Monday, January 14, 2008

Va`era: Did Pharaoh's Magicians Practice "Magic"?

About a year ago I posted a parshablog post putting forth Shadal's explanation of how the Egyptian magicians created frogs -- by causing water with frog eggs to hatch early -- and then I gave some modern known mechanism for doing so. This troubled DovBear, for he thinks I should know better. In this post, let us explore the bounds of this idea some more, to see if perhaps he is right.

Let us begin with Arthur C. Clarke's Three Laws:
  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
A good example of the first law is perhaps Rambam's partial condemnation of the imaginative faculty,

שמונה פרקים לרמב"ם פרק א

והחלק המדמה - הוא הכח אשר יזכור רישומי המוחשים אחר העלמם מקרבת החושים אשר השיגום, וירכיב קצתם עם קצתם, ויפריד קצתם מקצתם. ולפיכך ירכיב זה הכח מן הדברים אשר השיגם - דברים שלא השיגם כלל, ואי אפשר להשיגם, כמו שידמה האדם ספינת ברזל רצה באויר, ואדם שראשו בשמים ורגליו בארץ, וחיה בעלת אלף עינים, על דרך משל, והרבה מאלו הנמנעות, ירכיבם הכח המדמה

which can come up with such obvious impossibilities as an iron ship which travels in the air (=an airplane), a man whose head is in the clouds while his feet are on the ground, and an animal with 1000 eyes (=such as this crustacean with ten thousand eyes mentioned on page 37 of An Introduction to the Study of Natural History).

The third law is one to focus on, that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Many a science fiction story has been predicated on it.

Indeed, yesterday's episode of Star Trek had Apollo and the ancient Greek gods as powerful aliens who had visited earth, who were taken as gods by the simple people of Earth. And Stargate SG-I does the same with the Goa'uld, an alien race of parasites who were purportedly the ancient Egyptian gods, using advanced technology which the people of Earth could not understand, or stand up to.

And the same for magic, in other fantasy/sci-fi stories.

Shadal's explanation of how the Egyptians created frogs could be taken in the same vein. It can be cast in a similar way as claims that mazikin are really bacteria, which Chazal knew about as a result of their ruach hakodesh. If so, it is a quasi-rational explanation, in that it strips out any superstitious belief in "real" magic. At the same time, it gives the magic force and reality. And it perhaps transforms the Torah narrative into the equivalent of a Stargate Atlantis episode, in which Merlin is real but is an "ascended" evolutionary advanced precursor to humans. It changes belief in magic to belief in science fiction.

But on the other hand, we know that different religions hoarded information. Ignore aggada that talks about how Egypt, much later, imposed an export ban of magic. It was only the priests who could read and write hieroglyphs. And if I recall correctly, certain lucrative formulas for calculating area were kept as trade secrets by Greek mathematicians (and associated cults), upon penalty of death. Pythagoras has a mathematics-related religion.

And is this really at odds with Rambam? Rambam holds that all this "magic" was done by sleight of hand. He does not elaborate on the exact mechanics of the slight of hand. Thus, the witch of Endor brought forth images of the dead. Could this have been accomplished with a painting on thin paper and light? (There are descriptions of a practical kabbalist doing the same, IIRC for Eliyahu haNavi, publicly in a shul, and I would suggest perhaps the same mechanism, if the account is to be believed.) Mirrors? (After all, one midrash stated that in general, those summoned to life appeared upside down.) Speculations as to the specific sleight of hand used are well within Rambam's rational school of thought. And these magicians could know of this as one of a bag of tricks, drawn from study of nature.

It all depends on the stress you place on particular aspects of the explanation.

Regardless, even if this was against the Rambam (which it isn't), we are no more bound by Rambam's explanation of magic than we are of other medieval or Talmudic explanations of the same. Why does the Rambam suddenly become the final say in this matter? (And as we saw earlier, Rambam can have a failure of imagination when it comes to technology and science.)

In terms of Rav Shamshon ben Refael Hirsch's explanation, while it optimizes certain aspects of the narrative, and he gives good reasons compelling his peshat, I think that Shadal is certainly within his rights as a Biblical commentator to explain otherwise, and we are within are rights to accept either explanation, if we see fit to do so. (I don't think I do; nevertheless, it is an interesting explanation.) The "ambiguity" of whether the magicians were trying to recreate or stop the plague is, IMHO, an ambiguity which strongly leans towards the standard explanation of the Egyptians recreating the plague.

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