Between Worlds

Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism

J. H. Chajes
Copyright Date: 2003
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Between Worlds
    Book Description:

    After a nearly two-thousand-year interlude, and just as Christian Europe was in the throes of the great Witch Hunt and what historians have referred to as "The Age of the Demoniac," accounts of spirit possession began to proliferate in the Jewish world. Concentrated at first in the Near East but spreading rapidly westward, spirit possession, both benevolent and malevolent, emerged as perhaps the most characteristic form of religiosity in early modern Jewish society. Adopting a comparative historical approach, J. H. Chajes uncovers this strain of Jewish belief to which scant attention has been paid. Informed by recent research in historical anthropology, Between Worlds provides fascinating descriptions of the cases of possession as well as analysis of the magical techniques deployed by rabbinic exorcists to expel the ghostly intruders. Seeking to understand the phenomenon of spirit possession in its full complexity, Chajes delves into its ideational framework-chiefly the doctrine of reincarnation-while exploring its relation to contemporary Christian and Islamic analogues. Regarding spirit possession as a form of religious expression open to-and even dominated by-women, Chajes initiates a major reassessment of women in the history of Jewish mysticism. In a concluding section he examines the reception history of the great Hebrew accounts of spirit possession, focusing on the deployment of these "ghost stories" in the battle against incipient skepticism in the turbulent Jewish community of seventeenth-century Amsterdam. Exploring a phenomenon that bridged learned and ignorant, rich and poor, men and women, Jews and Gentiles, Between Worlds maps for the first time a prominent feature of the early modern Jewish religious landscape, as quotidian as it was portentous: the nexus of the living and the dead.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0155-0
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[x])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    In the early 1540s, a Jewish boy in the Galilean—and, for nearly a generation, Ottoman—village of Safed, was possessed by the soul of a sinner, a dybbuk.² Furious that the boy’s father had killed the dog in which he had formerly been lodged, the soul sought vengeance by killing the man’s son. The eminent sage who was called upon to exorcise the spirit, having forced it to speak with threats of excommunication, discovered that there was little he could do but rescue the boy by removing the intruder and banishing him to the wilderness. This he accomplished by...

  4. Chapter 1 The Emergence of Dybbuk Possession
    (pp. 11-31)

    How did sixteenth-century Jews make sense of spirit possession? To what affliction did they bear witness when someone in their midst began displaying the characteristic signs of the possessed? What sort of spirit was doing the possessing? Why and how did the possession take place? How distinctive was the Jewish construction of spirit possession in this period? These are the central questions we shall take up in this chapter.

    Here it would be apposite to say something regarding the identity of ghosts of the evil dead and demonic spirits in Jewish sources. This view could be found in Greco-Roman antiquity,...

  5. Chapter 2 The Dead and the Possessed
    (pp. 32-56)

    R. Isaac Luria constantly beheld the dead in his midst. So recalled R. Hayyim Vital in the preceding passage, among many others. Luria gazed upon the dead, seeing souls suspended over their graves. Vital emphasizes that Luria did not merely feel the presence of the dead, nor did he conjure them up with his “sacred imagination”; he saw the souls of the dead “with his eyes.”² For Luria, the dead mingled with the living. They appeared with transparent immediacy in the rocks and trees of Safed and, of course, in and about its graves, marked and unmarked.

    Safed, then as...

  6. Chapter 3 The Task of the Exorcist
    (pp. 57-96)

    Exorcism techniques, as eclectic as they were extensive, were found among the Jews for centuries, a diverse repository deployed by magical experts in their midst. This legacy was inherited by generation after generation of magical practitioners, many of whom were also leading rabbinic figures. In scanning the history of this magico-liturgical material, only one chapter seems to evince signs of internal opposition: the “reform” in technique demanded by R. Isaac Luria. With the reconstruction of the possession idiom, and its reinscription in the field of transmigration, came the need to develop new strategies for exorcising the spirits. Moreover, Luria’s new...

  7. Chapter 4 Dybbuk Possession and Women’s Religiosity
    (pp. 97-118)

    Our study has, thus far, introduced us to a number of women whose clairvoyant abilities in the course of their possession attracted considerable interest and attention. At the very least, their possession experience entailed a certain ambiguity along the fault lines of gender (male/female) and spirit (divine/demonic). Here we must pose the question more directly: what was the relation of spirit possession to broader notions of women’s religiosity, as perceived and experienced by women as well as by the male religious elite?

    The past decades have seen a renaissance in the study of women’s religiosity in medieval and early modern...

  8. Chapter 5 Skeptics and Storytellers
    (pp. 119-138)

    The classic tropes of European demonological literature were significantly altered in the seventeenth century—and the cause was the rise of skepticism. This shift might be described as a retreat from the offensive posture of most late fifteenth- and sixteenth-century treatises, to a new defensive stance.² Maleficia, witches, and demons were no longer the main foils of religion in this literature. Instead, by the mid-seventeenth century, disbelief had become the enemy; maleficia, witches, and demons were now being summoned to rescue religion from skeptical clutches. The contours and context of this new breed of demonological literature—what might be called...

  9. Arrival
    (pp. 139-140)

    The preceding chapters are stations of a broader, sweeping and singular history, as well as miniature histories in their own right. The grand narrative of the early modern reemergence of spirit possession in Jewish culture begins in preexpulsion Spain. With the exiles, the phenomenon travels clear across the Mediterranean, where it climaxes in the charged, pietistic atmosphere of late sixteenth-century Safed. In the seventeenth century, the trajectory again moves westward, as the narratives of spirit possession are assembled and disseminated by Menasseh ben Israel in his campaign to arrest the skeptical trends plaguing the new Iberian Jewish community of Amsterdam....

  10. Appendix: Spirit Possession Narratives from Early Modern Jewish Sources
    (pp. 141-180)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 181-244)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 245-266)
  13. Index
    (pp. 267-276)
  14. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 277-278)