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.