Human Flight In The Jewish Tradition

Rabbi Marc B. Shapiro blogs:

The most famous example of human flight in Jewish literature is that of Jesus. As described in Toledot Yeshu, Jesus was able to use God’s holy name in order to fly, and was brought down by Judas Iscariot who could also fly and defiled Jesus (which caused Jesus to lose his special powers). According to one tradition, he defiled Jesus by urinating on him, but another version has him engaging in homosexual sex while in the air, which in context certainly means rape.

…With reference to Jesus, it is interesting to note that many Jews actually believed that he performed wonders. However, they attributed it to his knowledge of God’s holy name. Why didn’t they simply assume that all the stories about him were fiction, as modern Jews do? I think the answer is that since all of their neighbors believed the stories, and the miracles Jesus performed are said to have been done before crowds of people, many Jews therefore assumed that these tales must be historically accurate.

In general, it is a common pre-modern assumption that if a group of people, even a group from generations ago, claimed to have witnessed something, that this is a sign that it indeed took place. Today, however, we know how false this argument is. We can cite many examples of mass delusion, not to mention the fact that stories of what people in previous generations witnessed are not actually examples of many people testifying to something, but of one person, the writer, claiming as much.

…This raises the question of the Talmud as a source of history, which is too large to go into here. But I do want to call attention to what R. Hershel Schachter states in a recent shiur, which I am sure will be surprising to many. The shiur (“Jewish Heritage Tour of Italy, part 2) can be found here.

Beginning at minute 66 R. Schachter acknowledges that the Talmud can err in matters of history. In support of this viewpoint, he cites R. Zerahyah ha-Levi (the Baal ha-Maor) at the beginning of Rosh ha-Shanah and R. Solomon Luria to Sanhedrin 52b. Here is an excerpt:

Today you have people [who] are considered Orthodox and they say [that] the Gemara made a mistake in history. There are a lot of people like that. . . . This is an ongoing debate. Just seventy years ago, before the Second World War, some of the rabbanim in Europe wrote in their seforim [that] it’s a well known fact that the bayit sheni was much more than 420 years. There is 150 years missing there. . . . We are used to this already. When Rabbenu Azariah min ha-Edomim (De Rossi) came out with his sefer Meor Einayim . . . and he said that maybe the chachmei ha-Gemara were wrong in history . . . many rabbanim were so upset they wanted to make a herem against him. I think they did make a herem; I am not sure. . . . Today, everybody is used to this. We assume that the Gemara is not necessarily expert on history, The Gemara can make mistakes in history. Today it’s not assumed to be apikorsus to say [this]. . . . If Azariah De Rossi would have printed his sefer today, no one would have been so excited about it.

According to [kabbalist R. Moshe] Valle, Jesus was meant to be Mashiach ben Joseph, but the needless hatred of the Jewish people prevented him from assuming this role. This is such a strange passage that I am impressed that the editor did not censor it prior to publication. For discussion of it, see here.

Interestingly, R. Abraham Abulafia appears to also have identified Jesus as Messiah ben Joseph. See Moshe Idel, Studies in Ecstatic Kabbalah (Albany, 1988), p. 53.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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