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David Sedley
Rabbi, teacher, author, husband, father

Speaking of peace: Parshat Emor

Portrait of John Dee aged 67. (Public Domain/ WIkimedia Commons)
Portrait of John Dee aged 67. (Public Domain/ WIkimedia Commons)

John Dee was the court astronomer and advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, but he was also a sorcerer. He envisioned himself as Merlin to her Arthur.

Born in 1527, Dee entered Cambridge university aged 15 and became a fellow of Trinity College when it was founded by Henry VIII. His use of stage effects during a production of Aristophanes’ Peace was the beginning of his reputation as a wizard.

He was a scholar of mathematics, astronomy, astrology, philosophy, science, cartography and alchemy. He cast horoscopes for Queen Mary and her sister, Princess Elizabeth, but this led to charges of treason. He managed to clear his name and presented Mary with a plan to preserve old books and manuscripts to create a national library. When the queen rejected his idea, he began collecting the books himself at his home in Mortlake, ultimately creating the greatest library in England and a center of learning.

He correctly predicted the date of Elizabeth’s coronation (after the death of Mary). This earned him his place in her court as official astrologer and scientist. He advised English sailors on their voyages of discovery, and was the first to use the term “British Empire.”

He was a friend of Tycho Brahe, one of the greatest astronomers of the age. He advised Elizabeth on the calendar reform begun by Pope Gregory XIII, and told her to accept it (with some modifications). However, the queen of the newly Anglican country decided to reject the new calendar, which would have aligned her kingdom with the Catholic Pope.

Dee wrote a “Mathematical Preface” to Euclid’s Elements in which he argued for the centrality of mathematics for all other arts and sciences. He set out his vision of a maritime empire in “General and Rare Memorials pertayning to the Perfect Arte of Navigation” and encouraged Elizabeth to set up colonies in the Americas.

Dee’s glyph, whose meaning he explained in ‘Monas Hieroglyphica’ (CC BY-SA 4.0, By Kwamikagami / Wikimedia Commons)

He also wrote “Monas Hieroglyphica” which explained the esoteric, hidden meaning of a symbol he invented. His contemporaries referred to the work as “Kabbalistic philosophy.” In the book, Dee combined the description of creation of “Sefer Yetzirah” with gematrianotarikon and tziruf (three different ways of manipulating the “letters of creation.”) Unlike Jewish kabbalists who focused solely on Hebrew, Dee held that these techniques should be applied to Greek and Latin as well. Unfortunately, the “Monas” is so cryptic that it cannot be understood today without the secret oral tradition that accompanied it.

By 1580, Dee’s influence in court was diminishing. His ideas of exploring and colonizing the Americas had failed, and he turned more and more to the supernatural. He attempted to speak with angels, using clairvoyants (or scryers) to contact spirits as intermediaries.

In 1582, Dee met Edward Kelley who claimed to be the medium he had been searching for. Over the next several years, Dee and Kelley travelled throughout Europe, trying unsuccessfully to convince emperors and kings of the importance of their angelic communication.

Edward Kelly prophet or seer to Dr John Dee. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

In a few years, Kelley was more famous as an alchemist than Dee, and royal families sought him out in the hope of financial gain. In 1587, Kelley told Dee that the angel Uriel had told him the two men had to share everything, including their wives. Dee’s first two wives had died childless. At this time he was married to Jane Fromond who was 28 years his junior and who had already borne him seven children.

Dee believed so fervently in the angelic communication that he reluctantly agreed to share Jane with Kelley. But eventually, this arrangement became too much for him and in 1589, while Kelley went to become the official alchemist of Emperor Rudolph II, Dee returned to England with his wife. Nine months later, she had a son, which Dee named Theodorus Trebonianus Dee and raised as his own.

When he returned to his home in Mortlake after his six years of travels, he found that much of his library had been sold or stolen.

With no money or possessions, he turned to Elizabeth for help. Although England and its queen opposed his occult practices, in 1595 she agreed to appoint him as Warden of the main Anglican church in Manchester.

In 1605, he returned to London, but by then Elizabeth was dead and James I refused to support him. Dee was forced to sell off his remaining possessions and spent his final years in poverty. He passed away at the age of 81 in 1609.

John Dee memorial plaque installed in 2013 inside the church of St Mary the Virgin, Mortlake. (CC BY-SA, Robert Smith/ Wikimedia Commons)

In his diary entry for July 10, 1607, shortly before he died, Dee wrote that the angel Raphael told him that:

When thou diest, and shall depart this world, thou shah die with fame and memory to the end, that such an one was upon the earth, that God by him had wrought great and wonderful miracles in his service.

Dee’s diary begins in 1577, when he was at the height of his renown, and a favorite at court. The diary meticulously records the dates and events that led him further and further away from science and into the realm of the supernatural. Perhaps for that reason, Dee, who realized the value of books, chose to bury his diary shortly before his death.

A book collector named Sir Robert Cotton bought the field and discovered some of the volumes, which were published about 50 years after Dee’s death. A few years after that, some more volumes were discovered in a secret drawer in an old chest purchased by a London confectioner named Mr. Jones. Perhaps this was the fulfilment of Raphael’s message, for without these diaries we would know far less about Dee and his beliefs.

Working with Kelley as his angelic communicator, Dee’s main goal was to understand the universe. He claimed that the path to this knowledge was by learning the language of God. Kelley revealed a celestial alphabet to Dee. He wrote several books about this language, including “De Heptarchia Mystica” (On the Mystical Rule of the Seven Planets), “Mysteriorum Libri Quinque” (Five Books of Mystical Exercises) and “A true & faithful relation of what passed for many yeers between Dr. John Dee … and some spirits : tending (had it succeeded) to a general alteration of most states and kingdomes in the world

The parenthetical “had it succeeded” in the title speaks to the failure of Dee to achieve his ultimate goal of understanding the language of God and, through that, bringing peace to the world.

It is unclear whether Kelley was merely a conman and Dee was his willing patsy, or whether he too believed that the angels were speaking through him. But it is clear that Dee believed in Kelley, the angelic messages he delivered, and the Divine language he strove to grasp.

At the end of this week’s Torah reading of Emor, we learn of the power of language (Leviticus 24:10-12):

The son of an Israelite woman, and he was the son of an Egyptian man, went out among the Children of Israel. The son of the Israelite woman and fought with an Israelite man in the camp. And the son of the Israelite woman uttered the Divine name and cursed. They brought him to Moses. His mother’s name was Shelomit bat Divri from the tribe of Dan. They jailed him until it was clarified what to do with him by the Mouth of God.

God tells Moses that the man should be put to death by stoning.

Rashi and Targum Yontan explain that the fight was about whether or not this man could join the encampment of the tribe of Dan. When he tried to set up his tent, everyone said he could not be with them because tribal affiliation is only through the father, whereas only his mother was from Dan. Looking for a home, he took them to the court of Moses, who ruled according to the verse in Numbers 2:2 that, “Each man shall pitch his tent, according to the flag of his father’s house.” Moses ruled that this man, through no fault of his own, had no home and no share in the portion of his mother’s tribe.

When he heard this ruling, the man went out and cursed the ruling that had been made in God’s name, knowing full well that this would lead to a death sentence. But with no home and no future, he felt he had nothing else to lose.

This story seems straightforward enough. But why did Moses not know immediately what to do with the man? Why was he in doubt about the punishment for blasphemy? Furthermore, there is a principle that the death penalty can only be enforced if the criminal had prior warning of the severity of their actions. If even Moses did not know what the punishment would be, how could this man be executed without having received such a warning?

Targum Yonatan (on Leviticus 24:10) and Midrash Tanuchuma (Emor 24:1) give the backstory.

They explain that the man’s father was an Egyptian taskmaster in charge of Shelomit’s husband. One night, the Egyptian came to the home and instructed the slave to go out to work. As soon as the man left, the taskmaster entered the home, pretended to be Shelomit’s husband, raped her and left.

However, the taskmaster soon realized that the husband knew what had happened. To prevent him from telling anyone, the Egyptian began to beat the man so severely that he was nearly dead. Just then, Moses, who was a prince in Pharaoh’s home at the time, came by and witnessed the beating. Moses “looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he smote the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand,” (Exodus 2:12). The next day Moses went out and saw two Hebrews fighting. When he challenged them, they replied, “Will you speak to kill us?” (Exodus 2:14). Moses knew his crime was now public and was forced to flee for his life, only returning to Egypt decades later to free the Israelites.

Rashi (on Exodus 2:14) explains, based on that phrase, that Moses killed the Egyptian by uttering the Divine Name. And the son born from the Egyptian taskmaster’s rape was the man who uttered the Divine Name to blaspheme.

This explains why Moses did not know how to punish the man. How could he, who had himself used the Divine Name to murder, pass judgment on another who had uttered the name in blaspheme?

Similarly, could the man claim that he did not know the crime he was committing? He must have heard the story of his mother’s rape and how Moses killed his biological father with the Divine Name. He knew the power of language and must have intentionally chosen to express his pain and frustration in the same way that Moses had done all those years ago.

Perhaps it is not coincidental that this episode is recorded in Parshat Emor, which means “Speak.”

Shelomit bat Divri is the only woman mentioned by name in the book of Leviticus. She lost her son because of his speech. Yet her name means “Peace, the daughter of speech.”

The rabbis in Vayikra Rabba (32:5) blame her for her son’s actions. But I would rather think that she was seeking to make peace with her words. Unlike her rapist, Moses and her son, she used her words to seek peace with a greeting of “Shalom.”

If her son had used the same approach and greeted the tribe of Dan with “Shalom” could the ugly episode of the blasphemer have been avoided?

In Pirkei Avot (4:15) we learn that Rabbi Matya ben Charash said, “Be first to greet every person with ‘Shalom.’” The Talmud (Berachot 17a) says that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai would always be the first to greet people with “Shalom,” even a non-Jew in the marketplace.

John Dee sought to bring peace to the world in his quest for the Divine language. Shelomit bat Divri also sought to bring peace through her words. Unfortunately, Dee failed in his quest, and others spoke more forcefully than Shelomit.

Yet it remains our duty to always speak of peace, to use our words for good, and to strive for Shalom.

I’ve published a year’s worth of my Parsha blogs under the title, “The Elephant of Deliberate Forgetfulness: and other unexpected interpretations of the weekly Torah reading” Currently only available as an ebook from Amazon (but I may publish other editions if there is interest)

My next series on WebYeshiva begins this Tuesday and is entitled, “The Shemoneh Esrei In Depth.” Sign up for free, join me live, or listen to the recording.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. He currently teaches online at WebYeshiva. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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