Why conspiracy theorists keep turning to Jewish mysticism — from early Nazis to modern-day MAGA
Are Trump’s most rabid supporters getting into Jewish mysticism?
If a new viral clip from “The Daily Show” is any indication, the answer appears to be yes.
In the clip, a woman in a flower crown at a MAGA rally in Wisconsin tells “Daily Show” correspondent Jordan Klepper that she is learning gematria — or “jematria,” as she pronounces it — to decode the world around her.
Gematria, as it’s traditionally understood, is a form of mystic numerology most often used in Kabbalah. Each letter in a word is assigned a number; to understand the mystic connotations behind a word, those numbers are added together. The resulting sums are used to interpret the deeper meanings in words, phrases or texts.
For example, parallels might be drawn between words or phrases that add up to the same sums, or certain numbers might be considered lucky — such as the number 18, which is the gematria value of “chai,” the Hebrew word for life.
How does gematria work, per Klepper’s subject? The basics are the same — kind of. As the woman explains, Trump’s numerological value is 88 as is “J. Kennedy.” Klepper asks if that means that JFK and Trump are the same person. “I don’t know,” the woman replies, with a sly smile. “That’s what the gematria says.” (Mind you, this parallel only works for the exact spellings “Trump” and “J. Kennedy” — a bit of a stretch.)
At Klepper’s urging, she types a few more phrases into her mystical all-seeing gematria calculator phone app. The phrase “America is in a bad place,” she finds, yields the same gematria value as “Let’s go Brandon,” a now-famous coded catchphrase used to decry President Joe Biden. She grins triumphantly. “Do you have goosebumps yet?” she asks. Klepper looks incredulous: Clearly, for his subject, there’s only one possible meaning to the numbers, but it’s not at all obvious to him.
When I tried to recreate the woman’s numbers, I discovered that the traditional Hebrew gematria system did not give the same results as the unnamed app. One clear reason why: Her calculator was using English, not Hebrew — already a mistake — and, in her second example, the number of ways to translate “Let’s go Brandon” into Hebrew is so various that assigning it any single numerical value is, well, kind of impossible. Plus, there are several systems used to assign values in Hebrew gematria, only one of the reasons that it’s generally a mistake to trust the interpretations of casual adherents.
A gematria calculator site I found that did give the same numbers reported in the video called its system “simple gematria,” assigning values to each letter of the English alphabet based on its order — one for A, two for B, and so on.
It was one of many gematria systems that the calculator site offered, also including “Jewish Gematria” — which it still, somehow, explained in English letters.
Numerology or arithmancy is not a uniquely Jewish concept. Cultures throughout history have ascribed numbers to words or letters and used mathematics to attempt to divine the future or understand the present. But I’ve never before heard the term “gematria” used to refer to a non-Jewish numerological system.
Yet it turns out that of the wealth of gematria sites in the wide world of the internet, few pay much, if any, attention to Judaism, Hebrew or Kabbalah. Some even claim, bafflingly, that gematria isn’t specifically Jewish.
It shouldn’t necessarily be surprising that there’s a broad set of spiritualists, mystics and conspiracy theorists deeply into gematria who have no interest in, or knowledge of, its roots. Many far right groups, such as QAnon, have adopted or appropriated a mishmash of shamanic, New Age and mystic practices to further confirm their belief in various conspiracy theories — be they that Michael Jackson is alive, as the woman in the video clip also claims, or that Trump is a so-called “lightworker.”
These types of mystic practices are attractive to conspiracy theorists because they are unfamiliar enough to feel mysterious, exotic and ancient — and therefore spiritually authoritative. Just like a conspiracy theory, they give the sense of being in touch with a powerful but secret world few are aware of.
Researcher Charlotte Ward dubbed the phenomenon “conspirituality” in a paper published in 2011, but it’s nothing new. Even Hitler was briefly into pagan mysticism, and other Nazi leaders such as Himmler were practitioners of Western occultism.
When traditions and ideas are absorbed piecemeal, it’s easy to divorce them from their roots, and even incorporate a practice into an ideology that is prejudiced against the source of that mystic tradition. That’s how you find a woman at a MAGA rally — where it’s safe to assume that some attendees might believe antisemitic conspiracies about, say, secret cabals ruled by George Soros — deeply entrenched in gematria. Or how you find Kabbalah in the roots of the Germanic Volk movement that preceded, and helped birth, Nazism.
The real appeal of these co-opted mystic practices is that, misused in the right way, they reinforce whatever beliefs someone is looking to confirm. There are hundreds of ways to calculate and recalculate any word or phrase, or draw parallels through doubling or halving values to relate words.
After all, according to one gematria calculator, the word “gematria” has the same value as “foolish” — but also “messiah.” And “horse.” It’s totally obvious what that means.