Do You Believe in Magic?
In this week’s parsha there is a long list of magical practices in which we are forbidden to engage (Devarim 18: 9-12). It is not clear what exactly these magical techniques involved but it is clear why people turned to them.
People turned to them in order to prevail over the reality of their existence thinking they could try and change that reality, or perhaps to divine the future.
Be that as it may, these magical practices were alleged to be a tool which one could use to create a more advantageous existence and these verses in the Torah raise an important question: Is magic real?
Nonsense. Just nonsense.
It probably comes as no surprise that Rambam (Maimonidies), the great master of Halacha and perhaps the preeminent avatar of a rational Judaism, wrote with tremendous scorn on the subject of magic. Here are his concluding words in the eleventh chapter of his Hilchot Avodat Kochavim regarding the prohibition of magic:
All of these things are false and spurious, and it was that the ancient idolaters misled the peoples of many lands so that they would follow them. And it is unbecoming to Israel who are exceedingly wise to be attracted by these absurdities, nor to even imagine that they are of any consequence…Whoever believes in these matters, and their like, and suppose that there is wisdom and truth in them, except that the Torah disallowed them, such people are none other than foolish and ignorant ….
Ramban (Nachmanidies), the greatest Torah scholar in 13th century Spain, was one of the first figures to bring Kabbalistic ideas to the public. He did this in his trailblazing commentary to the Chumash in which he wove together all of the facets of the Torah into one magnificent work.
Ramban opposed many of the ideas of Aristotelian philosophy which enjoyed great popularity among a significant portion of Jewish society. Aristotelians said that miracles are impossible because God cannot change nature. In a similar vein, Aristotelians denied the reality of magic. The Ramban fought Aristotelianism and so we find him defending magic. Here is a passage from the Ramban’s commentary to our parsha:
Now, many scholars dispose of themselves to be liberal with regard to these enchantments by saying that there is no truth in them whatsoever, for who tells the raven or the crane what will happen? But we cannot deny matters publicly demonstrated before the eyes of witnesses. …
To most of us the credulity of the Ramban seems, to put it mildly, naïve. But we need to keep in mind that in medieval Europe many very learned people engaged in the study of astrology and alchemy and these were considered worthy of serious study. Be that as it may, Ramban opposed Aristotle and those who accepted his ideas because they limited Hashem’s absolute freedom to manage all of creation.
What to do?
It is understandable that people will do what they can to shape their future. The world can be very scary. So, what can Jews do to shape their future? After the prohibition regarding magic the next verse has this to say:
You must be wholehearted with your God
Rashi explains what this verse is teaching:
“…walk before God whole-heartedly, put your hope in Him and do not attempt to investigate the future, but whatever it may be that comes upon you accept it whole-heartedly, and then you shall be with Him and become His portion.”
In other words, Rashi seems to be explaining the beauty of what is called “simple faith,” something that can be easily tested in a world where so much of the truth can be covered in lies.
Being ‘wholehearted’ with God can help ground us and guide our way.