When I studied art at Temple University in Philadelphia, I knew a girl who always wore black. This was not uncommon amongst those of us who were artists, so I didn’t take much note of it until one day, quite matter of factly, she mentioned to me that she was a witch. This gave me a very uncomfortable feeling about her. It’s one thing to have tried some magic item or incantation; many rational people have done that sometime in their life. It’s another thing to identify oneself as a practitioner of magic. I chose not to have very much to do with this girl after her confession.
However, my curiosity was piqued and I subsequently found out that there are quite a number of practitioners of various forms of magic in the world, some positive, some neutral, and some negative.
The Torah’s viewpoint on magicians seems quite unambiguous, “You shall not let a sorceress live.” (Exodus 22:17) But what if you only used your powers for positive things? What would be so wrong in being the “Good Witch of the North?” Many readers, I’m sure, don’t really believe anyone has these powers anyway. If that’s true the question becomes even stronger. Why would God bother to forbid someone from wasting his/her time trying to do magic?
Not only magic, but also any of the standard (if you can use such a word here) occult practices have a bad reputation in the Torah. “For anyone who does these is an abomination to God, and it was because of these abominations that God banished the other nations from before you.” (Deuteronomy 18:12) This stuff is just not Jewish.
I’m sure Harry’s Occult Shop in Philadelphia would be hard pressed to obtain a rabbinic endorsement. It’s an interesting place with shrunken heads, candles, spices, etc. I must say I was tempted at one time to purchase a love potion from there and try it out. I’ve often wondered if you married someone and the potion you gave her wore off, would you have to keep buying the stuff and spilling a little in her morning coffee your whole life?
Despite the critical attitude to magic in the Torah there are instances that seem daringly close to magic in scripture. In Genesis 30:37 Jacob does some strange things with rods to induce the animals to give birth to spotted offspring. In Exodus God instructs Moses how to turn his staff into a snake. The plagues as well are performed with his staff, and sand is employed for the plague of lice, furnace soot for the plague of boils. In the Sotah process in Numbers 5:22 water is used to have an explosive effect on a suspected adulteress. Moses gets water from a rock in Numbers 20:11. Joshua makes the sun stand still, and Elijah brings the dead back to life. The Talmud goes even farther with seeming incantations, amulets, meditative practices, and non-medical healing. How can the most observant, scholarly, and holy ones be openly violating such a clear transgression?
The answer lies in the definition of magic. Most people assume magic is any manipulation of the laws of nature. Because it baffles and scares us we assume it must be bad. The biblical prophets could and did manipulate the laws of nature at God’s request. God made those laws, and He can have man break them whenever He wants. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, on a deeper level God is hidden in those very laws of nature. Rabbi Luzzatto explains that the spiritual realm has an intricately designed system of operations containing both positive and negative forces. The physical realm is interwoven into the spiritual realm. Both realms have rules of “nature” ordained by God. Man can affect the spiritual world in a way that manipulates the physical. However, he is bound by his own limitations as well as God’s rules regarding this manipulation.
The Talmudic references to magic are “kosher” magic. If you know how to change the laws of nature and you’re doing it for a good purpose, it may be okay. The mystical tradition says that there are rules how and when this is permissible. In other words, it’s understood that many kabbalists or scholars had this power but they were bound by a strict set of rules as to the use of this power. Kabbalah contains many secrets about the rules of nature. This knowledge carries with it the keys to many powers.
The reason the Torah prohibits an average person from performing magic is that the danger of forgetting about God is too great. The magician may even think he himself is all-powerful. Not only that, but the truth is that nature is God’s desired way of running the universe. He made things run a certain way for a reason. Nothing is random. Only a fool or an evil person would choose to violate the rules God wants in place. A holy or wise person can ascertain when such an act would be appropriate. So the next time you consider twitching your nose or waving your wand, ask yourself if that’s what the Almighty really wants.