by Rabbi Ahron Lopiansky
Aish HaTorah - September 28, 2000
Between God and the world of nature lies a bridge called the "occult". Crossing it is fraught with danger and a slip-up means falling into the abyss of idolatry.
Most children are thrilled by stories of witches and devils, Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort. In an otherwise dry and rational world, those mysterious forces add an element of fun and excitement and stir the imagination. They allow a youngster to feel that there is a way to beat a merciless and insensitive system.
Born poor through no fault of your own? No problem -- a wonderful fairy will come to your doorstep and give you the fortune you so longed for. A bully is tormenting you mercilessly? A spell will be cast and he will become a squirrel for the rest of his life.
The Blair Witch Project films give teenagers a momentary shot of excitement and dread, and an ominous whiff that maybe there really is something lurking out there.
THREE GENERAL APPROACHES
When a person matures, three general approaches towards the occult and other outside forces begin to emerge.
There are the serious, rational mindsets who laugh it all off. For them the world is rational, quantifiable and anything else is utter rubbish.
There is a second group of people, who tend to be spiritual, artistic, poetic, etc. They sense the world has a spiritual dimension to it, and that there are all sorts of forces and mysteries that reason can't comprehend. Theirs is a world of tea-leaf readings, tarot cards, crystal balls and psychic predictions.
Then there are those very deeply religious people, whose worldview is that of a great battle between the two forces in the world -- good and evil. The captain of the good team is God, assisted by a host of angels, saints, martyrs, etc. The captain of the bad team is the devil, assisted by demons, evil spirits and politicians. Their world is particularly threatened by the likes of Harry Potter books, due to a large degree to the severity with which witchcraft is dealt with in the Bible.
None of these three general approaches are in keeping with Judaism. What is the Torah perspective regarding witchcraft?
The Torah takes a very negative attitude towards witchcraft in its various formats, such as:
"A sorcerer shall not be allowed to live." (Exodus 22:17)
"For you are coming into a land that God is granting to you; do not learn the ways of the abominations of the native people. There shall not be found amongst you ... a sorcerer, soothsayer or engager of witchcraft ... or one who calls up the dead. For it is an abomination before God, and it is on account of these abominations that God is giving you their land." (Deut. 18:9-12)
But why? What is the problem with it?
The so-called "devil vs. God" approach is an anathema to Judaism because of the whiff of dualism inherent in it. God is One, and only One. He acts in many different ways, but there are no "two" armies in the full sense of the word.
Judaism does speak of the "Satan/devil," but it sees Satan as an agent of God, testing the sincerity of man's deeds, the strength of his convictions, and the stamina of his moral fiber. Although this so-called devil seems to entice man to do wrong, he is not inherently an evil being. Rather, he is conducting a "sting" operation; overtly enticing to bad, but in reality working for God. A cursory reading of the beginning of Job conveys that message: God sends out Satan to test Job's righteousness.
Just as a dentist or doctor tests the firmness of a bone or flesh by probing it, just as the army tests the integrity and trustworthiness of its intelligence agents by tempting them, so too does God test man. A test reveals the inner worthiness of a person's deeds, demonstrating what they are really made of.
So, if magic and occult do exist, why are they so evil?
GOOD MAGIC, BAD MAGIC
We also find mention of many types of "good magic" in the Talmudic sources, such as blessings, amulets etc. How do we distinguish between the two types of spiritual forces?
The perspective most widely used is that of the Nachmanides, the great 12th century thinker. We will try to adapt and explain his perspective.
Although God was the sole creator of the universe, He created an autonomous system of "nature" that serves as an intermediate layer between God and man.
The system of nature is self-contained and has its laws and its causes and effects. Being that one can use this system without immediate recourse to God, it allows for a sort of atheism. It is easy to think that the system runs on its own, independent from God. Gravity, inertia, electro-magnetism etc. all work whether the person is a sinner or a saint. A person who buys into the phenomena of nature, without bothering to ask himself about their cause, nor being sensitive to God's manipulation of natural events, is misled by the system into disbelief in God.
Between God and this world of nature lies another bridge, which we shall call the "occult" or the quasi-spiritual. It has the ability to change and bend the rules of nature, through miracles, magic, etc. But this quasi-spiritual world, although it is more elevated than nature per se, is still not the Divine. It has its rules and laws of operation, and is perhaps more powerful than the physical world, but certainly not omnipotent.
Are we to make use of this world in the way which we are bidden to make use of the physical world?
Nachmanides says that generally speaking God does not desire that we make use of this world. God had intended for us to come to awareness of Him within the natural world, and through its phenomena. Someone who subverts the system of nature, by constantly using the supernatural world, is going against the will of God.
In those instances where holy people have used forces above nature, they've always emphasized the fact that the miracles thus generated only demonstrated God's omnipotence to override natural phenomena. This is similar to (though certainly not the same as) the miracles that God performed for Israel in Egypt with the aim of establishing certain Divine truths. When a righteous person occasionally uses Divine intervention, it bolsters those great truths.
DANGER OF WRONG-DOING
It is at this point that the danger of real wrongdoing exists. A person who has realized that the laws of nature onto themselves are insufficient to explain the world, has tapped into this more spiritual world and come upon a melange of all sorts of "spiritual beings." If he understands they are agents of God, this becomes a true spiritual experience. But if he mistakenly understands them to be independent of God, then he engages in idol-worship! These forces then become a source for evil when they are viewed as an alternative power to God.
Perhaps the best illustration for this dual approach is inherent in the story of the "copper snake":
And the people spoke ill of God and Moses ... and God sent against them the burning serpents and they bit the people, and many people died ... and God told Moses: "Shape a snake [out of copper] and place it on a stick, and whoever was bitten will look at it and live." Moses then made a snake of copper and put it on a stick, and if a person was bitten by a snake, he would look at the copper snake and live. (Numbers 21:4-9)
The Mishna (Rosh Hashana 29a) puts this into perspective:
Did the serpent heal or kill? Rather, when Israel looked up heavenward, and dedicated their hearts to their Heavenly Father [they would be healed], and when not, they would waste away.
Here we have both facets of the supernatural: At first, the miraculous nature of the snake caused people to realize that the plague was God's doing, and they worked on bettering themselves. In this vein it was a positive spiritual experience.
But later things disintegrated and instead of the snake being a means to recognizing God, it became a focal point in itself, i.e. the wonderful healing snake -- separate from God's power. That is idolatry. For this reason, many hundreds of years later, King Hezekiah had this copper snake destroyed because people turned it into an idol!
UNDERSTANDING IDOL WORSHIP
Idol worship is the perception that there are many forces with various powers over mankind and perhaps even over God. The idolater thinks that he can use these "powers" against God if he only knew how to wrest them away from God.
It's as if God's power were vested in a gun He holds in His hand. The idolater thinks that if could only wrest the gun from God, then he'd wield that power. He equates the spells of witchcraft with the ability to overpower God.
The prime example of this thinking is the evil prophet Bilaam, who is called a sorcerer by the Torah. He was a person very knowledgeable in this area of the universe. He kept scheming to use the world of magic against God. He thought he understood the mind of God and that with enough powerful manipulation, he would be able to outfox Him!
In a sense, this is the worst form of idolatry possible. On the one hand, the person is onto something "real." It is not a weird looking rock that a primitive mind has fantasized into a god. Rather, it is a power that works. Yet, it is utterly false, because nothing is independent of God.
For us, the litmus test of "spirituality" is morality. Any form of "spirituality" that makes no moral demands on a human being, that does not seek to bring him closer to God, or bring out the Divine potential of man, is bogus or evil spirituality.
If a person practices "occult rites" and the content thereof is a mumble of strange words, bizarre costumes, or strange rites, it is either bogus or evil. It usually is bogus, but in those cases that he has tapped into these powers, it is evil for he has divorced it from God.
The great rabbis who performed supernatural acts, were using them to bring home a message about God. They enjoined people to recognize the Creator, develop their character, be kind to others, be honest and faithful, reign in their drives, etc. Understood in the larger context of God, Torah and morality, these unusual miracles were indeed Divine revelations.