Its not hocus-pocus, its a focused attempt to get closer to God


Numbers 4:21-7:89

Judges 13:2-13:25

As a child, I wanted to be a magician. Not David Copperfield or Houdini, but Merlin or Gandalf. Someone burst my young bubble and told me Jews don’t believe in magic. Following Torah law, magicians and sorcerers are even to be put to death.

Yet the place of magic in Judaism is not so black and white. There are many magical items, behaviors and incantations that are mainstream in Jewish culture, many associated with keeping the “evil eye” at bay. Putting a red string on a newborn’s crib. The blue-painted walls in Safed. Whispering the name of a person’s disease.

In this week’s Torah portion is the ordeal of the sotah, a woman suspected of adultery by her husband. The elaborate account of the procedure is at once magical and horrifying. The priest concocts a potion, chants a curse and forces the woman to drink the water which will testify to her guilt or innocence.

“Once he has made her drink the water — if she has defiled herself by breaking faith with her husband … her belly shall distend and her thigh shall sag; and the woman shall become a curse among her people. But if the woman has not defiled herself and is pure, she shall be unharmed and able to retain seed” (Num. 5:27-28).

While it’s distressing to imagine biblical women inflicted with this humiliation, exploring solely the magical level, much is happening. Drinking this sotah water brings on immediate proof of adultery. Further, if she is innocent, she will be fertile, interpreted by some to mean that she will get pregnant.

Our rabbis evoke this ritual in a midrash about Hannah, the heroine of our Rosh Hashanah Haftarah. In the book of Samuel, Hannah prays fervently for a child. The rabbis envision the sotah ritual becoming a tool for obtaining her goal: Hannah says before the Holy One, “Master of the Universe, if You take note of my suffering and grant me a child, great. But if not … I will go and seclude myself with another man in front of my husband, Elkanah. And when I seclude myself, they will give me to drink the water of the sotah. And You will not belie Your Torah, for it is stated [with regard to an innocent woman who drinks the sotah waters]: ‘Then she shall be proven innocent and she shall bear seed'” (Berachot 31b).

This midrash is disturbing. We suffer with Hannah, who felt so pained and powerless to be choosing this path. Yet the midrash also clearly shows the magical power understood to be behind this ritual. The sotah trial can also be used as a way to maneuver God to perform our will and desires. Is anything less clearly “magical”?

Magic is an attempt to do something that allows us to deliberately and precisely manipulate and control nature. In a society that believes in God, it is invoking something that forces God to get involved — and in the particular way we desire.

Yet such thinking is childlike. God is not controllable or “answerable” to human actions. God is unknowable, uncontrollable.

A more mature religious outlook is to admit that there is much beyond our control. Can we give up some of our human arrogance and admit we cannot, and should not, manipulate everything?

What happens in interactions with others when you try to impose your demands upon them? Alternatively, what happens in building a relationship with someone you love? You relinquish control, you step back, make space for the other person. You share, talk, communicate, give part of yourself. Into that relationship comes holiness.

Magic says everything is potentially within our power. Religion and reality say all we can influence is our relationship with God’s presence. God and Godliness are wherever we allow them to enter. May we strive to bring this very deep and beautiful power among us.

Rabbi Michelle Fisher is the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek.