Shabbat Parshat Shoftim 5778
Witchcraft and Sorcery
Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5769
When I was dating my wife I thought it would fun to have our palms read. I did not believe in it then and I don’t believe in it now, but I thought that it would be a fun and entertaining date. But I wasn’t sure if this was a halachically permissible date so I asked Rabbi Herschel Schachter who was my Rosh Kollel at the time and I think that I am lucky that he didn’t throw me out of the Kollel. Needless to say, we did not have our palms read.
The source for the prohibition is found in this morning’s Parsha and is the subject of both a fascinating discussion relating to the effectiveness witchcraft, divination and sorcery and I believe contains a very important message for how Jews are to live their lives.
10. There shall not be found among you any one who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, or who uses divination, or a soothsayer, or an enchanter, or a witch,
- Or a charmer, or a medium, or a wizard, or a necromancer.
- For all that do these things are an abomination to the Lord; and because of these abominations the Lord your God drives them out from before you.
- You shall be perfect with the Lord your God.
There are two questions that we have to address
- Why are these activities prohibited?
- Why is the prohibition listed here in Parshat Shoftim? Two of these categories are already prohibited in Parshat Kedoshim (19/26). Why not just fill in the details there and be done with it?
The first issue, the reason for the prohibition is the subject of a very famous dispute between Maimonidies and Nachmanides.
The Rambam, at the end of the 11th chapter of his “Laws of Idolatry” writes that “these are all things of lying and falsehood and Jewish sages should not be drawn after these things that have no value and are not productive at all.”
And then for emphasis he adds, “it is not befitting of the sages of Israel to follow such nonsense and stupidity.
For the Rambam it is very clear and simple- we believe God and God alone runs this world and it is silly and prohibited to ascribe those powers to anything else.
His is a good, intuitive, logical and rationale position.
Now listen to the Ramban- and this is a wild Ramban:
He writes, “Hear and understand the issue of sorcery etc. When God created the world, he put the upper sphere in charge of the lower sphere and placed the power of the world in with the stars and constellations etc. Later he writes: there are those who will tell you that these people have no power at all and there is nothing to it (an obvious reference to the Rambam) but do not believe them for
WE CANNOT CONTRADICT WHAT WE HAVE SEEN WITH OUR OWN EYES!
It gets even better. Why then are these activities prohibited? Because you can never be sure if they are right and if you really want the truth seek out God’s prophet and that is the next topic in the Torah following our verses.
I will readily admit to you that Ramban’s answer and approach are bewildering and unsatisfying. Even if you were to believe at some level in some of it I would have liked to have seen the following answers as to why it is nevertheless prohibited, both beautifully expressed by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch.
- A real belief in the power of stars and sorcerers etc involves a denial of God’s free will government of the world. If our actions are really governed by some other forces then we have, in essence, lost our free will and therefore even if God did invest some power in these heavenly bodies, they are not absolute and are subject to change. (Lev. 19/26)
- Once you put your fate in the hands of theses forces you have essentially rendered your activities and moral choices worthless and of no consequence. And with that all of morality goes out the window. You are no longer responsible for your actions.
While to be fair to the Ramban, he does not actually believe that our actions are of no consequence and how the world is run is certainly more complicated than that, I would love to have seen him say that these actions are prohibited because they will lead to this notion among men. We need to understand that there are no shortcuts, no easy way outs and that we are responsible for our actions and thus determine our fate.
I believe that this idea contains the answer to our second question as well. Why are these laws placed in Shoftim?
Shoftim is actually a well structured parsha and its main theme is leadership, judicial, political, halachick and spiritual. Our prohibitions are included in the category of spiritual leadership, I believe, because it is the spiritual leaders’ role and responsibility to teach this message to the people. At times people will come to the kohen or the prophet and want to know the future or get the quick answer or be told what to do and while there are rare times that the Urim and Tumim were used to get answers from God, it was not often and not for individuals. These leaders needed to teach the people that this is not what God wants from you. They may dispense moral or spiritual advice, but they should not make your decisions for you.
God wants you to understand that you are responsible for your actions and choices and those actions will ultimately determine your fate. You can ask for advice or daven to God, but no one else can make your choices for you. That is why sorcery and necromancy and all other sorts of witchcraft are prohibited.