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Magic and seances- were they ever true?


Rabbi Ari Shvat

Sivan 22, 5778
I am writing a book about a woman who was brought up in a pagan religion (animal sacrifices, sin-offerings, feeding of gods, bowing down to ceramic gods, etc.). How can we understand people of this generation believing in this emptiness after Hazal destroyed the aitzah hora for it 1000’s of years ago? Do we say instead, there can be some power in these beliefs - but it is all evil and falsehood? Or do we say in the past as well as now, it is all crazy people bowing down to stupidity? This woman eventually converted and is Haredi, but she tells of stories when they divined for answers (to the gods) and found out things that no one could know. How do we explain it?
There’s actually a difference of opinion between the Rambam, who feels that, like today, all of the “magic” and séances etc. mentioned were always just nonsense, as opposed to the Ramban who opines that the magicians used to have actual magical secrets which really worked, but were prohibited. Regarding the aggada that chazal asked God to do away with the drive for paganism (Yoma 69b), like most midrashim, we don’t know how much here is meant to be taken literally, if at all. In general, in order to insure “free will” during the biblical period of super-natural miracles and experience, prophets and prophecies, where there obviously was no doubt regarding the existence of God, their free-will revolved around the question: “Which God/god is correct?”, and not like today where mankind has matured, and God hides Himself more, granting us more free-will and independence, and some people ask: “Is there a God?” According to the Ramban, God gave certain powers and secrets to the magicians of Egypt (Shmot 7) and the woman of Ein Dor (Shmuel I, ch. 28) and others, to serve as a confusing alternative and enable free will. Contrarily, the Rambam explains that the wild and crazy parties, with wine, meat, prostitution, etc. held in the pagan temples, were so alluring that people liked going there simply to have a good time, and that was the issue free-will.
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