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The Doctor Who Quit Medicine To Study Witchcraft 

Ben-Gurion University lecturer Sofer says ‘magic’ is a unique medium through which we can conduct intercultural dialogue. 
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Anyone who has ever dreamed of becoming a doctor knows full well that getting accepted into a medical school is extremely challenging. And completing medical school is extremely challenging as well.

It would, therefore, seem like absolute madness to graduate from medical school only to quit the world of medicine soon afterward. 

Yet that’s exactly what Gal Sofer did. Instead of becoming a physician, he decided to dedicate his life to researching magic and witchcraft. 

Intercultural connections

“Since I was 12, I have had a great interest in witchcraft texts and magic,” said Sofer.

Sofer, 32, is a senior lecturer in the arts department of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) in Beersheva. His research and teachings focus on demonic magic from the late Middle Ages to the modern period.

A Beersheva native, Sofer’s interest in magic was sparked by an amulet he bought at an antique market in the city, with an n-pointed magic star and the word yeshua (“redemption” in Hebrew) in the middle. 

“The main aspect that always interested me is not the witchcraft itself, but the transfer of knowledge between different cultures in the ancient times; the intercultural connections,” he explains.  

He says that when you examine demonic magic or witchcraft throughout the centuries, its basics are very similar across Judaism, Christianity and Islam. 

“You can find 14th century Hebrew prayers in Christian witchcraft texts written entirely in Latin letters. In Muslim countries, to this day we find amulets that have Hebrew writings, but if you read it, they quote the Quran.”  

Doctor… of Philosophy

Sofer’s path to becoming a magic researcher wasn’t linear. 

In 2010, he was accepted into BGU’s med school with aspirations of becoming a doctor. Even during the arduous studies, Sofer managed to maintain his lifelong hobby. 

One day, Sofer discovered an 18th century witchcraft text, most of it written anonymously because of the stigma attached to the subject.

In his free time, Sofer conducted research and managed to identify that the author of the text was Jewish. For Jews to dabble in witchcraft at the time was not only taboo, but also very dangerous. 

He approached BGU’s Department of Jewish History about his discovery, which very much impressed the department’s researchers. 

Sofer went on to publish a scientific paper on his discovery. He took a few courses in the Jewish history department and ended up enrolling as a full time postgraduate student, while simultaneously studying medicine. 

Eventually, Sofer took two years off from medical school to complete his Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree. 

“It was just too good, I couldn’t disconnect. That’s where my heart was,” he says.

A straw that broke the doctor’s back

Nevertheless, Sofer went back and finished his medical degree as well as a one-year internship. 

That internship was the straw that broke the camel’s back. 

“The working conditions were inhumane, with shifts that could last up to 30 hours. It was very difficult and I was physically suffering,” he explains. 

Sofer says that due to stress and chronic lack of sleep, he developed rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease that mainly affects the joints, causing inflammation and pain. 

Sofer, who now uses a cane because of his condition, says the diagnosis sealed the deal for him. “I understood the medical world was not for me,” he says. 

“I decided that I wanted a career in academia, which is also a challenge, especially in Israel because there are so few open positions,” he notes.

From hobby to career 

Two years ago, the BGU Department of Arts, where he was conducting his postdoctoral research, put forward Sofer as a candidate for the Education Ministry’s Alon Scholarships, which enable universities to hire the scholars they propose full-time.

“You have to compete with the other candidates for the scholarship by showcasing your academic work. And it was very competitive. But I won,” he smiles. 

In addition to becoming a full-time lecturer at the Department of Arts, Sofer also began working as an adjunct lecturer in the departments of nursing and physiotherapy, which he describes as a “hobby.”

He has published 11 research papers, the most recent of which is “The Jewish Reception of the Ars Notoria: Preliminary Insights into a Recent Discovery” in the journal Religion.

Sofer explains the goal of his academic work is to show how blurred the boundaries of religions and cultures can be. 

“It’s the anarchist in me that dreams of a world with no borders,” he laughs. “If we stop learning about the history of what unites us, we’ll become more and more alienated from one another.” 

When I ask him what were the most popular spells throughout the centuries, he says, “attracting love… then casting a curse on your enemies.” 

        Produced in association with ISRAEL21c

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