Our parsha is very explicit in its condemnation of divination: “When you come to the land which HaShem your G-d gives you, don’t accustom yourself to do the abominations of those nations. There should not be among you one who passes his son or daughter through the fire, a conjurer or diviner or a sorcerer; or a charmer or one who consults a familiar spirit, or a necromancer. For one who does these is an abomination before HaShem, and because of these abominations HaShem your G-d drives them out before you. Be wholehearted with HaShem, your G-d.” (Devarim 18:9-13)
These magic practices are very much associated with pagan worship, which is the very antithesis of Judaism. “Anyone who denies pagan worship is called a Jew” (Megilla 13a). Like an idolater, the diviner is preoccupied with the spiritual influences of base and material objects. So these prohibitions are hardly surprising.
Yet regarding these customs we find some remarkable leniencies. For instance, even though saying “Slaughter that chicken because it crowed like a rooster” is a forbidden superstition, it is permissible to slaughter it if the reason is not mentioned (SA YD 179:1 in Rema). And in the case of danger to life conjuring is permitted (SA YD 179:7), although all prohibitions relating to idolatry are forbidden even on pain of death (SA YD 159:7). The Shulchan Arukh even mentions one opinion that consulting demons is permissible in order to locate a stolen object! (SA YD 159:16)
DIVINE SOVEREIGNTY AND DIVINE PROVIDENCE
The key to understanding the subtle difference between conjuring and idolatry is in the continuation of the Biblical passage: “Be wholehearted with HaShem”. The Torah doesn’t tell us merely to believe in HaShem, but rather to rely on Him with all our hearts.
The essence of idolatry is the denial of HaShem’s sovereignty. The idolater may believe in G-d, and indeed our Sages tell us that the pagans called HaShem “the G-d of gods” (Menachot 110a). What they deny is His absolute sovereignty. They may recognize His might, but believe that other, lesser forces also have independent power and influence which need to be recognized and served.
However, belief in HaShem’s sovereignty is far from perfect faith. Imagine someone who believes in one god, who rules over the earth and over all the nations, and who is in control of our destinies – but they don’t believe that this supreme being loves and provides for us. Perhaps this person is indeed a monotheist, but his faith is very far from our own.
Jewish faith is intimately tied up with the idea of Divine providence – the idea that G-d loves us, seeks our good, and provides for us. “For HaShem your G-d He is the G-d of gods and the Lord of lords, the great, mighty and awesome Ruler, who shows no partiality and takes no bribes” (Devarim 10:17) – this expresses His sovereignty. Yet the very next verse continues: “He does justice to the orphan and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing.” This verse adds the crucial element of His loving providence.
It is this element which is contradicted by divining and the like. If we believe that a chicken which calls like a rooster is an auger of bad fortune, or if a particular spirit knows where a stolen object is, this doesn’t contradict HaShem’s sovereignty. We are not worshipping or serving the chicken or the spirit, merely taking advantage of the knowledge they provide us. Many early authorities believe that the forces these laws relate to are genuine influences, not empty superstitions.
However, giving excessive attention to these signs and hints does clash with belief in His sovereignty. HaShem does want us to make our way in the world taking advantage of our knowledge and intuition, but ultimately He wants us to place our trust in Him. It is forbidden to rely on miracles and forego earthly pursuits like making a living or keeping ourselves from danger, but neither are we supposed to go to the other extreme and go out of our way to try and predict the future and discern every possible eventuality. The future will forever remain uncertain; the only thing we know for sure is that HaShem is watching over us and continues to provide our every need.
Therefore, the practices forbidden in this chapter can be relaxed if there is a special need. When a person is in dire straits then means which would normally be considered excessive worry become instead ordinary prudence. If an ordinary, healthy person were to undergo an extensive, expensive and burdensome battery of medical tests just to see if he might not have some rare disease, we might question his faith (see Igrot Moshe EHE IV:10). But if a very weak and sick person did so after finding no satisfactory diagnosis for his condition, we would consider him rational and prudent.