My colleagues Joshua Ratner and Alana Suskin have offered their perspectives on kids trick or treating, and generally engaging (or not) in this week’s Halloween rituals. Notwithstanding all that they have already said about the opportunities to bring Jewish values to bear on everything from respect for the dead to the choice of candy purchased, I’ve often used this time of year as an opportunity to share some interesting and lesser known dimensions of Jewish thought and folklore. When it comes to questions of ghosts, spirits, and questions of the afterlife, I am fascinated not only by the content of the ideas found in our tradition, but in the human questions and needs that drive them.
There is a vast menu of beliefs and ideas to choose from when it comes to questions of the afterlife in Jewish teachings. One of the best surveys of the entirety of our tradition over the centuries can be found in Rabbi Simcha Paull Raphael‘s book ‘Jewish Views of the Afterlife‘.
If we begin with Biblical sources, the fact that is often most novel to those I have studied with is not the fact that consulting with mediums and those who can speak with ghosts and spirits is banned in biblical law, but that the tradition clearly accepts the existence of such spirits and the possibility of communicating with them. Much of Jewish law is concerned with not mixing categories or crossing boundaries set between two things, and so it is no surprise that the crossing of the ultimate boundary between life and death would be taboo. And yet, in I Samuel, 28, when King Saul is desperate for guidance from his deceased advisor, the prophet Samuel, he breaks the very law that he himself has enforced in his kingdom, to communicate with the dead. He finds ‘the witch of Endor’ to assist him:
28:7 Then said Saul to his servants: ‘Seek me a woman that divines by a ghost, that I may go to her, and inquire of her.’ And his servants said to him: ‘Behold, there is a woman that divines by a ghost at En-dor.’ 8 And Saul disguised himself, and put on other clothing, and went, he and two men with him, and they came to the woman by night; and he said: ‘Divine for me, I pray of you, by a ghost, and bring me up whomsoever I shall name to you.’ 9 And the woman said to him: ‘Behold, you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off those that divine by a ghost or a familiar spirit out of the land; why then do you lay a snare for my life, to cause me to die?’ 10 And Saul swore to her by the Eternal, saying: ‘As the Eternal lives, there shall no punishment happen to you for this thing.’ 11 Then said the woman: ‘Whom shall I bring up for you?’ And he said: ‘Bring me up Samuel.’12 And when the woman saw Samuel, she cried with a loud voice; and the woman spoke to Saul, saying: ‘Why have you deceived me? for you are Saul.’ 13 And the king said to her: ‘Be not afraid; for what do you see?’ …
While rabbinic literature develops ideas about where we go after we die, the purification of the soul in Gehenna, and the existence of a ‘world to come’ (a term which is used to mean multiple things), it is in Kabbalistic literature (the Zohar) and later Hasidic sources that are infused with the teachings of Jewish mysticism that we find the richest well of writing on ghosts and spirits, and the ability for such entities to make themselves known in our world. Clearly, these ideas drew on beliefs and folklore from other cultures and traditions in the places where Jews lived, but they take on their own, particular Jewish flavor. Kabbalah speaks of the three (and later five) levels of the soul and, while the highest level is reunited with the Source of all Being, the lowest level was believed to still be present, and wandering in our material world, at least until the physical body from whence it came has decomposed in the ground.
A ‘good’ spirit was an ‘ibbur’ and could inhabit the body of another living person for some period of time as an ‘additional soul’. Its purpose was often to help in a matter of this world and, when the help had been received, it would leave and continue on its journey.
A malevolent spirit was a ‘dybbuk’, understood to be the lower soul of someone who had done something so unspeakable that this level of soul could not even enter Gehenna for purification, but was condemned to wander out of body. When it came across a living person who also had committed a particularly serious sin, or was vulnerable because of being in some transitional state (about to get married, pregnant, for example), it had the possibility of entering a human body to possess it, and the end of such a story was seldom good. A classic play, that was also made into an early silent movie, featured such a story of ‘The Dybbuk’. Stories such as these had power in communities prior to the time that conditions that today we would recognize as epilepsy, schizophrenia, or bi-polar disorder, were understood.
This weekend I’m coming to the end of a short course I’ve been teaching at my congregation on Jewish views of the Afterlife. While the historical review of beliefs, folk tales, and rituals, has been educational, the most powerful part of our time together has been the sharing of experiences when we have felt the presence of a loved one who has died. Many have had experiences at the time of someone’s death, or in the months following, myself included. While there are many possible explanations for these experiences, including psychological explanations, the emotional power behind them provides a great deal of comfort and, for many, the hope that there is a reality to a ‘world to come’ where the spirit or soul continues, and where we will be reunited with loved ones.
So… whatever you do or don’t do with your children at Halloween, the pervasive presence of images and stories of ghosts and spirits at this time of year provides a wonderful opportunity to dip into Jewish sources on these topics, reflect and share together and ask yourself, ‘what do I believe, and why do I believe it?’
A couple of years ago, after several years of trying to get all the way through the counting of the Omer, I built an Omer-counter with a foolproof reminder system – my son. It’s based on the Christian advent calendar in that it’s a series of forty-nine boxes (seven rows of seven) which has randomly placed toys inside the boxes. NO more forgetting to count in the evening! Every night, I have an excellent reminder, and so I do not lose my chance to say the blessing when I count, or worse yet, forget altogether and have to quit counting for the year.
It’s a yearly frustration for lots of people who try to keep up with the Omer – it’s easy to screw it up and lose track, and according to the tradition, if you mess up, well, hey tough. You’re out of luck.
That’s why it’s odd that about a month into the Omer (today, in fact) there’s a little known holiday that’s about …second chances. Pesach sheni ( or “second passover”) is a biblically based holiday that happens because, as is related in Numbers chapter 9, when God commands the Israelites, a year after the exodus, to bring the passover offering, there were certain people who had become ritually impure through contact with a dead body, and so, could not prepare the Passover offering on that day.
They approached Moses and Aaron and said, “We are unclean by the dead body of a man; wherefore are we to be kept back, so as not to bring the offering of God in its appointed season among the children of Israel?” (Numbers 9:7). After these people approached Moses and Aaron, God tells them that from then on, if anyone is ritually impure on passover, or is unable to keep passover for some other reason beyond their control, “he shall keep the passover unto God in the second month on the fourteenth day at dusk they shall keep it; they shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.” (Numbers 9:11)
Pesach sheni is a strange holiday. We don’t really observe it – mostly because there isn’t really anything to observe – there’s no requirements, since we no longer bring sacrifices. And yet, it’s sort of a shame. Here we are, in the midst of a period where every day counts, where there are no second chances, where you have to get it exactly right, or you lose your chance (at least until next year), and there’s this holiday that interrupts it for the purpose of giving a second chance for a holiday that occurred a month prior – and not only that, but it’s the only holiday we have the sole purpose of which is to make up for a holiday that someone missed out on.
What is that all about?
Rabbi Yosef Y. Schneersohn is cited by his son-in-law as saying that, “Pesach Sheni teaches us that ‘Nothing is ever lost: it’s never too late!” and then the latter Schneersohn goes on to say, “Our conduct can always be rectified. Even someone who is impure, who was far away and even desired to be so, can still correct himself.” He continues, “Given the significance of Pesach Sheni, one might ask: Why was it instituted a full month after Pesach, in the month of Iyar? Wouldn’t it have been better to atone for our deficiencies at the earliest opportunity, in Nissan?”
“We can answer this question by comparing the spiritual characteristics of Nissan and Iyar. Nissan is the month of revelation, the month during which God revealed His greatness and redeemed the Jewish people despite their inadequacies. Iyar, by contrast, is the month of individual endeavor, a quality that is exemplified by the mitzvah of Sefirat HaOmer. The theme of Iyar, self-refinement initiated by the individual himself, is in keeping with the nature of Pesach Sheni, the festival in which an individual who was not motivated by Pesach is given an additional opportunity to elevate himself.”
So, two things:
First, the key to pesach sheni is precisely that it does occur a month later, during the Omer. Unlike the first Pesach, which is a national holiday, Pesach sheni is an individual’s holiday. The second thing is the way in which Pesach sheni came about – unlike well, pretty much everything else in the Torah, it isn’t initiated by God, given to Moses and Aaron and then passed on to the people. Instead, Pesach sheni is initiated by the people themselves, by a group of individuals. In fact, I know of really only one other case like this one: the daughters of Tzelophechad (which also appears in the book of Numbers, farther along, in Numbers 27), who challenged a law of inheritance whereby only sons could inherit, even if there weren’t any. They brought their challenge and God told Moses that they were right and amended the law.
I think that that parallel to the daughters of Tzelophechad is the key to why this is the only holiday that is a “make-up” for another holiday. It’s not just that it’s a group of individuals who want a make-up. It’s that these individuals saw a specific wrong that they wanted addressed, and they wanted it addressed for the sake of justice to individuals who have no control over being excluded from the nation. In the case of Tzelophechad’s daughters, the case is their sex; in the case of pesach sheni, it’s because they were doing another mitzvah ( caring for the dead). But the important thing is that these two cases are things which exclude them from the body of the nation in some crucial way. It is because of this that they take their complaint to God, and God answers them, “Of course, you are right.”
IN recent days, when we have seen so much change so quickly both in the Jewish community and out of it in regards to gay marriage and inclusion, this is a message that we should all take to heart. Pesach sheni isn’t merely a second chance for the individuals who were excluded, but is a second chance for the nation to include in its inheritance and in its moment of revelation everyone who throws their lot in with the Jewish people. Because even God can make a mistake, and even God can admit it and rectify it.
The other day my son called just as I was getting ready to lock the front door. He had forgotten the camera he needed for photography class, would I be willing to bring it to his school on my way to work?
I am usually the last one to leave the house in the morning. This means that if a pair of cleats or a lunch is left behind, I see it. Usually I sigh. Sometimes after having reminded and reminded, I seethe. Rarely do I do anything about it.
Call me mean. Call me crazy.
Just know this, my kids don’t think of me that way.
Here is what they know. They know they have to be responsible partners in their own lives. They know I trust them to figure it out –even if I don’t know what the “it” is. They know how to solve problems of all sorts.
Sure, sometimes they go a little hungry or have to sit out or wear something entirely inappropriate for the activity –it is true shorts are much better than jeans when playing basketball, but so it goes. None of these things is life threatening. Unfortunate or uncomfortable sure, but dangerous –not at all.
My children know that small problems are really not a reason to give up, stop trying, or sit out and are by no means the end of the earth.
When the people of Israel were wandering in the desert, they complained often about how terrible things were. Each time God threatened a not so natural consequence. Moses was there to defend them, to put things right. Not surprisingly, when Moses, disappeared for 40 days, and they got anxious. They were used to having someone resolve their problems for them. They did not have faith that they could endure the discomfort. So they made a stupid choice –yes there are times when there is no way around acknowledging stupidity. God threatened annihilation. And Moses, like a typical helicopter parent, swooped in defending and excusing their behavior.
It is not surprising that it took forty years for the Israelites to grow up and move on.
I don’t have 40 years. My children will leave my home at 18 and while I will always be there to help when a serious crisis occurs, I won’t be there to bring them their lunch or forgotten homework, or take away discomfort. When the day comes, I need them to walk out my front door knowing that they can go wandering in the desert on their own and find their own path to their destination, even though there will be bumps or moments of disappointment along the way.
Most of us learn this eventually, it is what makes us successful and empowered as adults. But by letting my children cope with lack of cleats or lunch bags, I am giving them opportunities to grow and experience incrementally and appropriately, making this process less shocking.
When my son called that morning, I had just that week come back from two weeks travelling. During my absence his father had been away for a few days as well. Our teen had been in the house on his own for 5 nights. There had been no panicked phone calls, no angry emails, even though as he had reported there were moments of loneliness and doubt. I was confident in his capacity to navigate on his own. So I hesitated not a moment and told him I would glad to bring him his camera.
There is an old joke about the Israeli fellow who would always ask people for the time. People would get irritated, but would tell him the time. Finally at one point somebody asked/told him: ”Why not get a watch?”
The fellow responded: “Why should I pay for a watch, I have you to tell me the time. ”
“But what do you do at night when you need to know the time?”
The fellow responded: “At night I blow my shofar”
“Your shofar, how does that help?”
“Easy”, the fellow responded, ” I open my window and blow the shofar. Before you know it people are shouting out to me: why are you blowing your shofar? Don’t you know it is two in the morning!”
As a side point today the fellow would probably now own a phone as who owns a watch anymore? But can you imagine an Israeli not owning a cell phone?
Be that as it may, we all know the power of time marching on and the need to know the time as it determines our schedule and where we have to be or what we have to do. The ability to determine your own schedule is a great luxury. The opposite extreme borders on slavery.
The first commandment to the Jewish people in the Torah is understood to be the command of a calendar whose first month will be Nisan, the month of the Exodus from Egypt. “This month shall be to you the head of the months; to you it shall be the first of the months of the year.” Exodus 12:2. The first sign of freedom is determining the flow of time on your terms, and not the terms of the oppressor. Over the past years, numbers of for profit companies and non-profits have moved to allowing flex time for people to set up their schedules. This enables employees to better adjust their schedules and balance their work and family responsibilities and employers have discovered the benefits this can provide to the company itself.
For Jewish tradition, Nisan becoming the first month means Passover and the Exodus are foundational, orienting events. History is meaningful, memory is crucial and one day all will be free. In addition, the Biblical scholar William Propp in his Anchor Bible work on Exodus, makes an acute observation. In Genesis 1:14-18 ”no calendar is instituted. God establishes the day, the week and the year-but not the month….The implication may be that the birth of the Israelite nation and the concomitant establishment of the calendar are themselves acts of cosmogony completing the unfinished creation”
14. And God said, “Let there be luminaries in the expanse of the heavens, to separate between the day and between the night, and they shall be for signs and for appointed seasons and for days and years.
15. And they shall be for luminaries in the expanse of the heavens to shed light upon the earth.” And it was so.
16. And God made the two great luminaries: the great luminary to rule the day and the lesser luminary to rule the night, and the stars.
17. And God placed them in the expanse of the heavens to shed light upon the earth.
18. And to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate between the light and between the darkness, and God saw that it was good.
In making this observation Propp teaches us that a key Biblical idea is Israel’s role in creation. Partnering with God, Covenant and Tikkun Olam in its classical mystical or current connotation, all assume this notion of our role. Our challenge is know what time it is now and what does the current time demand of us to accomplish.
On Christmas morning, I’m reviewing the news online and I catch the Huffington Post’s summary of the Pope’s Christmas Eve Mass message. In it, he bemoans the lack of space in our fast-paced lives for God:
“Do we have time and space for him? Do we not actually turn away God himself? We begin to do so when we have no time for him,” said the pope, wearing gold and white vestments.
“The faster we can move, the more efficient our time-saving appliances become, the less time we have. And God? The question of God never seems urgent. Our time is already completely full,” he said.
In the study sessions, the day-to-day conversations, the pastoral visits and other randomly occurring opportunities that I have with many people that touch on consciousness of the spiritual, I find a very different picture to the one that the Pope bemoans. Just this past week, when one of my congregants gave the d’var torah after reading from parsha Vayigash, she took a survey of the congregation that night that highlighted this very issue. At the moment in the Joseph story that Joseph reveals himself to his brothers in Egypt, he responds to their fear that he will seek vengeance on them. He tells them that, while they may have meant their actions to do him harm, God meant it for good. It appears that Joseph believes that every step of his path was intended by God in order to bring him to the position of influence that he now has, without which he would not be in a position to save his family from famine. My congregant rejected this understanding of the unfolding of events. But, in surveying the congregation, she found that most people believed that God does show up in the fabric of our everyday lives, but not in a manner that is engineering every step of our experience, implied by some of our biblical narratives.
And this is what I see in the conversations that I have – many questions and the search for a God that is part of the fabric of our lives, but not the God that is described in the ancient mind of the biblical authors. Unlike the Pope, I do not see a wholesale rejection of God, or lives too busy to engage in the questions. For sure, atheism is a very present strand of thought in our society. But that is just one stage in the evolution of our understanding. What I see is the rejection of outdated God-ideas, but many are looking for part two – the search for new language to replace those ideas that emerge from our actual, lived experiences.
Rabbi Irwin Kula makes precisely this argument in the video short he created, ‘Time for a New God.’ He seeks a new understanding of God and new conversations about God that can emerge from our most intensely felt life experiences. Each and every moment is a potential doorway into something that gets us beyond a mundane interaction with our world and with each other. For, he suggests, ‘the whole world is really just God in drag.’
Time after time, when I don’t start with the presentation of old God-ideas delivered by the philosophers of past centuries, but I start with the powerful experiences that we all have as part of life, and we then try to find language to express something of the ‘beyondness’ that the experience points toward but which we can’t quite encapsulate in words, I find common ground on which we can stand. From there, it is possible to explore the possibilities of reclaiming the word ‘God’ to reflect what the inner reality of those experiences might be. Or sometimes we’ll explore reclaiming the word ‘kedushah’ – holiness – as a doorway into noticing and elevating the importance of our most deeply felt experiences for directing, guiding, or informing our lives. Whether I am having these conversations with adults, who may not have visited the God-idea since their bar or bat mitzvah, or I’m having these conversations with skeptical teenagers who feel empowered when they learn that they can claim a God-idea that jives with their experience of life, the result is often the same. We don’t reach conclusions or serve up pat answers; but there is no lack of interest in exploring the questions.
And so, for many of us it is not a matter of finding room for God. Rather, through the invitation to let go of old God-ideas that no longer work, in order to explore new doorways that can speak to the world we live in today, its more of a matter of finding God in the room.
When stories are told, we sometimes see them through the lens of the characters, sometimes from the vantage point of the omniscient narrator, and often from a combination of the above. This week’s Torah reading presents a fine example of this. This is shaped in part by a Midrash, the result being of that which looks on the surface as a laudatory moment contains within it much greater moral complexity.
26. Now two men remained in the camp; the name of one was Eldad and the name of the second was Medad, and the spirit rested upon them. They were among those written, but they did not go out to the tent, but prophesied in the camp. 27. The lad ran and told Moses, saying, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!” 28. Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ servant from his youth, answered and said, Moses, my master, imprison them!” 29. Moses said to him, “Are you zealous for my sake? If only all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would bestow His spirit upon them!”
There are many questions here including the identity of the lad and the sudden appearance of Eldad and Medad. This passage and its larger context deserve much study.
There is a powerful contrast between Joshua and Moses. What Joshua sees as a threat to Moses by Eldad and Medad, Moses views as a cause for celebration. The capacity of Eldad and Medad to prophesize is a sign of their greatness and is not to be viewed as an act of rebellion against Moses. Moses is happy for others to share the spirit of God.
But the story does not end here. The Midrash picked up by Rashi describes the following scenario. “R. Nathan says: Miriam was beside Zipporah (Moses’s wife) when Moses was told that Eldad and Medad were prophesying in the camp. When Zipporah heard this, she said, “Woe to their wives if they are required to prophesy, for they will separate from their wives just my husband separated from me.”
For Moses’s wife, the achievement of prophecy is a tragedy. Her fear is for the wives of Eldad and Medad. To be the wife of a prophet as great as Moses is to be abandoned by her husband. Moses has experienced so much of the presence of God that he can never return to his tent and be intimate with his wife. Zipporah understands that Eldad and Medad are indeed a threat, but not to Moses, but rather to their families and wives in particular.
It is this very complexity and mixture of viewpoints that draws me to Torah. However the attraction cannot only be to the pleasure of reading the text. Rather moral questions must emerge from Torah as well. Who suffers for my spiritual success? As I strive for meaning and purpose do I leave anyone behind in the wake? Through whose lens do I properly judge a situation? Torah calls me to face these questions. And rabbis should ask them on a regular basis.
The seminary: Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, affiliated with the Reform movement. The class: “The New Testament,” taught by Rabbi Michael Cook. A classmate’s copy of the Oxford Study Bible falls to the floor. The student asks, “Do I kiss it?” To which another quips, without missing a beat: “Depends…what side did it land on?”
I thought about that moment on Friday when I read the New York Times “Beliefs” column, which included a nice review of a new commentary on the Christian Bible (or “New Testament,” in Christian parlance). What makes this commentary very interesting is that is was written entirely by Jews — chiefly, Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler. I’ve gotten my copy, and I’ve spent some time leafing through it. It appears to be an invaluable resource for rabbis and scholars, which is no surprise, given the lineup of writers who contributed (a lineup which includes my teacher, Michael Cook). But I’ll go further and say that the New Testament — this New Testament, in particular — is a book that belongs in every Jewish home.
I’m joking, right? Just how “without borders,” are these rabbis, recommending that Jews buy copies of “that” book? So let me clarify by saying that I don’t believe Jews ought to read this book for devotional purposes. To give it “a place in the canon,” to treat it as “Torah,” would be to step over a border that I’m not the least bit interested in questioning or crossing. No, I recommend the Jewish Annotated New Testament because I believe that an appreciation of this book can enhance the Jewishness — the authentic Jewishness — of Jewish homes.
I believe this is so, in the first instance, because so many Jews have a visceral, negative reaction to the very idea of the Christian Bible. We come by those feelings honestly (two millennia of Church-sponsored antisemitism leaves a mark), but fear of a book is unbecoming “the people of the book.” Ignorance is nothing to be proud of, and willful ignorance even less so. Thus, the simple act of bringing this book into our homes may be a step away from a fear-driven relationship to Christianity.
Furthermore, the vast majority of American Jews (at least outside of the most traditionally observant circles) have friends and even extended family who are Christians. I believe it to be a sign of respect when we show some interest in the book that inspires them. Jews are respected by our neighbors for (among other things) our intellectual acumen, and our curiosity. How strange it must seem to them when we demonstrate no knowledge or curiosity at all about their sacred book. I know how strange it sounds to put it this way, but I believe it is a kiddush hashem — a positive and public Jewish act — for Jews to have this book on their shelves where their Christian neighbors, friends, and family can see it.
Finally, let it not be said that the Jewish Annotated New Testament is only about the optics. Were that the case, we could just put those words on the spine of a book, and conceal some other book inside (the Torah perhaps, or maybe Mad Magazine). No, this is a book whose spine is very much worth cracking. Though I’ve only begun to do so myself, I feel confident in saying that to delve into the essays, and the textual notes, and yes, even the stories themselves, is to gain a deeper understanding not only of Christianity (which is a worthwhile intellectual endeavor) but also of Judaism (which ought to be a worthwhile spiritual endeavor). Co-editor Amy-Jill Levine, in the previously linked-up NYT piece, says that her deepened understanding of Christianity has made her a better Jew. I believe her, and I look forward to engaging more deeply with her work in this field.
The Jewish Annotated New Testament may not be “Torah” for us Jews, and it might not get a kiss after an inadvertent fall. But it ought to take its place in our libraries as an indispensable window into the sacred texts of our neighbors, and its presence on our personal bookshelves may also tell us something important about ourselves.