Magic in the Air in Parshat Va’eira

Anna Batler blogs about faith and feminism at  http://sotah.net/.  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Anna Batler.

In Parshat Va’eira, the Egyptian plagues begin after Pharaoh refuses to allow the Jews to leave Egypt.  Egyptian magicians are largely able to keep up with water turning into blood and the spontaneous generation of frogs, but they are eventually out magic-ed and tell Pharaoh that the plagues are “the finger of God.” Exodus 8:15.

Magic is real in the world of the Torah – God is stronger and better, but there are other supernatural powers to contend with, like the Egyptian magicians. According to the Torah, witchcraft is an “abomination” (Deuteronomy 18:11) to be punished by public stoning (Leviticus 20:27).

Perhaps the most famous moment of witchcraft in the Tanakh is the tragic story of the Witch of Endor.  Saul, the first king of Ancient Israel, in classic politician fashion decides that he will put his foot down and enforce the biblical prohibition against witchcraft; however, when he is uncertain as to his war strategy he turns to the Witch of Endor who tells him that he will die in battle the next day. The power of the text lies fundamentally in the assumption that witches do real magic – otherwise why would Saul violate the laws he worked so hard to enforce?

According to the Talmud, the practice of witchcraft amongst Jewish women was incredibly common during the Talmudic period, despite the prohibition against it. In Pesahim 111a, the Talmud writes, “If two women sit at a crossroads, one on this side and the other on the other side, and they face one another – they are certainly engaged in witchcraft.”

Much has been said about what distinguishes magic (Pharaoh’s magician) from miracle (Moshe and God) and the ways in which it is a purely hierarchal distinction, where the winners and the powerful claim miracles for their side and the losers are magicians. Regardless of how you parse this question, the fact of magic remains.  The spirituality of the people who wrote and lived the texts of our tradition is open to the existence of the magical and miraculous; the unknown and the unknowable.  A religious practice devoid of magic feels viscerally diminished, it has no sense of humor – we are left with nothing but the cold brutality of the law. We are left with this unfortunate attempt to legislate Pasahim 111a, where men are prohibited from walking between two women who are no longer witches – but permitted if carrying an umbrella.