Judaism and Magic
Based on Parasha U’Likcha by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
by Braha Bender
There’s a certain bent of personality that is drawn to the dark arts. Something elegant and seductive lurks about the concept of magic. It’s powerful, for one thing.
For another, the culture surrounding popular magical things – vampires, wizards, ephemera – drags all sorts of interesting nuances along with it.
There’s a craftiness, a creativity, and a tangy-sweet frisson of rebellion that surrounds the topic. There are costumes, rituals, secret languages, and fascinating secrets. There’s a reason Harry Potter did so well and it wasn’t because J.K. Rowling wrote about boarding school students in Great Britton. Similarly, Twilight wasn’t just any teen romance. It was a teen romance about supernatural vampires.
Where does that leave Torah observant Jews? Here’s the verse you’re looking for:
There shall not be found among you anyone who passes his son or daughter through fire, a soothsayer, a diviner of [auspicious] times, one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, a pithom sorcerer, a yido'a sorcerer, or a necromancer.
Uh, oh. And just in case all that wasn’t clear enough:
For whoever does these things is an abomination to Hashem. (Devarim-Deuteronomy 18:10-12)
But fans of sci-fi and fantasy genres, do not despair! Imagination is not the problem. Plenty can be conveyed in metaphor and tall tale that can’t be conveyed in plain language.
What the Torah is warning against in these verses is not fiction and fantasy. It’s when otherwise sane people begin to believe that fiction and fantasy are real.
Let Me Sell You a Bridge
Countless Torah sources champion education, particularly reading and debate-based Torah study, as every single Jews’ number one priority. However, belief in the power and importance of reason didn’t really get off the ground for the non-Jewish world until the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century. Before that, the majority of the human race didn’t know how to read. In fact, reading was often banned on pain of death by the church in order to avoid heresy.
In absence of reading, reason, and meaningful debate, non-Jewish folks made sense of their world any way they could. Headache? Say fifteen Hail Marys and call me in the morning. Lightening storm set the crop on fire? Whoops, must have upset the gods. Bunch of kids got sick in the community? Oh, we know how to deal with that one. Just go kill some Jews.
Unfortunately, the fostering of reading, reason, and meaningful debate is an uphill battle to this day. (Ask any Arachim lecturer!) At the very moment that you read this, thousands of bizarre religious practices are being enthusiastically practiced around the world.
Scientologists are busy clearing the planet of body thetans, aliens inhabiting Earth from a nuclear explosion 75 million years ago. Mormons are busy baptizing long lists of people who have already passed away (including victims of the Holocaust, which you can imagine that their surviving Jewish relatives just love). Digambara Jainist monks wear no clothes at all because they are “wearing the environment”.
And if you believe in any of that, boy, do I have a bridge to sell you.
Applewhite Theorem asserts that many people will believe anything as long as the claim can’t be checked. The theorem, named after cult founder Marshall Applewhite, observed 39 educated adults committing suicide in the faith that their souls would ascend to the “next level” by boarding a spaceship tailing the Hale-Bopp comet. Washing down toxic phenobarbitol with vodka and tying black garbage bags around their heads, the group were found decomposing in their San Diego mansion along with a set of video tapes providing ample background to the tragedy.
What is the big difference between believing in body thetans, post-mortem baptism, soul-ascension suicide and “a soothsayer, a diviner of [auspicious] times, one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, a pithom sorcerer, a yido'a sorcerer, or a necromancer”?
I’ll tell you the difference: not much. Superstition is dangerous. Believing in magic, not as a metaphor or a game, but as a real-life practice, has very ugly consequences. These things are not ancient history. They’re happening now and Torah sets out to stop them.
Written in the Stars
The Talmud in Shabbos 156b illustrates how to counter superstition. Circa 400 C.E., Talmudic sage Shmuel was sitting with a gentile astrologer named Avlett. A group of laborers walked by on their way to gather reeds from a marsh. Avlet casually pointed at one of them.
“See that guy?,” said Avlett. “I see it in the stars. He’s not going to make it back today. He’s about to die from a poisonous snake bite in the marsh.”
Glancing at his contender, Shmuel responded, “Oh, really? We’ll see about that. If he’s Jewish, he’s coming back.”
The hours waned on as the Torah sage and the non-Jewish astrologer waited to see which prediction would prove correct. As the group came back into view on their way home, Avlett was astonished to see the same man walking among them.
Jogging over to see with his own eyes, Avlett opened the man’s satchel. Just as he had predicted by the stars, a poisonous snake was entwined among the reeds. The difference was that the poisonous snake was sliced in half. It had been run through with the man’s machete and the man had not even known the snake was there.
“What action did you take that created the merit for you to be saved?,” asked Shmuel with a smile.
The man hesitated. “Well…”
“Go on,” urged Avlett.
“Well, me and my buddies all have lunch together on work days,” explained the man, who indeed was Jewish. “Every fellow brings some food and we divide all the different foods between us. Today I noticed that one of the guys forgot to bring some food, so when lunch time came around, I volunteered to collect from everyone. When I came to the fellow who forgot, I snuck him a wink and put in my own portion instead. Told everyone that I was the one who forgot. I didn’t want that guy to be embarrassed.”
Shmuel nodded. Quoting from Mishlei (Proverbs 10:2), the sage explained, “Tzedaka saves from death.”
What does this story mean for us? Sure, there may be all sorts of strange powers and secrets floating around the universe. Avlett was partially correct. Every good lie has a sprinkling of truth. Some even say that the Torah wouldn’t warn against them if they didn’t exist.
But whether they exist or not isn’t the relevant question. Most superstitions are bogus and some may have some basis in reality, but the real question is whether we will allow ourselves to be enslaved to forces outside of our control. Do the stars control our destinies – or do we?
Be Your Own Superhero
The reason the laborer didn’t die of a snake bite was because he made a choice. He chose to do what was right instead of what was easy. It would have been easier to let the other guy take the flack for forgetting his portion, but our man took the flack instead. He chose to be a hero.
Similarly, it’s a whole lot easier to believe that bad things happen because Zeus is having a bad hair day than to take personal responsibility. Superstition is passive. Torah challenges us to wake up. The Almighty responds to our choices. When we do the right thing, there is no power or spiritual system that can get in the way. The good that we choose to bring into the world directly and indirectly effects our lives. The other side of the coin is that when we do the wrong thing, we bring difficult educational consequences down upon ourselves. It might be unpleasant, but it’s no big mystery.
Fact: there is no trident, wand, or magical venom that can control what happens to a Jew. There is only one power in the universe, and that power is the Almighty who responds to our choices. Is that easy to live with? No. That’s why there are some 2.6 million people practicing Zoroastrianism today. Much easier to believe that your life is helplessly wedged in a battle between the impersonal forces of evil and equally impersonal forces of good than to acknowledge that there is only one Force, and that Force is pointing the finger directly at you.
That’s why Jews cry on Tisha B’Av and celebrate on Sukkos, for example. That’s why Jews fast on Yom Kippur and feast on Shavuos. Because we take responsibility. When we have made poor choices with devastating consequences, we don’t ignore it. We emotionally acknowledge our mistakes with real tears. When we have made terrific choices with wonderful consequences, we rejoice. Dancing, laughter, and heartfelt songs of prayer and praise fill our hearts and homes. And when we have an opportunity to achieve personal growth and a closer relationship with G-d, we grab it with both hands, even if it means fasting.
Because the purpose of life is not to get off the hook with those pesky supernatural powers. We’re not here to buy off gods and drink butterbeer. May as well pick up a manatee tusk and call it the horn of a unicorn – when we avoid responsibility, we delude ourselves and, worse, we miss the point.
Torah reveals that we are here to actualize our potential as amazing people. The difference between fantasy and reality is that we don’t need radioactive spider bites – or an e-meter, or a lethal dose of phenobarbitol – to do it. Everything is on our side, even our tailor-made personal challenges. Why settle for fantasy when we can have reality? By living with Torah, we become real-life superheroes.