Tradition Today: No augury in Jacob

Our fates are not determined in advance, and human blessings or curses are powerless against the will of the Almighty.

Balaam, the seer of the nations, wanted to curse Israel but did not succeed. In one of his oracles he stated, "There is no augury in Jacob, no divining in Israel" (Numbers 23:23). He certainly believed in the power of augury and divining. He made his living through magic spells, but he thought that these things simply did not work against Israel because of the power of its God. The legislation of the Torah went much further and forbade all such practices. Thus in Leviticus 20:31 Israel is commanded not to "turn to ghosts" or to "inquire of familiar spirits, to be defiled by them." In Deuteronomy 18:9-14 Moses tells Israel that when it enters the land, it is not to follow the "abhorrent practices" of the nations who live there. He specifies "an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer, one who casts spells or one who consults ghosts or familiar spirits or one who inquires of the dead." On the basis of this, the Talmud forbade all such superstitious practices (Sanhedrin 65a), as did the sages (Sifre Deuteronomy 171-173), who stated that even doing one of the things mentioned was enough to make one guilty. The religion of Israel as taught by Moses and recorded in the Torah was undoubtedly revolutionary in its attempt to eliminate all such practices at a time when they were common to all religions. It was far ahead of its time and remains so today. The religion that Moses taught demanded that God alone be worshiped and that we not turn to any other so-called forces in the universe nor invoke magic in any form. It taught that God cannot be influenced by spells and magic rituals and affirmed that human beings have free will and can determine their own actions. Our fates are not determined in advance, and human blessings or curses are powerless against the will of the Almighty. And although the Torah posited the existence of other heavenly creatures, these were merely messengers of the one God and not independent forces with divine powers. Nor did there exist an independent power of evil outside of God's control. In a certain sense, such beliefs have always been difficult to abide by since human beings have a great tendency to be ruled by emotion rather than logic and to seek refuge in superstition. At later periods in our history, such superstitious beliefs even reappeared within Jewish teachings. In part, this may have been a result of the influence of the cultures of Babylonia and other places where Jews dwelled. Nor can we dismiss the human penchant for such beliefs. Strangely enough, it seems as if some of the sages of the Mishna and Talmud believed that such magic was actually possible, although they agreed it was forbidden because of the specific strictures of the Torah. Some mystic versions of Judaism also contributed to these beliefs, introducing ideas that seem to deviate from the strict monotheism of Moses. Astrology too was forbidden, although not all the sages or medieval authorities agreed. Fortunately Maimonides took a strong position against all of these practices. "Whoever heeds the astrologers when he chooses to do something or go somewhere at a certain time, such a one should be punished by stripes" (Yad, Avoda Zara 11:8-9). He went even further, "This science... is no science at all, but mere foolery... and it behooves us never to engage in it." Maimonides took note of the fact that some rabbinic writings upheld astrology but said that some of the rabbis of old "may perhaps have been mistaken" and that such beliefs and actions even resulted in the destruction of the Temple and the exile. See his letter to Jonathan b. David Hakohen of Lunel. In our own times, we see many such practices becoming popular once again, some of them even receiving the approval of certain religious groups and leaders. Buses in Israel carry large advertisements telling us to repeat magic formulas in the name of a long-dead hassidic rebbe or to seek advice from a more recent one who, although deceased, can still "perform miracles." Kabbala has been popularized and cheapened from serious mysticism into frivolous practices that have become popular with megastars. Indeed ersatz Kabbala has become big business. Tradition was very wise when it said that mystic writings should not be studied until one is 40 years old and even then in very restricted conditions. Unfortunately we also see prominent public figures who listen to advice from disembodied voices and people who turn to faith healers who promise marvelous results. Our society and even our religion have become infected with these so-called mystical practices against all logic and reason, and against the Torah's attempt to eradicate all such ideas. Sometimes there is a fine line between religion and superstition, but that line can and should be drawn. A return to the purity of the Torah's teachings and a rejection of those practices that have besmirched true belief is called for. Our goal should be to develop a Judaism in which the Torah's call for a rejection of these strange and indeed "abhorrent" practices will be heeded and there will indeed be "no augury in Jacob, no divining in Israel." The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the author of several books, the most recent being Entering Torah.