Which is worse: a sorcerer or an idolatrous heretic?
With regard to 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: the idolatrous custom of passing children through fire for Molech, divination, witchcraft, incantations, communicating with the dead, and so on. These forms of sorcery were all an integral part of the idolatrous and licentious culture of the Canaanites.
The Sages analyzed this verse carefully. The Torah does not say, “Do not learn from,” but “Do not learn to do.” Study — in order to practice sorcery — is forbidden. But one is permitted to study witchcraft “in order to understand and judge", i.e., in order to correctly determine who is a sorcerer and is to be punished accordingly (Shabbat 75a).
The Torah’s sanction to gain theoretical knowledge of sorcery, however, is not a blanket permission. The Talmud contrasts the sorcerer with the Gidufi. A Gidufi is a blasphemer who fervently believes in idolatry and is constantly proselytizing for his idol-worship. “One who learns even one thing from a heretic is punishable by death.” Unlike the sorcerer, the heretic has nothing to teach us.
Why is the idolatrous Gidufi so much worse than the sorcerer?
Rav Kook explained that the basic principle guiding the sorcerer is an attempt to reconcile the 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, and allow the base instincts to totally rule — both over the individual, and society in general.
The means 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 achieves his knowledge through intense concentration of all his powers into the depths of evil. The idolatrous Gidufi, on the other hand, is much worse than the sorcerer. He does not have a clear goal of delving into the depths of evil. His ways do not reveal any hidden knowledge, not even with regard to the essence of evil. The Gidufi simply rejects good and truth. He offers us no new understanding. His path is a matter of coarse stubbornness, to fill the heart with doubts and intoxication.
Greater knowledge of the depths of evil, of the hidden aspirations of the universe to perfect the evil in the world, involves certain spiritual dangers. But it has the potential to prepare the soul, and all of society, to refine evil and purify it from its baseness.
(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. IV, pp. 138-9)