Monday, 4 July 2011

The Legality of Magic



In some blog posts by Rufus Opus there has been a questions raised about whether “EnlightenmentBombing” someone can be considered black magic or not.

This got me thinking about what is considered to be black magic in my tradition, namely Judaism. Maimonides spells it out clearly in his work Mishneh Torah: Sefer HaMada (“Book of Knowledge”):

  1. Not to act as a soothsayer
  2. Not to practice black magic
  3. Not to practice divination
  4. Not to cast spells
  5. Not to seek information from the dead
  6. Not to consult an ov
  7. No to consult a yid'oni
  8. Not to practice sorcery

However, when we dig a bit deeper it gets a little murkier as to what is considered licit and illicit rituals of power. To help me get a better understand of this I like to consult the excellent “Encyclopedia of Jewish Magic, Myth andMysticism”by Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis.

The entry is rather long, so here are the highlights:
  • A distinction is made between sorcery and shamanism, i.e. between scholarly and folk magic.
  • “Magic” can be labelled use of ritual power that is self-serving whilst theurgy is for a “religious purpose”, however there are texts that describe rituals of power that are both religious and self-serving.
  • Sir George Fraser's The Golden Bough (1922) distinguishes between prayer and magic / theurgy. The former being one of supplication whilst the latter is one of adjuration.
  • Jewish authorities differ in their attitudes about whether magic is illusionist trickery or magical powers are real.
  • In the Talmud (Shabbat 66a) an attempt to answer the question of what forms of magic are forbidden by labelling those as alien to the Torah (Ways of the Amorites) as forbidden. But (in Sanhedrin 17a) the Rabbis are permitted to study the theory of magic.
  • Jewish law, unlike Roman law does not include a tort for damages done by sorcery.
  • Medieval Rabbis rules that “word magic” was permitted but those using ritual objects were forbidden (Amulets are excluded from this distinction). However there is a blurry line between what is alien and not in verbal and performative rituals.
  • Rabbi Jehudah Leow of Prague (B'er ha-Golah 2) considers all sorcery invoking divine names as for all intents and purposed the same as prayer.
  • There is a recurring theme of Jewish magic in the form of shaman-like practices. The Baal Shem (masters of divine names or folk-magic adepts) arose in the Middle Ages. They are reminiscent of the Talmudic wonder workers such as Choni ha-Ma'agel.

In summary there are differences of opinion amongst the Rabbis of what can be labelled as magic. There are also varying opinions of what forms of magic are permitted or not. However, all of these discussions sit within the wider framework of Jewish law derived from the written and oral law.

Within the restrictions of the law (as spelled out by for example Maimonides) there has none the less been a rich tradition of esoteric Jewish works that could be labelled as books of magic. Such as Sefer Raziel HaMalach (Book of the Angel Raziel), Charvah de Moshe (Sword of Moses) and Havdalah de-Rabbi Akiva (a theurgic work containing angel invoking anti-demon spells).