Rabbi Steven Fisdel’s white beard was luminous in the afternoon sunlight as he sat in his chair, answering written questions. I was sitting on a cushion, surrounded by women wearing yarmulkes, looking through a deck of tarot cards as the rabbi talked of psychic phenomena.
Physically, I was at Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley, at a workshop on the Kabbalah and the tarot, but I really was in the middle of what at first seemed like one big paradox.
“The Lord of the Rings,” Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer — our culture loves the supernatural. Heck, I love the supernatural But being a Jew doesn’t mix well with fantasy, magic and psychic phenomena. Isn’t this the stuff of paganism, the magical manifestations of gods that require idol worship?
Maybe, maybe not.
The intrigue bubbled over when I noticed an ad in this paper for a workshop on the Kabbalah and tarot. The description included a discussion of the Jewish origins of the tarot.
Jewish origins? On first glance, this seemed like the Jewish origins of bacon cheeseburgers. My exposure to tarot cards included images of Christian saints, Satan, you name it.
On the other hand, Judaism also has its share of references to the paranormal. Moses and the priests of Egypt turn their staves into snakes. Rabbi Loew of Prague turns a mannequin of clay into the Golem, right?
When I was growing up, there wasn’t exactly much magic around — except for maybe Dungeons and Dragons. The only type of magic that was tied to some real tradition of soothsaying was the tarot. Many of the smarter, more mystically inclined kids I knew played around with a deck. The cards — with their complex, frightening images and mysterious system for answering questions and telling the future — were alluring. I once had a tarot reading in college that was extremely accurate in regard to questions I asked — a profound and somewhat spooky experience.
How did Fisdel come to the tarot? He spoke of his early experience as a student at Hebrew University in the late ’60s, studying with some of the greatest living scholars of Kabbalah. While fascinated by the intricate but abstract theories of the Kabbalah, he hungered for some way to apply the insights to everyday experience. By chance, he found a book that led him to dig into the history of tarot and its illusive origins.
While playing with the tarot, the rabbi realized there were 22 cards in the main part of the deck, and that Hebrew letters frequently were part of the design of early tarot decks. There are, of course, 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet.
Trusting his intuition, Fisdel rebuilt the deck, stripping away what he perceived to be the non-Jewish elements. What remained was numbers and Hebrew letters — powerfully simple.
As I flipped through the rabbi’s Jewish deck, a single Hebrew letter centered on each card, I was moved. While lacking the grotesque thrill of some of the more baroque tarot decks, each letter had a tangible but hard to describe power in its twists and turns.
In that mystical moment I paused and returned to my initial question: Wasn’t the use of the deck to tell the future and engage in divination against Jewish doctrine?
Judaism doesn’t necessarily preclude the use of magic, Chana Andler, a teacher at Chochmat, told me, but the key is how it is practiced. So the tarot, to paraphrase Fisdel, is a mirror of the unconscious designed to help illuminate a person’s problems and concerns.
The cards placed back in their velvet bag, I walked to BART. Who would have thought that Judaism would bridge the gap between psychic phenomena and everyday choices?
Jay Schwartz plays the trap drums in San Francisco, where he lives with his wife and canine. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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