Shoftim: Taboo Magic

August 21, 2012 at 12:26 pm | Posted in Shoftim | 1 Comment

What is my lucky number to win the jackpot?

If I order my troops to advance today, will I win the battle?

Is it okay if I ignore that beggar?

Today and in biblical times, people want to know the answers to the first two types of questions so much that they sometimes resort to magic.  The third question, then as now, is the kind of question we never resort to magic to answer–but our  prophets and religious leaders give us an answer anyway.

The Torah points out the difference between magic (not magic tricks, but serious occult practices) and prophecy in this week’s portion, Shoftim (“Judges”).

When you come to the land that God, your god, is giving to you, you must not learn to act according to the to-avot of those nations. There shall not be found among you one who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, a caster of cast lots, a cloud-reader, or a snake-diviner, or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells with a familiar, or a woman who inquires of the dead, or a man who consults ghosts, or a medium for the dead. Because anyone who does these things is to-avot; and on account of these to-avot, God, your god, is dispossessing them [the Canaanite nations] before you. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 18:9-12)

to-avot = plural of to-eivah = abomination, foreign perversion, custom of one culture that is taboo in another culture

The first four times the Torah uses the Hebrew word to-eivah, it refers to actions that are taboo to the Egyptians, but not to the children of Israel: eating, breeding, or sacrificing sheep. The next six times the word shows up, in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, it is about sexual pairings presumably practiced by Canaanites, but forbidden to Israelites. Then the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim uses the word 17 times, for a variety of practices forbidden to the Israelites. Nine of these explicitly refer to worshiping Canaanite gods. Most of the other eight practices labeled to-eivah may refer indirectly to Canaanite religious customs.

In this week’s Torah portion, the word is used three times to emphasize that Israelites must shun the occult practices of Canaanites.

The Torah does not ban all occult practices. After all, the book of Numbers/Bemidbar says that when Joshua leads the Israelites to conquer Canaan, the high priest should consult the Urim and Tummim and tell Joshua when to go out to battle.  In the first book of Samuel, King Saul tries, and fails, to get an answer from these magic objects about his upcoming battle against the Philistines. This is perfectly acceptable; his unacceptable behavior is when he sneaks off to ask a woman who inquires of the dead to raise the ghost of Samuel.

Then the Urim and Tumim disappear from the Torah, except as objects that high priests used to wear. The Talmud claims that until the fall of the first temple, kings could ask the high priest a yes-or-no question, and the Urim and Tumim would sometimes provide an answer. Consulting the Urim and Tumim does sound like an oracular practice sanctioned by God for the Israelites. So how is it different from a Canaanite method of divination that is called to-eivah?

The chief difference, according to the Torah, is that when the Urim and Tummim give the high priest an answer, it is because God is communicating through them. When Canaanites do divination, they receive answers from the ghosts of dead human beings, or from omens sent by their own gods. Employing a Canaanite occult practice is tantamount to adopting a Canaanite religious practice.

The passage in this week’s Torah portion continues:

You must be tammim with God, your god. Because these nations that you are taking possession of, they listened to cloud-conjurers and  lot-casters; but God, your god, did not set this out for you. God, your god, will establish for you a prophet from your midst, from your brothers, like me. To him you shall listen! (Deuteronomy/Devarim 18:13-15)

tammim = simple, all-of-a-piece, unblemished, perfect (when referring to an animal or anything physical); complete (when referring to a course of action); wholehearted (when referring to the human mind)

A simple interpretation of “You must be tammim” is that the Israelites, and everyone who follows the god of Israel, must be dedicated exclusively to God. Treating anything else like a god is a serious flaw. We must not pray or make offerings to an idol, to the name of someone else’s god, or to the spirit of a person who has died. We also must not try to get foreknowledge, or influence our futures, through any substitute for God. We must leave our futures in God’s hands.

The Torah also supports a more subtle interpretation. A major 19th-century commentator, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, pointed out that those who are tammim, wholeheartedly dedicated to God, only think about what they should do for God right now; their minds are so fully occupied with this, they do not worry about their futures. Serving God, doing good, is everything.

Maybe that is why the prophets in the bible rarely answer questions, and are seldom consulted. They force people to listen to predictions that are really warnings, all on the same theme:  If you go on disobeying God, you will suffer for it!

And obeying God means more than exclusive worship. Again and again in the Torah, God orders us to provide for everyone who is disadvantaged, including the widow, the orphan, the resident alien, and the destitute beggar. God tells us to be honest and fair in all our judgments and our business dealings with other people. God asks us to respect our parents and elders, to love our neighbors, and to be kind to the strangers in our midst.

I believe that being wholehearted with God means being wholly dedicated to good behavior toward all human beings, and to the earth we live on.  If we use occult practices to second-guess the future and manipulate our own fortunes, we distract ourselves from what we should really be doing with our lives. We divide our own hearts when we spend energy on indirect means to selfish ends, because then we have less energy for the really good things in life: enjoying creation, and improving our world in small but significant ways.

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  1. […] Since God is dispossessing the Canaanites because of their magical practices, the Torah concludes that God finds the magic repugnant and disgusting. (See my blog post Shoftim: Taboo Magic.) […]


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