Jews, Witches, and Sorcery: The Remarkable Tradition That Is Still Practiced Today
“Rabbi,” asks a man in that evergreen Jewish fairytale film “Fiddler on the Roof”: “Is there a proper blessing for the tzar?”
It’s late October, and Jews leery of Halloween and its pagan origins may be wondering if there is a ritual saying for a witch.
There is a curse, actually, written up neatly in tractate Pesachim in the Talmud. It goes like this:
May boiling excrement be forced into your mouth, 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!
The relationship between Judaism and witchcraft, sorcery, and magic is certainly fraught.
But from our earliest sacred texts to our modern religious practices, it has always existed. Contrary to fervent popular belief that witches are antithetical to Judaism and magic a sham diversion from holiness, references to the occult appear in the Torah and the rest of the Scriptures, and are a frequent topic of discussion in the Talmud. Witchcraft as a practice has existed in Jewish cultures throughout most of history, and was often tolerated and at times even accepted.
Today, fueled in part by feelings of national discord particularly towards women and minorities, some Jews are practicing Jewish witchcraft. Toil and trouble if you will — as our ner tamids burn and cauldrons of matzo ball soup bubble: By the reading of the Tanakh, some Jewitches this way come.
Is any of this kosher?
Starhawk, an influential Jewish witch in the Bay Area, rejects the idea that Witchiness is incompatible with Jewishness. “Witchcraft is not so much about belief, it’s more about practice — in that way it’s a lot like Judaism,” she told me. “In Witchcraft we believe that nature is sacred, not in the sense of an image we bow down to, but that it’s really important, and has to be cherished, respected, and protected. We believe that every individual, every person, has a spark of the divine in them, and that we are interdependent and responsible for taking care of one another.” Starhawk, who wrote the seminal Goddess text, “The Spiral Dance,” says that the fear of polytheism that turns so many Jews away from Paganism is not a major concern. “Again, it’s not so much about belief,” she says. “We see the gods and goddesses as doorways, like constellations of energy that open up different possibilities inside you and the world around you.”
You can keep the “Harry Potter” books out of your children’s hands, but you can’t keep witchcraft out of the Torah.
It’s there in Exodus 22:17 (“You shall not tolerate a sorceress”) and Leviticus 20:27 (“A man or woman who has a ghost or familiar spirit shall be put to death; they shall be pelted with stones—their bloodguilt shall be upon them.”) With finality, Moses tells the Israelites via God in one the final speeches in Deuteronomy, “Let no one be found among you who consigns his son or daughter to the fire, or who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer, one who casts spells, or one who consults ghosts or familiar spirits, or one who inquires of the dead. For anyone who does such things is abhorrent to the Lord.” There’s the curious case of sorcerer Bilaam and his talking ass (great Halloween couples-costume idea!) but that, too, seems to be a tale of the divine triumphing over the supernatural. The Torah is very clear: magic and sorcery are not Jewish.
Not Jewish? Or simply not Jewishly permitted? By denouncing witchcraft, the Torah confirms its practice, the way it confirms the practice of adultery or keeping workers’ wages overnight by outlawing them. In First Samuel, the constantly erring Saul exemplifies this, first forbidding “ghosts and spirits in the land” and then finding a woman “who consults ghosts” and engaging her to contact the spirit of the newly dead prophet Samuel, which she does.
This impression that rules against sorcery are meant to be broken doesn’t end with Saul. Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis, who has written extensively on Jewish magic and mysticism, says that though the Rabbis of the Talmud inveighed against witchcraft, “virtually all of them believed that their wives engaged in it.” Dennis, who teaches on the topic at The University of North Texas, adds, “they often allude to the fact that it was part and parcel of traditional life for women.” Jewish men depended on the supernatural as well — Dennis says learned Jewish men “seriously studied astrological manuals—but that wasn’t considered witchcraft. Women got the short shrift of things as they often do in traditional cultures.” Later, Nachmanides wrote that magic was created by God, but disrupts the “normal function and natural state, which is the desire of the Creator.” Jewish women, using magic to run their households, were disruptors.
A history of quiet disruptors
Rabbi Dennis says the idea that Jews have always piously steered clear of witchcraft is fanciful. The dependence on witchcraft for things like healing and protection from evil spirits was not specific to Jews, but it was regularly practiced by Jews through medieval times. Just as Jonathan and Jonah cast lots to divine fault, later Jews, like their neighbors, used magic for healing and superstition. Historically, Jewish interest in witchcraft, says Rabbi Dennis, is “rooted in fundamental problems we face as all people do, which didn’t have modern solutions. Why do infants get sick? Why do terrible things happen to me?” Dennis says that for centuries, Jews were “very engaged with questions of supernatural forces and folk traditions, superstitions and trans-rational practices that really don’t fit the modern mind at all. Everyone was doing it — the pre-modern world was not rational by any measure.”
Selectively accepted, quietly tolerated, and derided by the Torah, witchcraft in Judaism changed as it began to be seen as unacceptable in Jews by their Christian neighbors in the Middle Ages, when Jews began to be seen as allies of the devil. To Starhawk, witches were “the healers, the herbalists, people who maintained the old goddess traditions after Christianity came in in Europe. Today, reclaiming that name is “a political strategy to reclaim that word because we feel like the persecution of the witches are part of a way western culture has attacked women’s power and attacked the old healing traditions and the old indigenous traditions that come from Europe and the Middle East.” Aside from injunctions against sorcery in the Torah, modern Jewish aversion against witchcraft relates to the fact that Jews were so long punished for connections to it. “Something really strange and amazing happened to us in the late 18th-early 19th century, which is that the Jewish people, seeing the opportunities Western Enlightenment offered them, made an unstated decision to become the most rational people in the world,” Dennis says. He adds,
We have big traditions of ghosts and demons and angels and feats of wonder and miraculous powers and magical powers, but they’ve been pretty much neglected for the last 250 years.
For Susala Kay, a queer Pagan Jewitch in the same Bay Area community as Starhawk, that tradition is alive and a well. She is reticent to define Paganism (“It’s just like Judaism— ask one Pagan and you’ll get three answers!”) but says her interest in Paganism is inextricable from Judaism because “Judaism really began out of Canaanite, pagan religion. This is my ancestry—it goes back to Ashkenaz, but it also goes back farther.” Her group’s practices are “about seeing the interdependence of all beings and celebrating and listening to and respecting the earth as the mother, our source.” Both Starhawk and Kay spoke about the centrality of feminism in their practices, according to Kay, “celebrating the goddess, seeing the earth as mother, the fertility of the earth and the fertility of women.” Kay sees overlaps in the Jewish tradition of shechina as a name for God, but says the idea of multiple Gods in Paganism is something she struggles with. “But what does speak to me is Ba’al, which is clearly a forerunner of our God,” she says.
So should Jews celebrate Halloween?
According to Dennis and Kay, the Jewish holiday of Sukkot most invokes the supernatural. “That’s when we invite our ancestors to visit us and we hang out with the dead,” Dennis says. Kay notes that Sukkot is very similar to the Pagan festival of Samhain (pronounced sah-win), celebrated by some pagan groups around the time of Halloween. “Samhain is all about getting in touch with the ancestors,” says Kay. “They’re also both about the harvest.” The holiday, which the Jewitches of the Bay Area will celebrate with the Pagan group Reclaiming, involves interacting with alters, to current issues like sexual assault, followed by casting a circle, calling on the elements, mentally contacting ancestors, sending out energy, dancing, and sharing a meal. “Like the pesukei dezimra and the Amidah, these are different ritual technologies that we use,” says Kay. “In these chaotic times, We are looking back to ancient ways to find wisdom.”
Jenny Singer is a writer for the Forward. You can reach her at Singer@forward.com or on Twitter @jeanvaljenny
This story "Jewitches and the history of magic in Judaism" was written by Jenny Singer.