Well, here I am once again, back at Oz. (See last week’s musing and others in my archive to see how it’s a theme that always seems to assert itself.)
What brought me, once again, to the land of Oz and to the title taken from the musical “Wicked?” Well, to be specific,
מְכַשֵּׁפָ֖ה לֹ֥א תְחַיֶּֽה׃
Exodus 22:17.”A sorceress you shall not allow to live.”
The root of the word is Kaf-Shin-Feh which means to work magic, to bewitch. It has an etymology that goes back to Akkadian and Ugaritic, so there’s little dispute as to its meaning.
Where do I even start with this one? First of all, note that it does not say “sorcerer.” Commentators argue that it would apply equally to sorcerers, and offer the apologetic that the feminine form is used here in the Torah because “women are more occupied with magic than men” (Ibn Ezra)
Rashi, commenting on why the word used is sorceress and not sorcerer, simply states it is because there are more sorceresses than sorcerers.
Ah, misogyny. Where would our tradition be without it?
It also doesn’t say “you must kill a sorceress. Instead, it is given as a prohibitive commandment – a sorceress shall not be permitted to live.
For Nachmanides allowing a sorceress to live is a sin and a failure to follow that commandment. For him, failing to observe a prohibition is a more serious breach than failing to do a positive commandment.
Joseph ben Isaac Bekhor Shor, a 12th century commentator from Orleans, France, suggests that this verse tells us that upon discovery of a sorceress she should be put to death at once, without any sort of due process, as she might “bewitch the court.”
Rashi tells us that sorceresses do their magic in hidden places, and that we must actively seek them out and not allow them to live through our laziness.
So what’s the big deal with sorcery and magic? (I can already point to the Urim and Thummim and Moshe’s staff as evidence of the use of sympathetic magic in Judaism.) In the JPS Commentary to Exodus, Nahum Sarna casually tosses this idea away with this statement:
Yet the frequency with which magical practices are mentioned in the Bible is sure testimony to their hold on the popular imagination and to the difficulty encountered in combating them
Sarna, N. M. (1991). Exodus. The JPS Torah Commentary (136). Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.
In the JPS Commentary, Sarna makes the argument that magic and sorcery are inherent to polytheism and anathema to monotheism. They are inherent in polytheism because in that sort of system the multiplicity of gods perforce limits their individual powers, and gods ands human share the same world. These gods were simple manifestations of nature, and like all things in nature they lived and died. In such a setting, he concludes, it is inevitable that humans should seek to find a supernatural world in which even the gods themselves can be controlled. Thus was magic born.
Monotheism’s idea of a single, universal creator G”d is simply incompatible with magic’s aims and purposes, suggests Sarna.
Yet, if there is one omnipotent creator G”d, why should that G”d fear magic and sorcery, so it would have zero efficacy in the universe (unless G”d permitted it to work?)
There are several other references to magic in the Torah, all of them citing it as prohibited. The Torah forbids Israelites from practicing sorcery and magic. One of the primary reasons cited (especially in the extended prohibitions in Deuteronomy 18) is that magic is common practice among the abhorrent practices of the peoples which the Israelites will dispossess when they take control of they land G”d has promised them. Like so many other examples in Torah, it’s don’t do it just because they did!
Sorry G”d, that’s not good enough for me. What’s Your problem with magic and sorcery? Could Sarna be wrong? Well, in some theologies, yes. I would generally agree that in a monotheistic theology with an unlimited and all-powerful G”d, the existence of other realms from which the power to do magical things could be used and controlled is illogical. However, our understanding of G”d these days is not as wholly dependent on an entirely omniscient, omni-present G”d. Many theologians and philosophers, Jews among them, have speculated on ideas of a limited G”d, or even a self-limiting G”d. It helps them explain free will. It helps us understand the Shoah.
For you physics types, what if G”d exists only in this reality, this universe, and other gods, or no god, exists in alternate realities and universes? What if G”d is only a three-dimensional construct living in a fifteen-dimensional universe (string theory only works for the most part when there are a larger number of dimensions than three. Some forms of string theory require 15 or so dimensions!)
Is it that G”d fears magic and sorcery because it has the potential to distract, harm, or otherwise affect G”d? Is there a realm, a dimension, from which we, G”d’s creations, can channel powers that could challenge and threaten G”d? Does G”d know that this is an essential and necessary component of creation?
I was tempted to make a reference here to Kabbalah,and other form of Jewish mysticism. We are told that one should not even begin to explore such arcane mysteries until one is older and experienced in life and, one presumes, knowledgeable in all things Torah (with both a capital and lower case t.) However, definitions matter.
Merriam-Webster defines magic as
the use of means (as charms or spells) believed to have supernatural power over natural forces
Aleister Crowley, a British occultist once famously defined magic (or as he preferred to call it, magick) as
the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will
In other words, it is people having the power to effect change in the universe according to their own desires.
Mysticism, on the other hand, seeks to enable us to change our own thoughts and perceptions to bring them to a place in which we can perceive G”d, or, for the atheist, true reality.
Given these definitions, it’s not fair to lump Kabbalah in with magic. (I’m still not sure about the Urim and Thummim!)
So mystical paths to the Divine or okay, but magical paths are not. Or so it would seem. But I digress. Back to magic and sorcery.
The popularity of the Oz stories, the popularity in our own time of Harry Potter and similar book series, tell us that the idea of magic still holds a pretty powerful sway among humanity. Does it hold that sway because many of us believe there might actually be magic? Or is it something else that drives us?
I might be bold enough to suggest that our unhappiness and displeasure with the way our omnipotent universal G”d deals with our universe is what keeps up hoping that magic might be real. This is because we hope there are good people who can use this magic to right the things that we believe are G”d’s wrongs. Many of our greatest stories use magic in this way. The Arthurian Legends. Star Wars. Harry Potter.
I picked those three purposefully, because all three of them also serve to remind us that magic can be used just as easily for evil as for good. Is this why G”d commands us to kill sorceresses, and to shun magic? G”d knows that we have within us both potential good and potential evil, and if we seek after magic, we might eventually make it work, and potentially cause far more harm than good. This supposes that G”d alone knows what is best for us.
G”d handily wields the same power that we would think of as magic. G”d, too, has used these magical powers for purposes we might not consider the best. (Yes, I am hesitating to say that G”d actually did evil with G”d’s powers, though I will admit to considering it a possibility.)
Here’s the problem with no one mourning for the wicked. No one, and I mean no one – not even Voldemort or Hitler or Darth Vader is 100% evil. If we accept the Jewish understanding of the universe, it’s not possible, for all come equipped with a yetzer hatov and a yezter hara – a good inclination and an evil inclination. Somewhere inside even the vilest of human beings is a yetzer hatov arguing, however quietly and in vain.
G”d is wrong (there, I’ve said it) to ask for the killing of any and all sorceresses. This is not the act of a G”d who is kind, compassionate, loving. Or even a G”d who is testy and irritable and inconsistent.
Or maybe we’ve got it wrong. Precisely because it does not tell us to kill a sorceress. The Torah tells us that a sorceress shall not be allowed to live. There is another way of understanding this besides meaning to kill her.
In an earlier musing on this parasha, from 10 years ago, I wrote about the lex talionis (eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life, etc.) and pointed out that the Hebrew text does not say you shall TAKE life for life, etc. It says you shall GIVE life for life, etc. I suggested this could be used to give a whole different understanding of how justice is achieved.
I now make a similar suggestion when it comes to Exodus 22:17. Not allowing a sorceress to live could be achieved by any number of positive methodologies which do not involve killing her!
We must be like Luke Skywalker, like Harry Potter, like King Arthur, believing there is always some good inside everyone, and that, with some effort, that good can be found. It may not always be possible to restore that good to dominance, and sometimes death may be the only way to rid the universe of someone so controlled by their yetzer hara that it is truly in the best interests of the universe that they no longer be in it. That’s certainly a choice I never want to face. I will try, with all my heart, my soul, my being, to change the heart of the sorceress so that the sorceress she was ceases to be, but the human being that she is continues to live. Failing that, I will mourn the wicked as much as I mourn the good.
©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Mishpatim 5772-Repairing Our Damaged Temple
Mishpatim 5771 – Getting Past the Apologetics
Mishpatim 5770 – Divine Picnic
Mishpatim 5769 – Redux 5757/5761 Change from the Inside
Mishpatim 5768 – Justice for All
Mishpatim 5767-To See, To Behold, To Eat, To Drink
Mishpatim 5766 – Mishpatim with a Capital IM
Mishpatim 5765-Eid Khamas (revised)
Mishpatim 5764-Situational Ethics
Mishpatim 5763-My Object All Sublime
Mishpatim 5762-Enron Beware!
Mishpatim 5761-Change from the Inside
Mishpatim 5760-Chukim U’mishpatim
Mishpatim 5759-Eid Khamas-Witness to Violence