As an orthodox Ashkanazi Jew, I hear all the time that the way we practice is the same as we've been doing it for thousands of years (albeit with influences by the Ba'al Shem Tov, the mussar movement, a new devotion to gemorah learning, etc) - the way we daven, learning styles and amount of learning, a sometimes overly intellectual and cold perspective, hashgafa, strict adherence and focus on halacha, etc.

However, I read a book called Magic of the Ordinary, and I'm now wondering how similar our current practices are to ancient Judaism. The book claims ancient Judaism was somewhat aligned with Native American culture/practice (obviously without the avoda zara), and that the term Judeo-Christian values is completely off.

He writes that we had a close relationship with the earth, trees, and nature, and that neviim even utilized bird feathers, incantations, and holy symbols in the dirt to reach HaShem. He also writes that the rabbaim, in the face of witch hunts and the inquisition, decided to make Judaism appear to align more with Catholicism to appease the Church and witch hunters, so the connection with the earth and "magic" or mysticism was downplayed heavily.

So, can anyone recommend any sefarim or Torah sources that compare the rites and dogmas of ancient Judaism to modern Orthodox Judaism?

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    @ShmuelBrin Rambam spent most of his life in Egypt. Also, what is the relevance of your comment? Who mentioned Rationalists?
    – Double AA
    Nov 17, 2013 at 7:28
  • aharon, can you clarify what you mean by "ancient Judaism"?
    – Double AA
    Nov 17, 2013 at 8:20
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    AA, the Rambam was no mystic and indeed he rejected the effectiveness magic/divination and other spiritual powers. And yet, he was not influenced by persecutions in the Christian world. Is Winkler also unaware that folk traditions that were remnants of ancient paganism and magic persisted in Europe along with Christianity up until modern times?
    – Ephraim
    Nov 17, 2013 at 9:55
  • Part of my question is trying to understand what "ancient Judaism" is... How is Judaism practiced differently today than throughout history since matan torah? Dec 26, 2013 at 5:43

2 Answers 2


I would toss the book away. It sounds like pseudo-scholarship. Look at the end of the book and note the relative paucity of footnotes.

Is Winkler credible? While he had some sort of Orthodox education, he also studied with Schater-Shalomi and now declares himself "non-denominational". A brief review of his career indicates he aligns himself with various new-age types such as Andrew Weil and Deepak Chopra. I don't see any academic credentials- where did he study? Where did he get his PhD? Has he published anything in a respected peer-reviewed journal? I searched "Google Scholar" and came up with ZERO articles written by him!

This forum is not the place for editorializing, so I have done my best to limit my critique to the above questions. But the bottom line is, that it's not up to me to prove Winkler a fraud- it's up to him to prove his theories with real scholarship- especially when his ideas are extremely radical.

You write that Winkler claims that mysticism was downplayed in the wake of the inquisition and witch hunts. This is a bizarre claim. The most important event in the development of Jewish mysticism was the publication of the Zohar which occurred after the Inquisition had started. Note that Maimonides, the quintessential non-mystic was living far from the influences from Christianity and was completely opposed to all forms of magic and even denied that such powers actually exist. Maimonides did not reject magic due to some artificial pressure. While he may have been influenced by Greek philosophy- as famously claimed by the Vilna Gaon, that was just his skepticism of magical powers. The antipathy against magic, whether effective of not, goes way back to the Talmud and Bible- it's not a reaction that suddenly (or even gradually) popped up in the Medieval period. The fact is that mysticism does have a place in Jewish life, and has not been "downplayed heavily".

In the book, Winkler makes claim after claim and provides no source of proof whatsoever.

Some examples:

  • The custom of naming children after family members is "probably because of... insecurity.. It feels safer to just attach a name that has already been proven by its having worn successfully for so many centuries by so many others." (page 65)
  • Leaving crumbs for birds on Shabbat Shira (when the Az Yashir is read in synagogues) is because "of the songs they teach us." (page 69)
  • Ritual slaughter requires "spiritual consciousness". (page 166)
  • "The word kosher in fact means "prepare", as in preparing the spirit [of the animal] for release" (page 166)
  • Most of today's kosher meat is probably not "actually kosher since it's highly unlikely that such mass slaughter can be performed... with little of no discomfort to the creatures..." (page 168)
  • "Many of the twelve tribes.. carried specific animal powers" (page 171)

These are just a few of the many claims that Winkler presents as facts without any evidence. Until he writes likes a scholar and provides sources, and avoids speculation, I see no reason why anyone should take anything he writes seriously.

I regret that I haven't answered your question as to which books are recommendable. But I think it's just as important to avoid wasting time with phony scholarship.

  • Let me preface my response with the fact that I’m not trying to defend Winkler, but rather assess the validity of his ideas. The book actually has extremely extensive references, referencing almost every single thing. They are at the end of each chapter. Although, yes, he has no PhD, neither do the vast majority of rabbis and we listen to their Torah teachings. Rambam is as far right as one can get in terms of belief in mysticism, so using him as a benchmark doesn’t prove anything. I’d like to hear other opinions on the matter from rabbis throughout history and throughout the spectrum. Dec 26, 2013 at 5:42
  • @aharonkatz Rabbis who are worth listening to may not have PhDs but they have some other certification which attests to the quality of their scholastic abilities (usually called "semicha").
    – Double AA
    Dec 26, 2013 at 6:14
  • @DoubleAA, he has semicha... but I cannot find any information on the Rabbi (Rabbi Eleizer Bentsion of Novhordok) who gave it to him... it seems the only references to that Rabbi are in regards to giving semicha to Gershon Winkler... Since Rabbi Bentsion lived during the 20th century, at least, I would expect there to be information on him, but maybe not. Yes, not having valid semicha, if that's the case, does really hurt Gershon Winkler's case. Dec 26, 2013 at 6:32
  • @aharonkatz My answer contained two points. First, that Winkler's credentials are dubious. Second, and most important, is that his scholarship in the book in question is shoddy at best. You mention "extensive references". This is simply not true. I cited six examples of bizarre claims without any reference whatsoever. He most certainly has not provided references for "every single thing". If I'm wrong, please correct me by citing Winkler's references for the above six statements.
    – Ephraim
    Jan 1, 2014 at 22:07
  • @DoubleAA, I wrote "almost" every single thing. Are you looking at a copy of the book? How did you find those points? A couple of the points you brought up were clearly just his opinion. Jan 7, 2014 at 16:46

How similar is orthodoxy practiced today to ancient times?

Very different. Judaism nowadays is based on the teachings of the Rabbis (the Mishna and Talmud), and is not practiced as described in Tanach. Why? Well, many things happened in history that required our religion to change or become irrelevant. A quick list:

  • Destruction of the Temple - No more sacrifices
  • End of Prophecy - No longer do we have a direct Word of God instructing us
  • Exile from Israel - Cannot perform mitzvot relating to the Land

As such, the Rabbis made many changes, such as instituting prayer in place of sacrifices, and changing the nature of the Shalosh Regalim from agricultural and national holidays to purely religious holidays (ex. Chag haKatzir => Chag Matan Torah).

In addition, Jews in Biblical times faced the temptation of idolatry, and tended to give in to that temptation. This idolatrous culture even affected the worship of Judaism: Some ancient Jews believed that God was anthropomorphic, and\or He had a wife (Asherah), and\or that He needed to be fed and kept pleased with sacrifices. These ideas and practices are no longer entertained or practiced.

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    The prayers were 'instituted' while the temple was still standing.
    – preferred
    May 5, 2014 at 19:47
  • In some of the times of the mishna they were not yet exiled from the land
    – preferred
    May 5, 2014 at 19:49

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