“Just because ancient rabbis and sages believed in demons does not mean we are bound to do likewise”

In his comments on the Shulhan Arukh‘s rulling, the Gaon of Vilna, known as the Gra, writes an impassioned critique of Rambam’s views and an ardent defense of the belief in charms, amulets, and other such things:

This opinion [of the Shulhan Arukh] is the Rambam’s as expressed in his Hilkhot Avoda Zarah.  But all subsequent authorities disagreed with him because of the numerous charms recorded in the Talmud.  He, however, was drawn by the accursed philosophy, and that is why he wrote that witchcraft, names, charms, demons, and amulets are all deception.  But he has been thoroughly refuted on the strength of the innumerable stories found in the Talmud…. [P]hilosophy with her blandishments misled him to explain all such stories allegorically and to uproot them from their literal meaning.  As for me, Heaven forbid that I should accept any of those allegorical explanations.

If a rabbinic authority of the magnitude of the Gaon of Vilna repudiated Rambam’s views on magical amulets and incantation, it is certainly easy for the masses of Jews to rely on him rather than on the Rambam.  After all, the Gra not only disagrees with Rambam but indicates that “all subsequent authorities” disagreed with him.  Indeed, says the Gra, the Rambam was seduced by philosophy and, therefore, his opinions on this topic are tainted.  Rather, the Gra advises us to follow the teachings recorded in the Talmud, where we learn that amulets are efficacious, that demons and witches exist, and that magical incantations work.

To reasonable, rational moderns, the words of the Gaon of Vilna are shocking examples of a defective, superstitious worldview.  Does religious piety truly demand that we suspend reason so that we adopt belief in witches, demons, and magic incantations because rabbis in the Talmud believed in such things?  The Gaon of Vilna seems to think so.  The Rambam, however, disagrees completely with this.  Is Rambam’s view to be dismissed because he was “tainted” by philosophical study?  The answer, I believe, is an emphatic no. Rambam was teaching us to be thinking human beings.  He was pointing to an intellectual methodology that allowed for development of knowledge over the ages. Just because ancient rabbis and sages believed in demons does not mean we are bound to do likewise.  On the contrary, we are obligated to take into account the intellectual and scientific developments of humanity and to revise our views as new, more accurate knowledge is discovered.  The Rambam’s position allows us to learn and grow.

Rabbi Marc Angel, Maimonides, Spinoza and Us: Toward an Intellectually Vibrant Judaism (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2009) 100-101.