Which is worse: a sorcerer or an idolatrous heretic?
Concerning sorcery, the Torah warns:
“When you come into the land that God is giving you, do not learn to do the repulsive practices of those nations.” (Deut. 18:9)
What are these “repulsive practices”? The Torah enumerates divination, witchcraft, incantations, communicating with the dead, and so on. These forms of sorcery were an integral part of the idolatrous culture of the Canaanites.
Yet the Sages read this verse with care. The Torah text does not say, “Do not learn their repulsive practices,” but “Do not learn to do them.” Study — with the intent of practicing sorcery — is forbidden. But one is permitted to study witchcraft “in order to understand and judge,” i.e., to correctly determine who is a sorcerer and should be punished accordingly (Shabbat 75a).
However, the Torah’s sanction to acquire theoretical knowledge of sorcery is not a blanket authorization. The Talmud contrasts the sorcerer with a far worse category: the Gidufi. A Gidufi is a fervent believer in idolatry who constantly proselytizes for his idol worship. “One who learns even one thing from a Gidufi is punishable by death.” Unlike the sorcerer, this fanatical heretic has nothing to teach us.
Why is the idolatrous Gidufi so much worse than the sorcerer?
Rav Kook explained that the sorcerer’s motivation is an attempt to reconcile the fundamental conflict between the animalistic and Divine aspects of the human soul. The sorcerer’s solution to this constant struggle is to suppress the Divine nature of the soul. This frees the base instincts to rule over the individual, and society in general.
The means and techniques by which the sorcerer achieves his goal are complex. Some aspects of his knowledge may also be utilized for the good. Recognition of evil means awareness of the negative side of creation, which can grant deeper understanding of the positive side.
The sorcerer gains his knowledge by focusing his mental powers on the essence of evil. But the idolatrous Gidufi is much worse. His methods do not reveal any hidden knowledge, not even with regard to the realm of evil. The Gidufi simply rejects good and truth. He offers us no new understanding. His path is based on stubbornness, to fill the heart with doubts and intoxication.
Deeper awareness of evil, of hidden aspirations to promote evil in the world, entails spiritual dangers. But it has the potential to prepare the soul, and all of society, to define and refine evil, and to purify it from its baseness.
(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. IV, pp. 138-139)