Of Devils and Dybbuks

By Allan Nadler
Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Many an enlightened reader of the New York Times must have indulged in yet another condescending laugh at the Catholic Church upon seeing a November 12 report about a conclave of bishops in Baltimore; the purpose of the meeting was to discuss the urgent need for priestly experts in the task of expunging the devil from possessed parishioners. Among those chuckling, no doubt, were many Jews.

It is worth remembering, however, that when it comes to belief in demonic ghosts or in evil spirits that possess the souls of the living, Jews have no cause for smugness. A dazzling array of such spirits, and a host of laws, customs, formulas, and talismanic devices designed to ward them off, permeate classical rabbinic literature, to say nothing of the kabbalah. The Yiddish expression, "keyn ayin horeh" ("let there be no evil eye")—familiar to even the most illiterate Jews today—testifies to fears dominant in East European Jewish life for centuries. Similar superstitious folklore is even more widespread among North African and Middle Eastern Jews. To this day the belief in spirits remains a feature of some Orthodox communities.

In late Roman antiquity, the demonic possession of individuals was a belief so widely accepted that the ability to "cast out" was one reason why numbers of Jews in first-century Palestine became convinced that Jesus of Nazareth was their divinely anointed savior. Such casting-out was, indeed, the very first of Jesus' miracles recorded in the Gospels (Mark 1:23-26). While, for almost a millennium after the talmudic era, there are no clearly recorded accounts of either possessions or exorcisms, the belief regained prominence with the rise of the Lurianic school of kabbalah in the mid-16th century.

The kabbalists of Safed developed elaborate theories about the transmigration of souls, both benevolent and malevolent; in dealing with the latter, they touted the expertise of Rabbi Isaac Luria and his disciples in banishing what came to be known as dybbuks—malevolent, "clinging" spirits from the netherworld. It cannot be entirely coincidental that in both Judaism and Catholicism, a formal liturgy for the rite of exorcism began to develop at around the same time. (The Safed kabbalists were mostly descendants of Marranos who had lived as Catholics for generations.) But in one major respect, the two faiths differed: while in the Church the competent exorcist can confidently rely on the miraculous efficacy of the rite itself, in Jewish lore the practitioner is called upon to enter into extensive "conversations" and complex negotiations with the evil spirit to convince it to depart.

This feature, unique to Jewish exorcisms, is rooted in the belief that the dybbuk is the restless soul of a sinner whose transgressions in life have barred him (or her) from entry into Gehenna, the transitory station for the expurgation and forgiveness of sins that can ultimately lead to admittance into heaven. Such spirits, caught in a state of limbo, would seek respite by attaching themselves to the souls of living humans with whom they had had some form of intimate contact during their lives. In one common instance, this form of possession, which tended to afflict women far more frequently than men, would involve the attachment of the ghostly soul of a scoundrel husband to his surviving widow.

The complex task of the Jewish exorcist was to identify the dybbuk by name, uncover the nature of its earthly sins, and negotiate acceptable terms for its departure from the body of the possessed person. The Jewish exorcist thus served not only to relieve the suffering of the victim but also to act as an advocate on behalf of the dybbuk itself, usually by assuring it entry into Gehenna and final redemption. The prescribed ritual includes the reading of biblical verses backwards, the sounding of the shofar, and the repeated demand "tsey, tsey, dybbuk!" ("go out, go out, dybbuk!").

A recent book by J. H. Chajes, a scholar of kabbalah, offers a history of dybbuk possessions and exorcisms from the 16th century until the eve of modernity. As Chajes establishes, Isaac Luria's own fame as an expert banisher spawned a cottage industry among itinerant kabbalists that reached its heights in the 18th century. Professional baalei Shem, masters of the Divine name known mostly for healing the ill and the infertile, might also be capable of exorcising spirits from individuals, homes, synagogues, and sometimes entire Jewish villages. Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, was among those renowned for prowess in this area.  

Chajes stops short of exploring the modern history of the dybbuk, but one element of that history has now been filled by a superb new biography of Shloyme-Zanvel Rapaport (1863-1920), known as Sh. Ansky and best remembered today as the author of The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds, the most popular and commercially successful play in the history of the Yiddish and Hebrew theater. Wandering Soul, Gabrielle Safran's erudite and immensely sympathetic biography of Ansky, adds a significant new dimension to the background of his famous drama, first performed in Warsaw in 1920 as a posthumous tribute to the author and later made into an equally famous Yiddish film (1937).

The Dybbuk tells the tragic story of a young Jewish bride who is possessed under her wedding canopy by the spirit of a dead kabbalist, whose wife she was destined to be through their parents' mutual contract at birth and their own adolescent romance. Ansky's inspiration for the drama is known to have been the materials he collected during his ambitious 1912-1913 ethnographic explorations of rural Jewish communities throughout the Ukraine, which among other riches yielded a vast folklore of evil spirits, transmigrated souls, and dybbuks as well as vivid tales of exorcisms performed by great rabbis and kabbalists. To this, however, Safran adds the autobiographical elements that must have made the subject of wandering Jewish souls so personally compelling to the dramatist.

Safran's biography, tracing Ansky from adolescence to the hour of his death, yields a portrait of a man never at rest, a Jew never at home. Culturally torn between love of his people and a competing passion for the oppressed Russian masses with whom he identified as a lifelong socialist revolutionary; linguistically torn between Yiddish and Russian (as a writer, he was astonishingly prolific in both); geographically torn between the great cosmopolitan cities of Europe and the harsh Russian hinterlands, Ansky was arguably the most extreme example of a "rootless cosmopolitan," that stereotypical bugbear of European anti-Semites. 

Safran's book opens with a citation from Ansky himself: "I have neither a wife, nor children, nor a house, not even an apartment, nor belongings, nor any settled habits." His domestic history, if one can call it that, was a series of disastrously failed marriages and deeply awkward sexual liaisons. There is more than a hint of repressed homosexuality, especially in his love for his childhood friend and lifelong intellectual partner Chaim Zhitlovsky, the founding father of secular Yiddishism. On this matter, Safran, a consummately careful historian, avoids sensationalist conclusions; but her more substantive suggestions concerning Ansky's personal attraction to the theme of the wandering lost soul are arresting and compelling. Ansky's unsettled life and sentimentally unhinged temperament do indeed resemble those of the protagonist of his great play: the errant and restless young kabbalist Honen, who dies after tempting the Devil, only to become reincarnated in the soul of his true love and destined bride.

Indeed, Safran's treatment calls for further speculation about the possible reasons for the play's unmatched popularity. In addition to its smashing success with Yiddish audiences all across Eastern Europe, the Hebrew version of the play, in the translation of the great poet Haim Nahman Bialik, became the signature performance piece of the Habimah troupe from its Moscow premiere in 1922 through multiple productions over the next decades in Tel Aviv; the Yiddish film and translations into more than a dozen other languages would amplify its reach still further.

All of this testifies to the pull of Ansky's Dybbuk, but does not explain it. The second part of the play's title, "Between Two Worlds," may, however, provide the key to its unrivalled popularity. Europe's Jews were, after all, themselves caught between different worlds and torn by competing allegiances, whether to their own people and its traditions or to a host of modern ideologies and national identities. As a gifted writer and extreme personification of this dilemma, Ansky was able to capture its torments to incomparable effect.

As for his own violent oscillations, Ansky's one unshakably decisive commitment was to the revolutionary overthrow of the Tsarist regime; but even within that commitment, he was always drifting among different parties and sub-ideologies. Ultimately, the persistence of anti-Semitism wherever he turned prevented him from finding any rest—and so, like the dybbuk, his fate remained one of constant, often agonizing, wandering, again something that can be said of so many of Europe's Jews during this turbulent era. At the end, with the triumph of the Bolshevism he had always mistrusted, and came finally to despise, Ansky's greatest hope for both Russians and Jews was utterly shattered.

And what of the career of modern-day dybbuks? If there is a shortage of qualified exorcists among Catholic priests, it is certainly no less hard to find a qualified rabbi. This was dramatically demonstrated just last year by a sensational series of attempts at an exorcism on behalf of a young man in Brazil who claimed to have been possessed by a dybbuk. Finding no one to help him at home, the victim turned to one of Israel's most respected masters, Rabbi David Batzri, the scion of a distinguished line of Iraqi Jewish exorcists.

Mounting what may have been history's first virtual rite of exorcism, Batzri tried using Skype to communicate with and expel the malevolent spirit; but to no avail. The victim then traveled to Israel and underwent many hours of heroic expulsion rituals while Batzri conducted exhausting negotiations with the dybbuk—only to fail again.

Needless to say, this affair provoked much ridicule in secular Israeli circles, even as the seriousness with which it was taken by the ultra-Orthodox community testified to the ineradicability of age-old intuitions. Tens of thousands gathered outside the home where Batzri was engaged in his dark arts, chanting along with him "tsey! tsey!" These remarkable scenes, played over and over again on Israeli television, then took on an afterlife when Batzri decided to market the DVDs of his heroic, if failed, efforts, all of which had been meticulously recorded. This in turn led to accusations of charlatanism, especially after an Israeli woman testified that she had been paid by Batzri to feign possession by a dybbuk for the sole purpose of producing a video.

On the night of November 13, just as the Catholic conference was wrapping up in Baltimore, the young Brazilian who had claimed to be possessed by a dybbuk apologetically admitted that his entire story was pure fabrication. It is nevertheless safe to predict that, among some Jews as among others all around the world, certain forms of belief are likely to transcend such momentary setbacks; those inclined to mock might pause to recall that all Jews are mandated by religious law to wash the demons of the night from their fingertips before even stepping out of bed to read the morning Times.

Allan Nadler is professor of religious studies and director of the program in Jewish studies at Drew University.


You can find this online at: http://www.jidaily.com/dybbuk


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