Thursday, November 10, 2011

Witchcraft in Israel?

In Africa, India, and Saudi Arabia it is fairly common for courts to hear witchcraft-related cases, but it's important to keep in mind that such trials can also happen in (supposedly) more developed countries. A Rabbinical court in Haifa, Israel recently levied a fine against a woman for practicing witchcraft as part of a divorce hearing.

The court reduced the value of the woman's ketubah, the amount her husband must pay her in the event of divorce, by half -- or about $25,000. However, the wife was acquitted of refusing to cook for her husband -- the least the court could do since her husband had committed adultery.

The wife denied her husband's charge that she practiced witchcraft, but she failed a polygraph test, leading the court to determine that she in fact had been practicing witchcraft.

Death is the punishment for witchcraft in the Torah, but the rabbis found a source that instead allowed them to mete out the financial penalty.

It seems to me that since a polygraph essentially measures anxiety it's exactly the wrong tool to employ in the middle of a bitter domestic dispute like this one. I have no idea whether or not the woman in question is a magician of some sort, but I will say that in a situation like this some anxiety is to be expected. This is especially so with a witchcraft charge, given that a conviction could mean facing the death penalty.

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Hypnovatos said...

I've taken a polygraph before, and seen how it works. If someone asks you a question, and for a moment, you try and figure out how the word is used and how it applies to you, the graph spikes. So someone asking you if you performed witchcraft, if you stop to wonder if that prayer you did that your mother taught you to remove the evil eye from your friend counts as witchcraft, the graph will spike, even if you answer no. Thus giving the impression of a lie. These things are HORRIBLE.

Ananael Qaa said...

The trick is to practice with a multimeter, also called a Volt-Ohm meter. It's pretty much the same technology as a commercial lie detector that can be purchased inexpensively from a hardware store or very expensively from the Church of Scientology. Scientologists call it an "e-meter."

But anyway, yeah, unless you've practiced a lot, states of cognitive dissonance or confusion about the questions will often produce spikes. All the detector really measures is stress, on the theory that liars will be more stressed than truth tellers. But of course the best liars can do it with a straight face and won't even generate a blip.

Given the amount of training they get with it, my guess is that Scientologists should also be able to beat the things cold, though I don't think anyone has ever tested that one out under scientific conditions.

Anonymous said...

Only the Sanhedrin can decree a death penalty and such a court has not existed since the 4th century. In fact, in 30CE the death penalty was in effect abolished. Also a court that senteced someone to death once in every 7 years or 70 years was considered to be blood-thirsty. You can read more about this here:
To my knowledge there is only one instance in Jewish history in which capital punishment was carried out for witchcraft.

Ananael Qaa said...

@Simon: That's definitely a good thing. I'm not that knowledgeable about the Rabbinical court system and my comments were based on those in the article. I'm glad to hear that those statements were inaccurate in terms of how the court actually sentences people. Especially for something as ridiculous as the death penalty for witchcraft.

Anonymous said...

The article was intentionally sensationalist. Aside from miracles by holy men - magic and the supernatural do not feature much in the Jewish community in my experience.

In previous centuries Rabbinic court could only impose fines and at worst excommunicate members of the congregation. There was no means of policing the community via constables or military might. Now the courts may have more power in terms of enforcing fines etc, hence why this interest in bringing up witchcraft in a trial is something I'll be looking out for.