Forbidden Magic

Va'era By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jan 12, 2002 / 5762 | Torah Commentary

In the Torah magic is forbidden–not because it is ineffective but because it does violence to the sovereignty of God. Exodus commands: “You shall not tolerate a sorceress” (22:17). Deuteronomy elaborates: Let no one be found among you . . . 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” (18:10-11). The length of the list mirrors just how widespread the practice of magic was in the ancient Near East. Its underlying premise was the pagan idea that the gods, like humans, were subject to fate, a metadivine realm that predated and transcended them. Magic exploited divine weakness by activating metadivine forces to induce or compel the gods to heed the bidding of mortals. The Torah bristled at such contamination of its overarching monotheism. “You must be wholehearted with the Lord your God,” is the way Deuteronomy summed up its indictment of magic (18:13). Our faith is to be pure and undivided.

This view of magic informs a subplot of the fast moving narrative of the first seven plagues to strike Egypt in this week’s parashah. Beside the titanic confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh, there is also the secondary contest, between Aaron and the court magicians. Moses leads with Aaron. It is he who turns his staff into a serpent before Pharaoh and who then triggers the onset of the first three plagues by another wave of his staff. Pharaoh counters with his magicians. As long as they can match Aaron’s prowess deed for deed, Pharaoh betrays contempt. By the third plague, which turns dust into lice, the priests falter and confide in Pharaoh that “This is the finger of God” (8:15). Nevertheless, Pharaoh’s resolve continues unbroken.

But the point of the narrative is not only to register Aaron’s victory but to stress the difference in execution. In contrast to Aaron, who simply carries out God’s command without any hocus-pocus, the magicians employ a ritual wrapped in secrecy. Each time the Torah conspicuously adds the phrase “with their spells” to reveal the source of their power (7:11, 22; 8:3, 14). The efficacy of Aaron’s rod (or that of Moses) flows directly from God’s will, without benefit of occult techniques. Not so the vaunted and pervasive magic of ancient Egypt, which is derivative and limited.

Despite their failure to keep pace with Aaron, the magicians do not seem to have conceded fully. They reappear in the sixth plague, when the Torah mentions tellingly that, “The magicians were unable to confront Moses because of the inflammation, for the inflammation afflicted the magicians as all the other Egyptians” (9:11). By the fourth plague, Moses had taken charge. The plagues were now his doing. The verse suggests that Pharaoh’s magicians were still trying to compete. But by this time their impotence is total: they can neither reproduce the plague nor protect themselves against it.

For Martin Buber, in his still valuable quest for the historical Moses, the separation of magic from religion lies at the heart of the personal name which God reveals to Moses at the burning bush (3:14) and which is repeated at the beginning of our parashah (6:2). The force of God’s name (Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh) is the assurance of an unmediated and unwavering presence, beyond magical incantation: “If the first part of the statement states: ‘I do not need to be conjured for I am always with you,’ the second adds: ‘but it is impossible to conjure me.'”

To make the repudiation unmistakable, Buber continues: “It is necessary to remember Egypt as the background of such a revelation: Egypt where the magician went so far as to threaten the gods that if they would not do his will he would not merely betray their names to the demons, but would also tear the hair from their heads as lotus blossoms are pulled out of the pond. Here religion was in practice little more than regulated magic. In the revelation at the burning bush, religion is “demagicized” (Moses, Harper Torchbooks, pp. 52-53).

The aversion to magic may also be the factor that determined the blemish in Moses’ profile. He was not a silver-tongued orator. In resisting God’s call, he described himself as “slow of speech and slow of tongue” (4:10, 6:12). And indeed he did not convince Israel nor overwhelm Pharaoh by means of eloquence. According to Rabbi Nissim Gerondi of Barcelona, the spiritual leader of Spanish Jewry in the fourteenth century, that is among other reasons why God chose Moses. In a land where incantations were all powerful, God did not want a leader who appeared to best the Egyptians at their own game. No one should think that Moses prevailed because of his facility with language. This was not a contest between competing systems of magic. God alone initiated and generated the signs and wonders that effected Israel’s redemption from Egypt. The speech impediment of Moses underlined the new religious claim that the God of Israel could not be fettered by the occult (Abarbanel on Shemot).

Thus the subplot is actually the main plot. The repudiation of magic reflects a profound theological shift from a plethora of subordinate deities to a single supreme God, whose arena of action is history more than nature and whose favor is garnered by adherence to a lofty new standard of morality. Shabbat Shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Va-era are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld