Robert L. from Atlanta, Georgia wrote:
I recently saw a well-known medium on television. He is supposedly able to communicate with the dead; he took several calls where he was able to relate very specific information about the deceased to the callers. As skeptical as I am about these sorts of things, I was very impressed by his ability; he seemed very genuine. My question is this: The Torah specifically forbids communication with the dead. But, the mere fact that it is prohibited makes me wonder if it is, in fact, possible. Otherwise, why would G-d mention it? Thanks!
Dear Robert L.,
Regarding your question, there's an apparent dispute between Maimonides [Rambam] and Nachmanides [Ramban].
Nachmanides indicates that certain occult practices can be effective, but that they are forbidden by the Torah. G-d created a universe which follows an ordered structure called "nature." Nachmanides writes that sorcery and the occult "contradict" G-d's will because they act in opposition to the simple, plain structure and order of nature. The Torah forbids these things because G-d wants us to conduct ourselves in this world according to natural laws.
Maimonides indicates otherwise. Writing about occult practices such as communicating with the dead, Maimonides calls them "falsehood and deception" used by idolaters to deceive the masses and gain their loyalty. He writes that it's wrong for the Jews, who are extremely wise and rational, to think there's any benefit in these things.
This comment of Maimonides seems to contradict explicit passages in the Talmud and Midrash that refer to departed spirits communicating with the living and revealing things about the past and future. Some commentators explain that Maimonides is referring to an ideal person who lives totally according to the truths of the Torah. Such a person will rise above all these practices, and from that exalted vantage point see that these practices have no reality. However, these forces of falsehood can indeed affect a person who has not yet reached this level.
- Ramban, Deuteronomy 18:9-15
- Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry 11:16
- Tractate Berachot 18b