On taking rabbinic culture as a whole
In the past year, several Talmudic manuscripts have been scanned and posted online. I was just thinking about Munich 95, the only extant manuscript of the entire Talmud (and perhaps the only one ever to exist). It is a massive tome, difficult to use in facsimile, and the website is frustrating as well (it doesn’t seem to be working at the moment).
What I like about the site, though, is that they scanned the manuscript in its entirety – including the sections which are not part of the Talmud. A fascinating article appeared recently, exploring the magical texts on the last page of the manuscript (Guiseppe Veltri, ‘ “Watermarks” in the ms “Munich, Hebr. 95”; magical recipes in historical context ‘, in: Jewish Studies between the Disciplines = Judaistik zwischen den Disziplinen; Papers in Honor of Peter Schafer on the Occasion of His 60th Birthday. Ed. by Klaus Herrmann, Margarete Schlater, Giuseppe Veltri. Leiden: Brill, 2003, pp. 243-256). All the magic spells seem to relate to water – crossing the ocean, calming a stormy sea and making shallow water rise. Veltri speculates that all this water points to the threat of flood, which the scribe hoped would be averted by these formulae.
The French and German Jewish culture which produced the Munich Talmud was full of magic. The same culture which produced the vaunted Tosafot, which are the staple of Talmud study in yeshivot till today. Why don’t we pay more attention to their beliefs? I can understand why some people would feel uncomfortable with certain aspects of our heritage. But that is no reason to forget those aspects.