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Spirits in the Material World

Uncovering the legend of the dybbuk

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creepy photo of a girl ghost

Dybbuks—disembodied spirits that inhabit the bodies of the living—have long been a part of Jewish history and myth. Like golems, these fantastical, folkloric creatures may seem foreign to contemporary Judaism, but their stories still capture our imaginations.

In the new book Dybbuks and Jewish Women in Social History, Mysticism, and Folklore, Rachel Elior examines how the legend of the dybbuk first took hold, and how it reflects the values and fears of its time. Elior argues that for women, dybbuks could be a means to escape the demands of a confining society. Once possessed by a dybbuk (or at least claiming to be), women were no longer considered responsible for their own actions, and were exempt from arranged marriages and relieved of wifely duties. Thought to be the souls of sinners, these spirits gave a certain degree of power to the powerless, freeing them from the norms of routine life and its conventional ordering.

Elior, a native Jerusalemite, has been a professor of Jewish mysticism for over thirty years, and currently teaches at Hebrew University. The recipient of the 2006 Gershom Scholem prize for the study of kabbalah and Jewish mysticism, she has written extensively about Jewish mysticism and Hasidism, and edited the 2004 book Men and Women: Gender, Judaism and Democracy.

What exactly is a dybbuk?

“Dybbuk” is the Jewish name for the spirit of a dead person that enters and possesses a living body. Significantly, the spirit is always male and the body is nearly always female. Being possessed by a foreign spirit makes a person’s body and soul behave in uncontrollable ways. In Jewish folklore—deriving from kabbalistic theories of the soul and mystical literature—the spirit of a dead sinner often finds refuge in the bodies of weak, fragile women, women who are not able to handle the expectations of society. Those who are possessed are always from the margins of society—maids, orphan girls who have been set up to wed elderly widowers, or young females whose marriages have been arranged against their will. In today’s etiology we would define this possession as acute depression or socially deviant behavior. Previously it was defined as hysteria.

Dybbuks and possessed souls are very different from the rational Judaism that I grew up with. How large of a following did these mystical trends have in Jewish history?

You were not growing up in the medieval Europe of the eighteenth century. It might sound like a contradiction, but it is a fact that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, rural Eastern Europe was totally medieval, in the sense that there was no distinction between the spiritual and the mundane. The belief in the presence of angels, demons, and spirits in everyday life was common. While the Enlightenment did not reach Eastern European villages, mystical literature, folk legends, and possession stories did. The majority of the Jewish population lived in the shtetl where they heard very little about Freud and Mendelssohn, but quite a lot about the popular mystical literature concerning demons and transmigration of souls, golems, and angels. Dybbuks served as a link between the world of the living and the world of the dead.

In your book, you argue that dybbuks provided women a means of escape from the expectations and demands of society. Are there contemporary parallels to dybbuks?

Today we would say an unhappy bride is depressed, or under great stress. Saying that the bride was possessed by a dead spirit—meaning she lost control of her body and soul—is not so different. When you say that one is depressed, there is not much you can do about it, though one might attempt to treat it medically. But when a traditional society declared that a person was possessed by a dead spirit, the community would try to exorcise it. Whether we take Prozac or perform an exorcism, the common denominator is that human beings often fail to live up to the expectations of their society, and need to react to this tension somehow.

One should take into consideration that many, if not most, remarkable women known to us in recent centuries were unmarried women, or women without children—women who chose to live alone for various reasons. In the American context, you may think of Emily Dickinson. In the Israeli context, the poet Rachel was single, the poet Zelda never had children, Leah Goldberg was never married. It is striking that many great female writers and poets are women who chose—or were forced—to live single or childless lives in defiance of conventional family expectations.

Your expertise is in Jewish mysticism, yet many of your books and articles focus on issues of gender. What drew you to writing about these topics?

I was studying the Dead Sea Scrolls, and I found a text where it was explicitly written that women are not allowed where angels are present. It drew my attention to the fact that women were not welcome in places of holiness, which signified purity, eternity, and divine presence. This translated later on to synagogues and study houses. In the National Jewish Library in Jerusalem, from the beginning of printing until the nineteenth century, we have more or less one hundred thousand titles and not a single book authored by a woman in either Hebrew or Aramaic. I wanted to know why. How did the library of the People of the Book become the library of half the People of the Book?

For centuries, there were always a very few gifted women who knew how to read, but they were taught to read at home—they were daughters of either scribes or rabbis. We know, for instance, that Rashi’s daughters were taught to read because he didn’t have sons. There were other examples in later centuries, but these female scholars were the exception and not the rule. Most women were denied any form of formal education. I wanted to understand how that came about in a community that revered scholarship. Because of this, I have focused on the presence and absence of women in the Hebrew language, and in Jewish culture as well as in Israeli life today.

You write about the patriarchal lens through which Jewish law and society developed. Do you see this reflected in the present day?

I try to show how our present is heavily informed by our past. The boundary lines between past and present are less firm with regard to social history in general, and relations between the sexes in particular, than they are with regard to other areas of history. I was asking this question: Should men and women of the twenty-first century let biases from the past affect our daily experiences of the present? In Israel there is no option for non-Orthodox marriage. Orthodox marriage laws reflect a culture of thousands of years ago when women were illiterate and totally dependent on their fathers or other males. Nowadays, when women are not dependent or illiterate, why should they do this? I don’t want to be bought or sold by anyone or feel like a possession. I find it remote from modern sensibilities of equality and human dignity, and would like to see the concepts reworked so as not be offensive to anyone, while still keeping within the tradition as much as possible.

Do you believe in dybbuks or the supernatural?

No. I believe profoundly in the infinite, creative force of the human mind that creates the unnatural in order to explain natural phenomena that cannot be easily explained. In particular, anything that has to do with the exceptional—such as unusual genius, or unusual cruelty, or unusual tragedy—will always be explained with the help of the unnatural.

However, I do not exclude unnatural powers. I believe in the limit of human knowledge today. We may find in the next century that there are powers that are not yet known to us, just like we found out in the last century about lasers and X-rays. In the meantime, I have tried in this book to evoke silenced voices, and explain the circumstances underlying a myth.

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Spirits in the Material World

Uncovering the legend of the dybbuk

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