything particularly mind-blowing in the field of religion – is that your words matter. I don’t care who you are – 50 years old or 15 years old, a “well known person in the community” or a nobody like me, an academic or a mechanic, a girl or boy or something else in-between…your words matter. Stop using them to hurt people, and start using them to educate people, to admire people, to politely disagree with people, to argue intelligently with people, to make connections with people. Think before you speak. Think before you write.

Kemeticism places a huge amount of value on the written and spoken word. Heck, we even have Deities Who represent these things. If you call yourself Kemetic, and you use your words in an ill manner (to cut someone down, to be disrespectful, to spread hate, etc.) do you really think you’re doing the work of Djehuty and Seshat? Do you really think you’re honoring our Gods? Plot twist: you aren’t. Nobody said words have to be pretty or beautiful at all times (this is by no means an argument against cursing or using graphic language to get a point across): This is about intention and the meaning YOU subscribe to your words. And it’s about understanding the original meaning behind words…words like “community.”

One of the definitions of the English word “community” is:

“A feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals” (New Oxford American Dictionary)

Here’s the bottom line: if you don’t feel like you can get along with the majority of the people in the “Pagan/Polytheist/Recon” world, or even in the particular path you’ve chosen to follow (Wicca, Hellenism, Heathenry, Kemeticism, etc.), then maybe that isn’t the community for you. Listen, that’s ok. It might be better for your own health if you stepped back, and tried to focus on other communities in your life instead. Following the literal definition above…if you don’t have the same attitude, interests, and/or goals of more of the people around you (and you find yourself simply just getting mad or frustrated all the time)…that’s the first indication that you shouldn’t be around those people.

Let me tell you a personal story, because anecdotes are useful sometimes. When I was 16 and still considered myself Jewish, I was a part of a very fun state-run Jewish youth group (I won’t give out the name here, just to keep it more anonymous for all involved). Every few months (usually one per season) the youth group would have a weekend-long convention at a synagogue somewhere in the state (sometimes our synagogue, located outside Philadelphia, would be used, which were always the best ones because I could stay at my own house and not sleep on the floor somewhere ^__~ ). The conventions would include prayer services, rituals, community meals, educational workshops, community service, and social events (such as going bowling, or ice skating, or having a party). This youth group was fun, I met a lot of Jewish kids around my age and in the same denomination of Judaism as me (conservative Judaism). Right around the time when I turned 16, I became interested in becoming more of a leadership figure within the group…so I  became an applicant to fill the “Rel-Ed” (Religious Education, my favorite part of the conventions) vice-president position. The way it worked was that the entire group would vote on who could become candidates, and I was voted in that way. Then, the current committee of presidents and vice-presidents (for each “ruling area” of the youth group – Religious Education, Event Planning Committee, Social/Outreach, Community Service, etc.) and the “Overall” president and vice-president would interview the applicants and choose based on qualifications, personality, experience, etc. Sounds intense, but it was a good system.

So I thought.

Turned out that I didn’t meet one of their qualifications for becoming a youth group leader, and that was “choosing only to date someone Jewish.” Apparently, in that particular youth group, you could not be anything more than a base member (i.e. you couldn’t be a leader) unless you promised to only date Jewish people for the duration of your leadership. This was meant to promote the spread and growth of Judaism, and encourage same-faith couples/marriage…for varying reasons (to “keep the religion alive,” for one). Quite frankly, this seemed like bullshit to me. At the time, I was dating my current significant other (Jack, who I have now been with for six years), who is from an Irish Catholic family. I didn’t want to break up with Jack just to become a leader of some Jewish youth group that happened to be fun sometimes. I probably could have faked it – “said” I broke up with him but actually didn’t, but that was besides the point for me then – it was the principle of the matter that offended me in the first place. Why should who we choose to date or marry affect how good of leaders we are, or how dedicated we are to our chosen religions? It shouldn’t matter, in my mind. I became furious and upset. I was 100% qualified in every other way to lead, but they turned me down because of Jack, and because I didn’t like the idea of breaking up with him.

You know what I did? I left that youth group. Sure, other parts of it were fun, and they did great things for the greater Pennsylvania community…but I couldn’t agree with them on that one point about dating/marriage, so I left . That particular community did not align with MY attitude on what Judaism should be about, my interests as far as who should and should not be leaders, and/or my own goals of someday having a family and marrying someone based on love not religion. But instead of raging through the halls of said youth group’s various meeting places and screaming my lungs out and hating on them forever, I told them my opinion on the matter (stated intelligently and without malice) and then politely declined to pay for membership the next year and eventually cut all ties with them. I refuse to say anything bad about them even now, to this day, except when that particular issue of dating comes up in conversation (and I don’t call them names or anything, I just tell people where I disagreed).

And you know why I reacted, and still react, that way? Because I recognized that they interpreted Judaism differently than me. I also see now that there were other aspects of Judaism that didn’t end up working out for me (considering I’m now Kemetic)…so I might have found something else I didn’t like about that youth group eventually anyway. I also understood, then and now, that getting hateful and angry and using words simply to use them against a person or group you disagree with is the wrong way to go about it. If you don’t like a person or group, get the hell out of there. Simple as that. Stop subjecting yourself to things that make you upset or uncomfortable.

On the other hand, if you want to be a part of something more than you disagree with it, make compromises. I couldn’t compromise with that youth group (in my mind), so I left. It was better for me to do so. But if you find that you still want to be a part of something (such as the P/P/R community), but there are still many things you disagree with, think long and hard about how and if you can compromise. And if you CAN, and you decide to, use your words accordingly. When you disagree, do so politely. When you are upset, ask for help or guidance, don’t scream incessantly about it. That’s how we compromise. And if it comes to the point where you cannot compromise anymore, with yourself or with others, get out. Find a new community. Make new friends. Start over. There’s nothing wrong with that.

All I ask is that we, in this community and in all other outside communities, use our words wisely.

Words have power. Don’t ever think for a second that they don’t.

Pagan Blog Project: “F is for Familiarity: Knowing Where You Stand”

For a long time, I felt a bit down (and it’s not the fault of anyone specific) because the astral/journey-work tends to come up a lot in my daily dealings with the Pagan/Polytheist/Recon community (as a whole). First and foremost: there’s nothing wrong with astral travel or journey work, and I don’t dislike you if you’re someone who partakes in it (and trust me, no one person alone caused me to feel this way from the start). The reason I felt this way was because I seem to be, based on the larger P/P/R Internet community, one of the few who strays away from or nearly never visits the astral or does journey work at all.

“Well, why let others affect who and what you are?” one might ask. Let me ask in return: have you ever been afraid of or not interested in doing something that a lot of your friends or people you might know like to do or feel like they need to do – but you wish you could, because THEY do and you love them? Or, even more simply, have you ever been affected by peer pressure? Have you ever doubted your own decisions – have you ever thought, “everyone else does ____, why don’t I? Is there something wrong with me? Will I fit in better if I start doing ___?” You could equate it to anything else in the mundane world really – smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, using other drugs, drinking coffee, drinking soda, eating certain foods, staying up late at night regularly, casual sex, working out, playing certain video games – literally, anything that a group of people around you might really enjoy, but you’re not sure about or don’t think could work well with your particular lifestyle. You might call me cowardly, or easily influenced, but I honestly think every human on this earth is affected in one small way or another by peer pressure, by society, by the other humans around them. I think it is rare to find a person out there who does not look to others for some form of approval, or companionship, or acceptance. It’s in our nature to want those things, we shouldn’t be ashamed of it.

But, we should know our own limits. We should know when to cross the line for others (be it to help another person, to get to know another person, to be accepted into a group of people, etc.) and when to do what’s safe and healthy for our own individual selves. Existing in the mainstream, secular, mundane community called “the human race” takes as much balance and understanding of the self as existing in a more specified/defined spiritual community, such as the P/P/R one (or, even more specifically, the Kemetic one).

It’s hard, though. It’s not meant to be easy.

How do we find our place within the various human communities we belong to? How do we find our place within religion? In secular society, “finding one’s place” is as difficult, if not more difficult, than how we might find ourselves within religion. What career will you have, what person will you marry, what purpose do you serve – these are all the questions we have to deal with on a daily basis. Some of us have found our dream careers, some of us have found tolerable careers that serve us well until we DO find our “dream work,” and some of us are stuck in nightmares of jobs for various temporary or more-permanent reasons. Some of us may never know what our “dream careers” are, but have found other ways to be happy. Some of us have gone to school, have become scholars; some of us have worked from day one at some hands-on job or another. Some of us form families, have children, create households with one or multiple partners (romantic, sexual, and/or platonic – there is a myriad of relationship options out there). Some of us are single and loners for life, and are none the worse for it. Some of us travel, some of us settle down.

The fact of the matter is: there are many, many, many roles – all equally valid and helpful for society – to be filled by all of us in the world. The world needs artists and musicians as much as it needs doctors and lawyers. The world needs writers and educators as much as it needs mechanics and IT specialists. The world needs mothers and fathers as much as it needs solitary community builders. The world needs followers as much as it needs leaders.

And you know what? On a much smaller scale, religion works the same way.

Some of us are meant to travel, to do journey-work, to explore the other realms and the astral plane. Some of us are driven there by Gods, by spirits, by our own desires and dreams and curiosity. Some of us are inspired from the start to be mystics or shamans, to delve deeply into the unseen worlds of magic and chaos and unknown energies. Some of us don’t start out that way, but find that we are called to it later in life or when the time is right to deal with a particular aspect from our pasts or presents that needs dealing with in that manner.

And some of us are never meant to go there at all.

I am one of those people. I’m never going to be a mystic or a shaman, nor will I likely ever journey regularly or visit the unseen worlds. I do not feel called to it and never have. Journey work can border on both benevolent and terrifying: and I have no desire for either, and in addition, none of my Gods has ever asked me to go there anyway. I am a person of the waking world, I am a person of the seen realm. I am a woman of the four elements, as they manifest physically, not metaphysically. My heka – my magic – is written, spoken, crafted, tangible. It’s not better than the journey work of others, of course not. It is simply unique to me. I think my Gods know this, and know that I would not do well or I am not mentally capable of handling the astral or journey work as a primary means of devoting to Them or as a way to work through my own personal issues, etc.

I used to feel ashamed of the above facts, upset at myself for “not fitting in,” for wanting to be more like those who journey…I would read the beautiful and scary and deeply resonate experiences of friends and others online of their own journey work and revelations while journeying and I would think, “how is my work, how is what I do, my daily, tangible life, as important or magical or healing or revelatory as the work these people are doing, for both themselves and others?”

Then, today, I read an article that really helped me come to terms with myself, and my “role” within my religion, and my larger religious community. It was posted on a small community Facebook forum I belong to with a few other Internet Kemetics. After many of us read it, we had a discussion about “roles” in Kemeticism, and how there’s a general feeling (within the Kemetic community, but also within the greater P/P/R community) of, as a friend put it, “too many Chieftains, not enough tribespeople.” Too many people, it seems, feel like they need to know everything there is to know about their religion, and that it’s most important to exist within the P/P/R community as some sort of deeply devoted, be-all-end-all mystic/shaman-esque spiritual leader, otherwise, you mean very little to the Gods or the others in the community. It seems to be a constant comparison fest – which I admit that I too have fallen victim to! – of “whether or not I’m living up to the expectations set by this community.” Wanting a “God-phone”, wanting a solid magical practice, wanting a “name” within the community, wanting to appear learned about everything, wanting to do journey work, all of these things seem to stem from the overall expectation that you must do all you can to make yourself worthy before the Gods, or at least worthy in the eyes of the others who already HAVE made themselves worthy before the Gods.

And we forget.

We forget that in antiquity – and hell, even now, in the more major religions (such as Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, etc.) – there are priests and spiritual leaders for a reason. And that reason is that everyone isn’t meant to carry the weight of an entire religion on his or her shoulders. Just like my example above with varying career paths in secular life – not everyone is meant to be President of the United States (or leaders of other countries)…in fact, not everyone is meant to be in positions of power or leadership of varying degrees. Doctors need nurses to aid them; politicians needs volunteer factions and political parties to keep them going; and schools need principals, but they also needs teachers, and they also need parents, and they also need bus drivers and janitors to support them. It’s the same in religion. Religions need followers, “laypersons”, as much as they need mystics, shamans, leaders, priests, etc. As the Kemetic Orthodoxy likes to state it, “The Remetj – “the people of the faith” – are the foundation of Kemetic Orthodoxy, not the priests.”

And priest-status or layperson-status aside, there are so many other roles to be filled within a religious community. All religions need lorekeepers – scholars and writers to study and keep the existing mythologies alive and to document new stories as they form and come about. Religions, especially the P/P/R ones, need healers, shamans, diviners, and mystics of many different types and levels – and such people can work on a deeply intimate “priestly-level” or on a more casual “layperson” level, depending on individual choice and calling. But religions, including the P/P/R ones, also need basic support – the mothers and fathers who educate their children about the religions; the women and men who do work in communities for their God or Gods (volunteers, people who dedicate what they do to Divine Service); and those of us who simply give our support, our love, our trust, and our help (in whatever ways we can) to those who HAVE chosen to take on “more serious roles” (such as priestly service or deeper shamanistic/journey workings).

As I wrote on the Facebook group this afternoon, after finally coming to terms with what I know will always be my role within the Kemetic community (as it grows and develops), as well as within the larger P/P/R community:

“I wanna be the lady who bakes the bread and brews the tea for the priests/shamans when they come home from their crazy journey work and need some rest and a hot drink. I want to be the support, the foundation, the love, and the help that’s needed to support not just the Gods, but the people who sacrifice and CAN sacrifice enough to do “more” than a layperson could do. That’s how I see myself progressing, if needed within a larger community faith.”

And you know? That’s ok. And if you’re someone like me – someone who does not journey, who does not do more complex magic (a sigil here and there), who does divination mostly for yourself (and to communicate with your Gods), who puts more stake in baking bread or brewing tea than you might in dreams and trances and meditations, who talks to your Gods while in the shower or in the kitchen (and not necessarily ever in another plane of existence), who loves with all your heart the others in your faith and would do all you could to help your faith grow in the seen world (do service work, create music or art, help educate, support the leadership that may already exist, etc.), who is content in going no farther than calling yourself a layperson…it’s ok. You matter too. We all matter.

I know where I stand when it comes to religion. When I do daily Tarot, there’s a card that always comes up whenever I ask the question, “What is my personal ‘status-quo’, my natural state of being?” That card is the Queen of Pentacles. The Queen of Pentacles is traditionally symbolic of, not spiritual development or leadership or otherworldly powers or even magic. She is deeply maternal and material, and she exists very firmly on the earth-plane. But she is kindness, she is support, she is a caregiver, and she is love. She is the foundation of the home, of the community.

That’s me. That’s my role. That’s where I stand.

And I could not be more proud of knowing that.

Kemetic Round Table: Surviving the Fallow, Climbing the Mountain

“Fallow Time” – the dreaded phrase. A time period – the length of which we are almost never sure of in advance – when we feel spiritually “dry,” so to speak: our Gods are quiet (eerily so), our motivation to do ritual or do magic or do whatever it is that we usually do has disappeared, and we feel lost, confused, upset, distracted and/or a combination of all of these emotions.

Being still fairly new to Kemeticism (I’m just two years or so into my practice now, about, and not all of that time was spent strictly learning Kemeticism), I can’t say I’ve ever experienced fallow time to quite the same intensity/degree that others writing for this project might have. For one, I’ve simply not been Kemetic long enough for a significant amount of fallow time to “make a difference” in my practice. I will say this, however – there have certainly been times when I’ve doubted my connection to the Gods, doubted my abilities to perform heka, doubted whether or not Kemeticism was really right for me, etc. For me, “Fallow Time” is synonymous with “Period of Doubt.” So far during my time as a Kemetic, such times have been less about the Gods “leaving me” and more about “me leaving the Gods.”

My longest “Period of Doubt” so far was actually last year, 2012 – from June to August. Not only was I “doubting” myself and my connection to the Kemetic Gods at the time, but I had made a huge life-change in moving all the way across the world to live in Tokyo, Japan for the year…to be honest, it just wasn’t a good time for religion for me, too much was already changing, and too many secular things needed my full attention. I attended school and worked in Japan, and for the first month or so especially, I was beyond busy. A very tiny bit of background on me: I studied Japanese in college, and had lived in Japan twice before going last year, so it wasn’t so much the language barrier (which didn’t exist, since I could communicate) or the culture that made life harder for me, it was simply the huge decision to go there for so long, and build basically a whole new life there for the rest of 2012. I had decided to go last year so that I could study for and pass JLPT N2, an exam that would help me on my way to becoming a more qualified translator (funny story, though, I ended up teaching while in Japan and loved it so much that I’m actually considering getting my full teaching certification now that I’m back in America!). Anyway, while I love to travel and have done so often throughout my life, it was still a big deal – I had to essentially get used to, not a university-run study abroad program that’s catered to making one feel at home, but an independent lifestyle in which it was 100% up to me to make myself feel at home. There were amazing times, and there were challenging times, as might be expected.

It was during that time, though, that I “lost” my connection to the Gods – I suspect now it was mostly because I wasn’t listening, not in the least. I’d “turned off” spirituality in favor of becoming adjusted to Japanese life and improving myself while living there. Why the two couldn’t exist hand-in-hand, I didn’t really think about at the time. And perhaps it was all for the better, as you will see!

So, I didn’t practice anything Kemetic, or spiritual, for basically all of June and July 2012. I had thought, before coming to Japan, that I had a pretty good relationship building with the God Djehuty, but in Japan, I didn’t even think of Him, let alone hear from Him at all, at first. I’d brought His statue with me, but that means little when you don’t offer to the God or even make the space for a real, working shrine. Sure, my room was small (tiny, actually), but that’s not really a good excuse. The real reason I didn’t do anything was because I wasn’t feeling it – I was distracted. I’d let go. Luckily, though, the Gods are usually patient. When we leave Them, and when They leave us, for whatever reasons.

Then, in August of 2012, I made the big decision to climb Mt. Fuji.

Something you need to understand about Japan: despite my “spiritually distracted state,” Japan is a highly, highly spiritual place to live. The religions of Buddhism and Shinto are so fluidly integrated into everyday Japanese life, that most Japanese don’t even realize what they’re doing might be considered “religious.” They simply make offerings, speak to spirits, talk to inanimate objects, do little cultural traditions, visit shrines and temples, honor ancestors, eat certain foods at certain times, etc. all because it’s what they perceive to be “just what we do as Japanese people,” when really, from an outsider’s point of view, it’s what we might know to be the influences of Buddhist and Shinto traditions and history ingrained in their culture. That’s why, when you decide to climb Mt. Fuji, the Japanese will not only be very impressed with you, they will warn you to watch out for Fuji-san’s dangers. No, not the mountain’s dangers. The God – or Kami – who is the mountain’s dangers. “Fuji-san is a tricky old man,” they will say. “He is powerful beyond ages. A wise man climbs Him once; a fool, twice.”

I went into the climb not really realizing what an impact it would make on me, not only physically, but spiritually as well. The traditional and recommended way to climb Mt. Fuji is the begin at 7 pm or 8 pm and climb all through the night, reaching the summit somewhere around 3 am, where you then wait to watch the sunrise come up around 4 am. This sounds like it might be miserable and highly challenging. It is. But it is infinitely worth it in every sense of the phrase – because the difficult process of climbing Mt. Fuji is, quite literally, a spiritual trial, as much as a physical one, if you are open to it. Flashlights can only do so good at certain points. At a certain memorable point near the end, you literally have to hold onto the rock with both hands, your body hanging vertically, and rock-climb your way up, up, up, up into what the Japanese call “the Cloud Ceiling.” You simply have to trust yourself, and trust the mountain around you, and trust the other climbers making their way up as you do. We had oxygen tanks with us, as well, because the atmosphere truly does change, and it gets hard to breath. We had water, snacks, and medicine – but it made no difference. We were still exhausted and drained by the end. I think nobody goes into that climb ready for the mental drain it takes, even if they are prepared for the physical drain.

Mt. Fuji is about 3,000 meters / 12,300 feet high. It is a dormant volcano – meaning it’s not dead, no. It’s just sleeping. There is a power, an energy, that resonates around that mountain…that everybody climbing can feel. I remember a distinct memory of one of the Japanese tour guides leading a group near us point out into the gloomy darkness and say, “Do you see those lights, those tiny flashes far away? That’s Tokyo.” Tokyo, the largest metropolitan area in the world, pinpricks of light. We were higher than I had even imagined, because time stands still when you climb that mountain. You become lost in the darkness, in the gloom, in the clouds, in the ethereal energy that pervades every rock, tree, and plant. You climb on because there’s no going back. There are no ski-lifts open during the climbing season of Mt. Fuji. On some parts of the mountain there are lodges you can stay at, for very expensive prices (they also have toilets and food). And there are a few well-placed medical stations, if needed. But as the Japanese are fond of saying: if you begin the climb, you finish it.

And then you see it. Suddenly, out of the gloom, out of the rain/snow/sleet, out of the Cloud Ceiling, one emerges and is greeted by a single-standing red torii gate. Red torii gates mark the entrances to Shinto shrines all throughout Japan, and you must pass through them before entering the shrine area. They are symbols literally reminding you that you are passing from the mundane into the spiritual. They say that on the other side of every torii gate is an entrance to the Unseen World, the world of spirits, and of the Kami. 

At the very summit of Mt. Fuji stands a single torri gate. There are no shrines on the top of Mt. Fuji, but there is that gate. This is because the entirety of Mt. Fuji’s summit is a shrine. The entirety of Mt. Fuji is a God. When you enter the summit of Mt. Fuji, you enter the domain of Japan’s greatest Kami. 

It is, without a doubt, the most spiritual place I have ever stood in my entire life, under that gate. As the sun began to rise, the gate’s red color began to shine, and the entire universe began to brighten. I have never felt so sure of what Creation must have looked like as I did while watching the sun rise from the top of Mt. Fuji. I can’t even begin to describe in words the energy of that place. You could look into the crater of the volcano, stare into the depth of Fuji, and believe me, when I looked, I felt Him looking back.

And, at the risk of sounding corny, at that moment I “woke up again,” so to speak. I realized that just because I was busy, just because I had a new home for the rest of the year, didn’t mean I should put off being spiritual. At that moment, there was no doubt in my mind that spirits were real, magic was real, and the Gods were real, and I wanted them back in my life again.

It was after climbing Mt. Fuji that I made a shrine on my desk in Japan, finally taking out Djehuty’s statue. It was after climbing Mt. Fuji that I began visiting more Shinto shrines and Buddhist Temples around Tokyo and using their amazing energy and power to help me deal with the lack of my normal spiritual community (being away from my Kemetic friend, and others in the Pagan/polytheist community, as well as my Jewish family/community). I became inspired to find the only Jewish synagogue in Tokyo and visit once or twice, when time allowed. I made offerings of Japanese mikan – a citrus fruit – to Djehuty, and prayed to Him often. Through that, He helped me come to terms with my life in Japan, and my academic and career goals. I also learned Tarot, and Bibliomancy, and I studied Kabbalah and Earth-based Judaism under Ketzirah of Peeling a Pomegranate. And when I returned home, to America, the Ladies came to me. They pushed me to sign up for the Kemetic Orthodoxy beginner’s course, and explore my spirituality as a Kemetic even more in depth. I felt renewed; inspired on a whole new level. Ready to learn more about myself, and ready to continue growing spiritually.

So, what kinds of advice can I provide for those who may find themselves in fallow time? In short, I can’t promise that every fallow time will be similar for every person in any particular spiritual path, but I can promise, however, that there are ways to deal with it. The way I dealt with mine will not always be the way that works best for someone else; but there is one thing that I’ve personally found, especially through my experience last year, that might be able to help others…and that is: sometimes, what you really need in order to “find” your spirituality again after a period of fallow time, is not to sit idly by and wait for things to “get better again.” Take action, have an open mind. Go out there and experience the world, and see what happens! You may not have as powerful an experience as I did on Mt. Fuji, but you never know! Sometimes all we need is a little reminder that there are amazing, intense, interesting, and beautiful energies around us – outside of our personal Gods and our personal paths – that can perhaps serve as vehicles of centering, as ways to bring us back to where we started before entering fallow time (whether we entered on our own accord or because the Gods left us that way, etc.).

And, you know, sometimes we need a break. And the Gods know that, They do. Sometimes distractions are ok. Sometimes getting wrapped up in secular life can be a breath of fresh air we never even knew we needed. So don’t panic if you fall into a fallow period, either because you pushed yourself there or you were pushed there – try to fill that time with activity and progress, even if that progress comes from other areas of your life. There’s nothing wrong with it, and you’ll be pulled back when ready.

So get out there, climb your own mountain!

Me at the top of Mt. Fuji!

Me at the top of Mt. Fuji! (After 8+ hours of hiking through wind, snow, darkness, and rain!)