Writer of Short Stories & Novels
“Will You Meet Me There, Out Beyond the Bend?”
Nightmare
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“The Last Novelist (or A Dead Lizard in the Yard)”
Bifrost
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“In Memory of a Summer’s Day”
Mad Hatters and March Hares
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“The Last Novelist (or A Dead Lizard in the Yard)”
Tor.com
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“Love Engine Optimization”
Lightspeed Magazine 85
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“One Spring in Cherryville”
Available in most ebook formats
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“The Garden Beyond Her Infinite Skies”
XB-1
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“The Singularity is in Your Hair”
Cyber World
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“The Sounds of Old Earth”
科幻世界 (Science Fiction World)
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“The Problem of Meat”
Grendelsong
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“The Meeker and the All-Seeing Eye”
Nebula Awards Showcase 2016
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“Demon in Aisle 6”
Nightmare Magazine 38
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“The Meeker and the All-Seeing Eye”
World Chinese SF Association
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“The Thing in the Refrigerator That Could Stop Time”
Apex Science Fiction and Horror Digest
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“Marie and the Mathematicians”
Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine #26
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“The Writing’s on the Wall”
Farrago's Wainscot #5
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“The Sembla”
A Field Guide to Surreal Botany
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“The Girl in the Basement”
Hatter Bones
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“Saving Diego”
Interzone #221
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“The Spaces Between Things”
Electric Velocipede 17/18
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“The Girl in the Basement”
Apex Magazine, Vol 3, Issue 3
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“The Suffering Gallery”
Beneath Ceaseless Skies - Issue 57
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“The History Within Us”
Clarkesworld Magazine #42
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“The History Within Us”
The People of the Book
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“The Hands That Feed”
Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories
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“The Bricks of Gelecek”
Naked City
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“The Hands That Feed”
The Mammoth Book of Steampunk
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“The Suffering Gallery”
The Best of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Year Three
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“The Great Game at the End of the World”
After
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“The Sounds of Old Earth”
Lightspeed Magazine and io9.com
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“The History Within Us”
Clarkesworld Year Four
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“The Last Probe”
Launch Pad
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“Pheth’s Aviary”
Beneath Ceaseless Skies - Issue 133
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“The Meeker and the All-Seeing Eye”
Clarkesworld Magazine #92
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“The Sounds of Old Earth”
XB-1 Issue 8/2014
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“The Sounds of Old Earth”
Космопорт (Kosmoport)
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“The History Within Us”
XB-1 Issue 11/2014
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“Cameron Rhyder’s Legs”
Clarkesworld Magazine #98
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“The Sounds of Old Earth”
Nebula Awards Showcase 2015
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“The Garden Beyond Her Infinite Skies”
Clarkesworld Magazine
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36 Days of Judaic Myth: Day 31, Dybbuks, the Possessing Spirits

To celebrate the October 13th release of my forthcoming debut novel, King of Shards, I will be featuring one new blog entry a day about a different Judaic myth for 36 days. Today’s entry is on Dybbuks, the Possessing Spirits

Day 31: Dybbuks, the Possessing Spirits

Dybbuk by Ephraim Moshe Lilien

Dybbuk by Ephraim Moshe Lilien

When a person dies, their soul flies free from the body. It crosses the land, sea, and sky. Sometimes the soul settles in a fish and is eaten by a person. If a blessing is said over the fish, the soul ascends to rest beside God in the Garden of Eden. If the soul settles on land it grows into a fruit, and if these fruits are blessed by a person before being eaten, so too is the soul blessed as it flies up to the Garden of Eden. If the soul ends up in the belly of an animal, again a blessing must be made over the flesh of the animal if the soul is to ascend back to God. Sometimes, souls do not find their way back to God. They get lost on the way to the Garden of Eden. Perhaps blessings were not made over the food they inhabited before it was eaten. Or, if the person was wicked in life, then she is not permitted into the Garden and becomes a wandering spirit. Sometimes these wandering spirits find their way into the body of a living person. We call these possessing spirits dybbuks.

A tale is told of a widow living in the city of Safed in the 16th century who was possessed by a dybbuk. She went to see Rabbi Isaac Luria and ask for his help. To his astonishment, the woman spoke with the voice of a man, and this voice addressed the Rabbi by name, as if they were old friends. The dybbuk said he once had been a student of Rabbi Arsin, which the Rabbi Arsin confirmed. The dybbuk said that as a human being he had slept with another man’s wife and fathered a child with her. While out at sea a storm hit and he drowned. His body was recovered and buried in a Jewish cemetery. But before the earth was dry, the angel Dumah came and used his fiery rod to crack open the grave and take him down to the gates of Gehenna. Yet even there, the soul was not permitted access, for so great was his sin in life. He was punished to wander the earth, continually tormented by three demons.

His soul had taken possession of two more bodies before this unfortunate widow: a rabbi, who escaped the dybbuk by invoking impure spirits, and a dog, who was so upset by the spirit inside of it that it ran and ran until its heart gave out.

Rabbi Arsin tried to perform an exorcism of this dybbuk, but his incantations would not work. So he called in the great Rabbi Hayim Vital. As soon as Rabbi Vital entered the room, the widow turned her back on him.

“Why do you turn your back?” Rabbi Vital asked.

“I cannot bear to look,” said the widow in the voice of a man. “For your countenance is too great.”

Rabbi Vital nodded, because he was a holy man and filled with the light of God. “You are a lost spirit,” the rabbi said. “How long are you cursed to wander?”

“I shall wander this earth until my illegitimate son has died.”

“How did you enter this woman’s house?” the rabbi said. “It is protected by a mezuzah.”

“The mezuzah,” the spirit said, referring to the bound-up prayer scroll attached to the door, “is empty.”

The rabbi gasped, and when he had a man check the mezuzah on the woman’s door, he found his words to be true: there was no prayer parchment wrapped inside.

“And how did you enter this woman’s body?” the rabbi said. “For she is of the House of David.”

“She doubts that the Red Sea truly parted.”

Rabbi Vital was learned in the ways of the Torah and was able to speak to the woman even though the spirit was possessing her. He asked the widow if she believed in the Red Sea miracle, and she replied that she did. He had her repeat this three times, then he commanded the dybbuk, using a secret kabbalistic formula, to depart the woman’s body. The woman shrieked as the spirit fled from her pinky toe of her left foot. A new mezuzah was put up that very night.

The Myth’s Origins

The word dybbuk means to adhere or to cling, and entered common usage in the 17th century through German- and Polish-speaking Jews. Tales of dybbuks and possessing spirits are rife in medieval literature. Early tales of demonic possession in Jewish folklore can be found in Josephus’s Antiquities 8:2.5, “God also enabled him to learn that skill which expels demons, which is a science useful and sanative to men. He composed such incantations also by which distempers are alleviated. And he left behind him the manner of using exorcisms, by which they drive away demons, so that they never return; and this method of cure is of great force unto this day.” And Talmud Me’ilah 17b speaks of an exorcism. 

But in the latter medieval texts, the possessing spirit is not a demon but that of a corrupted soul who could not enter paradise. This concept went hand in hand with the concept of gilgul, or the transmigration of souls, and it was understood that these lost spirits sought refuge in human bodies. One of the tests of true faith among Jews was the belief in the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea. And those who didn’t believe in this miracle were seen as leaving themselves open to unclean spirits.

Also, the mezuzah, literally “doorpost,” is a small prayer written on parchment, wrapped in a tiny ornamental box, and affixed to the doors of one’s home, as prescribed in Deuteronomy 6:9. It was believed, in much the same way that the lamb’s blood painted on the door posts spared the ancient Hebrews the wrath of the Angel of Death during the Exodus, that affixing a mezuzah to one’s door protected that home from malicious spirits. An empty mezuzah was one such way these evil spirits tricked people into letting them into their home.

Rabbi Isaac Luria and his many disciples wrote down many stories about dybbuks, and they documented how one might exorcise them. Those who were learned in kabbalah and knew how to apply the Holy Name, these baalai shem, or masters of the name, were able to exorcise these unclean spirits and send them down to Gehenna, where they belonged. 

One of the most famous instances of this myth is S. Ansky’s 1916 play “The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds.” S. Ansky became deeply interested in Judaic myth and folklore and feared it might be lost as the culture interacted more and more with the rapidly modernizing world. Between the years of 1911 and 1914, he dove deep into Eastern European and Russian regions, the so called “Pale of Settlement,” to document the traditions of the local Jews, asking them more than 2000 detailed questions. His assistant Samuel Schreier-Shrira stated that S. Ansky was particularly impressed by the stories of a Mirapol hasidic rebbe known as Samuel of Kaminka-Miropol and his reputation as an exorcist of dybbuk spirits. Before that, the concept of dybbuks was not widely known outside of Jewish circles. 

Some Thoughts on the Myth 

Tales of possession by evil forces are rife in the world’s many faiths. What’s common about the tales of Jewish dybbuks are the same basic premises: a spirit possesses a body and causes chaos until a rabbi intervenes. Then the dybbuk tells its tale to the rabbi, before the rabbi “exorcises” the spirit, and the person is freed from its evil influence. The possessed is often someone of wavering or no faith, though not always.

What might be occurring here is a religious explanation for mental illness and its periodic psychoses. Whether by placebo or through a talk therapy — the “dybbuk”telling his or her story — the “evil spirit” is freed from the body. The disturbing mental energy is thus discharged, and the person goes on living his or her life. Imagine a person with schizophrenia living within a hasidic world. How often would they need to be exorcised? And would talking about their needs and their story discharge the turbulent mental energy enough to quell the psychotic episode? Did these exorcisms form an early version of psychotherapy? Or did these religious machinations only make things worse? If someone with mental illness was seen as “evil,” this would no doubt adversely affect his or her relationship with the community. They might be shunned and feared.

Also, here we see another example of of a paranoid world-view. Only by obeying God’s laws and protecting one’s home with magic mezuzah can one protect herself from evil spirits. Doubt the Red Sea miracle? Then you leave yourself open to possession. Don’t want to put a mezuzah on your home? Then evil spirits will enter it.

I feel bad for the mentally ill person who was both a believer in God and the Red Sea miracle and had a proper mezuzah on her door, only to be told she was “possessed” by evil. While these tales might make great fictional story fodder, in real life such myths probably accounted for much suffering among people.

 

Tomorrow’s Myth: The Fear of Death

 


36 Days of Judaic Myth: Day 30, The Origin of Chaos

To celebrate the October 13th release of my forthcoming debut novel, King of Shards, I will be featuring one new blog entry a day about a different Judaic myth for 36 days. Today’s entry is on The Origin of Chaos.

Day 30: The Origin of Chaos

The Gnostic Kabbalah Myth Salad!

The Gnostic Kabbalah Myth Salad!

Before the existence of the world, there was tohu and vohu, chaos and void. Chaos comes from darkness, and the darkness was created by an infinite force that existed before all creation, since the very beginning of existence. This infinite force created many kinds of immortal creatures, all the gods, and all the demons. And from this infinite source came Wisdom, which was made in its likeness. Wisdom took the form of the primordial light and acted as a veil separating us from the world above.

The Myth’s Origins

This myth comes from the Gnostic text, On the Origin of the World, one of the 13 Gnostic texts found in 1945 in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. The text appears to comment on the book of Genesis. Genesis 1:2 says, “Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.” And Genesis 1:26 says, “And God said: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.'”

The myth predates the Kabbalistic system of Sephirot, or divine emanations, but shares many similarities with that concept. The infinite force that predates all things may be the Ein Sof, the endless. When the Ein Sof decides to create, it forms Keter, or crown. This is the first stirrings of its will. This will then creates a vessel in its “image,” known as Wisdom. In the Sephirotic system of Kabbalah, this is Chokhmah. In Gnosticism, this is Sophia.   

But whereas the Gnostics see this world as totally evil and needed to be escaped at all costs, the Lurianic Kabbalists see this world as full of good and evil; this world is broken and needs repair to bring it into holiness, and we play a necessary part in that process. 

Some Thoughts on the Myth 

One of the central tenets of Gnosticism is the notion that we each have s holy spark within us that has fallen into this world and become trapped in a human soul. This spark needs to be awakened by a divine aspect of ourselves so that we can be reunited with the divine. This is quite similar to the later Lurianic concept of the Shattering of the Vessels and the raising of the Holy Sparks, or Tikkun Olam. 

There are other parallels as well. In Gnosticism, creation of the world is seen as a kind of divine accident or fall from a prior supernal state. In Lurianic Kabbalah, creation is a conscious decision by God. Nevertheless, God’s creation shatters; his primordial worlds cannot hold his light, and they “fall” to the earth. 

In Gnosticism, the divine spark within us is trapped in a realm of shadows. This parallels the Kabbalistic Sitra Achra, or the Other Side, in which forces of evil cling to the fallen sparks when we commit acts of sin. In both traditions, the purpose of existence is to reunite these fallen sparks back to their divine home. In Gnosticism, the sparks are wholly within, but in Kabbalah, the sparks are seen as within and without: the world needs repairing too.

It makes me wonder how much Isaac Luria knew of Gnosticism and its teachings. Was he learned in Gnostic texts, or were the ideas transmitted to him through other means? While Isaac Luria’s myths are said to have come from his readings of the Zohar, his ideas are close enough to Gnostic concepts that it’s clear their’s a causal relationship between the two conceptual systems, but perhaps not a direct one.

Modern Jewish orthodoxy follow many customs based on the kabbalistic myths set down by Isaac Luria and his disciples, which means that, in an indirect way, the Hasidim are modern practitioners of an ancient form of Gnosticism, filtered through a Talmudic lens. Which is super fascinating to consider, because the Gnostics were a second-century heretical Christian sect who got their ideas from Buddhists and Neoplatonists and Aristotelians, to name a few!

Just call it a myth salad.

Tomorrow’s Myth: Dybbuks, the Possessing Spirits

 


36 Days of Judaic Myth: Day 27, Tzimtzum, the Contraction of God

To celebrate the October 13th release of my forthcoming debut novel, King of Shards, I will be featuring one new blog entry a day about a different Judaic myth for 36 days. Today’s entry is on Tzimtzum, the Contraction of God

Day 27: Tzimtzum, the Contraction of God

Tzimtzum and the Sephirot

Tzimtzum and the Sephirot

Before God decided to create the universe, his light pervaded all; he was omnipresent and infinite and there was no place where God wasn’t. This aspect of God is known as the Ein Sof, the endless. So in order to create the world, where humanity, individual experience, and free will exist, God needed to withdraw his infinite light from himself. This is called the tzimtzum, or “contraction” of God. And in this new, empty vessel, God slowly filtered his light into the new space through the divine vessels known as the sephirot. Yet these vessels were not strong enough to hold even the diminished light of God, and so they shattered. This is known as the Shevirat Hakelim, the Shattering of the Vessels. It is our role as humans to gather together and raise these fragment sparks of God’s Light that rained down with the shards of the shattered vessels. This is known as tikkun olam, the repair of the world.

The Myth’s Origins

The bible is clear that God is omnipresent and inescapable. Exodus 40:34 says, “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter into the tent of meeting, because the cloud abode thereon, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” Jerimiah 23:34 says, “‘Can any hide himself in secret places that I shall not see him?’ said the Lord. ‘Do not I fill heaven and earth?’ said the Lord.” Isaiah 6:3 says, “And one called unto another, and said: Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.”

Among the disciples of the 16th century Rabbi Isaac Luria, or the Ari, there arose a metaphysical question: if God is omnipresent and total, how then can humanity and the world exist? Wouldn’t the universe be destroyed and overwhelmed by God’s total light? The Ari answered them with the idea of tzimtzim, the withdrawal or contraction of God, which was put into text by Ari’s disciple, Rabbi Hayim Vital, in his book Etz Hayim, the Tree of Life. 

The myth states that God’s light withdrew itself from his exact “center” (a metaphysical, rather than physical concept, as God has no “center”) to a sphere surrounding a new void. This void was empty and full of vacuum, until God desired to create the world. Knowing that he could not fill the void completely with his light, because that would obliterate his creation, he needed to “step down” the light, which is what the sephirot, or vessels do. But the first sephirot (in some cases all 10; in others, 7) were not strong enough even then — they shattered, and sparks of God’s light spread out to the far corners of this new universe. By following God’s commandments — that is, by living a righteous life — one “raises” these sparks and “repairs” the world, thus fulfilling the goal of tikkun olam, the repair of the world.

God is thus transcendent, i.e. beyond this world, and at the same time immanent, present in all things.

Some Thoughts on the Myth

The Ten Dimensions of String Theory

The Ten Dimensions of String Theory

One of the things that has always fascinated me about the tzimtzum myth is its parallels to modern Big Bang theory (and not the TV show). Modern science postulates that there was a “singularity” or point of infinite energy and density a the beginning of the universe, which exploded into all the matter and energy we known today. In other descriptions I’ve heard, since space was also infinitely compressed at the beginning, calling the singularity a “point” is misleading, since that implies there was space around such a point. Instead, imagine an infinite field of infinite energy and density.

It’s quite curious that a 16th century myth, which Isaac Luria and his disciple Hayim Vital elucidated, has so many similarities with modern science. Of course, modern science disregards the metaphysical connections as mostly coincidental. Scientists merely extrapolated current measurements back in time to come up with their theory, and lots of evidence bears out their theory: the cosmic microwave background, the redshift of galaxies, among other measurements. Also curious is that the Sephirot are the ten divine emanations of God responsible for the world we live in today, according to Kabbalah. In some versions of String Theory, we live in a ten-dimensional universe, seven dimensions of which have been “curled” up so that, by all measurements, we appear to be in a three-dimensional universe (plus one of time). In some versions of the Shevirat Hakelim, the Shattering of the Vessels, seven of the original ten sephirot were “shattered” when God’s light filled them.

Of course, this might all be a coincidence. One theory was arrived at by contemplation of biblical questions. Another, by measurements of the universe. My preference is to trust the latter. However, when I am confronted with information that seems strangely correlated, even if it may not be, my ears perk up. As string theory develops over time it will be interesting to see if the parallels continue or the theories diverge.

Tomorrow’s Myth: The Business of Demons