This post is dedicated to Carol P. Christ. I knew her first as my professor and then my friend for over 15 years. May her memory be a blessing.
This week’s Torah portion is Shofetim (also spelt Shoftim), or Deutoronomy 16:18-21:9. I have written about this parshah before. In that post from August of 2018, I reflect on how the patriarchal elements of the portion should not detract from its larger concern for justice, compassion, and peace. Yet, there is more to the parshah. In fact, I have recently begun exploring Judaism’s connection to all things magical, and interestingly enough, this parshah fits right into my recent inquiries. Let me share with you some of what I have learned as it relates to this parshah.
Where Shofetim and magic meet is idolatry. There are three instances in Shofetim where idolatry is condemned, punished by stoning to death. All three of these prohibitions involve polytheism, either directly worshiping other deities or participating in practices associated with the worship of those deities. What are they?
First, in verses 16:21-22, there is the decree against setting up an asherah, planting a tree near an altar, or even creating a personal monument. In the times of the Israelites, Asherah was the spouse of Ba’al. In some sources, she was also the spouse of the Israelite deity. The asherah referred to in 16:21 was a pole erected to represent her implying that the Israelites worshiped her. Trees also often figured in polytheistic practices as representations of deities. Eventually, after the exile Jewish practice became considerably more monotheistic and her worship was discontinued. Second, verse 17:3 prohibits the worship of the sun, moon, other deities, or other divine beings. Like Asherah, the Torah’s prohibition of the worship of the sun, moon, and other heavenly bodies is also a concern related to idolatry. We will see how shortly. The final example is verses 18:10-11, which prohibits various types of divination and sorcery. Instead, in 18:14, Israel is given prophets as guides.
Geoffery W. Dennis’s book The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Mysticism, and Magic, provides deep insight on these topics. In the entry entitled “Asherah,” he writes, “…Asherah makes a startling reappearance in post-biblical Jewish mysticism as another name for the sefirah of Malchut.., bringing the pre-Isrealite idea of a divine consort back almost full circle,” (43). In other words, the worship of Asherah was suppressed in biblical Israel only to reappear in the Zohar. While this may be true, it is important to remember that access to the Kabbalistic tradition, thus the Zohar and the feminine divine, has been gendered and classed in Judaism. For most of Jewish history, its study was limited to well-educated married men over the age of 40.
Dennis also explains in his entry “Astrology” that even though Genesis allows for the interpretation of the heavens, in the times of King Josiah, the sun, moon, and stars had become much more (Dennis, 45). Their worship figured highly in the religious practices of neighboring Assyria. Their influence spread to Israel. Soon, astral cults were introduced into the Jerusalem temple (Dennis, 45). Yet, the practice of astrology as a type of divination does not require the worship of heavenly bodies. Most Talmudic rabbis condoned the practice, and one can find examples of horoscopes in the Cairo geniza (Dennis, 46). According to Dennis, although Maimondies decried the practice, his opinion was mostly ignored (46). In addition, various divination practices were acceptable in the Torah and later Jewish writings. Dennis explains in “Divination” how prophets, dream interpretation, lot casting, music and the reading patterns on the surface of liquids all found favor in the Talmud (110).
Turning to magic, Shofetim discusses it in terms of sorcery. Most agree that the heyday of Jewish magic was the Middle Ages. Joshua Trachtenburg’s Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folklore Religion, although not feminist in the slighest, is still informative. According to Trachtenburg, magic and witchcraft was often condemned in Jewish texts as the folk traditions of women, whereas sorcery was often tolerated as the practice of educated men (Trachtenburg, 16 and Dennis, 400). Men, once properly trained, were often the sorcerers, who practiced their magical abilities to heal and protect, make amulets and more (Trachtenburg, 17). Writing the names of the deity, angels and sometimes even demons and incorporating these writings into their workings proved to be quite powerful and also distanced themselves from any suspicion of idolatry (Trachtenburg, 26, 30 and 81).
On the other hand, the Talmudic rabbis assumed that most women practiced folk magic, a type of sinister witchcraft aligned with the demon Lilith (Dennis, 449-450). They tolerated it since they did not see a means of stopping it. However, throughout Jewish history, women were quite successful healers, midwives, practitioners of divination, and amulet makers even though they were denied formal channels for their workings (Dennis, 451 and Trachtenburg, 17). It is important to note that even when they “worked” with Lilith, they were not accused of idolatry. Calling on demons was acceptable as they could not disobey G-d (Trachtenburg, 30).
Shofetim illustrates how the patriarchal history of Judaism has allowed significantly more room for learned men than women to legitimately practice magic, engage with the divine feminine, and partake in various forms of divination. Likewise, women motivations regarding the practice of magic have often been questioned. In other words, who interprets and who practices Shofetim’s “prohibitions” matters.
Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies, Feminist and Ecofeminist courses.