Rabbi Goldschmidt


The Rabbi, The Witch And The Rambam

(Recently we have focused on the divide between the approaches of Rambam and others to the phenomenon of magic and the darker arts.

In this shiur that I gave earlier in the week (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qr38bo0eO2Y&t=251s), I discussed how Rambam understood all of the darker arts to be a matter of trickery and sleight of hand.

As to the question of why they then attracted such strong biblical prohibitions and penalties, I answered that practitioners and priests typically used such trickery in order to draw their audiences after idolatry and to harm and abuse innocent people. I concluded with R’ Hirsch’s account of how such darker arts strike at the moral fabric of both individuals and society.

In the post below, we are privileged to host Rabbi Yonatan Goldschmidt who serves as Rabbi in India, and who has traveled extensively throughout the Eastern Asian countries studying these phenomena. He provides eye-witness accounts of the sort of the damage that practitioners of darker arts inflict even to this day – Rabbi Shmueli Phillips)


Tragic Trickery

Throughout much of my adult life, I have had a keen interest in the world of magic and illusions [see my video attached!]. I have tried over the years to become knowledgeable in both the workings of a great many of the classic tricks as well as special effects used in stage and cinema.

The approach to understanding and experiencing this art and subject matter has changed tremendously over the centuries, from the ceremonial magic of indigenous Shamanism to the rabbit in the top hat of the stage magician. Today, we applaud the performer; seeking to be fooled, understanding prior to our engagement that what we are about to witness is only smoke and mirrors; clever deceptions, and nothing more.

In much of rural Africa and India, we have observed that the usage of ceremonial (often mind-altering) herbal medicine is sometimes employed with great theatrics and the usage of chanting and music.

These practices and customs are found within the context of the practice of many traditional systems of healing and proponents often cite the idea that these elements add a psychological or placebo effect to already established and effective traditional medicine systems.

In our various travels, my wife and I have seen the other side of the coin, a perspective perhaps lesser recognized in the western paradigm although arguably equally present. Outright deceptions are sometimes portrayed as magical or spiritual. Throughout the world, the usage of faith healing and techniques borrowed from sleight of hand are regularly used to con people out of their money, and, unfortunately, their health.

I have personally seen the “psychic surgery” that is practiced in some markets of the far East: the practitioner or healer, often referring to themselves as “Dr”, will show their hands clean and then reach into the victim/patient’s flesh (typically the stomach) and seemingly pull a grotesque and bloody tumor from their patient’s body. Afterward, no cuts or bleeding are found and the patient feels initially both shock and horror, followed by relief – he is pronounced healed of his cancer and/or other serious ailments.(This is typically performed by palming a small ball of rotten meat from a sleeve or pocket and pretending to extract it from their unsuspecting victim.) When coupled with strange sound effects and a practiced theatrical composure, the effect on the individual and the onlooking crowd is euphoric and intense (1).

The much-celebrated English magician Derren Brown, in his televised show “Miracles for sale” (2), explores how classical techniques of magic, psychology and showmanship are very much present in the evangelical Christian world. From bestowing sight upon the blind to healing the lame, even casting out “demons”, many fantastical claims are made.

Only a few years ago a pastor in Johannesburg was indicted (3) for using a highly toxic aerosol insecticide to cure various ailments and incurable diseases by spraying it directly into the faces of worshippers. However, despite the national outrage and legal proceedings, the “Prophet of Doom” actually gained further popularity, leading to the tragic death of one worshipper whose lungs collapsed after she had been assured that the “test of faith” of having a large oversized PA speaker placed on her would allow her to feel no pain whatsoever (4).

Unfortunately, a great deal of trust is placed in these deceptions and serious or terminal illnesses may go untreated or ignored for decades. The motives for these kinds of immoral practices are normally financial, although in some societies this is also performed to gain power socially and grant access to those vulnerable to abuse and to justify treatment that is essentially equated with modern sexual slavery.

Sometimes these effects are coupled with the usage of plant-based drugs such as Scopolamine (known affectionately as “devil’s breath”) and a variety of other naturally occurring plant toxins and naturally occurring poisons derived from amphibians and other sources. These are sometimes used to induce coma-like effects that meet our traditional descriptions of the Haitian and other Caribbean-based Voodoo/Voudon Zombie phenomena (although parallels are easily found in many other cultures). Interestingly, in recent times medical research has restarted to see what therapeutic effects could be gained from the clinical usage of such powerful phytochemicals and traditional medicinal compounds (5).

The Rambam in the Mishnah Torah

(Laws of Idolatry, chapter 11, Halacha 16) (6) states:

…”All above matters (sorcery) are falsehood and lies with which the original idolaters deceived the gentile nations in order to lead them after them. It is not fitting for the Jews who are wise sages to be drawn into such emptiness, nor to consider that they have any value as the verse states [Numbers 23:23]:

‘No black magic can be found among Yaakov nor occult arts within (the people of) Israel.’ Similarly (the verse in), [Deuteronomy 18:14] states: ‘These nations which you are driving out listen to astrologers and diviners. This is not (for) you.’

Whoever believes in [this aforementioned occultism] of this nature and, in his heart considers that they are truth and words of wisdom, although are forbidden by the Torah, is foolish and feebleminded…”

There is, however, clearly a split within the classical Torah commentators: between those like the Ibn-Ezra and the Ramak (Rabbi Moses Cordovero) who side strongly with the Rambam and others such as the Ramban and Vilna Gaon (Ibid) who with equally forcible words genuinely believe in the reality of magic and the dangers therein. Their argument is predicated on the very real historical truth that our sages and indeed even those mentioned in our Holy Tanach also believed in magic and considered that it posed a literal danger.

In more modern times thinkers such as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Igeros Moshe YD 4:13) and others have permitted stage magic on the grounds that most understand it is only an illusion and provided the magician reveals his secrets (a particularly unpopular ruling amongst magicians!).

Undoubtedly magic and occultism remain a subject in which both the rationalist and mystical based schools of Jewish theology continue to clash and debate and to a certain degree this cannot be ratified entirely from either perspective alone. It remains a complex issue Halachically and is still a source of real moral issues with far-reaching ramifications despite the change of its context over the centuries.

Rabbi Jonathan Goldschmidt © 2021


1) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LjF1sUZEy2U

2) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bouAp1pGBwk

3) https://amp-cnn-com.cdn.ampproject.org/v/s/amp.cnn.com/cnn/2016/11/23/africa/south-african-insecticide-prophet/index.html?

4) https://yen.com.gh/69014-woman-dies-pastor-puts-speaker-prove-gods-power.html

5) https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ecam/2012/202508/

6) https://www.sefaria.org/Mishneh_Torah%2C_Foreign_Worship_and_Customs_of_the_Nations.11?lang=bi