Sforno on Deut. 4:28 – Nothing but God and Man Possess Intelligence

Rabbi: Sforno makes it clear: there are no forces, or things with a will, except God and man. He thereby rejects amulets, as such claims include the assumed awareness of a specific person that is targeted for assistance by the amulet. All superstitions, powers, segulas, etc. are rejected as well. There are no demons, evil eyes, spirits, or ghosts. In other words, we are each responsible for our choices.

Reader 1: I'm sure there are other major rabbinic figures that take the opposite position. Why should we adopt the rationalistic position?

Rabbi: Why are you using a rational argument?

Reader 2: Do you think the Ramban, who believed that amulets worked, was an idolater? Doesn't it make more sense to assume that there are ways to reconcile these beliefs with rational monotheism, even though they are less compelling to us than the approach of Rambam/Seforno for other reasons? It's not just him...in their perushim on Masekhet Shabbat, pretty much every rishon other than the Meiri and the Rambam consider amulets legitimate and explain the gemara on that assumption.

Rabbi: Please quote Ramban's exact words. Thanks. But one cannot impute Ramban accepted any idea without basis. And "basis", is a rational approach. In contrast, a mystic or a fool earns Solomon'a ridicule, "the fool believes everything."

Reader 2: Here are the words of Ramban on Humash discussing magic and astrology: "He placed the earth and all things that are thereon in the power of the stars and constellations, depending on their rotation and position. Over the stars and constellations He further appointed guides, angels, and "lords" which are the souls. Their behavior from the time they come into existence for eternal duration. However, it was one of His mighty wonders that within the power of these higher forces, he put configurations and capacities to alter the behavior of those under them. Thus if the direction of the stars towards the earth be good or bad to a certain country, people, or individual, the higher dominions can reverse it of their own volition… Therefore, the author of the Book of the Moon, the expert in [the field of] necromancy, said, "when the moon, termed 'the sphere of the world' is, for example, at the head of Aries (the Ram) and the constellation thus appears in a certain form, you should make a drawing of that grouping, engraving on it the particular time and the name of the angel appointed over it. Then perform a certain burning [of incense] in a certain specified manner, and the result of the influence [of the relative position of the stars] will be for evil, to root out and to pull down, and to destroy and to overthrow. And when the moon will be in a position relative to some other constellation you should make the drawing and the burning in a certain other manner and the result will be for good, to bud and to plant." Now this, too, is the influence of the moon as determined by the power of its [heavenly] guide. But the basic manner of its movement is by the wish of the Creator, blessed be He, Who endowed it so in time past, while this particular action is contrary thereto.

This then is the secret of [all forms of] sorcery and their power concerning which the rabbis have said that "they contradict the power of the Divine agency," meaning that they are contrary to the simple powers [with which the agencies have been endowed] and thus diminish a certain aspect of them. Therefore, it is proper that the Torah prohibit these activities in order to let the world rest in its customary way, which is the desire of its Creator. This is also one of the reasons for the prohibition of kilayim (mixing seeds), for the plants resulting from such grafting are strange, giving rise to changes in the ordered course of the world for bad or good, aside from the fact that they themselves constitute a change in Creation, as I have already explained."

Rabbi: I don't know why you feel a need to reconcile Ramban with Sforno. Arguments exist. And two parties cannot both be correct, if their views are mutually exclusive, like the belief in, and the rejection of astrology. I further believe Ramban would reject astrology today. But the primary point, as I commenced, is that reason is the sole method for arriving at truth, i.e., what is "real," And what is real,man can determine only via our inescapable senses and patterns of thought, which follow cause and effect, reason, induction, deduction, comparison and others. Ramban would never accept anything that was bereft of a cause to believe it. Thereby, he followed a reasonable path. His praise of Maimonides confirms this.

Reader 3: The real question is would you jump off a bridge if the Ramban told you there was an amulet that would save you?

Rabbi: And if you told that to Ramban, he would not jump, as it does not comply with reason.

Reader 2: I am just playing devil's advocate because I thought your original statement was overreaching a bit.

Rabbi: Either you're playing devil, or you feel I'm overreaching. Which is it? If the former, why accuse of overreaching? If the latter, then you're not playing devil.

Reader 2: You made it sound like anyone who believe in amulets would basically be an irrational pagan, which may be true today, but not in the past.

Rabbi: We live today. I talk about today. And you too agree old science is "old." Why argue?

Reader 2: You were quoting a Sforno from hundreds of years ago.

Rabbi: God is older.