How Rabbis Feel About Ghosts

Spectres and haunted houses are back in Hollywood fashion. After the return of Ghostbusters, a new band of spirit-chasers go after the paranormal in The Ghost Team. While both films are comedies, BBC’s recent series The Living and the Dead about spooky goings-on in a Somerset village was a darker affair.

But are ghosts merely the stuff of fiction and computer-generated imagery?

Judaism teaches that a human body is incorporated with a soul at birth; the tangible hosts the intangible. When one dies, the physical body fades while the soul endures after death and into an afterlife. What this afterlife entails is subject to thousands of years of speculation. The Torah is essentially mute on the concept of an afterlife, yet later rabbinic literature attempts to elucidate it.

According to the rational school of thought, headed by Maimonides , the afterlife is a spiritual experience of the soul/consciousness receiving reward and punishment for the positive and negative acts the person performed during their physical lives.

The mystically-inclined Nachmanides disagreed, asserting that people in the afterlife have both souls and bodies, as we do in this world. If a physical body performed a positive act, he argued, it too, should receive reward.

Maimonides defined demons as illnesses that require medical attention

If we accept Nachmanides’s definition of the afterlife, then spiritual beings can indeed appear as physical forms. Maimonides, on the other hand, believed that the intangible remains so and spiritual entities cannot be identified by human senses.

Maimonides’s conviction led him to state that the stories in the Torah involving angels actually took place in dreams and visions and not in physical reality. Any difficulties one may encounter in rationalising biblical stories such as that of the angelic intervention of Abraham binding Isaac, or that of Jacob wrestling with an angel, wither away with Maimonides’s understanding.

But if we cannot see these spiritual beings, are we able to communicate with them?

The Torah is explicit in forbidding sorcery and attempting to communicate with the dead. Those of a mystical persuasion interpret this warning as acknowledgment by the Torah that it is indeed possible to connect with the dead but that we are merely forbidden trying to do so. The rationalists such as Maimonides harshly denounce such a belief: “All of these things are matters of falsehood and lies. It is not proper for the Jewish people, who are exceptionally wise, to follow after these vanities, nor to entertain the possibility that they have any benefit.”

The Torah prohibition against any form of necromancy was one of the major reasons for Jewish authorities such as the Mishnah Berurah, the Chatam Sofer and the Aruch Hashulchan to disapprove of visiting graves. Despite this, it has become increasingly popular in certain Jewish circles to visit and pray at the gravesites of influential Jewish figures. Although many of these individuals argue that they are not praying to the dead, the sources cited above go as far as to even quantify the distance one must stand away from a gravesite, while some authorities prohibit visiting and praying inside cemeteries in general.

On spirits and demons, the Torah itself remains effectively silent, a fact which should not be underestimated. The Talmud, however, does refer to such seemingly supernatural entities. Prominent figures such as the Vilna Gaon in the 18th century took these concepts very seriously and believed that evil spirits can take physical forms.

Others, such as Menachem Meiri in the 13th century, seem to understand these talmudic references in a non-literal fashion. Indeed, talmudic stories and parables (as opposed to law) may not always be taken literally, especially when considering the superstitious Babylonian context in which they were written.

Nevertheless, it is in the Jewish mystical tradition that concepts of demonology were developed and systematised. Many of Judaism’s greatest mystics derive their understanding of such ideas from the Zohar, the chief text of Kabbalah, whose authorship and practical application has been questioned by leading Jewish scholars and jurists since its emergence in 13th-century Spain.

The development of a demonological system within Kabbalah led to the idea of the dybbuk, a wandering soul believed to have possessed the body of a living person. One of the forefathers of Kabbalah, Rabbi Issac Luria (the Ari), in the 16th century, heavily contributed to this belief, resulting in attempts by certain rabbis to “exorcise spirits” from individuals who exhibit abnormal behaviour.

However, Maimonides, defined these “spirits” and “demons” as mental illnesses that require medical attention. Furthermore, the great 20th-century historian of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem, follows this line of thought by concluding that complaints of “dybbuk possession” are merely a form of mental ailment.

Considering advances in the understanding of psychological disorders and the associated behavioural therapies to overcome them, these definitions seem apt. And in Maimonides and Scholem, there is some level of agreement between the rationalist and the mystic after all.

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