Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Kosher Jewish Magic (and Paganism!)

Everything You "Know" About Judaism is Wrong

There are a lot of things that "everyone knows" about Judaism. Everyone knows (or thinks they know) that Judaism is the first of the great monotheistic religions. While this is true, in ancient times it wasn't nearly so cut-and-dried. The reason so much of the Torah involves prophets and priests castigating the Israelites for being polytheists or planting Asherah trees is that these practices were commonplace. I might even go so far as to label them "ancient folk Judaism", in much the same way (for example) state-sponsored Shinto and folk Shinto vary widely from each other in both belief and practice.

In the text of Torah itself, the issue is also a bit muddled. Of the two most common names for God in the text, one (YHVH) is singular and the other (Elohim) is plural. Some commentators have distinguished passages written by an author called "the Yahwist" from others written by "the Elohist", the former presumably being a priest, while the latter probably fell more on the side of folk Judaism. Most scholars agree the Yahwist's writing is older, but that's hardly the point here. Taken as a whole rather than in parts, Torah is remarkably ambivalent about whether God is singular or plural... and that's exactly the point I'm making. (The rabbinic explanation is that Elohim is "like the royal 'we'", but to me that explanation falls a bit flat.)

But What About the Ten Commandments?

On its surface, the first and second of the Ten Commandments would seem to forbid any kind of polytheism. But one of the best pieces of advice a rabbi ever gave me is this: Don't read Torah like it's the newspaper. There are many levels of meaning to unravel.

What do the commandments actually say? The second is a specific prohibition on bowing down to idols or to any living thing; that seems pretty clear. But depending on what translation you look at, the first commandment forbids having any other gods "before me" or "beside me". Seems straightforward enough, until you consider the obvious question: What about "after me"?

It's a close reading, to be sure, and you might even say it's splitting hairs - but any rabbi will tell you Torah doesn't mince words. Every word in it should be taken as specifically chosen above all others for the meaning intended by God. So given that, it seems God doesn't have much of a problem with you dealing with other gods... as long as you never forget who's your daddy, so to speak. This approach to divinity is known as monolatry - the idea that God isn't the only god that's real, just the best one. (Or in these more enlightened times, the best one for you.)

This opens the way for someone be Jewish and pagan, within certain parameters. My own reading would be that beyond simply invoking YHVH first in ritual (as one would with a psychopomp such as Legba or Agni in other traditions), one must also honor YHVH highest at all times. That means Jewish rules and traditions should take precedence over those of your pagan path, and it's probably not good even to *like* another god more than you like the Big Guy, because that might make him angry. (If you're concerned about that sort of thing, of course. Some people definitely aren't.)

It's a tough line to walk, certainly, but as long as you can keep your paganism as more of a hobby than a primary path, you can (theoretically) be right with both Judaism and paganism simultaneously. This would mean, of course, that any god or goddess who might refuse to share you would be right out... unless you're deliberately trying to see which one wins. (My money is on the one whose chosen people are still alive, despite numerous attempts throughout the ages to eradicate them.)

For what it's worth, I personally choose to err on the side of caution on this issue. While I will on occasion work with non-Jewish entities, I do avoid gods associated with enemies of the Jews (Egyptian, Sumerian and other Near Eastern pantheons) since those are the ones we were specifically forbidden from dealing with in ancient times. And my worship is reserved for YHVH alone... other mostly-dead gods should be glad someone's speaking their name at all, even if they're not getting actual worship out of the deal. I do know Jewish pagans, though, and I think that much as it's good for me to know how being gay and Jewish can work halachically, it's important for them to know how being pagan and Jewish can likewise work within the context of Jewish law.

Magic vs. Miracles

It seems clear from the story of Moses facing off with Pharoah's magicians that in Torah, there's no qualitative difference between "magic" and "a miracle". It's just that "magic" is what foreign magicians do, while "a miracle" is what a prophet of God does. This illustrates that the most important thing that makes your magic kosher is its intent. In other words, it's not okay to murder someone or steal their stuff through magic, any more than it's okay to do it at knifepoint.

(The distinction between "magic" and "prayer" is a bit more grey, but I like to think of it like this: prayer is asking, while magic is telling / demanding. But that's probably a blog post unto itself.)

As the years went by, and our religion sadly became more and more corrupted by exposure to Christendom, the rabbis altered the Torah's definition of "magic" and "miracle" slightly. "Magic" became "that freaky stuff we don't like", and "miracle" became "that freaky stuff we do like". And since we don't have prophets anymore, all occultism became "magic" (often pronounced "practical kabbalah"). This was probably for the same reason the rabbinate excommunicated Spinoza over his pantheist views: better to condemn an unusual belief or practice than to have all Jews hunted down and killed by their Catholic temporal masters.

You might ask what Torah has to say on the subject of practicing "magic" or "witchcraft". Gershon Winkler handily answers this on p. 3 of Magic of the Ordinary: "The proscriptions in the Bible against divination and sorcery refer specifically to the kinds of sorcery practiced by specified cultures whose ways the Jews were forbidden to emulate. The Jewish scriptural verse [Exodus 22:17] for example, has for centuries been haphazardly translated as 'You shall not suffer a witch to live,' when literally it translates: 'You should not sustain a witch,' meaning don't get into the habit of supporting the livelihood of the village magician; don't let some guy with a lot of supernatural power drain you of your savings through fear and intimidation. Let him get a job like everybody else, and perform his magic out of the goodness of his heart and in recognition of the sacred gift he possesses. Another translation of the exact same Hebrew wording would be: 'From sorcery you should not live,' as in don't base your entire life and all of your affairs on the powers of sorcery, or, don't make a living from it."

Interestingly, the Talmud says rabbis should also get regular jobs, and should only get paid as a rabbi for the hours they have to miss from their "real job". Most rabbis I've met today conveniently seem to ignore this... and I've never been able to understand how they get around that whole working-on-Saturday prohibition either. But that, too, is probably a different rant altogether.

Kosher, Parve and Treif Magic

Up until the medieval period there were still plenty of Jews - even some rabbis - who felt practical kabbalah was nothing to be ashamed of. In their works, we find that "kosher magic" means magic that deals in three things - biblical verses, angelic names, and/or names of God. Intent is still important also, of course, but that's more of a prerequisite - an angel is not going to help you cheat or steal in the first place.

Un-kosher (treif) magic is the opposite: magic that involves foreign gods (except perhaps under the circumstances laid out above), "evil" spirits such as demons or shedim, or practices specifically forbidden by Torah - specific kinds of necromancy, divination, or temple prostitution, for example. I like to refer to all other magic as parve, which is to say "neither specifically kosher nor un-kosher". My personal favorite kind of parve magic is chaos magic, since it easily works without the use of gods, angels or demons of any kind, and since it can optionally involve invocation of fictional characters. Depending on focus and exactly how the rituals are written, though, ceremonial magic or wicca could also be considered parve magic. (Since many original members of the Golden Dawn and OTO were Jews, it's not too surprising that much of ceremonial magic is specifically kosher rather than parve - the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram being the obvious example.)

A Selection of Online Kosher Jewish Magic Sources

Sefer Shimmush Tehillim - The Book of the Uses of the Psalms. Includes kosher uses (and some not-so-kosher ones, intent-wise) for every single one of the psalms.

Hebrew Names of God - Not sure who exactly this site belongs to, but his list is comprehensive and accurate.

Angel Names and Meanings - This site isn't bad, but "A Dictionary of Angels" (on the right, under "Books on Jewish Magic & Mysticism) is way better.


  1. Great post. I disagree with your views on the interpretation of the 10 commandments, as Elijah put it: either worship one god or the other but not both.

    Anyway, your classification of kosher, treif and parev magic made me smile and was thought-provoking. I look forward to many more interesting and challenging posts from you in the future :-)

  2. I'm glad you found it thought-provoking. LIke I said, this is a possible interpretation of the 1st and 2nd commandments. It's not one I personally choose to use in my own life, but it's one that I think a Jewish pagan would find helpful.

    I'm currently reading The Hebrew Goddess (finally), and in it Patai points out that the prophets were 100 percent Yahwist. So it makes total sense that Elijah's reading of the 10 commandments would exclude all other gods. That doesn't make it the only possible reading, though, just the most commonly accepted one.

  3. I've yet to read Patai's Hebrew Goddess. From what I've read the arguments that he makes in that book are based on sources from the 9th-10th century onwards. I'd be curious to find what you make of his book once you've finished it.

    As to the topic of "the Yahwist" versus "the Elohist"... is there a group of authors for each of the names of God? Or are there just two groups that also make use of other names like "El Shaddai"?

  4. Not the case at all, actually. He starts with biblical and pre-biblical sources and works his way up to the present day. His analysis of Asherah and Astarte worship (as referenced in many different books of the bible) is impressive, given the lengths to which the authors went in trying to obscure exactly what was going on.

    "Yahwist" equates to monotheist writing, while "Elohist" equates to more polytheist (or polytheism-friendly) writing, so no other categories are really necessary.

  5. Interesting, I'll have to get a copy of the book in the new year.

    Do you know if any other scholars/academics quote this book? I tried to look him up in my small library could not find mention of him by G. Scholem, M. Idel, etc.

  6. I honestly have no idea. But I'd imagine that other less iconoclastic Jewish scholars would probably want to pretend Patai never existed.