Book Review | Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism

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I don’t remember where or how I came across this book, but when I saw Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism referenced somewhere, I knew I had to snatch it up. I saw it just after I wrote about the modern day exorcist here: Demons, Dybbuks, Devils and Exorcism. Buying this book was a smart decision. I read the book a little while back and neglected to do a review but I’ve wanted to tell you all about this book since I read it.

The author, J.H Chajes, is a professor at University of Haifa. He is a distant relative of the great Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Chajes. Between Worlds is very scholarly and well researched. Yet, it reads like a novel, well almost like a novel, and it kept me engrossed in its content from start to finish.

Between Worlds chronicles the rise of recorded incidents of dybbuks and exorcism in the era of mystical writings of the Arizal’s students. Most of the book takes place in the 16th and 17th centuries. The book traces the relationship between Christian, Muslim and Jewish exorcism legends and practice as well. An appendix has full accounts of exorcisms found in rabbinic literature from that era.

As a skeptic, I found the restraint of Chajes astounding. It is almost as if he is winking the entire time that he is writing about demonic / disembodied soul possession. You just know that he can’t believe what he is writing as fact is even possible. But he writes as an objective 3rd party about rabbis and others performing exorcisms with a straight face.

There are a few points that I took away from the book that are worth sharing. First of all, the book mentions some disputes between rabbis. They were vicious disagreements. Accusations of philandering, abject immorality and horrible insults are hurled the way of one particular rabbi. I can only imagine what our rabbinic disputes will look like to historians some time in the future. Fascinating to read and fascinating to think about.

Second, the book supports the theory that “the more knowledge becomes accessible, the more some religious leaders will try to ‘esotericize’ their religion to maintain a level of separation between the masses and the public”. I know, that theory is a mouthful. With regard to exorcism it works as follows. The masses were becoming more literate throughout the world. Exorcism was an art reserved for spiritual leaders and scholars. It was not available to the masses no matter how learned they became. Thus, the existence of demons and dybbuks reinforced the need for leadership. It is similar to today’s maximalist position of Daas Torah. In a time that more orthodox Jews can study the sources and responsa on a given subject, the religious leaders have reserved a segment of inaccessible knowledge under the maximalist position of Daas Torah. I’m not saying this is wrong or intentional, rather it is a pattern and it happens.

My third point for this review is the nature of the relationship between Jewish scholars and their Christian and Muslim counterparts. It seems that there was much interaction between them and they worked together, at least for the sake of exorcism. It was nice to see cooperation instead of the stereotypical debates and polemics against one another. If they could do it, so could we.

If you have ANY interest in dybbuks or demons or exorcism or 16th century mysticism, buy Between Worlds.

  • As a side note, the Chayes/Chajes/Cheyes family – all descendents of R. Tzvi Hirsch – is fascinating.  Major academics in the fields of History, Psychology, Mathematics, and, as you’ve probably seen, Law.

    • Law?

      • Abraham Chayes, Professor at Harvard in the 60s and 70s.  Major articles on how litigation is a public dispute resolution process that involves society as a whole, and how judges need to be active in the process, ect.  He has a daughter who is also a professor, writes on civil procedure and legal ethics.  Another one I came across who spells it with a “j”.  Dont know how that one is related, also a professor, writes on federal courts issues – jurisdiction, conflict of laws.