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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2005
Number 63
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Judaism and Superstitions

Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists and Early Modern Judaism by J.H. Chajes. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
A Review Essay by Frederic Krome

In 16th- and early 17th- century Safed, Kabbalistic masters often wrote about the possession of a living body by a disembodied soul or ghoul (referred to as a dybbuk by later generations). Such narratives about demonic possession, and related stories about ecstatic prophecy, were relatively rare in medieval Jewish history. At the heart of Chajes’ study is, therefore, a simple question: why did stories about possession become a prominent concern in early modern Jewish life?  In order to set the stage for answering this question, Chajes marshals an impressive array of documentation, from classical and Talmudic sources relating to magic, demons (shedim) and spirit possession, to medieval commentaries on Gilgul (the doctrine of reincarnation). At the epicenter of this study are the Kabbalistic texts produced at Safed, and their subsequent redactions and re-redactions, which provide the narratives of demonic and spirit possession that would spread to other parts of the Jewish world. It is one of the paradoxes of early modern European history that the same era that witnessed the advent of the scientific revolution also produced the worst excesses of the witch craze (1550-1650). Indeed, the same technology that helped spread the works of Copernicus — the printing press — insured that the fear of maleficia (evil magic) and demonic possession would also be widely disseminated among European elites whose obsession with rooting out “Servants of Satan” would terrorize the continent for over a century.

As a graduate student in a class on the witch craze I was struck by the similarities between the so-called “witches’ Sabbath” — in which Satan’s minions gathered to eat the flesh of Christian children and drink the blood of the innocent — with the Blood Libel against the Jews, already 400 years old by the 16th century. It was also striking how few historians even speculated on the relationship between an anti-Semitic canard and the fear of a satanic conspiracy involving women. On the obverse side, a comparative approach to the relationship between Jewish and Christian approaches to magic and beliefs about witches and demons did not appear on the agenda of historians of early modern Jewish history. Those who have investigated Jewish-Christian interaction have tended to focus on the Jewish contribution to scientific developments, a symptom of modernity, rather than on questions about magic and demonic possessions, wildly perceived as medieval holdover.

Rather than operate on the assumption that Jewish society was simply influenced by Christian and Islamic trends, Chajes’ work is part of a relatively recent movement in Jewish historiography, which operates under the assumption that Jewish society interacted, to some degree, with the wider European cultural milieu. This is an important trend as previous work often served the cause of filiopietism — what I call the “look who is Jewish school” — which often sought to edit out the less desirable aspects of Jewish society on the eve of modernity by charting such things as Jewish participation in the scientific revolution. It is not too surprising that the general European witch craze has a Jewish equivalent, although it was fortunately not as violent as its Christian counterpart; what scholars have needed is a study that recognizes the wider historiographic issues. It is a pleasure, therefore, to see that Chajes introduces himself as “an avid reader of the historiography of the early modern European witch-hunt” (4): a comparative analysis of the other, perhaps less admirable, trend in early modern history; the proliferation of belief in magic and possession upon Jewish society is vastly overdue.

In more than 20 years of research, historians of the European witch craze have come to realize that one causal explanation of the phenomenon was increased religious tension, which exploded into the open with the European Reformation of the 16th century. The most intense witch panics occurred on the borderlands of the Reformation, where religious passions were elevated. Chajes adroitly points out that it is also not too surprising that Safed would be the focal point of Jewish obsessions with magic, demons and possession, for in the 16th century Safed sat at the borderlands of the Jewish world. The community was a nexus in which Ottoman Jews, refugees from the expulsion from Spain and Ashkenazi pietists met. The cultural and intellectual ferment produced Isaac Luria, perhaps one of the greatest Kabbalists in Jewish history. Luria and his disciples would influence the development of Jewish life to the present. In addition to the heterodoxy of the population, Chajes argues that the physical setting was conducive to the development of spirit possession. The hilltop town of Safed is situated in such a way that its ancient cemetery literally interacts with the population, providing a physical metaphor for the interaction of the living and spirit worlds.

A major theme in Chajes’ book is the social function that spirit possession plays in the community, whether it was by evil spirits — ibbur — or the souls of the deceased — nefesh. To this end he spends a great deal of time throughout the book dissecting the narratives of demonic and spirit possession. The student of the history of magic and related subjects will particularly enjoy Chajes’ examination of the rites of exorcism. Indeed, an examination of these rituals provides a window not just into magical incantation, but into communal relationships as well. Over 50 years ago Gershom Scholem proclaimed that women neither generated Kabbalistic texts nor participated in mystical association. While it is true that women may not have generated such writings, an examination of the diaries of men such as R. Hayyim Vital (a disciple of Luria’s), reveals that women played an active part in mystical life by being the victims of possession. In particular, when analyzing (in Chapter 4) the famous case of the possession of a young girl, the daughter of a prominent rabbi, in Damascus at the beginning of the 17th century, a startling picture of the Jewish community emerges.  According to the narrative from Vital’s diary, while possessed by the spirit of a deceased Jew, the young girl proceeded to reveal the seamier underside of communal life. In addition to illicit sexual relations, the breaking of kashrut and the sanctity of Shabbat, the possessed girl revealed a growing level of unbelief among some members of the community. Superficially such revelations might make little sense, or be interpreted as an example of women’s expression of power in a world where they are disenfranchised. Yet if we consider again the cultural milieu not only of Safed, but of the early modern world that produced the witch panics, a different interpretation emerges. Safed was a community struggling to achieve an intense level of piety. Such intensity meant a concomitant increase of temptation, as even the smallest infraction of the commandments is regarded as a potential major sin. Chajes argues that such revelations serve as a means of social control. One example is the case of a widow who was a victim of possession. The narrator of the story revealed that the widow engaged in an illicit sexual relationship, which made her susceptible to possession. The sins committed by the nefesh when alive were also recounted. The widow’s death — whether from the effects of possession or the attempted exorcism is not clear — play out as a kind of morality play providing the narrator of the story with a chance to ruminate on the multiple transgressions of the entire community.  Such stories, Chajes argues, “cast in bold relief the values and aspiration of the rabbinic writers who crafted the account, if not broader sectors of the cultural environment. Sexual licentiousness and popular skepticism emerge in the account, as in others we have examined, as fundamental threats to communal leadership struggling to establish a community on the basis of pietistic ideals.” (54-55)     

Thus, the narratives of demonic possession and exorcism serve, at least in part, as a reminder of one’s proper path by revealing what happens to those who follow the evil path. Such conclusions again demonstrate Chajes’ debt to the general historiography of European beliefs, which interprets one of the causal triggers for witch panics as being the advent of new social, intellectual and scientific developments. The discovery of the new world, which biblical scholars sought to reconcile with sacred texts, and the Copernican theory, which removed the earth from the center of the universe, prompted doubt regarding the veracity of revealed truths. In both the Christian and Jewish worlds scholars sought to re-assert the primacy of revealed religion; they did this in part by describing the threat possessed by the spirit world and Maleficia. After all, if the devil exists, then so must the divine.  Therefore, stories of possession — demonic and other — cannot be understood as paradoxically occurring at the same time as the scientific revolution, but as the obverse side of the coin of the advent of modernity.

Chajes’ final chapter, “Skeptics and Storytellers,” takes the story from Safed to Amsterdam and focuses on Menasseh ben Israel’s Nishmat Hayyim (Soul of Life), which is a collection of stories about dybbuks; indeed Chajes maintains it is the largest anthology of such stories until the late 20th century. Chajes argues that this book must be understood in the context of the mid-17th-century intellectual ferment that was unique to Menasseh’s community of former conversos, as well as the general pan-European surge in unbelief. One of the most hotly contested debates in the Amsterdam community, and other parts of the Christian world, was on the question of the immortality of the soul. In this context, stories about possession were utilized by religious authorities — such as Menasseh ben Israel — to prove that there was, in fact, life after death. After all, spirit possession and ecstatic visions required the presence of the soul of someone who had departed this earth. The existence of possession was a proof-text for life after death. The Nishmat was therefore “a ‘native’ Hebrew version of a variety of treatise that was becoming increasingly significant in the mid-seventeenth century — an attack on ‘atheism’ grounded in a demonstration of the existence of the demonic.” (125)       

There are a number of reasons to recommend this book. The author’s mining of both Jewish and general European historiography enables it to be read profitably by specialists in both fields. On another level, it is nice to read a book that an author found fun to write. Throughout the text Chajes reveals a keen sense of humor, as when analyzing the nature of spells used in exorcisms: “Like the mysteries revealed when spinning a vinyl Beatles album in reverse, reciting a sacred text backward was bound to unleash its fullest energies.” (69). Through the use of such humor, Chajes reminds us that even our own scientific age has its superstitions.

Frederic Krome is managing editor of The American Jewish Archives Journal and an adjunct professor of history & Judaic studies at the University of Cincinnati.

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