For many years, witches were mysterious figures, frightening and hated. In many societies they were the ultimate “other.” In modern times, with the emergence of enlightenment and tolerance towards the “other,” witches are receiving a place of honor in our culture and its creative works. Witches are portrayed in literature and films as fully human — some are good and some are bad, and they deal with difficulties and sorrows just like the rest of us. They are forced to cope with the vicissitudes of life in their own way. The cloak of mystery and hatred is progressively disappearing.
This week’s Torah portion declares absolutely (Shemot 22:17), “Do not allow a witch to live”!
I sense the surprise of our readers who follow the adventures of Harry Potter and his friends. Can’t we allow that sweet girl Hermione to live? Shouldn’t we distinguish between the evil witches who serve the powers of darkness and the helpful ones who contribute to society? Haven’t we progressed beyond the dark ages when anything which was not understood was burned in the town square?
The commentators are divided about the nature of this halakhah. According to the Rambam, there is no such thing as magic. Witches are liars who use sleight of hand. The prohibitions on magic in the Torah are meant to call attention to the worthlessness of magic, and to purge from people’s minds the belief in those who deal in illusions and delusions. The masses are liable to fall into the trap of believing these fantasies. Society has a responsibility to protect its vulnerable members, who may be weak in spirit and character and as such are likely to seek escape and salvation in false promises and magical solutions. Therefore, the presence of witches is negative — it is too attractive a lie to allow it free play in the cultural marketplace. Just as market forces on their own will not destroy the phenomenon of drugs, so too they will not be able to overcome those who sell magical solutions to people in distress. (Guide for the Perplexed, 3:37.)
According to Chazal and other commentators including the Ramban, magic is not a false representation of reality. The Torah prohibitions relating to it are not to prevent delusions but rather to limit the the use of actual spiritual powers. The Creator of the world formed both material and spiritual entities in the world — physical forces and spiritual forces. The Torah wishes to establish guidelines for what is permitted and what is prohibited in the metaphysical and parapsychological realms.
Chazal (Yevamot 4a) see the verse, “Do not allow a witch to live” (Shemot 22:17) as linked to the verse following it, “Whoever lies with an animal shall be put to death” (verse 18). One who lies with an animal defines the notion of humanity downwards. He takes the physicality which is shared by man and animal, and uses it to debase that which makes him human and to lower himself to the level of the animal. Magic takes the spirituality which is shared by man and that which is beyond him — his ability to rule over spiritual forces — and uses it to debase the image of the Divine in him and to serve very human needs.
In both cases, the severity of the sin is because man is perverting and misdirecting powers which God gave him to fulfill his purpose in the world. Man received a body and a biology in order to live and to perpetuate life, raising descendants who will serve God. Using the body to couple with an animal is the absolute antithesis of that. Man received tremendous spiritual powers and, to a limited degree, control over the powers of nature as well. Joshua, during the battle with Canaan, says, “Sun, stand still at Givon; and moon, in the valley of Ayalon” (Yehoshua 10:12). The poet of Psalms says, “You have made Man little less than divine . . . . You have made him master over Your handiwork” (Tehillim 8:6-7). These powers were given to man within a very well-defined framework — the service of God as defined in the Torah. Deviating from this framework negates the fundamental realization that these powers are Divine gifts, on loan to man for the purpose of serving God. They are prone to lead man to conceit and to self-worship (avodah zarah atzmit), as has happened more than once in history.
Our Sages disagree as to whether or not the prohibition on magic is included in the seven Noachide laws (Sanhedrin 60a). Those who claim that Noachides are included in the prohibition support their position with the juxtaposition