How does Judaism view the occult and "new age" practices and ideas? For example, Tarot cards, ceremonial or folk magic, or astrology. I don't believe these things have actual supernatural powers, but I do find a lot of symbolic value in them. Provided one is not worshiping other gods or practicing another religion, can one be a Jew and still take part in these things for self-exploration or purely out of curiosity? If not, where would a Jew draw the line today?
The idiom in Hebrew to which this question is referring is avoda zara, which while normally translated as "idolatry" literally means "strange" or "foreign" worship. Thus while the idiom of avoda zara most often refers to worshiping other Gods or spirits, the "strangeness" may also be applied to unauthorized worship of the Jewish God. Focusing on ritual practices outside of Judaism, Jewish law forbids participating in avoda zara rituals regardless of one's personal intent as well as performing acts of worship which are not typical of that religious tradition (M. Sanhedrin 7:6, B. Sanhedrin 60b).
There are two components to this question which are as essential as they are controversial. The first and most obvious point to consider is how is avoda zara defined today in practical terms as it relates to other religious practices. Some cases will be more apparent. For example, taking communion in a Catholic Church, where the ritual is defined as eating the body of their savior, would seem to me to be under the category of performing an avoda zara ritual, even if one's intention is only to fulfill some personal satisfaction. Where the question becomes more ambiguous is precisely regarding the sorts of rituals described here. In the Talmud, R. Yochanan requires members of the Jewish High Court to be "experts in sorcery" in order to properly adjudicate these sorts of decisions (B. Sanhedrin 17a), indicating the complexity of such questions. Unfortunately, from what I have found in my own research, I am unable to offer a clear unified theory as to what is included or excluded, or a formula for evaluating new practices.
Complicating matters further is the halakhic connection between "practices and ideas." While practices may be forbidden, thoughts cannot be actionable. At best, one can be "megaleh da'at" - reveal one's intentions - but this requires an act of speech in which one declares one's thoughts. Regarding the thoughts themselves, one Talmudic passage states that the thoughts of sinning can be harder than the sin itself (B. Yoma 29a), while another posits that God does not equate thoughts with actions regarding punishments (B. Kiddushin 39b). Thus incorporating a foreign "idea," especially when kept privately, may not carry the same halakhic implications as performing practices.
But while I cannot provide a definitive answer to the question, I would like to share my own personal guide, which I have adapted from my teachers. Judaism has its own share of what can be called "superstitions" ranging from "segulah wine" at weddings to kapparot before Yom Kippur, itself a practice which R. Yosef Karo considered pagan (Beit Yosef O.C. 605). In addressing these sorts of rituals, one of my teachers suggested that the more seriously one perceives these extra-religious practices to be effective, the more problematic they become. Perhaps this rationale could be applied to the more innocuous superstitions one encounters. For example, while I do not think it is prohibited to skim the daily horoscope, I would personally find it more problematic if people were to plan their lives around it. Note that this is only an approach, not an answer, and that I would suggest that each case needs to be evaluated separately.
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not suggest a degree of introspection as to why someone finds these beliefs or ideas attractive. I understand that spiritual journeys often detour in unexpected directions, but I also know that the Jewish religious tradition is exceptionally vast and eclectic. For whatever questions one is seeking answers or insight, I would not preclude also seeking from texts or teachers from within the Jewish tradition.
As I child, I can remember reading three sections in the newspaper- sports, comics, and my horoscope! I used to love to read what "was going to happen" to me on a given day and found the practice interesting and amusing. As I grew in my observance and practice of Judaism, I realized that consulting things such as Tarot cards, astrology, or even mediums could be considered to be problematic from a traditional perspective. After all, the Torah is fairly explicit: Let no one be found among you who consigns his son or daughter to the fire or who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer, one who casts spells, consults ghosts or familiar spirits, or who inquires of the dead (Deuteronomy 18:10).
On the other hand, as Rabbi Eli Spitz reminds us in his book entitled Does the Soul Survive, the book of Samuel contains a narrative about King Saul consulting with a medium (the Witch of En-Dor) to communicate with the dead (1Samuel 11-15), and the Talmud is extremely narrow in its understanding of what constitutes the prohibition of communicating with the dead (Sanhedrin 65b). Rabbi Spitz teaches that until the 13th century, our tradition was quite strict when it came to issues related to necromancy. However, as Jewish mysticism grew to be a more significant force in our tradition, and as Hassidism grew into being in the 18th century, there was a greater leniency when it came to these practices. There are even sects of Hassidim today who visit graves of the deceased to pray, or ask for help with every-day problems. That communicating with the deceased was tolerated, if not accepted, is evidenced by the fact that it is codified in the Shulchan Arukh, the 16th century code of law:
To cause a sick person to swear that he will return after his death to tell him [his living friend] what he will ask him is permitted. And there are those who even permit [asking a question of the dead] after his death if he doesn't address the body of the dead, but only his spirit (SA: YD, 179:14).
As Rabbi Spitz teaches
In sum, several major streams of Judaism permit calling on the spirit of the departed and the use of mediums. The biblical prohibition against necromancy is limited to calling on the dead as an idolatrous religious act, evidenced by rituals such as special incantations, clothing, or incense....Jewish tradition also discourages the use of mediums to foretell the future, for to do so contradicts the basic Jewish tenets of free will and individual responsibility for the future (108-109).
In the end, it seems clear that when it comes to these issues, there is certainly Jewish grounds to permit some of these practices- especially if you are "not doing so for religious purposes, but rather for purposes of self-exploration or curiosity." However, I have two notes of caution. First, using these practices to try and predict the future, or somehow absolve oneself of responsibility claiming that these things are simply "in Gods' hands" would be problematic for a tradition that places free will at the center of responsible human behavior. Entertainment and curiosity are one thing. Making life decisions based on consulting with spirits is something entirely different and Jewishly problematic. Second, speaking personally, just because I have permission to engage in these practices as a Jew does not mean that I should actively seek them out. As a Jew, I also resonate with the Torah's reminder that "the hidden things belong to Adonai our God, but the revealed things belong to us and our children... (Deuteronomy 28:29)." In other words, as a person of faith I believe that there are some things that are simply beyond my comprehension and understanding.
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