Mitch Horowitz is the author of "Modern Occultism." (Photo/Ebru Yildiz)
Mitch Horowitz is the author of "Modern Occultism." (Photo/Ebru Yildiz)

Q&A: This historian says occultism isn’t ‘entirely at odds with Judaism’

Are you a seeker?

If so, you have probably encountered the work of Mitch Horowitz, one of the leading American historians of alternative spirituality.

In books such as “The Seeker’s Guide to The Secret Teachings of All Ages,” “The Miracle Club” and “Occult America,” Horowitz has taken occult ideas and traditions often dismissed as strange or unserious — including witchcraft, astrology, alchemy, extrasensory perception, telepathy and seances — and made them accessible to uninitiated readers. On Medium, he regularly publishes essays on esoteric topics such as “The Mystical Roots of Alcoholics Anonymous” and “The Myth of Nazi Occultism.”

His latest book, “Modern Occultism,” came out in September and covers everything from Kabbalah to the African American “sex magic” pioneer Paschal Beverly Randolph to the Church of Satan, which was founded by a Jewish man in San Francisco.

“My chief interest is encouraging seekers, including myself, to think beyond given frameworks,” Horowitz, who lives in New York City, told me in a recent interview over email. Our exchange is below. (Note: “Magick” is the spelling the English occultist Aleister Crowley used to differentiate the ritual kind from stage magic, and that’s the spelling Horowitz prefers.)

Many people in the West associate occultism with ghosts and other inexplicable and sometimes “evil” phenomena. Why is that, and what do you want readers to understand about what occultism actually is?

The term occult is from the Latin occultus, meaning hidden or secret. It came into use during the Renaissance when Western scholars applied the label to pre-Christian religions of Greece, Egypt, Rome, Persia and North Africa. These systems — often polytheistic, nature-based and initiatory — were wiped out or subsumed by Christianity and later Islam. They were rediscovered in fragments, a process that amped up in the 15th century, and frequently called occult. Late antiquity saw a struggle for dominance between Christendom and the old religions.

Once it prevailed, Christendom classified nearly everything outside its parameters as heretical or maleficent, a common theme in history. Hence, what we call paganism, which dominated Western life for millennia, got redefined in ways that its practitioners never conceived. In that vein, I see modern occultism, which belongs to no religion, as a revivalist movement that seeks to rediscover, adapt and sometimes novelize ancient religious forms.

In your new book, you write, “People are generally born into Judaism, Christianity, or any number of traditional faiths. Occultism or esotericism, however, is something sought after. It does not readily present itself.” Does occultism complement or contradict Judaism, or both?

I would say occultism both complements and contradicts Judaism, depending upon one’s definitions. Most occultic outlooks are pantheistic, which obviously chafes against the founding principle of Judaism. At the same time, you’ll find practitioners across centuries and today who abide the convergence of entities into one source, which is not entirely at odds with Judaism, particularly in Kabbalah.

Kabbalah, too, was rediscovered — and often Christianized — during the Renaissance. But before decrying the persistence of an ersatz or “New Age” Kabbalah in the West, it is important to realize that Judaism has historically interplayed with occult traditions. The initial drawing of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, for example, has been traced back to Christian Kabbalist Johann Reuchlin (1455–1522), a seminal figure of  Renaissance occultism. The relationship between Judaism and occultism is like a double helix whose strands converge and depart.

How and why did Kabbalah become so popular in the West? Are there other Jewish mystical systems in use today?

German-Israeli scholar Gershom Scholem (1897–1982) did more than any other figure of the 20th century to revive the study of traditional Kabbalah. Scholem grudgingly credited modern occultists, including mid-19th century writer-seeker Eliphas Lévi (a Frenchman born Alphonse-Louis Constant) and early 20th century British magician Aleister Crowley, with preserving interest in Kabbalah when it was actually neglected by most Jewish authorities.

Occultism effectively forged a channel through which Kabbalah, in varying forms, could be rediscovered by moderns. Due to the combinative nature of nearly all religions, you’ll find intriguing areas of overlap between Judaism and occult practice, including, most extraordinarily, between Jewish and West African folklore. This intersection likely arose in America when the African-retentive system of magick called hoodoo intersected with beliefs of both Jews and Christians.

Although it is unacknowledged or poorly understood, variants of astrology existed in Jewish practice through late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. It should be noted that some of the leading lights of today’s witchcraft revival, such as Pam Grossman, are Jewish and harmonize their paths in their own ways. Pam describes herself tongue in cheek as “Jew-Witch,” which I love. Historically and today, we see shades of convergence rather than strict lines of demarcation in spiritual practice. Traditionalists may object, but it’s the storyline of religions from time immemorial.

Several of the figures you mention in your book — including Manly P. Hall, a Canadian scholar of esotericism, and Alice Bailey, a writer on theosophical subjects who popularized the term “New Age” — held antisemitic beliefs. How do you account for the overlap between esotericism and antisemitic conspiracism?

This is a fraught area about which I’ve attempted to write with great clarity and vigor. The book includes a long section analyzing the topic of Nazi occultism, which has been wildly overblown in popular and even some scholarly literature. Likewise, I push back against the almost unthinkably simplistic canard that occultists Madame H.P. Blavatsky (1831-1891) and Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) were forerunners of Nazism.

That said, I never shrink from pointing out antisemitism in the work of occult figures, more widespread in Alice Bailey (1880-1949) than in Manly P. Hall (1901-1990), in whose writing it was more of an anomaly. Occult figures who demonstrated antisemitism, including Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), were, I believe, functioning more from longstanding cultural and generational bigotry than from something intrinsic to occultism.

Indeed, many occult movements and figures opened up rather than shut down principles of radical ecumenism and acceptance. That said, movements that idealize “lost” or “hidden” traditions — also part of the occult landscape — can subtly degrade precious modern values, including democratic liberalism.

Anton LaVey, who was born Howard Stanton Levey, founded the Church of Satan in 1966 in San Francisco. Was he Jewish? What is the relationship between Satanism and Judaism?

Anton was born Jewish in Chicago in 1930. Like many Americans, he ventured West to remake himself, in his case with singular drama. In the book, I write seriously about Satanism as a modern literary, ethical and spiritual tradition. It is, in a sense, the “third rail” of occultism, shunned by many occultists themselves, although Satanism as an actual practice is just now receiving scholarly and serious journalistic recognition, as opposed to being defined by maudlin fantasies.

I would say occultism both complements and contradicts Judaism, depending upon one’s definitions.

Judaism has a fascinating relationship with esoteric conceptions of Satanism prior to post-Biblical cultural refashioning of the Satanic as a unidimensional personification of evil. As a child growing up at an Orthodox synagogue in Queens, N.Y., I recall the thrill of hearing the “demonic” Azazel intoned during Yom Kippur. The ancient Israelites had a vast array of relations with the unseen world and everything had its place and purpose.

From a social perspective, I’d venture that Anton’s Jewishness fed his rebelliousness and taste for teasing and provoking our culture from the outside.

Are there other parts of the book that you think Jewish readers in particular might find interesting?

Above all, I want to call their attention to the really exaggerated and theatricalized notions of a Nazi-occult connection and my effort to provide corrective historicism on the topic. This proposed continuum, extending even to Carl Jung, is egregiously exaggerated and mistreated on social media, in blogs and on YouTube videos. It’s a disservice to history.

I recently read an article about a university in the U.K. that plans to offer a graduate degree in magic and occult science. Is occultism finally being taken seriously by the academy?

Thanks to the efforts of contemporary scholars in Europe and the U.S., including Wouter Hanegraaff, Per Faxneld, April DeConick and Jeffrey J. Kripal, the study of esotericism and occultism is finally being pursued with rigor in the academy — and producing some truly first-rate scholarly literature, including new translations and exegeses of both Gnostic and Hermetic writings.

Academia is engaging the occult with a level of quality and thoughtfulness previously unknown or known only among individuals who were brave enough to venture beyond sanctioned paths, such as the independent scholar G.R.S. Mead (1863-1933). I dedicate “Modern Occultism” to philosopher and scholar of religion Jacob Needleman, who died in 2022. [Needleman, who was Jewish, taught at San Francisco State University and the Graduate Theological Union.]

I think I can fairly say that Jerry, as friends knew him, a distinguished scholar of esotericism, suffered a degree of pain in his career due to lack of recognition within mainstream letters. Jerry helped validate study of esotericism in the early 1970s when the term was rarely heard on campuses.

You describe yourself as a “believing historian” and participate in many of the movements you write about. Which movements are you involved in, and what drew you to them? How do they challenge or complement your Judaism?

I define myself as a “believing historian” at the start of the book because I think that it shows  respect for the reader to spell out where one is coming from, especially when writing on contentious subjects. In fact, most historians of religion emerge from or are adjacent to the congregations they write about.

As far as my personal search, I could cite a variety of practices, ranging from Transcendental Meditation to chaos or, as I prefer, anarchic magick; but my chief interest is encouraging seekers, including myself, to think beyond given frameworks. We often accept culturally conditioned outlooks as absolutes or natural compass points simply by dint of overwhelming familiarity and repetition, such as the dichotomy between higher and lower forces or separation between the ineffable and material on the spiritual path.

We as a generation cannot honor the search if we rely upon cultural or philosophical decisions made by someone else. I reject a priori parameters in the search. Hence, I am personally interested in ancient Jewish concepts before they were refined by the larger cultural surroundings, such as Judaism’s fitful relationship with the rebellious or adversarial currents. My publisher is a French Orthodox Jew, and he will challenge me when my philosophical enthusiasms prove overdone — so that is a help, too.

I will say this: I believe the greatest gift that the West, for all its contradictions, has given humanity is protection of the individual search for meaning. It is a gift I never take for granted and it warrants defending. Jacob Needleman once asked me, “What do you do when someone offers you a gift?” After I stared at him blankly, he replied: “You accept it!”

“Modern Occultism: History, Theory, and Practice” by Mitch Horowitz (G&D Media, 450 pages). Horowitz will speak about the book on Sunday, Dec. 17 at the Philosophical Research Society in Los Angeles.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.