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  • Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism
  • Michaela Valente
J. H. Chajes . Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism. Jewish Culture and Contexts. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. 278 pp. index. append. bibl. $36.50. ISBN: 0–8122–3724–2.

In early modern culture, noteworthy attention was devoted to the metaphysical world thanks to the retrieval of Platonic and Neoplatonic thought due to Ficino's translation. As D. P. Walker and other scholars show, concerns about spiritual and demonic religion and magic were pervasive in Christian culture: the existence of demons was the proof of the existence of God and justified the whole system based on punishment and rewards that the Church promoted. This book explores Jewish approaches to exorcism and demonic possession when the three main monotheistic religions came into closer contact; moreover, it deals with the early modern reemergence of spirit possession in Jewish culture from before the [End Page 235] fifteenth century expulsion from Spain until the converso Diaspora in the seventeenth century. So emerged appealing proofs of religious and cultural syncretism and mutual influences.

Chajes wants to examine these interwoven cultural relationships concerning demons from the Jewish point of view: his aim is to illuminate "this intersection of ancient magic and modern skepticism, of the ever-present and interlaced worlds of sex and death, of religious piety reaching perhaps a pathological extreme." (140).

This book focuses on the Jewish case of exorcism in the Galilean village of Safed, and in particular on the exorcistic theories of Isaac Luria and of his pupils, such as Hayyim Vital, through his Sefer ha-Hezyonot (The Book of Visions), during the sixteenth century, after a millennium in which no sources account for spirit possession. Although, according to the holy scripture, demonic possession can occur, Jewish rabbis exclude the phenomenon and give an interpretation different from that of Christian theologians. The author shows how the idea of demonic possession changed in Jewish culture during the sixteenth century and proposes an interwoven relationship among Jewish, Christian, and Islamic cultures in a very interesting melting pot such as Safed, a vivid case of cultural hybridism (7).

According to Christian culture, demonic possession depended on the will of a demon that owned a body without any relation to the possessed, while according to Jewish culture, and for Vital and Luria in particular, souls of the evil dead could not enter Gehinnom, so they possessed another body for vengeance. This fact changes the procedure and the aim of exorcism: the prayer is a plea for the possessing soul, the help to a sinner and his rectification. So Jewish exorcism adjured the demon and healed the person, while the Catholic exorcism is intended to drive away the offending spirit or demon. Demonic possession was often confused with mental illness, and while Catholic theologians distinguished the two pathologies, to some Jewish rabbis they could be treated in the same manner.

Chajes suggests, through a comparative historical approach, the existence of a deep nexus of the living and the dead between worlds, as the chosen title wants to explain: the dybbuk is the spirit who possessed someone. His account deals with the problem of tracing cultural crossroads.

In the fourth chapter the relationship of spirit possession and female attitude to mysticism is analyzed in the light of Gershom Scholem's referral to Kabbalah as "a masculine doctrine." Appearing in the last chapter, Menasseh ben Israel, in the seventeenth-century Amsterdam to which he fled with his family, argues with his contemporaries, the Cambridge Platonists, against the growing skepticism of that time. The volume ends with an appendix, "Spirit Possession Narratives from Early Modern Jewish Sources."

This essay might be appreciated by considering how the different religious influences merged into a very interesting social and cultural framework through the events occurring in Safed during the sixteenth century and, above all, for this new emergence of a theme, spirit possession, in Jewish culture.

Michaela Valente
Università del Molise


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pp. 235-236
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Archived 2009
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