Rashi and Magic

Rabbi Saul Zucker

The following is a letter from Rabbi Zucker to a student, explaining a misunderstanding of Rashi...

Dear David,  

There is little doubt in my mind, from looking through all of the places where Rashi mentions "kishuf" that he held that kishuf is real.  (See, for example Rashi on Shemos 17:9 and 32:4).  The big question is, what does that mean?  

In order to answer that let's first turn to the ibn Ezra.  The ibn Ezra was an extreme logician - everything had to be rational to him (and by the way, he did not study Greek or Muslim philosophy anywhere - he was largely influenced by Rav Sa'adyah Gaon).  Yet, the ibn Ezra strongly believed in astrology.  He wrote nine books on the subject.  How are we to understand this?  

The answer, I believe, lies in defining the difference between the rational and the mystical.  Both the voodoo witch doctor and the sophisticated physician will isolate a person who has an unknown disease.  But the reason for the isolation in each case is very different.  The witch doctor believes that there are forces in operation that he imagines, using the primitive, emotional-psychological part of him.  That is, he conjures up demon forces and spirits out of the depth of his fears and imagination, and based upon that, says that the sick person needs to be isolated so that the spirits are not able to attack others.  The sophisticated physician, on the other hand, goes through hypotheses, experimentation, trial and error, and observation - all using his senses and his mind, to the EXCLUSION of his emotional psychological fantasy - to come to a theory - about germs. Based upon that he isolates the patient.  

Now, on the surface, they both look the same, the witch doctor and the physician.  But they are complete opposites - as antithetical polar opposites as you can get.  The whole difference lies not in the conclusion, but in the method used to arrive at the conclusion.  

The ibn Ezra embraced astrology because his observation of the world led him to the theory that the natural order is highly influence by the planets and stars.  This was his SCIENCE, not his imagination.  It turns out that his science, as we now know, was in error.  But that is not the same thing as embracing astrology because of fear, fantasy, or whatever other psychological force may be in play.  

Turning to Rashi - you could say that Rashi accepted the idea of kishuf because of primitive fantasy, or you could say he accepted the idea of kishuf because of a (mistaken) scientific theory about how the world of nature operates.  That is, through observation, the ancients believed that nature could be scientifically manipulated through certain actions, speech, etc.  It doesn't matter any that they could not explain HOW it works - just like the Rashba's teshuvah about magnets.  He knew that God created special metals that mysteriously attract other metals, even though he could not explain why.  But he knew that this was part of the natural order.  If you take this latter explanation, then Rashi, with many other rational ancients, accepted the idea of kishuf as a natural order phenomenon that could not be explained.  This is very different from speaking about kishuf from a MYSTICAL (i.e., emotional, psychological) framework.  

In fact, one can go further and say that according to Rashi, the reason that kishuf is assur is that the Torah prohibits man from engaging in any activity that easily lends itself to the mystical framework, even though that activity is real, within the natural order framework.  

The final question is - how do we know how to look at Rashi?  Should we say that he is of the mystical, primitive group - who view kishuf as possessing mystical, psychological irrational power?  Or do we view Rashi as seeing kishuf as a phenomenon within the natural order (even if we cannot explain it - like magnets to the Rashba)?  The answer, of course, depends upon your starting point vis-a-vis the rishonim.  If you view them as simple folk, who were influenced by their surrounding environment in all kinds of areas including theology, and you read them simplistically, you will see Rashi as the witch doctor.  If you view them as great logicians, rational sages, you will see Rashi as the physician, who happened to be mistaken in his diagnosis in this case - not because he was a witch doctor, but because sometimes, even the greatest doctors make mistakes in their science.  

In response to your inquiry about Chazal’s questions in the case of the snake and Moshe’s hands, I would add the following: I think that their questions point to the fact that even within the realm of kishuf as a factor in the natural order, there are known limitations.  That is, "vekhi nachash MEIMIS o nachash MECHAYEH?" means that even in the realm of manipulation of natural forces, looking at a designed snake would never be able to effectuate an instantaneous cure of multitudes of people.  "Vekhi yadav shel Moshe OSOS MILCHAMAH o SHOVROS MILCHAMAH?" means that war, which involves numerous factors including the bechirah chofshis (free will) of the soldiers, cannot be manipulated instantaneously, even in the realm of kishuf as a natural order phenomenon, by the raising of hands that the people would look at.  The point is that since kishuf DOES operate in the realm of the natural order, this realm has limitations, and Chazal knew that these two examples were outside of the realm of those limitations, and therefore they asked their questions.  If kishuf were mystical voodoo forces, then there would be no known limitation, and Chazal would have no question here.  

I hope that helps.  Let me know what you think.