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Parashat Mishpatim

02/21/2020 05:42:26 PM


Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Mishpatim, which contains many rules and ordinances for the Israelites to follow. Mishpatim, in fact, means “rules”. There’s not necessarily a great rhyme or reason to how the rules are ordered in this section, it’s largely a hodgepodge of rules for ethical living that God sort of just info dumps onto the Israelites (via Moses, because last week the Israelites preemptively agreed to follow whatever God said as long as they didn’t have to bear witness personally to the terrifying Divine presence).

One of the rules, sandwiched between a commandment that a man who sleeps with a virgin must still pay full virgin-status bride price for her after the fact, regardless of their prior intent to marry, and a prohibition against bestiality, is a prohibition against sorcery. Chizkuni suggests that this verse falls where it does because men will turn to sorcery to acquire love charms and such to seduce the young maidens in the first place.

More specifically, Exodus 22:17 says, “You shall not tolerate a sorceress,” simply and without further clarification. In Leviticus and Deuteronomy there are more commandments which forbid divination more broadly, and with slightly more context (though still not much explicit reasoning), but here, the first time we are told expressly that magic is forbidden to the Israelites, only witches are called out, not warlocks or wizards. Rashi comments on this, that of course the law applies to both men and women, the Torah simply uses the feminine conjugations because that is the more common case: “for it is women who mostly practise witchcraft”.

Generally, the sages understood the prohibition on witchcraft as an extension of prohibiting idol worship. Magic was something *other* religions and peoples engaged with as a way to make up for the fact that Divine acts could not truly come from their wooden and stone gods. Since our God could perform true miracles, it was best to stay away from any human sorcery. Of course, there are still some stories in Jewish tradition where magic is employed, or at least God’s supernatural powers are called upon expressly by humans. Although even as recently as the 1980’s the Reform Responsa still encouraged staying away from divination, it seems to me that what is defined as “magic” and forbidden would be a matter of where one’s heart is turned and the intentions in enacting or calling upon such power.

Yet, while the Torah severely prohibits witchcraft and the sages of the Talmud passively agreed it was sinful, the folklore and apparent practice of witchcraft did not disappear from Jewish communities. My Jewish Learning reports, “According to I Enoch [an apocryphal Jewish text], witchcraft was first taught by the fallen angels to their mortal wives. This presumably explains the special association between women and witchcraft that marks subsequent Jewish literature.” In Mizrachi Jewish culture, sorcery was generally more accepted than in Ashkenazi culture. Established kabbalists like Hayyim Vital would visit known enchantresses for their wisdom and magic, while European Jews engaged with the anti-witch attitudes of the Christian culture around them. I would suggest that this is ironic, given that sometimes Jews themselves were accused of being witches and wizards, for no other reason than for not being Christian, so one might think that they would have compassion on others accused of witchcraft, but I suppose agreeing that witches cavort with the devil may have been a way for Jews to show their agreement with their neighbors for the purpose of self-protection. Now, there is a revival of JeWitch communities, centering their traditions on Tanakh but including in their rituals one more tangible symbols and basing their theology more on nature and spirits than God as depicted in the Bible.

Last month, as I watched the first four Harry Potter movies with the Youth Group, I kept commenting on things I had learned or noticed or thought more about since listening to the podcast “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text.” If you don’t already know about it, it is a great podcast that goes through the Harry Potter book series, book by book, with each episode focusing on one chapter and choosing a theme (usually a moral value) that serves as the lens through which they will examine that chapter. They discussed the book and share personal stories, sometimes they have interviews, and then they engage in a spiritual reading practice like lectio Divina or chavruta, just as one might do for the Bible, but with a sentence from that episode’s Harry Potter chapter. They close out every episode with a blessing offered to one of the characters who appears in that chapter and up to anyone else in a similar position to that character. It is a truly wonderful experience to listen in on, and has made me wonder what other texts we might practice such an experiment on as well. However, I am only about halfway through Book 4 currently in the podcasts. I am thinking today about this line of Torah from this week’s parasha, and the historical Jewish relationship with witchcraft and wizardry, and am so eager to see what I notice anew, what comes up in a sacred text sort of way as I revisit the latter 3 books in movie form as the Youth Group continues their Harry Potter marathon.

If you are worried about witchcraft spoiling your Judaism, you may ward off witches and wizards with this useful curse from the Talmud: “May boiling excrement in a sieve be forced into your mouth, (you) witches! May your head go bald and carry off your crumbs; your spices be scattered, and the wind carry off the new saffron in your hands, witches!” But I would encourage you to instead open your hearts to the magic of the world, and refrain from cursing others. My blessing for you this week is that you may conjure up a little magic of your own, that it helps you commune with the higher power of your understanding, and that we all find the sparks of joy that are all around us in life if we only remember to look for them. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Sat, August 8 2020 18 Av 5780