I’ve never actively sought out or consulted with a medium, or anyone who made claims to be able to communicate with those who have crossed over. But on this week, following up from my colleague Tsafi Lev’s piece yesterday on the possibility of spirits of the dead communicating with us, I’d like to share the story of what happened to me the first year I led a Rosh Hashanah service.
Now, I should preface this story with the knowledge that, traditionally, Judaism has been quite clear that we should not consult with mediums—there is a biblical prohibition (Leviticus 19:31). At the same time, we have the dramatic story of King Saul (I Samuel, 28), who had himself banned such people from his Kingdom, consulting in secret with the Witch of Endor, to get one last piece of advice from the prophet Samuel, at that time deceased. What I find fascinating about both the biblical prohibition and the story in Kings is that, while we may not seek guidance in this way, our tradition clearly recognizes that such a thing is possible and that people who have the ability to communicate with the other side exist. Whatever you believe to be true, there’s certainly a rich history and folklore in our tradition on this subject.
So, back to my story. I was a student rabbi who had just started my first year of rabbinical school. I was contributing to the High Holy Days at a synagogue in northern England. On the second day I had been asked to provide a less formal, creative service that would appeal to families with children, and so I was on the bima taking the lead for that particular morning. About 20 minutes before the end of the service, I noticed a middle-aged blond woman in business attire enter the sanctuary and take a seat. I thought it a little strange to arrive so late in the proceedings, but being a visitor to the community I had no idea if she was known to others or not.
When the service came to an end, a number of people came up to me but most of the congregation quickly moved toward another room for the Kiddush. The blond-haired woman approached me and the first things she said was “I have a message for you.” Her eyes fluttered and the tone of her voice changed, and she proceeded to share a message that had less to do with who might be doing the communicating, and more to do with where I was in that moment in my life and the decisions that I knew lay before me. They were framed in such a way that, as I listened, I was drawn in and fascinated by what was unfolding before me, while also maintaining a healthy skepticism that this might be a con and it was easy enough to make my own connections between the words she shared and the situation that I was applying them to. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this, but as I was trying to decide, she snapped out of the altered state.
Speaking quite normally, she explained that she was driving by the synagogue on her way back from a business meeting. She didn’t know this was a synagogue, but she received a strong message to enter the building. So she pulled up, sat down, and knew she had to wait until the end of the service to speak with me. She told me she didn’t control when these messages came and that she had learned just to be the messenger and those that she delivered messages to would figure out what they meant to them. I asked for her business card (which did not list her as a Medium), thanked her, and she promptly left. I went to join the rabbi and the congregation at the Kiddush, and didn’t say a word of any of this to any of them. It felt very surreal.
I’m still not certain what I experienced that Rosh Hashanah of 2001. I wrote and thanked the woman, but never had any further interaction or communication with her. The words she shared with me that day were words that I heard to be of direct relevance to the fork in the road where I felt that I was standing at that moment in my life. I don’t know if I would say that she helped me choose which fork in the road to take, but when I made my choice, her words echoed in my mind, providing reassurance that I had made the right one. A Medium or a Messenger? In Hebrew, the latter is a malach—which we more typically translate as “Angel.”
I’m no more certain today than I was then of what is true or what is real. But whenever anyone approaches me with,
“Rabbi, I have a story, but I’m not sure if you’ll believe me…” I’m ready to listen.
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?’