Thursday, June 26, 2008

modern day witches

Of course there are no witches of the type in Wizard of Oz, with green skin and flying broomsticks. But clear your mind of Hollywood stereotypes:

We learned: one who is versed in mikra, who has studied Mishna, but has not apprenticed and served Talmidei Chachamim…R’ Acha bar Ya’akov says this person is a magosh. (Sota 22b)
Rashi d”h magosh – a witch who deceives the eyes [with illusions] and steals away people’s hearts, as does this person.

Rashi’s explanation suggests that the gemara is simply drawing an analogy, not that the person we are speaking of is literally a witch. Just like a witch purportedly is a master of illusion, deception, and trickery, so too, this untrained individual will lead others astray. It may be precisely because we are speaking of someone who has mastered some minimal level of learning that the danger is so great - this person has the superficial veneer of scholarship, but in reality knows not of what he speaks. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

But the Maharal (Nesiv haTorah ch 15) goes a step further, and I have been meaning to write about this but finally made time thanks to reading parshablogs’s post and his follow up here (hat tip to my wife’s blog as well). Yes, says the Maharal, a person who fails to study under a talmid chacham is indeed a witch!

Witchcraft is all about mystical occult practices – spirituality run amok. Spells, incantations, mumbo-jumbo are its hallmarks. You can't really explain why 2 parts clover and a zebra's hair mixed in with wine is an effective potion (I made that up), but it's not about understanding, it's about ritual. The mystery just enhances the effect.

Explains the Maharal, if you fail to delve into Torah and understand that Torah is about seichel, about a system of thought and law with rules, regulations, finely tuned fomula, and a philosophical basis, then you are in effect falling into the trap of the magosh.

When one reads of women feeling spiritual as they toil over their challah, saying tefillos as they change diapers, as if there was some ma’aleh to the toil itself, one is seeing the magosh in operation. There is no din of kavanah to kneading dough or changing diapers, no special halachos that define it as avodas Hashem, but doing so makes people happy, and so Judaism becomes the worship of that which makes us feel happy and spiritual. In truth, feeling spiritual is probably far more comforting that actually obeying real halacha, which often makes one uncomfortable. Given the choice of shutting the lights and singing zmiros or breaking one's head over a Ketzos, who wouldn't choose the former over the latter, especially if you can appear even more "frum" by doing so? This is intellectual antinomianism at its worst.

The Maharal goes on to give an amazing example of what seichel means. Imagine two people in doubt about a halacha. Person #1 has the latest handbook of collected achronim of the past 20 years, 600 pages on drying your hands after netilas yadayim, and quickly finds his answer. Person #2 learns through the sugya, and acts based on his conclusions - which happens to contradict person #1's answer. Who has achieved the desired ends of avodas Hashem? Person #1 may have gotten the technically correct answer according to most achronim, but he has no understanding of the logic of halacha, no understanding of its rules and system. He is blindly following ritual, just as the magosh mixes his potion. Person #2 may have erred in a technical detail (though he would debate the point!), but truly appreciates the logic of halacha. Says the Maharal, undoubtedly Person #2 has gone further in achieving the desired aims of avodas Hashem.

Spirituality needs to be rooted in an intellectual system to have value, otherwise we are simply acting like the magosh.


  1. great post about the magus problem.

  2. A Faithful Reader5:01 PM

    Someone once described what the Kabalah Center sells as "Kabalah Porn." The idea was that they offer the stimulation of what they call kedusha without the responsibility and personal investment.

    An ugly, but apt, description, is it not?

  3. Obviously, no one wants women to use their seichel or to even admit that they have the potential to do so. Therefore, the RW world is content to have women get their spiritual dose from the domestic sphere, like baking challah, or the even weirder sgulah of having a woman follow a pregnant woman into a mikvah in the hopes of becoming pregnant. No brains needed -- just think "I'm doing holy work and get a spiritual voucher I can cash in for whatever I wish."