The Torah, as is well known, is not very sympathetic to witches, and classifies the practice of sorcery as a capital crime. However, the Bible is not very informative in describing what activities constitute witchcraft, or why witches are considered so objectionable.
In our culture, of course, the word witch, er, conjures up images of wart-infested hags in black robes and pointy hats chanting around cauldrons.
Indeed, most of the assorted witches who make their appearances in the literature of the Talmud and midrash used their magical powers for malevolent ends.
Simeon ben Shatah was able to arrest eighty witches in Ashkelon. In his ingenious sting operation, his disciples were able to gain entry to the coven's cave by masquerading as a contingent of marriagable sorcerers. The love-starved crones could not resist the temptation.
The agents were able to neutralize the witches by lifting their feet off the ground, thereby deactivating their magical powers, and making them easy to arrest.
Medieval Jewish writers had diverse approaches to the phenomenon of witchcraft. Maimonides and other scholars who lived in the scientifically advanced Arab culture were wont to write it off as a subset of idolatry, in which practitioners fraudulently ascribed supernatural powers to physical objects, rather than to the Creator of the universe.
On the other hand, the Jews of Europe shared with their Christian neighbours an intense belief in an endless variety of witches, demons, monsters and other ethereal things that go bump in the night. These eerie beings inhabit the pages of works like the Book of the Pious, the magnum opus of the Jewish pietist movement that flourished in medieval Germany.
A particularly intriguing interpretation of witchcraft may be found in the works of Rabbi Moses Nahmanides, the Ramban, the celebrated thirteenth-century exegete and Talmudist who lived in Gerona Spain.
Nahmanides' view of witchcraft presupposes a distinctive theory of the structure of the cosmos. He derived his interpretations from his studies of astrology, as found in works like the Book of the Moon, an occult manual for manipulating supernatural energies in our world. In keeping with the widespread view at the time, this esoteric lore was ascribed to the wisest of mortals, King Solomon. Diverse formulations of this doctrine of "astral magic" were current in the medieval world in the tradition of "Hermetic" teachings ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus.
These ideas had enjoyed popularity in the ancient world, and again became influential in the early medieval era, when they were translated into Arabic. The theory of astral magic was championed by some of the foremost Jewish thinkers, including Rabbis Judah Hallevy, Abraham Ibn Ezra, and others.
The universe of the astrologers operates along decidedly hierarchical patterns. The Creator established a permanent infrastructure of celestial bodies whose unchanging operations produce the eternally valid laws of nature.
To supervise the stars and constellations, God appointed a class of heavenly beings, referred to variously as "angels," "princes" or "archons." These beings are authorized to manipulate the heavenly bodies, in order to produce specific effects on our lower world. According to Nahmanides, it is these beings who are designated in rabbinic literature as God's "Celestial Household."
The astrological world-view to which Nahmanides subscribed claimed that mortals also possess the capacity to understand and alter the heavenly powers, through an understanding of the courses of the stars, and through the performance of magical activities, such as the offering of incense to the respective angelic overseers.
The mastery of this lore is condemned by the Torah as "witchcraft" (kishuf).
According to Nahmanides, the Jewish antipathy towards witchcraft is based largely on the fact that it allows humans to override the cosmic hierarchy, by changing the laws that were intended to be inexorable.
Unlike those rationalist thinkers, like Maimonides, who dismissed astrology as unscientific and fraudulent mumbo-jumbo, Nahmanides was fully persuaded by empirical claims of its accuracy and validity.
Central to Nahmanides' understanding of the universe was the premise that every species in our physical world has a prototype in the metaphysical realm; a perception that probably has its roots in Plato's doctrine of the world of ideas. Though it is possible to create new combinations of species, doing so will cause fundamental confusion in the higher world, and amounts to an arrogant rejection of the divine scheme of creation.
Rabbi Pinhas Hallevy of Barcelona, author of the Sefer Ha-Hinnukh, utilized the elements of Nahmanides' philosophy to formulate a remarkable new characterization of witchcraft and its evils.
When the Almighty set the universe into motion, he did so in the most perfect manner possible, so that every element would operate harmoniously for the maximum benefit of his creatures.
The witch violates that primordial order by fashioning illicit mixtures. Even though, the omniscient divine will is that these mixtures can ultimately be introduced into the world successfully, the act of sorcery causes momentary imbalances in the celestial structures, and expresses a human arrogance that cannot be tolerated.
For all his impassioned invective against witchcraft, Rabbi Pinhas allows for a significant exception to the prohibition: The manipulation of natural elements may be used for the manufacture of substances that have proven medical effectiveness. Obviously, the Torah did not intend to prohibit the use of such materials, which can contribute towards the alleviation of suffering or the extension of people's life spans.
If we eliminate the archaic scientific and cosmological concepts in which their discourse is couched, we are left with some startlingly relevant issues about humanity's place in the universe, the wisdom of tampering with nature, and the ethics of biological research.
It seems clear that the witches who were discussed by Nahmanides and Rabbi Pinhas Hallevy should not be imagined in black robes, pointy hats and bubbling cauldrons, but rather in the white coats and sterilized test-tubes of the experimental scientist or genetic engineer.
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