Magic, demons and Judaism: what to do with troubling texts?

Dr. Robin Stamler is a magic buff. It’s not magic tricks that interest him so much as the intersection between Jewish tradition and the mysterious and inexplicable. In a brisk one-hour session at the recent Limmud Jerusalem conference, Stamler laid out some of the more esoteric examples of Judaism’s quirkier, some would say, darker side.
What is clear is, that by the time the Talmud was being redacted, magic was very much a part of Judaism; not just a tangent, but an accepted reality in the daily lives of our ancestors.
Warding off demons, particularly through the writing of protective amulets, plays a large role. Stamler shared a story from the Talmudic tractate of Pesachim that discusses a man who was set upon by sixty demons that were living in a “sorb-bush.” The man went to a rabbi who was also a local amulet maker. The rabbi wrote for him the necessary text, but it was mistakenly only for a one-demon bush. It didn’t work, naturally, and the demons “laughed at his expense,” so another scholar was called in. He wrote the correct sixty-demon amulet and “the demons fled at once.” Archaeologists have found many amulet “bowls,” particularly in Babylonia, confirming that this was not an infrequent practice. (See picture above.)
Stamler also gave examples of protection against Lilith who, unlike the feminist hero she has become in recent years, complete with her own magazine, has a much bleaker backstory. Before Eve was created, Lilith was said to be Adam’s first partner, but she was expelled from the Garden of Eden over a difference of opinion on sexual positions (she wanted to be on top). During her flight, she turned to the dark side and, by the Middle Ages, was widely feared as a killer of infants – so much so that countless amulets at great cost were written to ward off the dangers of this terrible demon.
To my modern eyes, it was all rather amusing. Ah, how primitive our forefathers were! And how foolish they were to spend good money on such things. We of course know better these days.
That is, until Stamler got to Rebbetzen Aidel Miller, a master of the art of “lead pouring,” a relatively modern feat of Jewish magic that originated in the late 19th century and is also known by its original German name Bleigiessen. Rebbetzen Miller is operating today, in 2015 not hundreds of years ago, charging a tidy sum ($101 per session – after the 101 shofar blasts some congregations blow on Rosh Hashana) for a procedure that involves heating lead until it melts, then pouring it into a bucket of cold water placed near the sufferer’s head, discerning the shapes of the bubbles and globules that result, and using her knowledge to subsequently remove ayin hara (the evil eye), bypass child bearing blocks, or improve success with shidduchim (finding a marriageable partner). Rebbetzen Miller will come to your home or even do the procedure over the phone, apparently.
It wasn’t just the lead that was boiling now. I felt a burning sense of theological indignation. How could this be a part of Jewish tradition? This was no better than reading tea leaves or palmistry. Why not just whip out the old Ouija board? Magic belongs to the pagans, not the Jews, right?
“Why does it bother you so much?” my wife Jody asked as I recounted Stamler’s presentation and my surprisingly strong reaction to it. “So some people believe in magic. You don’t. What’s the big deal?”
“It goes against everything I was taught about Judaism, back from when I first started becoming observant thirty years ago,” I replied.
“Like what?” Jody said.
“Like God is real, Moses wrote the Torah and halacha is binding,” I sputtered. “Judaism was supposed to be free from the make believe and mumbo jumbo of other systems. It was supposed to be true with a capital T. That’s what attracted me in the first place. If magic is rampant in our tradition, does that make the entire enterprise suspect?”
“You’ve changed an awful lot since the 1980s,” Jody said kindly. “Do you still believe that?”
At some level, I still do. It has a lot to do with how I got into Judaism in the first place. I grew up entirely secular and came to observance in my twenties through the kiruv yeshivas of Aish HaTorah and Ohr Somayach (I went to both). And even though my Jewish expression is much more nuanced now and I no longer run my life strictly according to Jewish Law, the messages from those first days stuck: true Judaism is all or nothing. If you light a flame to heat up some soup on a Saturday, you’re breaking Shabbat. Not just doing it differently, but transgressing a clear set of timeless, unchangeable commandments.
Maybe if I’d become religious more organically, if I’s been raised with some Sunday School, a little Hebrew, and slowly moved into observance, rather than become a full on ba’al teshuva out of nowhere, it would have been different. But as I’d come to understand it, Judaism was 100 percent pure; it was the real deal and there was no room for demons and superstition and other supernatural beings other than the one true God. The rabbis knew what they were doing. They were infallible and righteous.
Maybe that’s why, every time I learn something about Jewish tradition that contradicts those early fundamentalist messages, it stings. Magic in Judaism – it can’t be! Women being ordained as rabbis - never! Observant Jews at a music festival on Shabbat (see my previous column “Pick and Choose-daism,” June 19, 2015) – what is the world coming to? Sex before marriage – yikes.
It seems that my current religious practice and my original Jewish belief system is out of sync. And it was getting me hot under the collar, even with the heavy air conditioning in Robin Stamler’s Limmud classroom.
It was another session at Limmud that helped provide some answers. Calev Ben Dor led a session with the provocative title “Approaching Troubling Torah Texts.” Ben Dor, a member of the David Cardozo Academy’s Jerusalem Think Tank, analyzed a number of biblical texts that seem to conflict with our modern moral standards. As an example, what do you do with the command in Deuteronomy to stone to death a “stubborn and rebellious son?” Surely we wouldn’t do such a thing, not today or even thousands of years ago.
Ben Dor described three ways the rabbis of the Talmud tried to deal with such texts. One was essentially to ignore the text and to leave the judgment to God in the world to come. Another was to “neutralize” the text; to limit the specifics in which a law is applicable so much that it becomes unenforceable. The Talmud’s tractate Sanhedrin stipulates that the rebellious son must be a boy not a girl (exempting half the population at the get-go), a minor, not a mature adult, and that it only applies if the rebellious son consumes “a tartemar of meat and drinks half a lug of Italian wine.”
The approach I liked the most, though, and the one that I’d say is arguably the most applicable today, is that the troublesome text was never meant to be acted on in the first place; it was brought entirely for the purposes of study and interpretation. Rabbi Simeon, referring to the improbability of the “tartemar of meat and half a lug of Italian wine,” decrees that, “Such a thing never occurred nor ever will be, and it is written only for studying.” Rabbi Yehuda agrees.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks updates that understanding for the modern age. Writing in his book The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning, he says that “every religion is based on a body of holy writings [which] contains hard texts: passages which, if taken literally and applied directly would lead to results at odds with that religion’s deepest moral convictions. Such texts need interpretation. The classic form of fundamentalism is belief in the literal meaning of texts. Interpretation is as fundamental to any text-based religion as is the original act of revelation itself.”
I would go one step further: it’s not just ancient texts about rebellious sons that trouble us today – it’s all of the other illogical tangents that have seeped into and continue to hold sway over our tradition. Rabbi Sacks and the scholars of the Talmud seem to be saying you don’t have to believe that magic literally works just because it’s in there. Maybe it’s there for us to learn something – about human psychology or the history of religion.
Maybe the Rebbetzen Millers of the world exist so we have a baseline of charlatanism to compare all the good stuff against. Or to teach us that, if you don’t like something in Jewish tradition, you don’t always have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Sometimes the magic bubbles are enough.