Trachtenberg lecture to focus on ‘Jewish Magic and Magical Judaism’

Kabbalistic maps of the divine reality at ilanot.haifa.ac.il.
Kabbalistic maps of the divine reality at ilanot.haifa.ac.il.

The author of one of the five best books on spiritual possession will deliver the annual Rabbi Joshua Trachtenberg Memorial Lecture at Temple Emeth in Teaneck on Friday night.

How do we know that Dr. Yossi Chajes’ “Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism” is of the five best? That’s what a University of Texas professor, Dr. Brian P. Levack, wrote in his annotated list, which was published in the Wall Street Journal in 2013.

“It was very flattering to see it there,” Dr. Chajes said. Dr. Chajes, who grew up in Detroit, lives in Israel, where he is a professor at the University of Haifa. This semester he is on sabbatical at University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Advanced Judaic Studies.

If it is surprising that the Wall Street Journal recommended books on spirit possession — Dr. Levack, who wrote the column, is an expert on the topic, author of “The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West” — it would probably have surprised those who knew Dr. Chajes as a young day school student that his career would take such a mystical turn.

“The one thing I thought I knew from my day school education was that Judaism had nothing to offer spiritually,” he said.

But after “shopping around in the marketplace of spirituality at the end of high school and my first year of college, I finally found my way back to some sources in the Jewish tradition that made it clear to me there was a spiritual history I was not exposed to growing up. I could have been one of the innumerable Jews who got interested in spirituality and just went to the nearest ashram or Hindu temple. Perhaps because my father told me that we were from a prestigious chasidic family, I explored my devotional aspirations with as much knowledge of Jewish traditional, spiritual sources as I could find.

“That’s how I got into Kabbalah.

“I was never a fundamentalist. My own way of being in the world was simultaneously religious and modern. That seemed intuitively possible to me but not to most people around me. I had an intuitive sense that at the beginning of the modern period a lot of religious material became lost and misunderstood.”

So for his doctoral degree in history, Dr. Chajes set out to understand the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern period. He went to Yale and studied under David Ruderman, whose 1988 book “Kabbalah, Magic and Science” had made a big impression on him.

Looking for a research topic, he came across accounts of spirit possession in 16th century Jewish sources, as well as texts with detailed techniques on how to conduct an exorcism. It was a topic at the crossroads of Kabbalah, magic, and science, because it was the kabbalists who were in charge of carrying out exorcisms in the Jewish community. Even today, Dr. Chajes said, “to the extant there is still a phenomenon of exorcism in modern Jewish life — we find only rare examples — it is the kabbalists who are still doing the exorcisms.”

The topic also was “a prism through which I could explore the way mental illness was imagined in the 16th and 17th centuries.”

And because both men and women suffered from the syndrome, “it meant I would be shedding light on some very intensive forms of women’s religiosity.”

Dr. Chajes discovered that in the 17th century, spirit possession became a tool for religious propaganda at a time when religion was coming under attack. “Sources tried to leverage accounts of spirit possession to convince skeptics that God exists and that the soul is eternal,” he said.

While the Jewish wave of spirit possession coincided with a similar upsurge in spirit possession in the Christian world (as well as unrelated but coincidental outbreaks of charges of witchcraft) the two religions disagreed on what kind of spirit was possessing peoples.

The Jewish answer that was popular in the 16th century — that it was a dybbuk, the spirit of a dead person who taken over the body of the living person — didn’t fit Catholic theology. So when Christians identified someone who showed signs of being possessed, even if it seemed to be the result of a ghost having taken over the person, church officials reframed the event and asserted it was possession by a demon, not a dead human being.

Christian exorcisms therefore were designed to remove demons.

For the kabbalistic exorcists, however, possession involved two humans: The live one who was possessed, and the dead one whose soul had entered the live one.

Dr. Yossi Chajes is collecting and cataloging kabbalistic maps of the divine reality at ilanot.haifa.ac.il.
Dr. Yossi Chajes is collecting and cataloging kabbalistic maps of the divine reality at ilanot.haifa.ac.il.

“There’s a kind of compassion that sets in,” Dr. Chajes said. “The kabbalist exorcist is in a position to help the soul of the dead person as well as to ameliorate the suffering of the living person.”

The idea of reincarnation became increasing popular during this time. “Kabbalists used it to explain certain forms of inspiration and revelation,” Dr. Chajes said. Once it was applied to understand spirit possession, spirit possession became evidence that the soul doesn’t die with the death of the body, and that “if you’ve done something wrong in your lifetime, the consequences will go on.”

Dr. Chajes said he found that the Jews four and five hundred years ago were more sophisticated than we often imagine.

“The rabbis and kabbalists who are diagnosing the people who are suffering from afflictions we would probably call forms of mental illness today had a whole range of possibilities in their manual for diagnosis, ranging from spirit possession, which really was a kind of problem that needed ritual treatment, to forms of mental illness that were understood as organic, not spiritual, in origin and needed appropriate treatment.

“Pre-modern Judaism preserves the possibilities for a more expansive way of being Jewish than we would ever know if we were to just listen to what today’s rabbis say is right and possible,” he said.

Dr. Chajes has moved on from madness and possession to explore kabbalistic maps of the universe — “diagrammatic representations of kabbalistic cosmology.

“It’s the first truly systematic study of an entire genre of Jewish creativity,” he said.

Until now, studies of Kabbalah ignored the diagrams, except as “eye candy for their book covers,” he said. And art historians didn’t study them because they weren’t seen as authentic an art form as illuminated manuscripts.

Using a grant from the Israel Science Foundation, Dr. Chajes has been cataloging and studying hundreds of these kabbalistic diagrams. “They range from diagrams in kabbalistic manuscripts that accompany discussions of the nature and structure of the cosmos, to enormous parchment scrolls that are 2 or 3 feet wide by 15 or 20 feet long, that are basically large scale maps of the topography of the divine world as its imagined by the kabbalists,” he said.

It turns out that kabbalists created such maps practically everywhere. He has found examples from Italy and North Africa and Yemen and Kurdistan and Iraq and Poland and Germany and the Balkans.

“Here’s an example of a recent discovery we made. We discovered an amazing parchment scroll from 17th century Kurdistan. It’s the first we know of any creative kabbalistic work having taken place in Kurdistan.”

That books of kabbalah included diagrams makes sense. But scrolls?

“After the 10th century, scrolls play a role in Jewish life only in ritual contexts like the Torah, the mezuzah, tefillin,” Dr. Chajes said. “We don’t have other scrolls. And then sometimes in the 14th century kabbalists started making scrolls. Why? What did it mean to use a diagram of the divine world in a ritual way?

For centuries, this esoteric material was kept relatively secret, “Probably because it’s a bit sensitive to popularize images of the divine. It’s not something Jews published until the late 1860s. In Warsaw they finally published a printed version of one of these scrolls as a paper roll many yards in length.

“Today it’s increasingly fashionable for kabbalistic works to be presented with the aid of diagrammatic visuals. People accustomed to infographics now study Kabbalah and expect visualizations to accompany the discussions.”

Dr. Chajes is honored to be giving the Trachtenberg lecture, he said. Rabbi Dr. Joshua Tractenberg’s book, “Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion,” was one of the first works he read on the topic.

Rabbi Trachtenberg published his book, based on his Columbia dissertation, in 1939. In 1952 he took the pulpit at Temple Emeth. He died of a heart attack in his synagogue office in 1959.

“It came out a long time ago but it’s still very much worth reading,” Dr. Chajes said. “It’s from this incredible era when a number of synagogue rabbis who today probably would have ended up as professors at leading universities instead worked as congregational rabbis. Apparently the congregations also thought there was some value to the fact their rabbis were scholars since they made it possible to work on their great works of scholarship.”

“Trachtenberg theorizing about the material is very compelling, even though the way we talk about magic today is different. We don’t tend to be as judgmental as was fashionable in the early 20th century. Superstition is a term that no academic today would feel was appropriate to describe a traditional mode of thought.

“The book is still a great read. You can learn a tremendous amount from it. The reason it has been superseded is not because anything’s wrong with it, but we have sources now that he didn’t have. He didn’t know about the Cairo Geniza, for example, or non-Jewish material from the rabbinic era. But as a treatment of medieval Jewish magical practices and belief, Trachtenberg’s book is still recommended reading.”

What: Rabbi Joshua Trachtenberg Memorial Lecture

Where: Temple Emeth, 1666 Windsor Road, Teaneck

When: 7:30 p.m., Friday, October 20

Who: Dr. Yossi Chajes, who will speak on “Jewish Magic and Magical Judaism.”

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