Divination: It’s More Jewish Than You Think

These days, everyone at my college seems to be interested in tarot card reading. With varying degrees of belief—though, honestly, belief isn’t the point—we read each other’s fortunes, feelings, and mental states in packs of cards with images like “The Sun” and “The Hanged Man” painted on them. 

I personally enjoy using tarot cards as a way to facilitate self-understanding. For me, they work sort of like a Rorschach ink blot: my brain’s interpretation of the cards is more likely to illuminate something about my life than the cards themselves will. Without interpretation, they’re just pretty pictures, but the way we assign meaning to  them can be something more than that.  It’s certainly not magic, at least not for me, but it’s a good way to connect with myself or with others—though of course, I don’t discount the possibility that this is a supernatural experience for other people. I don’t usually connect it to being Jewish; to me, it’s part of a different sphere entirely. But that’s not the case for everyone. Though tarot card reading isn’t a traditional part of Jewish practice, some Jewish people find ways to make their tarot reading—or other divination processes—Jewish and spiritually meaningful. 

Some even assert that tarot originated from the ancient Jewish mystical practices of the Kabbalah, which is concerned both with understanding the mysteries of the universe and figuring out ways to gain and exercise power in this world. In Kabbalistic Tarot, Dovid Krafchow suggests that because most basic tarot decks contain 22 Major Arcana cards—the same number of letters as in the Hebrew alphabet—they can be interpreted using gematria, Hebrew numerology. Krafchow’s approach looks at each of the 78 cards of a traditional tarot as part of the “tree of life,” symbolizing different phases in a person’s life, as well as the  challenges and blessings they may encounter along the way.

Though tarot was my entryway into the world of Jewish mystical traditions, it certainly isn’t the only access point. The Jewitch Collective is an example. The collective’s homepage describes them as a support center for “Jews, pagans, and those who love them.” Their events are generally held in Northern California, though they have  members across the United States. Their spiritual practice takes a distinct social justice angle, as they use Earth magick and Jewish traditions to advocate for LGBT rights, address climate change, and speak up about other issues. 

The Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute, headquartered in New York, takes a similar approach to combining traditional forms of Jewish ritual with mystical practices of connecting with the self and with the Earth. Kohenets, priestesses ordained through the Institute, experiment with new forms of ritual deeply rooted in Jewish practice. Over the phone, I spoke to Sarah Chandler, who has been an ordained Kohenet since 2015, about how divination practices such as tarot can be incorporated into Kohenet practices. 

Chandler notes that, while cards are one possible divination tool, she knows of many others: “We’ve also done divination with bowls of water or by putting your hands on someone’s head,” she said. Instead of tarot, Chandler prefers to use moon angel cards —a set of 30 cards carrying abstract paintings, numbered for the days of the month. They are similar to tarot cards in their use. “For example, I would sit with a client and have them pick three cards. Then, I would put them out and say ‘This is your present. This is your past. This is your future,” Chandler explains. “Then, I would have a conversation with them about the cards. So that’s the most tarot-like reading that someone would do with those cards.” About 70 percent of the readings Chandler is asked to do, by her estimation, are for people who are contemplating a new career move. Most of the remaining 30 percent deal with romantic troubles. 

Jewish Renewal services, which are part of a recent movement towards “reinvigorating” Judaism with more mystical practices, can include elements similar to tarot and angel card readings. In this case, it is the Torah that people interpret as speaking to their individual lives. Chandler describes Renewal services as often including group Aliyot, where the reader gives a brief teaching about the topic of the Torah portion. Then, they “encourage people who want to access the teachings, or the magic of that Torah reading, to come up for that aliyah,” Chandler says. “For example, on Rosh Hashanah, there was a reading that was about Abraham digging wells in order to have [access to] water. And so I gave a teaching that was about: ‘What are your wells that you need to dig up in order to access nourishment in the new year?’ And then people thought that resonated with them, so they came and stood next to the Torah while it was being read.”

Infinitely varied forms of Judaism give us infinite ways of making meaning out of the symbols we see around us, whether that symbol is a tarot card or a line of Torah. But using symbols and metaphors to interpret life has always been a very Jewish practice, from midrashim, to the tradition of the Purim Spiel, to the ritualized meal of Pesach. As Chandler puts it, “There’s a lot that’s been written and said that demonstrates that divination is not authentic to Halakhic Jewish life, but there are plenty of examples in the Torah and the Talmud that say otherwise.” So next time I’m sitting in a friend’s dorm and they offer to read tarot cards for me, I’ll accept, because maybe these sorts of self-reflection rituals don’t conflict with Jewish practice, after all. 

Topics: Ritual
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How to cite this page

Hurwitz, Sophie. "Divination: It’s More Jewish Than You Think." 12 December 2019. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 20, 2020) <https://jwa.org/blog/divination-its-more-jewish-you-think>.

Tarot cards. Photo by AlbanyColley via Pixabay.

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