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Between Worlds

Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism

By J. H. Chajes

Publication Year: 2011

After a nearly two-thousand-year interlude, and just as Christian Europe was in the throes of the great Witch Hunt and what historians have referred to as "The Age of the Demoniac," accounts of spirit possession began to proliferate in the Jewish world. Concentrated at first in the Near East but spreading rapidly westward, spirit possession, both benevolent and malevolent, emerged as perhaps the most characteristic form of religiosity in early modern Jewish society.

Adopting a comparative historical approach, J. H. Chajes uncovers this strain of Jewish belief to which scant attention has been paid. Informed by recent research in historical anthropology, Between Worlds provides fascinating descriptions of the cases of possession as well as analysis of the magical techniques deployed by rabbinic exorcists to expel the ghostly intruders.

Seeking to understand the phenomenon of spirit possession in its full complexity, Chajes delves into its ideational framework—chiefly the doctrine of reincarnation—while exploring its relation to contemporary Christian and Islamic analogues. Regarding spirit possession as a form of religious expression open to—and even dominated by—women, Chajes initiates a major reassessment of women in the history of Jewish mysticism. In a concluding section he examines the reception history of the great Hebrew accounts of spirit possession, focusing on the deployment of these "ghost stories" in the battle against incipient skepticism in the turbulent Jewish community of seventeenth-century Amsterdam.

Exploring a phenomenon that bridged learned and ignorant, rich and poor, men and women, Jews and Gentiles, Between Worlds maps for the first time a prominent feature of the early modern Jewish religious landscape, as quotidian as it was portentous: the nexus of the living and the dead.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


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pp. vii

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pp. 1-10

In the early 15405, a Jewish boy in the Galilean—and, for nearly a generation, Ottoman—village of Safed, was possessed by the soul of a sinner, a dybbuk.2 Furious that the boy's father had killed the dog in which he had formerly been lodged, the soul sought vengeance by killing the man's son...

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1. The Emergence of Dybbuk Possession

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pp. 11-31

How did sixteenth-century Jews make sense of spirit possession? To what affliction did they bear witness when someone in their midst began displaying the characteristic signs of the possessed? What sort of spirit was doing the possessing? Why and how did the possession take place? How...

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2. The Dead and the Possessed

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pp. 32-56

R. Isaac Luria constantly beheld the dead in his midst. So recalled R. Hayyim Vital in the preceding passage, among many others. Luria gazed upon the dead, seeing souls suspended over their graves. Vital emphasizes that Luria did not merely feel the presence of the dead, nor did he conjure...

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3. The Task of the Exorcist

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pp. 57-96

Exorcism techniques, as eclectic as they were extensive, were found among the Jews for centuries, a diverse repository deployed by magical experts in their midst. This legacy was inherited by generation after generation of magical practitioners, many of whom were also leading rabbinic...

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4. Dybbuk Possession and Women's Religiosity

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pp. 97-118

Our study has, thus far, introduced us to a number of women whose clairvoyant abilities in the course of their possession attracted considerable interest and attention. At the very least, their possession experience entailed a certain ambiguity along the fault lines of gender (male/female)...

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5. Skeptics and Storytellers

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pp. 119-138

The classic tropes of European demonological literature were significantly altered in the seventeenth century—and the cause was the rise of skepticism. This shift might be described as a retreat from the offensive posture of most late fifteenth- and sixteenth-century treatises, to a new defensive...

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pp. 139-140

The preceding chapters are stations of a broader, sweeping and singular history, as well as miniature histories in their own right. The grand narrative of the early modern reemergence of spirit possession in Jewish culture begins in preexpulsion Spain. With the exiles, the phenomenon travels...

Appendix: Spirit Possession Narratives from Early Modern Jewish Sources

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pp. 141-180


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pp. 181-243


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pp. 245-265


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pp. 267-275

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pp. 277-278

I would like to thank the many scholars at Yale University, the University of Michigan, and the Hebrew University whose inspiration and encouragement kept me on the path: Paula Hyman, Geoffrey Parker, Todd Endelman, Marvin Becker, Moshe Rosman, Warren Zev Harvey...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812201550
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812221701

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2011