Monday, October 30, 2006

You Have To Believe, There's No Magic

(Please excuse the reference to a terrible song from the early eighties.)

With Halloween just around the corner, I thought it would be appropriate to consider how our tradition addresses "the occult". Of course, practicing magic, conjuring up spirits and consulting astrologers are all strictly prohibited by the Torah:

There shall not be found among you one who passes his son through the fire; a diviner, an astrologer, one who reads omens or a sorcerer. One who charms animals, one who inquires of Ov or Yideoni, or one who consults the dead. For anyone who does these is an abomination of Hashem; and, because of these abominations, Hashem, your God, banishes the nations from before you.

Famously, Maimonides explains that these activities are forbidden because they are nonsensical:

And all of these things are matters of falsehood and lies, and they are the very means through which the idol worshipers fooled the nations of the world into following them. And it is not proper for the Jewish people, who are exceptionally wise, to follow after these vanities, nor to entertain the possibility that they have any benefit. As the Torah states, "there is no divination in Jacob, nor charming in Israel." And it is stated, "For these nations that you will inherit listen to the omen-readers and charmers; but you, not so has Hashem, your God, given you."

Anyone who believes in these things and things like them, and thinks in his heart that they are true and wise but that the Torah has prohibited them; he is one of the fools and those lacking knowledge, and is grouped among the women and children whose minds are imperfect. But those who possess wisdom and sound mind know by clear demonstration that all of these things that the Torah prohibits are not things of wisdom; rather, they are emptiness and vanity that fools stray after, and all of the paths of truth have been corrupted because of them. Because of this the Torah states, when it warns us about these vanities, "Perfect shall you be with Hashem, your God."

In the Rambam's view, which is shared by many other authorities, these behaviors lead to a way of thinking which is inimical to Torah. "Magical thinking" is, in fact, one of the key elements of idolatrous belief and worship.

At the same time, there were some Rabbis that maintained that the practices prohibited by the Torah are actually effective, but that Hashem forbade our involvement in them for a different reason. Most notable among proponents of this view is Nachmanides, the Ramban:

And now, know and understand regarding magic, that the Creator (may He be blessed) created everything from nothing and made the upper realms the guides of what is beneath them; and He placed the power of the earth and all that is in it in the stars and constellations according to their motion and direction, as has been demonstrated in the science of astrology...However, it was one of His great wonders, that He placed within the upper realms alternate ways, and forces by which one might change the governance of the realms beneath them...But it is the regular governance of the constellations that the Creator (blessed is He) desires, which He placed in them to begin with, and this would be the opposite. This is the secret of magic and its power, such that the Rabbis said regarding magical practices that they "contradict the Council Above"; in other words, they subvert the simple forces of nature, which is a contradiction to the upper realms to some extent. Therefore, it is proper that the Torah prohibit them so that the world will be left to its normal function and its natural state, which is the desire of the Creator...

There are many who belittle the reading of omens and say that they have no truth to them at all...But we cannot deny things that have been clearly demonstrated before witnesses.

Note that the Ramban is operating within the framework of God's Unity. He could not possibly have entertained the notion that magical activities tap into forces that are completely independent of Hashem. Rather, he believed that whatever could be accomplished through these rituals was "built in" to God's creation from the outset.

This concept must be stressed because the Ramban's position is so often misunderstood. People frequently assert that "the Ramban believed in magic", as if he acknowledged the existence of a separate realm of evil forces that could be harnessed against the will of the Creator. This perspective is not only wrong, it is heretical!

Close analysis of the words of our Rabbis offers an important clarification. Both Rambam and Ramban maintain that all of existence reflects the design and wisdom of the Almighty, and that no force can operate independently of that design. Their dispute revolves around whether the magical activities proscribed by the Torah are really effective or not.

According to the Rambam, anything scientific is ipso facto permitted. Therefore, if magical rites were actually efficacious, the Torah would have allowed them. The problem is that whatever impact they do have is only imaginary. This is why they are prohibited.

Ramban disagrees with the Rambam and asserts that not everything "real" is necessarily permitted. Activities that undermine or subvert the course of nature are forbidden, precisely because they really work. Ramban thought that the occult practices described in the Torah operated through "loopholes" in the Creation that enabled man to tamper with the Universe to an extent that is inappropriate. This is why, according to Ramban, we are not allowed to engage in them.

Genetic engineering and cloning afford us modern applications of these theories. It seems likely that the Ramban would view these procedures as unacceptable meddling with the course of nature, while the Rambam would argue that, since they have a scientific basis, they are permitted.

There is one more fundamental issue that must be explored here. From his commentary, it is clear that the Ramban's attitude toward the occult was based upon the scientific knowledge that was available to him. He felt that the power of magical practices and the reliability of astrological predictions had been confirmed experimentally. The question is - what would the Ramban say about magic, astrology, etc., today?

Modern science has systematically discredited astrology, superstition and magic. There is not a single shred of empirical evidence that supports their validity. Thus it is almost certain that, were he alive today, the Ramban would change his view of the occult and agree wholeheartedly with the Rambam.


Barzilai said...

As it happens, there is a connection to last week's parshah: in Breishis 6:12, Ki hishchis kol bosor. Rashi, from the Medrash here— even the animals were mating outside of their species. This is similar to the idea discussed in the Ramban in Vayikra 19:19 on the passuk Es chukosai tishmoru, where seems to say, based on that possuk, that genetic engineering that creates something that is different from what would arise naturally is assur. The Bechor Shor (a baal tosfos, born soon after Rashi died, around 1140) says “laasos brios baolam shelo osisi ani.”

dilbert said...

Excellent blog(and the other one too)

Where is the line that the Ramban draws regarding excessive or unnatural intervention in the world? You wrote that you would have the Ramban objecting to cloning or genetic engineering, and I assume that the basis is more on the 'too much meddling' basis rather than on considerations of sanctity of life, destruction of the embryo, etc sort of basis. However, cloning and genetic engineering are simply extensions of other scientific uses of the same technology. For instance, we can cure certain diseases(Gaucher's disease I think) because of genetic engineering. We can make life saving medicines in large quantity becuase of genetic engineering(put the genetic code into a bacteria and it becomes a factory that makes lots and lots of it). Tomatoes that are disease resistant are the result of genetic engineering. It seems that you are drawing an arbitrary line, and possibly putting words in the Ramban's mouth. Perhaps if he saw that these things were the result of science, and the 'regular way of the world' he would approve of them. After all, according to Ramban's view as you quoted him, the difference between science and magic is that science goes according to the regular way of the world. It seems that all fo science would be accepted, as long as it is understood and seen as the regular way of th world. If one wants to take the 'shortcut' arguement, then maybe electricity is a shortcut.......

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Barzilai, you are right - the Ramban also mentions this connection with regard to kilaim and shaatnez, although I did not cite that segment of his comments.

Dilbert, I agree that there is a fine line to be drawn here...I chose the examples I did because they are cases in which we seem to "tamper" with natural processes on a very fundamental level in order to produce a result more favorable to us.

Use of electricity, on the other hand, is simply harnessing a preexistent resource in nature. The same goes for much of technology.

However, I believe it is ultimately irrelevant because, as I said in my conclusion, I suspect that the Ramban would retract his opinion in light of current knowledge.

Anonymous said...

See this article in

very similar point of view

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

David, I enjoyed the article immensely. It is very well written and argued.

However, the author makes one assertion that I believe is inaccurate. He claims that the majority of scholars in Rambam's time did not believe in the incorporeality of G-d. This sounds like a gross exaggeration. Even the few rabbis who affirmed a belief in corporeality understood it, for the most part, in some kind of poetic way rather than the simplistic old-man-with-a-beard way.

The author appears to criticize Ramban quite harshly in the beginning, but "saves him" in the end! He definitely brings out some interesting differences between Rambam and Ramban that were eye-opening.

Anonymous said...

I think 'science' of Rambam's day and that of now are not merely different by the accumlation of facts; they have such starky different attitudes regarding many things. It's not simply a matter of "what passed for" science then would be considered patent foolishness now, as with many suggestions that strike one as only magical that are in Gemara. Even among scientists of the past and present are those who didn't found every thought and deed on empiricical proofs. science over the millenia has abounded with acceptance of possibilities (and realities) that were BY DEFINITION beyond empirical knowledge - but they weren't denied existence merely because they were not the subject of scientific STUDY, or considered exacting coorelaries to "science". Many authors in the history of science have written on just these dimensions - but the train of thought of this post would likely dismiss them out of hand for not being sufficently 'rational', despite their degrees, experience in the scientific fields themselves as well as historical grasp of sciences. I might cautiously mention MIT and Harvard-trained Geologist and world-renowned historian of science Seyyed Hossein Nasr of GWU. yes he is muslim - but even Rambam was able to "accept truth from whomever speaks it".

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Even among scientists of the past and present are those who didn't found every thought and deed on empiricical proofs. science over the millenia has abounded with acceptance of possibilities (and realities) that were BY DEFINITION beyond empirical knowledge - but they weren't denied existence merely because they were not the subject of scientific STUDY

I am not sure where you infer that I disagree with this point. As Einstein says, all of science is based upon elements of faith and intuition. Every step of the way is not rooted in empirical data. But it is still rational, insofar as it is an effort to use our minds to gain knowledge about the world.

It is not hard to find leaps of faith in modern science as well. Quantum theory, for example, reads like science fiction. We mock philosophers of antiquity for believing in spontaneous generation, and now it's back!

Anonymous said...

>It is not hard to find leaps of faith in modern science as well. Quantum theory, for example, reads like science fiction. We mock philosophers of antiquity for believing in spontaneous generation, and now it's back!

Quantum theory is quite amazing, but it is hardly a leap of faith, given the enormous body of experimental evidence supporting it. Some of the New Age explanations of the theory appearing in the popular press do involve leaps of faith, but those are generally recognized as going beyond the science.

I question whether your interpretation of the Ramban is correct. You seem to ignore any distinction between natural forces that act with predictable regularity (teva) and supernatural forces that were believed to involve sentient beings described variously as angels, spirits, or demons (or mazolos) from which the pracitioner of the occult seeks their intercession. Science uses the former and would arguably not be prohibited by the Ramban unless it runs afoul of the the rules on kelayim. I would also point out that many chareidim continue to believe in the power of the occult. I don't think it's accurate to say that science has disproven the existence of magic any more than one could say science has disproven the existence of angels (or, for that matter, of God). The most one could say is that in spite of the huge amount of phenomena that science has studied and explained, it has found no evidence for the existence of supernatural forces.


Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...


My point about Quantum Theory was that it is extremely counterintuitive from both a philosophical and classical physical perspective, yet it is taken seriously because of its explanatory power. I didn't mean to suggest that it was literally a leap of faith.

The main point of my argument in this post was that the Ramban was not a New Age mystic opposed to science. He was a critic of what passed for science in his day, and believed that the reality of occult phenomenon had been established by experiment.

Were he around today, he would recognize that kinds of occult phenomena he thought were authentic have simpler alternative explanations. He would embrace modern science because of its empirical foundation - after all, one of the main reasons he objected to Aristotelian science was that it was more like philosophy than science; it was not empirically substantiated.

In other words, what we call the occult, the Ramban thought was a component part of Maase Beresheet; nonetheless, he held that it was forbidden to tap into these elements because they subvert the normal processes of nature.

Anonymous said...

hi rabbi,i have to ask,based on your assomption-are you one that rejects the kabalistic teachings?

as far as i know allmost all tora schollers today-based on kabbala-do belive in (kabalistic) astrolagy,wichcraft,etc'..
the fact that we know what stars are made of is not of any way contradict astrolagy-in kabala the factor is not the stars themselves but thire spiritual root that they are indication of their controll in a given time.
i belive that the ramban based his opinions on kabala and therfore i don't see why it would change?

i'm basing what i said on rhamhal maamar al haagadot,and derech hashem primerally.

im sorry for the bad english,how you can understand what i said.