Why Didn't You Know About Jewish Witchcraft?
This question plagues my inboxes, comment sections, and live streams. Jews from around the world are anywhere from elated to enraged to find out that I practice something I call "Jewish witchcraft". The idea of a Jewish witch (or a jewitch) is absolutely mindboggling, whatever the reaction.
When they've come to terms with it, their next question is, "Well, how come I've never heard of Jewitches?"
The main reasons for this are pretty simple, once you come to realize them.
Witchcraft isn't one thing
As I discuss here in my blog, What is Witchcraft & What is a Witch?, witchcraft is an umbrella term that loosely means, "the practice of using energy to create change". That's it. That means that what witchcraft is to one, may not be to another. Many modern Jewitches consider Kabbalah part of their witchcraft, while another Jew may be shocked and horrified at the very notion. Other examples include: referring to Mezuzot as "amulets" or "wards", using the nazar or hamsa, etc.
Witchcraft is mentioned in the Torah (and in our other texts) as anything from something with a death penalty (possibly?) to something done by all women. There is no explicit definition and therefore, no singular way to identify a Jewish witch.
Witchcraft isn't just one single set of practices and the line between "witchcraft" and "religion" are blurred as they didn't always exist. This means that chances are, you knew about Jewish witchcraft (to some extent) but didn't have the whole story or label.
Judaism is not exempt from misogyny and it is exceedingly clear in discussions surrounding witchcraft. Meir Bar-Ilan, a scholar of the topic, discusses how it was theorized that magic was taught to women by angels, or that they used their inherent magic to seduce angels into giving them more magic. Both theories have been popular, but the end is the same: women are inherently more prone to magic. This is also similar to Judaisms view that women are inherently more spiritual, though that belief did not quell misogyny's existence.
His essay features this brilliant quote, which quite nicely summarizes the point of intra-community misogyny in regards to witchcraft, "all the sources which deplore women for their witchcraft are "male" sources. All the books quoted above were written, to the best of our knowledge, by men, and R. Yose and R. Simeon bar Yohai, who deplored women because of witchcraft, were also men. Indeed, one should note that the same R. Simeon bar Yohai who deplored women for their witchcraft was himself involved in witchcraft." (1)
It is clear that magic and witchcraft were associated with women and therefore, while men practiced it themselves, a woman practicing was seen as inherently negative and must be eradicated (though there is no evidence that any Jewish women were ever killed or put to death for witchcraft by Jewish courts).
This is also not to say that women didn't practice, as they did frequently, but this is a simple explanation as to why there are so few texts centering on the practices.
I've discussed Jews during the Witchcraze here, but that is not the beginning, or end, of Jewish oppression, especially in relation to what we call witchcraft. Rabbi Gershon Winkler, the author of numerous books on the topic of Jewish magic and mysticism, discusses how Jews historically were forced to distance themselves from our own practices for fear of persecution, even though the persecution came anyway.
Historic oppression plays two large parts: Jews were forced to hide or modify their practices and Jewish texts were stolen and burned.
In 1233, Pope Gregory IX ordered the Dominican Order to root out heresy within their borders.
It was during this period that a number of Jewish leaders, hoping to spare their communities from persecution, put a grinding halt to the perpetuation of those forms of Jewish mystery wisdom they felt would attract adverse attention from the CHurch authorities. (2)
Winkler further cites specific rabbis, particularly Rabbi Me'ir Ben Shim'on of Narbonne, who went above and beyond to attempt to prove to the Churches that they were of no harm. However, this did nothing.
In the year 1239, the Pope ordered that ALL Jewish sacred texts were burned. All of them.
In France, no less than 24 wagonloads of handwritten texts were burned, but this there is no knowing how many more were burned, stolen, and taken.
In 1553, Pope Julius the third ordered the burning of all copies of the Talmud. On Rosh Hashanah, they burned thousands of texts all across Italy. Soon after that, Venice burned thousands of Jewish texts.
In 1559, 10,000 Jewish texts were burned in Cremona, Italy by the Inquisition. The Zohar, one of the only surviving texts, did so because it was being printed by non-Jewish printers.
This is but a small part of the oppression of Jewish people, but it is easy to understand that this is a pattern. Our texts were stolen and burned, we had to plead for our lives, and in order to do so, we lost much. This forced secularization and rationalization of Judaism has left many Jews unaware of our own mystical beliefs (like which one of you knew that we have specific exorcisms for dybbuk? Or did you know that there are specific rituals to see demons?)
It was during these periods that the clergymen of the Churches began to "create" Western Occultism from the texts they were stealing from murdered Jews.
Wicca has intentionally conflated all witchcraft with Wicca. The book titled, "Buckland's Complete Book of Witchcraft", is a book of Wiccan beliefs, but you wouldn't know from the title. The secondary title of a popular edition is, "The Classic Course in Wicca for 25 Years", but this book is touted all the ultimate book on all witchcraft and leaves new practitioners with the idea that witchcraft is a religion, and that Wicca is the way.
Wicca's rise in popularity and subsequent conflation with all forms of witchcraft is pervasive. In popular media, witchcraft is constantly tied back to Wicca's core values and beliefs, though the characters themselves are not Wiccan. Wicca's claim that it is a thousand years old religion is categorically untrue and has absolutely no evidence.
A close friend and I were having a chat about the frustrations we had with the generic brand of witchcraft touted as the "correct" or "pan-witch" path when I impulsively called it "spicy Wicca". The name has stuck.
What is Spicy Wicca?
I define it as a practice that is similar to Wicca, but without the rules and restrictions of the actual Wiccan religion.
This is the type of magic commonly seen in media (think: Charmed) as well as in online communities.
For many, the full-blown religious aspects of Wicca are too much, or they feel immensely restricted by it, so while it may have been their introduction to the craft, they didn't stay Wiccan. Unless walking a specific path and studying the texts and history of that path, like Celtic or Irish Paganism, specific folk magic, or even being initiated into another closed practice, these practitioners practice whatever they want. Wicca forbids hexing, so these witches may hex, may worship deities outside of Wicca (most commonly Greek), may use tidbits from other cultures and practices to fill out their own, and most importantly: generally don't study beyond social media and generic witchcraft books.
This is the most commonly seen form of witchcraft online. It fills chatrooms, Tumblrs, Instagrams- and for good reason! It is aesthetically pleasing (hello, wax sealed jars of herbs!), easy to practice (there are a million and one how-to infographics out there), and generally won't require too much research.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with walking a path that isn't strictly defined, there is an issue with the idea of storebought witchcraft in the sense that without true study, there is no credit or understanding of the practice. For example, why do you make spell jars? Why do you use urine in a witches bottle? Why do you call it a Book of Shadows? Why did you feel the need to buy a wand? Why do you offer offerings of wine to a certain deity?
The issue is that this type of craft can often be bottomless and without any real source aside from, well, Wicca; a religion created out of hundreds of different practices.
So, even if you didn't interact with Wicca, your idea of what witchcraft is has been influenced it.
So, why didn't you know?
In a sentence: Jews were oppressed, women even more-so, witchcraft isn't an adequate word to describe all that we do, and what is presented in the media as witchcraft does not apply to much of Jewish practice.
The Magic of the Ordinary, Gershon Winkler pp. 9