They Don't Have Enough Problems? Jewish Demonic Possession Returns

Rabbi David Wolpe says exorcism of demons is a talent not restricted to gentiles

Anyone who spends time with rabbinic literature (or, for that matter, with the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer) is familiar with demons. Jewish demons, like their counterparts in other traditions, like to inhabit people or simply upend them from time to time. Not only are there many discussions of demons in rabbinic literature, but also, as a result of demonic activity, there are many spells directed against them, as where there are demons, there must be defenses and antidotes. Some demons are granted names. (Ashmedai, from the book of Tobit, is among the most notable. He is the king of demons, and in the Talmud, King Solomon tricked him into helping with the construction of the Temple.) And there are endless discussions of their activities and depredations.

Exorcism reached a peak in the mystical community of 16th century Safed. The scholar J.H. Chajes has translated several accounts of spirit possession in Safed. One, in which a man named Samuel Zafrati entered a woman, involved Hayyim Vital, the principle disciple of the Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria. He asked the spirit, “How can we be sure your name is Samuel Zafrati?” and the spirit, through the woman, accurately recounted all the details of the man’s life. “Then we recognized, all those present, that the spirit was the speaker.”

The Los Angeles Jewish Journal's news hook for this think piece seems to be the opening of a stage version of The Exorcist at the Geffen Playhouse ("[W]hile the play is set in the world of Catholicism, its themes should also resonate for Jews and other non-Catholics"), with Brooke Shields as Regan's mother and Richard Chamberlain as Lancaster Merrin. But Wolpe makes the most of the assignment: 

The most eminent scholars of the time, Isaac Luria, Shlomo Alkabetz, Joseph Karo, Hayyim Vital and others were involved in exorcisms. Some were possessed themselves, like Karo, whose Maggid Mishna took hold of him and dictated, but such possession could on occasion be benevolent. The point is that this was not restricted to a fringe or the untutored; the world was rife with spirits.

Are such stories merely a quaint remnant of an earlier age? In 1999 in Dimona (a name whose origin is from Joshua 21, not from the seeming cognate “demon”), a widowed mother of eight claimed that her deceased husband had entered her body. Although several rabbis refused her an exorcism, one, Rabbi David Basri, head of the Shalom Yeshiva in Jerusalem, was equal to the task. Over the objections of many notable rabbis — and on Israeli national television — he performed the exorcism, apparently successfully.

For a while after this incident, there was a spate of claims of possession in Israel, but the wave abated. 

Michael W. Cuneo's great and highly recommended book American Exorcism, which had the satanic luck to hit the shelves on September 11, 2001, does not as I recall touch on Jewish exorcisms, but just to prove that Hollywood can both create and satisfy demand, Sam Raimi has a Jewish exorcism movie coming out this fall. 

American Exorcism does, however, explore a very rich market in non-Catholic casting out of demons. Evangelicals have established complex and durable networks of demon hunters, and they provide services to people believed to be possessed by demons both transgressive and reactionary. The devils expelled include a demon of homosexuality, but also one of racism and another of anti-Semitism. And while I don't have a copy of the book handy, one demon-chaser's explanation for his interest strikes me as absolutely true:

When he found Jesus, this man went back and read the original New Testament text, only to find that Jesus does not cast out demons once or twice, and he doesn't cast out demons occasionally or casually. He casts out demons constantly, on practically every other page of the New Testament narrative. If you believe in the biblical Jesus, you'd better believe in demons, is all I'm saying

Wolpe notes that the Old Testament is also full of dybbuks: 

“The spirit of God departed from Saul and an evil spirit of God tormented him. And Saul’s servants said to him, ‘Behold now, an evil spirit of God is tormenting you. Let our Lord command your servants, who are before you, to seek out a man, who knows how to play the lyre, and when the evil spirit of God is upon you, he will play with his hand and all will be well.” (I Samuel 16:14-16)

When David, who was then summoned, played music for Saul, it did indeed cure him, at least temporarily. So if this was an exorcism — a matter debated in the sources — then King David was the first recorded exorcist. It gives the profession a noble pedigree, at least.

What was notable in teaching this incident to my Torah class was that not a single member of the class was tempted to interpret this as anything but an internal event in Saul — that is, not an external spirit that afflicted him but a mental disturbance. Although exorcisms are a radical example, we have turned religious experience into a neurological datum: visions are hysteria, trances mania, and prophesies seizures. A desacralized world is more devastating to demons than any exorcist. 

Watch the full exorcism episode of Soap, in which either Susan Harris or Soap or exorcism jumped the shark. 

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  • WTF||

    Some demons are granted names. (Ashmedai, from the book of Tobit, is among the most notable.)


    We are plagued by a modern Jewish demon by the name of Chuck Schumer.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    HAHAHAHA! Jews believe in things!

    Seriously, Cavanaugh, die a slow and agonizing death from bone cancer.

  • o3||

    u kiss ur mama w that mouth?

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    No, just yours.

  • o3||

    my mom passed fool

  • ||

    I still cant find that early medieval woodcut illustrating the order of the universe, dammit. Adam and Eve are standing in the center of the frame in the garden of eden looking into each others eyes. Around them are all the animals, looking at adam and eve. In the clouds above are trumpet blowing and sword waving angels, looking at adam and eve. In the firmament above is god, with his arms spread wide and of course, looking down at adam and eve.
    Below ground in ant-like burrows are imps, all looking up at adam and eve. Below them, in the pits of hell, is the devil. Care to guess what he is looking at?
    I am the center of everything and all of creation has it's attention focused on me.

    Yep, its all about me.

  • ||

    A demon of homosexuality? Why do you have to bring Tony into this?

    Or, maybe I did...he can be conjured up by just saying his name.

  • ||

    Even if we count that vague passage as an example, how exactly is the Old Testament "full of dybbuks?"

    Dybbuks are more a part of Eastern European folklore than Jewish religion.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    heller, he can't help himself. It's the Law of Cavanaugh's Folly.

  • ||

    Did you just drop a hard J on me, dude?

  • Abdul||

    When it comes to exorcism, do Jews offer special deals to undercut the Catholics? Is the protestant work ethic helping the evangelicals?

  • Pro Libertate||

    With Buddhist exorcisms, they exorcise your sense of being, snuffing out your individuality altogether.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Wait a second. How can you say Soap jumped the shark with the exorcism episodes? They were very funny. And, of course, Soap was over the top from day one. That was the point.

    I'll accept exorcism jumping the shark, however.

  • ||

    Soap was pretty fucking good for the era in which it aired. I rewatched it in its entirety in the early 90s, and it was still pretty good, but by today's standards...meh.

  • Pro Libertate||

    I'm sorry, I can't read your comment, as I am invisible.

  • ||

    Having just rewatched the episode, I actually agree with you. A gem.

  • ||

    It has been a hell of a long time since I read the greek classics, but I do remember one short bit about Ajax when the Greeks were on their way home after the siege of Troy.

    Ajax was sleeping in this tent when one of the gods entered his dreams and tricked him into thinking some men were sneaking up on him to kill him. He jumps out of bed and rushes out of the tent with his sword and kills them all. When the 'demon' leaves him, he sees that he has slaughtered all of his own sheep rather than having killed assassins.

  • ||

    Sounds very much to me like primitive ignorant people explaining schizophrenia in terms they can understand.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Well in the case of the Homeric heroes, it seems more like PTSD, yes?

  • ||

    Good point HM. I can only imagine how awfully a person's mind could be warped by ten years of gory, hand to hand combat.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Telamonian Aias started out warped.

  • ||

    heh. Yes, the two Ajaxs always made me think of some very bad hoodlums I went to high school with.
    Still, my original point is that 'demons' are primitive explanations for mental defectiveness.

  • Pro Libertate||

    I always liked Diomedes and Odysseus best. Maybe Hector, too, who seems awfully sympathetic. Dumb-ass brother.

    Achilles was a whiny bitch.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Still, my original point is that 'demons' are primitive explanations for mental defectiveness.

    True, but one difference between our culture and theirs is that in Ancient Greece, one could still be held responsible for actions done when "possessed", that is, the Greeks didn't recognize the concept of "not guilty by way of insanity".

  • ||

    Even in our culture HM, very few get away with that. Visit a prison sometime, nearly everyone in there is batshit crazy (sadistic gaurds included) . Granted, many get that way after arrival, but the majority are nuts before they start the sad journey to incarceration. Most of them just get worse in jail.

  • Pip||

    We can't see radio wave, yet we know they exist.

  • ||

    That's if you assume the Trojan War ever actually happened. Maybe we'd know if Schliemann hadn't fucked up the site in his digs.

  • ||

    I have no doubt that the greeks and the inhabitants of turkey had wars over control of the bosporus. That is a key strategic location for control of trade and shipping...a real cash cow. The trojan war, as told by homer, could very well be a compilation of many stories from that struggle, condensing many wars/battles and numerous characters into a few persons for the sake of story telling.

    As for helen having the face that launched a thousand ships, I suspect her face looked exactly like a large pile of gold coins.

  • Pro Libertate||

    She was made up altogether, I'm sure. Reminds me of what happened to the Arthurian legends when they got Frenchified.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

  • ||

    Keep in mind that when they hit 40 or so, they tend to grow rather thick mustaches.

  • BakedPenguin||

    He's partly Jewish, I'm sure he's familiar with the process.

  • ||

    The inhabitants of coastal Anatolia at that time were Ionian Greeks. It was Greek-on-Greek warfare.

  • o3||

    i recall the DI shaking the foot of a hard sleeper then jumping back because the DI said one has 3 secs before being legally responsible for one's actions in the UCMJ.

  • Pip||

    "One, in which a man named Samuel Zafrati entered a woman"

    I too have entered a woman. Does that make me a demon?

  • NeonCat||

    According to radical feminism, yes.

  • Spoonman.||

    Jezebel says yes.

  • jdgalt||

    How did Sammy Davis Jr. get in here?

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