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Dybbuks, golems and 'The Possession': A new look at Jewish exorcism

TC Jewfolk

It was an awful day and I was in no mood for listening; but when I said, “Things couldn’t be worse,” I was jogged out of my rant by a friend who started screaming at me. “DON’T say that!” she yelled so loudly that I looked at her, surprised. “Listen, you,” she continued more calmly. “Things can ALWAYS be worse.”

Maybe that’s why I love horror movies and have since I was a child.

It could be because my father loved them and used to entertain me by pretending to be the Phantom of the Opera. Or maybe it’s because no matter what I’m going through, people in horror movies always have it so much worse. And they can scream about it, too.

In The Exorcist—one of my favorite movies—the most telling scene to me is the one where the demon/little girl’s head turns languidly toward Father Karras.

“It’s a perfect day for an exorcism,” the demon says, and when asked why, says, “It will bring us together.”

“You and Regan?” the priest asks.

“You and me.”

For my money, that’s the money quote. Because the fact that demons are chasing people who want to be close to God is what’s most interesting about demons.

There’s also something interesting about people being willing to try to exorcise demons, though it wasn’t until I saw The Possession that I started thinking about Jewish exorcism. Like most of us, I tend to think of the ritual as a Catholic thing. But The Possession made me realize it’s more likely something they learned fromus—(ahem! –with a couple of other things.)

One of the first mentions of exorcism in the Bible alludes to an evil spirit affecting King Saul, which is driven out by David’s music. Digging around a bit more, I found a Biblical story about the angel Raphael teaching someone named Tobit how to ban evil spirits. And Josephus—a Jewish-turned-Roman historian with an amazing talent for putting readers to sleep, wrote something about a man named Eleazar “releasing people that were demonical.”

As a child I remember seeing a movie that appeared to be a Jewish exorcism, with men blowing shofarot to exorcise evil spirits; then reading the play The Dybbuk, which I very much liked; and then a story by Cynthia Ozick with a golem that I still count as a great favorite. An Isaac Bashevis Singer story about warring Hasidic sects fighting over the best way to exorcise a young woman’s demon is the first and only possession tale I’ve seen with a sense of humor. (Yet another reason to love Isaac B.)

But Jews, now, aren’t we supposed to be rational? My friend Mel once insisted that Judaism was the most rational of religions, and mainstream Judaism frowns on mysticism and spiritualism, which are seen as dangerous influences on religious faith. Then again, what about those chickens on Yom Kippur? I have to say that when I think about it, our roots seem to me at least a little bit… breathless. For…example.

Cynthia Ozick’s golem is a reimagining of the legend about the Golem of Prague, a clay figure constructed by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel. He brought it to life through rituals and prayers to protect Jews from anti-Semitic attacks and pogroms. Over time, the golem became more violent and the rabbi was unable to control his creation. I thought of this while watching The Possession because it’s sort of a Jewish take on The Exorcist.

The Possession follows the story of a little girl whose father buys her a box covered with Hebrew letters; the box turns out to have a dybbuk (disembodied spirit) that consumes children. Once the little girl opens the box, the dybbuk begins to inhabit her. There are some great moments here, notably when the little girl looks in a mirror (I won’t tell but check out the trailer); and seeing the rapper Matisyahu as a fledgling exorcist offers a great peek into what could be a most exceptional profession. Yet I couldn’t help thinking that while so much in this film seemed to echo The Exorcist, there wasn’t much that went beyond it. Still, that didn’t stop me from enjoying the film.

I loved how the box in The Possession held a mirror so the dybbuk would have to see itself for eternity, knowing it had turned away from God. I loved how they had to call it by name to subdue it and had to find the name; this made me think of the ancient Kohanim (priests), calling out God’s name before we lost it. (“How on earth did you lose the name of God?” asks one of my Catholic friends. I can only clomp my hand to my forehead and say, “Who knows?”)

The movie also made me realize I am still intrigued by the idea of dybbuks, golems, and Jewish exorcism. I think we Jews may be uncomfortable with these things because we already have enough trouble with seeming “different” in the wider world. Maybe that’s why we were all too glad to let Catholics take over, in Hollywood at least, via movies like The Exorcist (which was so superbly directed by a Jew).

Mainly, I think seeing The Possession got me excited about the idea that we may be willing to surface with some of our own dybbuk stories again. Because what the Jews know, and know well, is that horror movies can be all too real sometimes.

And whether or not you have a dybbuk inside you, make no mistake.

It can always be worse.

This post was written by Jenna Zark and originally published on TC Jewfolk. Follow TCJewfolk on Twitter:@tcjewfolk. 

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