Kabbalah Versus Magic
If the Torah forbids witchcraft and magic, how come there were great Kabbalists who would change nature and perform miracles, such as creating the Golem?
The Aish Rabbi Replies
Thank you for your interesting question. The Torah did not forbid controlling nature via Kabbalistic means, only via witchcraft and the like. The former consists of forces God placed in the universe which have the ability to override the ordinary Laws of Nature. Very few people possess the knowledge – as well as the personal piety – to access these forces, but they are legitimate.
R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto in his seminal work on Jewish theology, Derech Hashem (The Way of God III 2:7), states further that even great Kabbalists were not permitted to override nature at will, but only in exceptional circumstances. Other than that, we must respect God’s wishes that the universe abide by the Laws of Nature. (See Talmud Ta’anit 23b of a great rabbi who used his lofty prayers to perform miracles for others – and which all backfired. Afterwards, he claimed he no longer had such power – although some explain that what really occurred was he realized he should not be tampering with nature.)
Magic and witchcraft are unholy means of bringing about some of the same results. Although they are sometimes portrayed in popular culture as tantalizing, mysterious forces, as usable for the good as the evil, they are actually dark and corrupting forces, which draw their practitioners deeper and deeper under the influence of such profane, ungodly powers.
The Torah explicitly forbids engaging in any such activities (Deuteronomy 18:10-12 and elsewhere) – tapping into forces which enable a person to control nature or predict the future (magic, witchcraft, demonism, necromancy, astrology, etc.). In fact, such sins are one of the few which the Torah refers to as an “abomination”. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 67b) refers to magic (kishuf) as a force which weakens (“machshichim”) the Heavenly tribunal – by introducing counterforces which work against the Divine forces God uses to guide the world and have it run properly. Such forces are hardly nifty and innocuous. They are anti-God.
Why did God create such forces in the world if He did not intend them to be used? R. Luzzatto (The Way of God III 2:8-9) explains further that God created a state of equilibrium in the world – with the forces of good and evil evenly matched. God did so in order that the challenge between good and evil would be a fair one – that evil would be as tempting to man as good – not more and not less.
In the case of magic, since there are legitimate means of overriding nature, God saw it necessary to provide unholy means of doing the same. By doing so man would be challenged whether to exceed the bounds of nature through sacred or through wicked means.
As an aside, there really was no Golem in Prague in the time of the Maharal (Rabbi Yehuda Loew). As Rabbi Dr. Shnayer Leiman concluded, although the Talmud (Sanhedrin 65b) records a case of a rabbi using Kabbalah to create a “golem” (creatures of human form which could not speak), the story of the famous Golem of Prague was a work of fiction written by a Polish rabbi in the early 20th century (who added to the mystique by claiming the work was based on an old manuscript he found in an ancient library).