By Daniel Oppenheimer
Today’s parashah contains a three-word verse, “mekhashefah lo tehayeh” – “You shall not allow a witch to live”. The meaning seems both clear and brutal – witches are to be killed. And indeed, seemingly on the back of these three words, tens of thousands of entirely innocent people were tried and executed in 16th/17th-century Europe for being witches.
In fact, most historians think that the Biblical text was not a particularly important cause of the so-called witch-craze. But to the extent that it was, it was based on a very poor interpretation of the text. Europeans in the 16th century had folk beliefs that there existed a group of people (usually women) who were in league with the Devil, the embodiment of evil, and used supernatural powers to harm people and undermine society; and they decided that this group was what “mekhashefah” was referring to. (Our equivalent would be terrorists or perhaps computer hackers.)
The problem was not that their idea of witches didn’t exist, or that the Torah doesn’t believe in a supreme power of evil which recruits human beings as allies – though both of these are true. The issue was that all texts have to be interpreted in order to be understood, looking at both the specific words and the context.
The first problem with the understanding of “mekhashefot” as agents of diabolic evil was one of context. Those accused of “witchcraft” are typically vulnerable, weaker members of society – in 16th-century Europe, they tended to be older women, often widows. Yet only a few verses later the Torah has an explicit commandment not to wrong widows! So this should have been a clear red light that something was wrong.
The second problem is that it is much more plausible, given other stories in the Torah about sorcery, that a “mekhashefah” is what we would call a soothsayer or a necromancer – someone who predicts the future by communicating with the dead. And if that is correct, then the Torah’s problem with “mekhashefot” is not that they are soldiers in an army of evil. Rather, the problem is that they claim to have a reliable means of acquiring information about the future, which ordinary people can use to guide their actions. That is of course a very serious threat to one of the most-repeated messages in the Torah, which is that success and happiness are to be found by obeying its laws, particularly its moral laws. A clear example occurs only a few verses after this one. After forbidding the ill-treatment of widows, the text goes on to say that “if you do, my anger will blaze up against you and your wives will become widows”. In other words, bad things happen because we disobey God’s laws, not because we went to battle on an unlucky day or some such. So when the Torah objects to witches, it is prohibiting having anything to do with people who might offer an alternative to its moral laws. (The meaning of the phrase “do not let them live” is yet another subject for debate.)
This process is not one of interpreting away the embarrassing truth, but rather of doing the hard work to try to understand the true meaning of the text for today.
Daniel Oppenheimer is a member of New North London Synagogue and a founder of its Assif minyan.