Thursday, April 16, 2009

Horcruxes and Halacha

One of the most iconic creatures in Dungeons and Dragons is the lich. The lich is a powerful mage who has transformed himself into an undead creature and placed his soul or life-force into a small object called a phylactery. Until the object is destroyed, the lich cannot die; if his physical body is destroyed, he simply forms a new body later. D&D is not the only setting with creatures like this. Variants exist in old mythologies as well as appearing in various fantasy books. For example, in Loyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, an evil wizard breaks off one of his fingers and imbues his soul into it and so cannot be killed until the finger bone is broke. Another recent example is a primary plot element in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. In those books, evil wizards can make an object called a horcrux by killing someone and then splitting one’s own soul and storing fragment of the soul in the horcrux. This post will examine the ramifications of becoming a lich or of creating a horcrux under halacha(the system of laws kept by Orthodox Jews).

Assuming that magic as described in D&D existed for real, can one halachically become a lich? First, we must ask can one become a wizard or sorcerer? The quick and superficial answer is no since the Torah specifically forbids magic use. However, closer inspection reveals that the answer is not so clear.

Maimonides argued that the Torah actually forbids trickery where one claims to be doing magic. To Maimonides, “magic” in any meaningful sense doesn’t exist. So the abilities of a D&D style wizard would be simply talents that are difficult to explain. Thus, becoming a wizard would be fine as long as one didn’t call them magic except as something like a possible shorthand for a Clarke’s Third Law class of technology . Even if one disagrees with Maimonides and thinks that there is some class of abilities which constitute magic, it still isn’t clear that D&D magic is a problem. Just because we call something magic does not mean that that it was the Torah was referring to when it talked about magic. The standard system of magic used in D&D (not counting 4th edition) uses a so-called Vancian system of magic. In this system, named after science fiction writer Jack Vance, spells must be prepared beforehand and the spells are then stored in the mind. The gestures and arcane words merely release the stored spell. The Vancian system bears little similarity to magic as described in the Torah or Talmud.

Becoming a wizard is probably ok. Assuming one can become a wizard, can one become a lich? This seems much more halachically problematic but a case can be made that the answer is yes. First, in many descriptions, the process to become a lich involves killing others to fuel ones transformation. If one is using such a process, this is obviously not ok. Second, the process seems to involve killing oneself. Killing oneself is not halachically ok. However, we may get away with this if we examine the halachic notion of death. There is a disagreement in the Talmud over how we determine if someone is dead. The two opinions given are whether the person is breathing and whether the person has a heartbeat. However, it isn’t clear if these are descriptive statements or whether they are normative tests of life. For example, the Talmud makes clear that everyone agrees that at decapitation a person is considered dead instantaneously even if the heart and lungs continue to function for a short period of time. If the test (whether breath or heartbeat) are normative descriptions of when someone is alive then one cannot become a lich. Unfortunately, for our prospective frum lich, the opinion that these are normative tests of life and not proxies is not a rare one. If however, heart and lung activity are merely proxies, then it isn’t unreasonable to declare that a lich walking around is halachically alive.

The only remaining issue is that in some editions of D&D, becoming a lich also requires making supplications to dark gods which would be a problem. However, most editions do not have that requirement so for most forms of D&D magic this is not an issue. Thus, one can become a lich.

We can extend this analysis without much effort to the creation of horcruxes. The analysis of J. K. Rowling’s magical system follows through almost identically. However, murdering others to create a horcrux raises halachic problems. But it isn’t clear precisely what constitutes a murder for purposes of a creating a horcrux. If killing someone in any form is sufficient then killing someone during wartime or if carrying out a valid execution would be halachically acceptable routes to creating a horcrux. There’s really no halachic problem with splitting one’s soul. Halacha takes no standpoint on the existence or nature of a soul. Since souls cannot be manipulated by normal means, they are not covered under any halachic rulings. Thus, although the Harry Potter books describe the process of splitting a soul to be profoundly evil, it does not raise any halachic issues. Moreover, since someone with a horcrux is still living (unlike a lich) the entire set of issues about killing oneself can be bypassed. Whether or not halacha allows you to become a lich, it almost certainly allows you to create a horcrux.

Now, astute readers may recall the other definition of the word “phylactery.” The word actually means a small box containing an object of religious or mystical significance. The word is most commonly used in the plural form as a translation for tefillin, the objects traditionally worn by religious Jews in weekday morning prayers. I do own tefillin. This raises an additional question: If I do become a lich, may I use my phylacteries as a phylactery?


sniffnoy said... really wrote all that just to ask that last question, didn't you?

Hepius said...

My phylactery will be a computer hard drive into which I have downloaded my memories and personality (currently science fiction). I'll live out the rest of my life content in the knowledge of this backup. When I die, my henchmen will download my mind into a new body. I am a lich (currently fantasy).

*cue the sinister music*

Joshua said...

Harry, now what could possibly make you think that? I suppose this is the point where I'm supposed to whistle innocently although I don't know how to whistle...

Etienne Vouga said...

What about Leviticus 20:27?

KJV forbids having a "familiar spirit" or being "a wizard," which seems fairly clear cut (it doesn't help that DnD Wizards come with familiars). However the New International translation prescribes only against being a "medium or spiritist," so are you OK as long as you never cast the spell Contact Other Plane?

Joshua said...

See the third paragraph of the post. If D&D magic existed in real life it isn't obvious that such magic is what the Bible is talking about. Simply because we commonly call something magic doesn't make it magic from a halachic perspective any more than calling a cell phone magic would.

Admiral Frum said...

"Halacha takes no standpoint on the existence or nature of a soul."

I think you're mistaken on that buddy.

Joshua said...

Frum, the statement is quite accurate. It is possible that certain readings of Maimonides would get you that you have to believe in a soul. But that's far from clear. The 613 mitzvot in the Mishnah Torah don't have much to say about it.

Even you claim that there's a halachic obligation to believe the 13 Principles (which is a very weak claim) the only relevant principle is eventual resurrection of the dead. No souls required there.

So where is there anything that has halachic force that says anything about souls? Your left at that point with aggadic texts in the Talmud. And you think you have a halachic obligation to believe those then do you also believe that the Earth is flat as described in Baba Batra 25b? In that context that looks like halachic rather than aggadic material. And I've got a lot more after that, including gemarrahs that talk about the phoenix like it is a real bird, and a gemarrah where the rabbis paskin a wrong idea about how thunder happens (quite clever and based on observation but wrong).

There's no halachic reason to believe in a soul. At best you might be able to argue some form of minhag klal yisrael. And all that gets you is existence. It doesn't get you nature. It certainly won't get you anything resembling a halachic problem with cutting a soul up into teeny tiny pieces.