Demons, Dybbuks, Ghosts, & Golems

The sinister power of life-force gone awry.

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What is the soul? Look for it, and it can't be seen; define it, and it eludes description. And yet, for the ancients, the idea that life could exist without a soul was unimaginable. However, the talmudic and kabbalistic rabbis did not make a strict distinction between body and soul, either. Unlike, for example, Plato, most Jewish thinkers had a notion of life-energy that was quasi-materialistic. The spiritual world and the material world were interwoven, and actions in one could directly affect the other--for better or for worse.

The Power of Creation

The most important process in the material world, for most of the Kabbalah, is that of creation itself. This, after all, is what God does: creates the world and brings it into being. And it is what humans, in their deepest imitation of God, do as well. Sexuality, reproduction, differentiation, and the bringing forth of life were considered great cosmic mysteries and awesome powers bestowed upon human beings. Spiritual production, too, was important to the kabbalists: A person's deeds create worlds, jewish demonorder the cosmic array, and participate in the divine process of destruction and repair.

That's when all goes right, of course. But what about when the life-energies are misappropriated? What happens when something goes wrong?

The mythic structure of the Kabbalah provided many colorful answers to that question: demons and dybbuks, golems, and ghosts are all the results of misspent life energy. But the Kabbalah does not develop its ideas out of nowhere; they are part of a long history of Jewish speculation about shedim (demons, also a word used to refer to foreign gods) and demonic personalities such as Lilith.

As compared with other ancient Near Eastern texts, in which demons play a central role, the Bible is nearly silent about the existence of supernatural beings. But not the Talmud. The Talmud has a rich, though vague, demonology. Houses of study are described as being filled with demons when sexual energy is not properly channeled. Great rabbis are able to perceive demons sitting on the right and left hands of every person. They are able to harness the divine creative energies to create animals which can then be consumed for food. And, in the talmudic world, spirits are everywhere: They haunt dark places, homes, even the crumbs left on the dinner table. For example, consider the omnipresence and omnimalevolence of demons described in theTalmud in Berakhot 6a:

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Jay Michaelson

Jay Michaelson is a writer & teacher. He is a columnist for the Forward, the chief editor of Zeek, the executive director of Nehirim: GLBT Jewish Culture & Spirituality, and the author of God in Your Body. He is a Ph.D candidate in Jewish thought at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and holds a J.D. from Yale.

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