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Astrology as the opiate of the Jewish masses

by David Holzel

One night, back in my roaring 20s, I got into a conversation with a beautiful young woman on Ben-Yehudah Street in Jerusalem. As I admired her ringlets of brown hair and rich chocolate eyes, she asked me, in Hebrew, what my mazal was.

Later that evening, when I knew I would never see her again and was no longer frantically trying to figure out how I was going to get her to spend the rest of her life with me, I realized her question was extraordinary for two reasons.

First, because although we translate mazal colloquially as "luck," its original meaning was "sign" -- as in zodiac. So here was this Israeli woman handing me, in the language of the prophets, of Agnon, of Tschernikhovski, the ultimate pick-up cliché. (For the record, my mazal is moznaim, the scales, or Libra.)

But it got me thinking. (That was the second extraordinary thing.) I wondered if there was anything uniquely Jewish about Astrology beyond this Israeli woman's adoption of shallow American bar chatter.

So I began my investigation. It turned out that astrology, which originated in Babylon, was the opiate of the Jewish masses, just as it was for the rest of the Near Eastern and Western world.

Rabbinical leaders condemned the practice. The Talmudic Rabbi Samuel ruled that "Torah cannot go together with the art that studies the heavens." Maimonides, the medieval philosopher and ever the extreme rationalist, dismissed astrology as superstition.

And the historian Josephus wrote that the Jews pursued their disastrous wars against the Romans in part because they relied on misinterpreted celestial signs.

But alongside these official denunciations comes one of the most fanciful and lyrical midrashim I've encountered. It seeks to place astrology in context by describing nothing less than how the Jews came to be.
"Astrology's strong point is describing an individual's personality. Its weak point is its ability to predict the future."

--astrologer Ilan Pecker
  Abraham, it seems, was the foremost astrologer in all Babylon. A great zodiac was tattooed on his chest, and every morning kings came from East and West to seek advice.

But when Abraham divined his own future, he discovered a paradox. His calculations told him he was to become the father of a nation. But Abraham had no children.

It was only then that Abraham pierced the firmament and for the first time perceived a God who was the author of all creation. In this leap of faith, Abraham came to believe in a world where an old, childless man could become the father of a great people. At that moment, Abraham became the first Jew.

A few weeks after my encounter on Ben-Yehudah Street, I was sitting, not half-a-mile away, in the office of Ilan Pecker, a lawyer, religious Jew and professional astrologer. He was telling me that same story about Abraham.

"The stars are matter and we are matter," he explained after finishing the story. "In order to rise above the zodiac, we must, like Abraham, become more spiritual."

In my dim memory, I recall a book-lined room with large horoscope charts spread across a table. Mr. Pecker sat behind his desk as I tried to refute the notion that astrology was anything more than bunk.

He told me that modern astrology is more akin to psychology than to science. "Astrology says there is a correlation between the movement of the planets and the behavior of man. We just don't know how the influence works," he said. "Astrology's strong point is describing an individual's personality. Its weak point is its ability to predict the future."

That means that newspaper horoscopes are bunk, right? "You can't divide the world's 5 billion people into 12 astrological groups and expect to learn anything," he agreed.

Ilan Pecker wrote those newspaper horoscopes. He nodded and sighed. Supply and demand.

When it comes to astrology's efficacy, I'm with Maimonides. It's a diversion for people with problems whose uncomfortable solutions may be right in front of them.

On the other hand, the old rationalist was never one to inspire emotional wonderment. At Kibbutz Bet Alfa, in the Jezre'el Valley, they unearthed a breathtaking mosaic floor from a 6th-century synagogue. At its center is a giant wheel of the zodiac, including a nude figure holding scales -- my sign, moznaim.

The mosaic is so vivid that you can almost imagine the response of the artist's friends when they first saw it. They probably pumped his hand warmly and wished him a hearty mazal tov on his accomplishment.

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