Windows and Doors

The level of hostility evoked by my thoughts on Judaism and Voodoo, both in an earlier post here at Windows and Doors, as well in a recent New York Jewish Week article by Jonathan Mark got me thinking. Why are people so angry about this of all things?
What is it that makes my readiness to take voodoo seriously, even though I also clearly stated how it was totally outside the bounds of normative Judaism, so upsetting to so many people? After a few days reflection, I think I have a handle on why, or at least on part of the reason.
The issue of voodoo is one which the Torah would recognize as an issue to be thought of as false prophecy. But the words which describe the work of a false prophet, a navi sheker, raise as many questions as they answer – questions about who really is in charge of the world and what it is that He/She/It/They want from us.
Actually, if it’s an “it” or a “they”, it’s no big deal. But for those of us who believe in one God, it’s a bit dicey. And I think it was raising those issues, if only by implication, that got so many of you bent out of shape.
Deuteronomy 13:1-5 teaches, “If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a miraculous sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder of which he has spoken takes place, and he says, ‘Let us follow other gods’ (gods you have not known) ‘and let us worship them,’ you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The Lord your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul.”

A close reading of the text, one supported by the Rambam (Maimonides), the Ramban (Nachmonides), and virtually every other classical interpreter of the Hebrew Bible and its laws, makes it clear that false prophets can perform miracles and even foretell the future efficaciously. The problem with false prophecy is not, as I suggested with regard to voodoo, that it is devoid of meaning or efficacy. The problem is that it leads people away from that which they are supposed to believe – in the case of Deuteronomy, Jews away from Torah. And there in lies the rub.
If the miracles are real and the work of the false prophet is at least potentially meaningful and efficacious, then what is the source of their power? As monotheists, we must say it is God. But how comfortable is it to posit that god purposefully sends false and dangerous things into the world simply to test us? Is that not as malevolent as the worst behavior of the gods in Greek mythology?
The Bible addresses this problem sometimes with the presence of a “Satan” e.g. Job in the book named for him, King David in 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles, or “evil spirits” which trouble King Saul in 1 Samuel. Other times, no explanation is given for such testing and troubling, as in the case of Abraham being asked by God to sacrifice Isaac.
But even in the former cases, the Bible does not indicate that either a Satan or the evil spirits are independent actors. They are emissaries acting on God’s behalf. That’s a powerful endorsement both of monotheism and of a pretty rough God.
I think that in the face of such roughness, some people, like voodoo practitioners, step in and try and take some control and bring some comfort. By suggesting that I take that impulse seriously, I surfaced the pain of traditional Jews not being able to rely on that response and having to be reminded that the worst form of evil and suffering also have their source in God, if we are true monotheists.
Of course, there are endless ways to work around this question, and I appreciate them all. But I also think that opening ourselves to the absence of a fully satisfying answer is valuable. In fact, there is wisdom to found in that dissatisfaction which can not be found through any of the artful workarounds meant to comfort us and secure our belief.
I am not prepared to go with voodoo, magic or a competing pantheon of Gods to escape the pain of confronting the “source of evil” question. Neither am I prepared to denigrate others for dealing with it in their own way, especially as it does not run afoul of the Torah’s own teachings.
Deuteronomy does not impeach the navi sheker for doing things that are false, simply for leading Jews to what for them would be a false conclusion. For gentiles, there would presumably be no problem in following such miracle workers.
So let’s be clear: unless voodoo missionaries are actively drawing Jews away from Torah, then there is nothing wrong with recognizing the power of the practice. In fact, failing to do so misreads the entire tradition on false prophecy, denigrating the works of others just because they are not for us.
It’s not that I have a particular interest in defending voodoo, but I think the survival of our species has a powerful interest in distinguishing between what is good for some of us and what must be true for all of us.

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