An old saying within the Israeli political establishment goes something like this: "You haven't made it in Israeli politics until you've been cursed by the Pulsa Dinura." Taking this maxim as true, Israeli Economics and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett can now rightfully declare himself a successful Israeli politician. On April 10, Bennett received an anonymously written death threat warning him that he is the latest victim of the "Jewish death curse" known as the Pulsa Dinura (Aramaic for "lashes of fire").
So what exactly is the Pulsa Dinura? And why was Naftali Bennett targeted?
The Pulsa Dinura is believed by some fringe elements within the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) community to be an age-old ritual, well steeped in Jewish law (halacha), that inflicts divine wrath upon its victims. To experts, however, the Pulsa Dinura is a modern contrivance that lacks authentic roots in Judaism, and specifically, within the Kabbalistic (Jewish mystical) tradition. In fact, Jewish law and custom condemns praying for the death of another human being, preferring instead prayers that call for the death of the evil within an individual.
The term Pulsa Dinura appears only 10 times in sacred Jewish texts, four times in the Talmud and six times in the Zohar. According to Zion Zohar, the aptly named religious scholar who has written extensively on this issue, its usage in the Talmud, while relating to punishment of sinners, is decidedly metaphorical in nature. Two of the four Talmudic references apply to celestial beings as opposed to humans, while the other two deal with an individual already dead and a heated argument between rabbis.
The Zoharic references are even less convincing as a source for rituals pleading for divine retribution against human beings. In the Zohar, the Pulsa Dinura is described as a cloak that clothes and protects the divine presence on Earth (the Shechina) from external negative forces. It is further used to connote a divine power or light that serves to reward Metatron, the archangel and celestial scribe, and to create harmony in this world and the one above.
The Pulsa Dinura surfaces during critical moments in Israeli history. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was a recipient of the Pulsa Dinura in July 2005 because of his plan to evacuate Gaza. Six months after the incantation, he suffered a debilitating stroke. The Pulsa Dinura was also aimed at former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin in November 1995, less than a month before his assassination at the hands of the Jewish terrorist Yigal Amir. Rabin was targeted for the Pulsa Dinura because of his planned withdrawal from most of the West Bank.
The impetus behind the Pulsa Dinura targeting Naftali Bennett is the Israeli government's determination to finally reform longstanding policies granting special privileges to the ultra-Orthodox. Bennett is one of the Israeli politicians leading this charge. One of the winners of the January Israeli elections, Bennett's Jewish Home party shrewdly tapped into mainstream Israeli discontent with the perceived lack of contribution by the ultra-Orthodox. It is a population that is mostly exempt from service in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), undereducated and unskilled in areas that are relevant to work in a high-tech Israeli economy (thus suffering from high unemployment), and one that doesn't pay a proportional share of the tax burden yet receives hefty government handouts.
To the individuals who wrote the death threat to Bennett and who apparently attempted to conjure the Angel of Death to kill him, reforms touching on these issues amount to a revocation of the foundational agreement between the secular state and the religious community known as the "Status Quo" agreement. A brief history is in order: To strike a deal with the ultra-Orthodox and build the first coalition government in 1947, Israel's ever-pragmatic Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, attempted to balance the secular nature of Zionism with the preservation of Judaism and Torah within the burgeoning state. This Status Quo agreement set out, among other things, that Shabbat would be Israel's official day of rest, issues involving marriage, conversion and "who is a Jew?" would come under rabbinic authority, the religious sector would be granted autonomy in the sphere of religious education, and financial subsidies and exemptions from otherwise mandatory military service would be granted to religious men devoted to Torah study.
The ultra-Orthodox community has been able to protect its core interests to a large degree ever since the Status Quo agreement was reached. In recent history, the ultra-Orthodox political parties have actually wielded disproportionate power within the Israeli government considering the small demographic number of their constituents -- approximately 10 percent of Israel's 8 million citizens -- and the relatively small number of seats gained in parliamentary elections. Dubbed "king makers" because of their political clout, parties such as Shas and "United Torah Judaism" have been courted by major parties of both the left and the right subsequent to elections in order to secure the 61 seats needed to form a coalition government.
However, the present Israeli government, for the first time in decades, has no representation from the ultra-Orthodox parties. Now these parties find themselves in the opposition, where hopes are that the governing coalition will fail and a new alignment formed with them included -- wishful thinking according to most Israeli analysts. To the contrary, the newfound alliance between Bennett's Jewish Home Party and the progressive Yesh Atid party, led by the vociferously anti-ultra-Orthodox Yair Lapid, has further cemented fears that the Status Quo Agreement is at real risk of being dissolved.
The latest Pulsa Dinura threat directed at Bennett is therefore a conjuring-of-last-resort by those within the ultra-Orthodox community who feel sidelined and threatened by the outcome of the Israeli election and the governing coalition that formed in its wake. Given the political climate and the lack of power among the ultra-Orthodox parties at this time, we will likely see an increase in apocryphal ritualistic behavior of this type -- vain attempts to regain an influence that disappeared so suddenly.