Lecture: magic a reality in religion

By Jessi Savino

“There’s no magic in the Bible; there’s no magic in ancient Israel.”

This claim is not true, according to Shawna Dolansky, who kicked off the Jewish Studies Program lecture series, “Seers, Spirits and Sages: Magic, Mysticism and the Jewish Experience.”

“Priests, Prophets, and the Politics of Magic in Ancient Israel” was the topic Nov. 15 for Dolansky, an assistant professor of philosophy and religion.

Dolansky said while the Bible may not call it magic in so many words – in fact, magic was forbidden in ancient times – all the biblical heroes “perform actions that look suspiciously like magic.”

These actions are claimed to be “miracles,” she said, as long as they were being performed by those in the dominant religion. Dolansky cited the actions of Moses and the Egyptian priests.

“Moses and the Egyptian priests both turned water into blood,” she said. “However, Moses’s actions were called ‘miracles,’ while the Egyptians’ actions were regarded as ‘trickery.'”

The separation of magic from religion was made by priests to protect their power, Dolansky said.

“If we define magic as the calling of supernatural powers to alter cause and effect, then it is magic which describes [the priests’s] actions,” she said.

Dolansky then asked her audience to consider, “What’s the difference between praying for rain, doing a rain dance and waving a wand, casting a spell, and making it rain? And why does it matter?”

There is a difference, she said, but not in the actions themselves.

“The difference is in who is casting the spell and under what authority,” Dolansky said.

Ancient people weren’t against all magic, just those forms which could occur outside the circle of priests, Dolansky said. Something as simple as the superstition of tying a red string around the wrist to ward off “the evil eye” is often classified as magic, and therefore bad, by those who do not understand the distinction, she said.

This misunderstanding of religions is what some professors at Northeastern wanted to get across to their students. Many of the students at the lecture were in a class called “Understanding the Bible,” and said they had come because their professors thought it was a perfect representation of what they had been covering in that class.

Freshman communications major Christine Fuches disagreed. “The lecture wasn’t exactly what we learned in class, but was still interesting,” Fuches said.

The thought of religion as magic varies between each individual, Dolansky said at the conclusion of her lecture.

“Magic is a necessary part of Judaism and all religions,” she said. “We classify it as magic out of fear. His religion looks like magic to me, but to him my religion is magic.”

Leave a Reply