When I was little, my aunt and cousins lived in an old farmhouse. It was at least a hundred years old and it had all the wonderful character of old houses – including a ghost.
I knew about the ghost because I had heard my aunt telling other people about him. He lived in the basement, and although no one had ever seen or heard him, my aunt had felt him. Apparently he was fond of massaging her shoulders whenever she went down the basement stairs. At the time, I vowed never to go into the basement again, even though my aunt didn’t express any fear – it seemed her ghost was of the Caspar variety.
As a child, my aunt’s ghost story fell-in with all the other ghost stories one encounters in childhood. I didn’t necessarily believe it but I didn’t necessarily disbelieve it either. And over time, I forgot about it, as the question of whether or not ghosts exist became less and less of a concern.
Until of course, the night in my Upper West Side apartment, when I woke up to creaking floorboards, the feeling of someone sitting on my bed, whispering in my ear and the simultaneous realizations that I was awake AND that no physical person was there with me.
It seems I had a ghost too!
Although the experience was startling and disquieting, especially given the late hour, I didn’t feel afraid. The presence, or energy I had encountered didn’t feel threatening and hadn’t done anything harmful or overtly scary. It seemed to be trying to communicate a name, and as soon as it had sensed my momentary fear – more a result of my thinking that there was a person in my apartment than of my realizing that there wasn’t – it was gone, as if to affirm that it’s intention wasn’t to scare me.
So yes, you have a rabbi who believes in ghosts.
But not of the Halloween variety; not some tragic versions of lost souls who have ill-intent, but rather, what I believe, is that soul-energy sometimes remains behind after a physical body has died, and that soul-energy sometimes returns to try to connect or communicate with their loved ones who are still living, usually to warn or reassure them about something, most often with the desire to let us know that they are okay and that they are still a part of our lives.
I recently read a claim that religiously speaking, believing in ghosts is no less of a stretch than, “believing in a God you cannot see or hear or touch but still feel in deep relationship with”, but if it still seems radical to hear a rabbi express these views, please rest assured that I am far from the first rabbi to believe in ghosts or the first Jewish leader to encounter them.
In The Zohar, Judaism’s most famous text on mysticism, we are taught that when a soul departs, it experiences three things simultaneously: it enters into the Mystery of the Infinite One, it remains to comfort those who mourn, and it enters into Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden, and experiences the delights that it enjoyed when it was a physical, earth-bound being.
Jewish author and teacher Jay Michaelson explains that, “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…”Most Jewish thinkers,” he writes, “had a notion of life-energy that was quasi-materialistic,” meaning that the spiritual world and the material world were interwoven, and that actions in one could directly affect the other — for better or for worse.
Although the Torah is nearly silent about the existence of supernatural beings other than the Divine Messengers or angels that often make appearances in the aid of God’s communicating with humanity, in the Talmudic world, spirits are everywhere! According to our sages, they haunt dark places, homes, even the crumbs left on the dinner table, but rarely does the Talmudic literature go into detail about exactly how the ghosts, demons and other magical creatures it mentions come into being.
Although many of the theories and explanations of the rabbis and kabbalists now feel outdated in the glaring light of scientific understanding, they were responding to an age-old question that human sciences have yet to answer sufficiently. If we are all possessed of energy, then what happens to that energy when we die?
For the kabbalists and the sages, the understanding was that ideally, the energy we retain as living, physical beings returns to its source – to God – after we die. But sometimes, as they understood it, the process goes wrong. In such cases, a variety of ills could befall the soul, one of which is the phenomenon of the dybbuk, when one soul “sticks” onto or possess another instead of returning to God.
The rabbis also believed it was possible for the soul of a departed righteous person to “impregnate” the soul of a living person, a process described by Lurianic Kabbalah as ibbur–although, unlike in the case of a dybbuk, ibbur was seen in a positive light because the rabbis believed that the righteous soul was attempting to return to the physical realm so that it could complete a task or perform a mitzvah. Sort of like, self-motivated reincarnation.
The rabbis differentiated instances of a dybbuk or ibbur from other instances where a person might be visited by a departed soul who brings messages or prophesies, or who might take up residence in a home or synagogue. The rabbis were unable to deny that the souls of departed loved ones could return with messages, or be even called upon for advice, because the Bible itself relates a story of King Saul seeking out the ghost of his departed prophet Samuel.
The text relates that although Saul had been trying to banish those who communicated with the dead, he found himself attempting to do just that when faced with the threat of the Philistine army. First Saul tried to seek an answer from God through prayer, but when that failed, and when God did not send any new prophets to Saul, he sought out the Woman of Endor, who was known to be able to communicate with spirits, and through her, he was able to connect and speak with the spirit of Samuel.
The Torah, however, is careful to describe this story in ways that would discourage others from following in Saul’s footsteps. Samuel is not pleased about being disturbed and Saul is described as being weak from fasting – leaving room for us to dismiss this encounter as a hunger-induced-delusion, should we so choose.
But I don’t think that the Torah meant to discourage us from believing in ghosts. Rather, I think the Torah was trying to discourage us from seeking out ghosts for answers when we fail to find them in God or in ourselves.
The Torah is clear in its prohibition against those who divine answers from sources other than God. Idolatry is one of ancient-Judaism’s biggest fears and the potential for us to worship ghosts over God is a threat to Jewish dogma. It is the same threat that lead these rabbis, who believed in ghosts, to create prohibitions about communicating with them, except in certain cases.
The rabbis were concerned that seeking out connections and advice from departed souls might lead us away from our relationship with God or might lead to the perception that the source of our help could come from anywhere other than God.
While I share this rabbinic concern, I am also aware of how important it is to feel the presence of our loved ones in our lives, even after they have died.
Rabbi Tzafi Lev of California, recently wrote about a woman who asked him if it was okay during her prayers to pray to her deceased mother. She said, ”the first thing I think of when I start to pray is my mother. My friend told me that I was being a bad Jew because there was something, my mother, between me and God.”
If I were responding to this woman, I would have said that thinking of her mother while she is praying is not necessarily the same thing as praying to her mother. But Rabbi Lev’s answer is good too. He told the woman that her relationship with her mother is, “foundational to her understanding of the transcendent.” That rather than confusing her mother with God, she was connecting to her mother as, “the closest access point (she has) to loving energy beyond our own realm.” In other words, by thinking of her mother, the woman was able to connect to that which is beyond her, and beyond the physical realm, and thereby is able to connect with God.
Rabbi Lev also describes a congregant whose son spoke to his beloved but deceased Bubby through a conch shell that she had given him, and a woman whose phone rang every day precisely at the same time, who was certain that it was her deceased father calling.
Rather than call these individuals’ beliefs and practices into question, Rabbi Lev expressed gladness – that the woman is still comforted by her mother, that a young boy with his conch shell still has an active connection to his grandmother, and that at 3:15 every afternoon, when her phone rings, his former congregant still feels her father’s presence in her life.
Whether or not we believe in ghosts, or in our ability to communicate with them, I think it is safe to say that Judaism affirms the need to recall and remember those who we have loved and lost. Even if we cannot be comforted by them directly, we are comforted by the knowledge that they loved us. Even if we cannot hear their words of advice, we can be guided by thinking about what they might have advised us if they were here. Even if they cannot tell us what to do, we can conduct ourselves the way that they once did, and feel that we are not only doing what they might have wanted us to do, but also that we are keeping their memory alive through living out their hopes and values.
On this Shabbat, when we find ourselves surrounded by Halloween imagery of ghosts, let us not be afraid to explore our beliefs, to reach out beyond ourselves, and to affirm that engaging with the metaphysical realm is, and always has been, an authentically Jewish endeavor. And most importantly, may the memories of our loved ones always be a blessing to us.
Kein Yehi Ratzon.