Judaism For The Star-Struck
Tue, 04/05/2011
Zodiac painting from the ceiling of the Bialystoker Synagogue, New York. 	PHOTO BY MICHAEL DATIKASH
Zodiac painting from the ceiling of the Bialystoker Synagogue, New York. PHOTO BY MICHAEL DATIKASH

When my great-nephew Owen arrived in the world in January, there was a collective spate of “Your constellation is good!” OK, we shortened the sentiment to “mazal tov!” but the meaning was the same. We were congratulating the new parents on their mazal (from Akkadian, “location of a star”), luck that’s credited to the stars and has nothing to do with merit. Which begs the question: Is there mazal for Jews?

Rabbi Johanan claims in the Talmud that, “There is no mazal for Israel.” Not that there is no luck for Israel, but that Israel’s fate is not connected to the zodiac. Other rabbis over the ages have taken different views. The ultra-rationalist Maimonides says astrology is hogwash, absolutely not kosher, bordering on idolatry, while the 11th-century Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra called it “a sublime science,” wrote a number of books on the subject and believed that the deeper, secret code of the Torah is astrology.

Indeed, not only is astrology not specifically forbidden in the Torah, a number of passages seem to support the notion that underlying references to the zodiac appear in the text. Might the Twelve Tribes of Israel correspond to the 12 signs of the zodiac, with each tribe representing an archetype? When Joseph tells his father Jacob his dream of the sun, moon and 11 stars bowing down to him, Jacob interprets it as referring to his 11 brothers, his father (the sun) and his mother (the moon). Clearly, both Joseph and Jacob were familiar with astrological symbolism, and they don’t appear uncomfortable with it. The 12 gemstones on the high priest’s breastplate, one for each tribe, are also said to be related to the constellations, and it’s from those stones that the tradition of birthstones originated. In “Antiquities of the Jews,” the first-century CE Jewish historian Josephus remarks, “And for the 12 stones, whether we understand by them the months, or the 12 signs of what the Greeks call the zodiac, we shall not be mistaken in their meaning.”

It’s not until the prophets appear on the biblical scene that astrology is really viewed as incompatible with belief in God as the arbiter of human destiny. Isaiah bombasts, “You are helpless, despite all your art. Let them stand up and help you now, the scanners of heaven, the star-gazers, who announce, month by month, whatever will come upon you.”

Yet, the prophets’ denouncements notwithstanding, astrology doggedly continued to take up space in the Jewish world. The seven-branched menorah in the Temple, according to Josephus, referenced the seven planets. The zodiac was also literally entrenched in various ancient synagogues dating from the fourth to the sixth centuries, appearing in the remains of several mosaic floors discovered in Israel. In Beth Alpha a figurative depiction of the 12 signs of the zodiac are paired with the Hebrew words that correspond to each sign. More recently and closer to home, the Bialystoker Orthodox synagogue on the Lower East Side of Manhattan boasts a ceiling decorated with paintings of the 12 signs of the zodiac, but the Hebrew words accompanying them are the words for the Jewish months, i.e., above the painting of the ram designating Aries is Nisan.

For Kabbalists, who believe that God expresses Himself in everything from the Hebrew alphabet to numbers, astrology is neither a threat to Judaism nor incompatible with it. The “Sefer Yetzsira,” the Book of Creation, draws a parallel between the Hebrew letters and the planets, the seven gates of the soul (two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and a mouth) and the seven planets. Even God’s name, the four-lettered Tetragrammaton, is provided 12 possible permutations of the letters, associated with each month. The question is not whether or not God is revealing Himself in all of these many manifestations, but what is God revealing and how can you learn to read it?

Eitan Fishbane, co-editor of “Jewish Mysticism and the Spiritual Life” and an assistant professor of Jewish thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary, points out that “Beyond astrology, kabbalists have sought to interpret the rhythms of the sacred calendar — the holidays and the liturgical text — through the lens of mystical meaning. In sacred time, in the cycle of the Jewish calendar, the mystic may discover new/old truths of Divinity coded into the tapestry of our lives.”

Today, maybe as a result of the rationalism that swept Europe in the 19th century, the official Jewish stance in mainstream Judaism on astrology remains that it is not in keeping with Torah. God reveals His will by Divine revelation, the words of the Torah, not by another means. God is the creator, and should never be confused with His creation, the stars and constellations. Finally, it’s God’s will that prevails, not the capricious whims of the universe.

So is it at all possible today to synthesize a religion based on the Jewish calendar and God’s revealed word, with a belief in the Julian calendar and the “word of the stars” — astrology? For Rabbi David Ingber, founder and spiritual director of Romemu, New York City’s only Renewal synagogue, astrology is “an amazingly powerful tool that when used wisely, can serve as a ‘sacred psychology.’ In fact, psychologist C.G. Jung and his students view astrology in just this way. When seen as a ‘soul map’, we bypass issues like ‘predictive astrology’ and determinism. Astrology is more like an art form than a science.”

Rabbi Ingber goes on to explain that the person’s birth chart is analogous to the written Torah, and the interpreter is the Oral Torah. “The thing that resonates for me as a rabbi and as a Jew is that so much of Jewish literature and Jewish history were influenced by this belief system.”

Whether astrology can ever be “proven” using traditional empirical methods, what everyone knows is that much of life has to do with inexplicable fate. You’re born with a certain set of circumstances that are completely out of your control, and you spend your life trying to control those. The Gemara makes clear that a number of things are dependent on mazal: your length of years, your children, how much money you make. Kabbalists explain mazal — which they often translate as a “drip” (from the Hebrew root, NZL, and unrelated to the Akkadian etymyology for mazal) from above — as the root of the soul. Most of our soul remains above, dripping down, while the ray of mazal that you’re born with is the lower one. The upper one is even more powerful and is not connected with the moment of your birth. Instead, this mazal is an angelic presence, a spiritual pathway that one can utilize to bring the Divine down from the upper worlds. Thus, we say things to one another like “mazal tov” and “You should only have mazal,” an acknowledgement that we hope for good “stars” to influence our lives, and to be able to live our lives with a higher consciousness of what is dripping from above.

The balance between free will and determinism is what has been at issue for the rabbis over the centuries. Rabbi Ingber believes that astrology “that is used to understand our ‘soul map’ or our unique character structure, avoids the free will/determinism debate entirely. Every symbol within a birth chart can evolve shift, and expand. Every person is free to deepen the potentials he or she is born with.”

Rabbi Ingber is emphatic that whether you allow astrology credence or not, it’s not incompatible with Judaism and shouldn’t be confused with idolatry, as it’s not one of the idolatrous practices specifically mentioned in the Torah.

I can’t help but try to guess the rabbi’s sign: Pisces, I venture?

“No, Aries. You’re a Virgo?”

“Yes,” I admit, slightly impressed by his ability to figure that out.

“And your Venus is in Leo?” he asks.

This throws me, because I’m not one to give a lot of thought to my Venus. However, having had my chart done a long time ago, I say, “I think so.” When I get home, I unearth the printout of the wheel of the zodiac that contains the planets’ positions at the time I was born. Yes. Venus in Leo. Now, to discover how to interpret this, what my soul’s purpose is, my higher mazal…

Angela Himsel is a freelance writer and a columnist for zeek.net.