Spirit Possession in Judaism: Cases and Contexts from the Middle Ages to the Present (review)
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Reviewed by
Matt Goldish, ed. Spirit Possession in Judaism: Cases and Contexts from the Middle Ages to the Present. Raphael Patai Series in Jewish Folklore and Anthropology. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2003. Pp. 476.

On July 1, 1912, S. Anski, the noted Yiddish and Russian writer, launched the Jewish Ethnographic Expedition, sending scholars into the Eastern European hinterland to find legends, folktales, music, manuscripts, historical documents, and the like. It was in the process of collecting these materials that Anski came across the raw material he would transmute into his most famous work: the play The Dybbuk.

This connection between folklore and literature makes clear what scholars in the field know: today's fictions are yesterday's social facts, and a book which purports to provide an overview of a topic such as spirit possession in Judaism should optimally provide many lenses through which to examine those facts: anthropology and folklore studies, of course, but also psychology, intellectual history, and literary studies, to name just a few disciplines.

Such a topic calls out for an anthology, and Matt Goldish has done an excellent job editing and compiling this book, which seeks to broaden and to deepen our understanding of this phenomenon. The breadth of this volume is, first and foremost, a disciplinary one. Yoram Bilu's essays opening and closing the volume can be taken as a case in point: the former argues for a psychological and sociological picture of the dybbuk as a means of expressing individual deviance from the social order (particularly, though not solely, in the sexual sphere), and then the reestablishment of social control via exorcism; the latter is a nuanced work of comparative anthropology, analyzing spirit possession in three particular Jewish subcultures and investigating the differences and similarities between them. There are other examples of this disciplinary breadth as well. Jonathan Seidel's work on magical texts of the Cairo Geniza draws on the comparative field of classical studies to reveal that spirit possession of Late Antiquity was, in some sense, a different though related phenomenon from the traditionally conceptualized dybbuk, one much more focused around questions of "illness, whose cause is found to be demonic or spiritual" (p. 85). Menachem Kallus's article on mystical possession and the eschatology of the soul in Lurianic Kabbalah, with its highly detailed and theoretical focus on the philosophical aspects of "soul roots" and "soul impregnation," would not feel amiss in a journal of Jewish philosophy or mysticism. [End Page 728]

The breadth is not only disciplinary but linguistic and generational as well. The volume includes essays by such Israeli scholars as Bilu, Tamar Alexander, and Joseph Dan, whose work is less well known in English-language circles than it deserves to be, and it also does an excellent job of featuring new scholars who have recently finished their doctoral work in the field, such as Kallus, J. H. Chajes, Roni Weinstein, and Zvi Mark, scholars whose work unquestionably breaks new ground in the field and will be of interest to general scholars of Jewish studies and more narrowly focused researchers alike. (A few of the articles, particularly Kallus's and Bilu's second essay, are more technical, but no less valuable for that.)

Sometimes, the sense of newness that permeates this collection comes both from a stronger emphasis on aspects of the topic which are generally de-accentuated and the willingness of the included scholars to challenge received understanding of the topic. For example, while the conventional wisdom—perhaps influenced by Anski's play—is that spiritual possession in Judaism is an unambiguously negative experience, this is quite simply not the case, and Lawrence Fine's essay reminds us of the phenomenon of the maggid, that heavenly visitor who inspires thinkers and writers, most notably Joseph Caro. Caro, an immigrant in the 1530s to the city of Safed, participated in an explosion of mystical activity and possession activity in that city in the sixteenth century, and a number of scholars in the volume focus on this city and its notable inhabitants, including Isaac Luria and his disciple Hayyim Vital. J. H. Chajes's particularly fine essay focuses on how the city itself became a...