SALEM, Massachusetts — Just in time for Halloween, a controversial Satanic temple has set up its international headquarters in Massachusetts’ beloved Salem.
Located one-mile from historic sites tied to Salem’s 1692 witchcraft hysteria, the building — a former funeral home — was inaugurated last month by activist Malcolm Jarry, a self-described “secular Jew” who co-founded The Satanic Temple (TST) in 2013. Jarry is a pseudonym, and he refuses to be photographed.
The temple houses an art gallery in honor of Baphomet, a “sabbatic goat” representing the universe. Behind the two-story building, an eight-foot tall statue of Baphomet sits in a plain shed, where visitors can pay to view it.
With up to 50,000 members in chapters around the world, TST has garnered colossal media attention in the last three years. Chief among Jarry’s causes are marriage equality and women’s reproductive freedom. Any issue related to the government using religion to restrict individual freedom is also likely to engage temple leaders, some of whom staged a 2014 “Black Mass” at Harvard University to push the envelope on religious freedom.
Outside of New England, TST has taken legal action against the placement of edifices of the Ten Commandments in civic settings, including statehouses. To illustrate how such displays violate religious freedom, the temple has insisted it be allowed to erect goat-headed Baphomet statues in the same locations. TST is also planning to take on some schools’ use of isolation, denial of bathroom access, and corporal punishment of children.
For the 49-year-old Jarry, there is not much conflict between being Jewish and a Satanist. As a matter of fact, the two identities have come to inform each other, he said.
“I see it like Buddhism,” said Jarry. “Satanism is something that can co-exist with being a Jew,” he said.
In addition to Jarry’s belief that Judaism and Satanism can co-exist, there are parallels with how Judaism and Satanism have been branded by their detractors, he said.
“The false accusations that have been thrown at Jews historically are similar to what some people say about Satanism,” said Jarry, mentioning accusations of blood libel and — more recently — fabricated allegations that Israel perpetrates genocide against Palestinian children.
“I do not accept when people delegitimize Israel or use lies to marginalize Israel,” said Jarry. “I am an unwavering supporter of Israel, so long as it remains democratic, pluralistic, and protects human rights.”
Satanists, for the record, do not believe that Satan exists. Derived from the Hebrew root for “adversary,” Satan is viewed as a symbol, not an idol or deity.
The Church of Satan was founded by Jewish-born Anton LaVey in 1966. Known in his heyday as “the black pope,” LaVey seeded “grotto” churches around the country, and Hollywood figures including Sammy Davis Jr. joined the church. (Davis had converted to Judaism in 1961.)
As the “sigil” for his movement, LaVey adopted an inverted pentacle surrounded by the Hebrew letters for Leviathan, a sea monster featured in the Old Testament. From the center of the pentacle glares the half-human, half-animal Baphomet, both female and male, intending to symbolize the harmony of the universe.
During the 1980s, “Satanic Panic” set in, and the church was accused of ritual abuse and criminal activity. LaVey was labelled a dangerous charlatan by critics, and many of his life stories were exposed as fraudulent after his 1997 death. Having once been called “the world’s most notorious religion,” the church’s last big hurrah was a Satanic High Mass, held in Los Angeles on 6/6/06 for its 40th anniversary.
Unlike the occultist LaVey and his Church of Satan, Jarry and his upstart Satanic movement do not associate with magic, he said. Like other religions and non-religions, Satanism has multiple off-shoots and — spoiler alert — Satanists are against submitting to centralized authority, which the pay-to-play cult of LaVey began to exemplify for some practitioners of so-called LaVeyan Satanism.
‘We expect to be treated in the same manner as all other religions and will sue for all of the same rights’
In recent weeks, TST has been in the news for one member’s attempts to deliver a Satanist invocation at Boston City Hall. The opportunity to open meetings with prayers is by invitation only, and only mainstream religions have ever been asked, said Jarry.
“If the decision is that only we cannot deliver an invocation, then we will sue and we will win,” said the veteran contrarian.
“We expect to be treated in the same manner as all other religions and will sue for all of the same rights,” said Jarry, adding that TST’s campaigns are fueled by “the importance of standing for freedom of expression and against tyrannical authority.”
According to Salem city officials, only a handful of citizens have expressed concern about the Satanic temple’s arrival in the bewitched seaport, one of New England’s top tourist destinations. Among Salem’s several thousand Jewish residents, those questioned by The Times of Israel had only positive things to say about their town’s newest faith — or faithless — based neighbor.
“Honestly, for us, it is such a non-event,” said Liz Polay-Wettengel, a Salem resident for more than a decade.
“We live with so many different types of beliefs here, including a very large Wiccan community, that having a satanic church open doesn’t even register for me and other Salem Jews I have spoken with,” said Polay-Wettengel, who directs marketing for InterfaithFamily.com.
“As long as we can practice our Judaism freely, I have to extend those rights to them as well,” she said.