2016-06-30
My kids’ favorite baby-sitter assures me that she’s not a practicing witch, “though,” she says, “I do hang out with a lot of Wiccans.” There was the time, for instance, out on the Kitsap Peninsula, near Seattle, when she joined a group of witches for a “sky-clad” (that is, naked) romp in the woods, a May Day ritual. Having tossed off their clothes, the pagans ran around a maypole chanting in Gaelic. “The pole is a phallic symbol,” thirty-two-year-old Jenny helpfully explains. “They’re white witches, not bad ones. I never really asked them about it. I just know.”

“I think she takes it all with a grain of salt,” my wife later assures me. Yet the next day Jenny, responding to my curiosity, brings over a stack of books from her collection. The well-thumbed volumes smell like incense and one is stained with a dark liquid. They have titles like "Embracing the Moon: A Witches’ Guide to Ritual Spellcraft and Shadow Work," and "The Witch’s Familiar: Spiritual Partnerships for Successful Magic." A thick and serious-looking book is called "The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth."

Jenny is far from alone. One fine Sunday, I was an observer at a Wiccan worship circle in a public park in Tacoma, Washington. The setting was sylvan and beautiful, overlooking Puget Sound toward Gig Harbor. The water sparkled and the incense wafted.

About 35 people showed up, from teenagers to the middle-aged, plus a couple of senior citizens. They could have been any church group out for a weekend picnic—well, maybe any liberal church group.

They stood around a rock in the center of their circle. Placed beside the rock were corn-husk dolls, flowers, a glass of beer, and some wheat stalks-—for it was the sabbat or festival (from the Hebrew for Sabbath) of Lammas, which celebrates the first harvest and the death and rebirth of the god of grain. A man who wore a Scottish kilt led a group recital of John Burns’s “John Barleycorn: A Ballad,” while others in the group were fitted out in homemade robes of blue or red. A teenage girl passed out wheat stalks and paper cups of apple juice. Then they all turned to the north, east, south, and west to bless the spirits of the four directions and four elements, fire, water, earth, and air. They concluded by calling out, “May the gods preserve the Craft, and may the Craft preserve the gods!” This was followed by hoots of “Yeah!” “Yay!””Yoo hoo!” and then the pagans dispersed.

***

Modern witches, worshipers of a dualistic pantheon comprising a god and a goddess, say that in just the past few years they have discerned a genuine pagan revival, or what my neighbor Jeremy Allen, a self-described "Druid archpriest,” called “the Awakening of the Ancients.” Says Jeremy, who goes by the alternative name Gannandelff Boulder, “A lot of likeminded people have been drawn to the religions and lately we always seem to find each other. It’s happening all over the country--in Canada, even.”

The New York Times, quoting the American Religious Identification Survey, put the number of Wiccans nationally at 134,000 in 2001. That’s up from only eight thousand in 1990. J. Gordon Melton, who directs the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, calls Wicca, and paganism generally, the country’s fastest growing religion.

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The Bible would take a dim view of these developments. The Pentateuch advises that witches be stoned to death: “You shall not permit a witch to live” (Exodus 22:17)—though pagans nowadays claim, improbably, that the Hebrew word m’chashefah doesn’t really mean witch at all, but “poisoner,” as if Moses would have been perfectly okay with offering incense and wheat stalks to John Barleycorn. In fact, two verses later, this misconception is laid to rest: “One who brings offerings to the gods shall be destroyed—only to the Lord alone!” In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, at witch trials and witch burnings across Europe, and at Salem, Massachusetts, these biblical verses were eagerly enforced.

The scriptural injunction against witchcraft is rooted in the second commandment, which begins: "You shall not recognize the gods of others in My presence." This much is familiar to everyone. But the second commandment goes on to say, “You shall not make yourself a carved image nor any likeness of that which is in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the water beneath the earth. You shall not prostrate yourself to them nor worship them for I am the Lord your God—a jealous God, Who visits the sin of fathers upon children to the third and fourth generations, for My enemies; but who shows kindness for thousands [of generations] to those who love Me and observe My commandments.”

What this language makes clear is that idolatry, polytheism, and witchcraft are really just three manifestations of the same error—to which, interestingly, Hebrew gives no name. They share the mistaken assumption that divinity can be broken down into discrete entities (gods) and manipulated for our benefit. By contrast, the God of the Bible, a purely spiritual being, must be the ultimate unity and perfectly free to act as He sees fit, unaffected by our attempted manipulations or any other circumstances.

Polytheism and witchcraft, in other words, are associated with physical representations of divinity, since both have to do with putting the god to work for you, and we are accustomed to using objects for our own purposes (penicillin, an umbrella, and an air conditioner would he non-magical examples). Where you find polytheism and magic, you are likely to find idols. That’s how Moses, returning from his forty days on Mount Sinai, where he received the Ten Commandments, knew at the very moment he caught sight of the Golden Calf that the Jews who had made it in his absence had plummeted to the spiritual depths. God had given him the two tablets for the same purpose that a groom gives his bride a ring at their wedding, as a token of their union, Moses quickly perceived that the Jews had severed the union, so the tablets lost their sanctity, which is why he smashed them to pieces on the ground.

The word jealous, which the Bible uses in speaking of God only when the context is idolatry, sums it all up. Where there is no possessiveness, there is no love. What wife would be pleased if her husband could never he moved to jealousy, no matter how forwardly she might flirt with other men? God doesn’t actually feel jealous anger—being perfect and unchanging, He is above being moved by human actions, but He does act in response to polytheistic provocations in a way that reminds us of the spouse consumed with passionate possessiveness. This is the one sin for which God has no tolerance whatsoever. Fortunately for our babysitter Jenny, who still works for us, I’m not God. In fact, when we had twin boys recently, the rabbi who performed the circumcision gave my wife a kabbalistic printed amulet, a laminated card with Hebrew verses and formulas, to hang over their crib for protection from evil. It included the above-cited verse from Exodus, "you shall not permit a witch to live." Sometimes I'll be sitting with my wife and Jenny in the babies' room, the amulet dangling above as Jenny helps feed a twin, and I’ll think, "hmm..."

Feel free to question the consistency of my parenting. But the truth about "idolatry" is that it's far more widespread than many of us recognize. The phrase referring to other "gods," or in Hebrew "elohim," whom we're commanded not to recognize alongside God, is really a mistranslation. The classical medieval commentator Rashi explains that "elohim" really refers much more broadly to any other sources of moral authority apart from God.

In this sense, in a secularized culture like ours, disregard for the second commandment is hardly limited to "neo-pagans." It's represented prominently in all the most influential cultural venues, led by the university and the media. In such an environment, to find a sitter -- not to mention a spouse, a friend, an employer, a co-worker -- who abides by the decalogue’s prohibition of idolatry is a challenge, to say the least.

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