Notes from Limmud 2014
[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]
In 1914, a writer caled Sholom Ansky produced the play "The Dybbuk". He had done lots of research in eastern Europe. The climactic scene takes place under a chuppah, where the young bride suddenly turns to her intended and says in a voice that is not her own: "You are not my intended bridegroom." Much consternation follows. It is immediately understood by the whole community present at the wedding that she is possessed by a dybbuk. Someone cries out, "A candle! A candle! A dybbuk has entered the maiden."
The bride is carried away into, and an exorcism takes place, involving blowing the and magical rituals and reciting names. This does not involve harm to the possessed woman. (On one occasion they tried to smoke the demon out and the woman died of smoke inhalation, but harm was not intended.) The exorcism ceremony is a negative mirror of the wedding ceremony.
However, something very different is going on here compared to the normal story of dybbuks. The audience, unlike the community, who are suffering a community crisis—the dead coming into the realm of the living—know, having seen the first three acts of the play, that the girl is correct: heris dead, having pined away for her, after her father forbade her to marry him and set her up with the rich older man.
The exorcism ceremony goes a bit wrong. The dead intended bridegroom departs from the bride, but she dies herself rather than marry the rich older man.
What we have here is the new idea that the matchmaking system might be flawed; also western ideas of romance, and that maybe you would rather die than live an unhappily married life.
Also, the fact that [lacuna]
Male dybbuks were constantly entering the bodies of young vulnerable women. Often those women were about to be married.
Being possessed by a dybbuk is not good for your marriage chances. Though often after the dybbuk goes, scant attention is paid to that woman. The women are often poor, and marginalised in society: serving girls, etc.
Where do we know about this from? For many hundreds of years, dybbuk possession [lacuna]
What is a dybbuk? It's a Biblical word, from לְדַבֶּק, which like its English translation "to cleave", has two meanings, the opposite of each other. Usually in the Bible it's used positively.
The first time it's used is about marriage:
Genesis 2:24 בראשית ב כד Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh. עַל־כֵּן יַעֲזָב־אִישׁ אֶת־אָבִיו וְאֶת־אִמּוֹ וְדָבַק בְּאִשְׁתּוֹ וְהָיוּ לְבָשָׂר אֶחָד׃
It's also used about God:
Deuteronomy 4:4 דברים ד ד But you that cleave unto the LORD your God are alive every one of you this day. וְאַתֶּם הַדְּבֵקִים בַּה׳ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם חַיִּים כֻּלְּכֶם הַיּוֹם׃
For the Chassidism, deveikus is important: one should cleave to one's rebbe.
In Modern Hebrew, דֶבֶּק means "glue". It's very close..
A dybbuk is a dead soul which attaches itself to a living body, either for a reason or not. By why is the dead soul on the move? It has unresolved issues: something wrong with the manner of its death: it was untimely, or its owner was murdered. It is a spirit with a grievance, and the only way for it to be heard is through someone else's voice.
A dybbuk is always malevolent. There are other kinds of spirits which are a guiding presence, but not a dybbuk.
There are also some really bad people who when they die want to keep on having fun: impish behaviour.
In all the records we have, from the golden age of demonology, the bodies possessed are almost exclusively female, and 100% of the time, the spirits are male. There is no such thing as a female dybbuk, and any male who's possessed by a dybbuk has something wrong with them: either they're minors or outside of the community.
How would you know if you were possessed? Sometimes a physical symptom: what we would call a seizure. There would be a tumult in the community: go and fetch a rebbe.
Not all rebbes can do this: it's a tricky business—but except for in Ansky's play, it's a tragedy. [Possessions are attested from the] 1500s and early 1600s, all over the Jewish world... and all over the Christian and Muslim worlds as well. Many of the Christian accounts are of mass possessions, which is something that is absent from the Jewish accounts: whole communities of nuns barking like dogs, etc.
The master exorcists, Isaac Luria, Chaim Vital, had scribes who would write down what happens when someone is possessed. It became a form of community entertainment.
The rabbi would start by interviewing the possessing spirit. (The woman does not exist; she is a shell for the spirit.) There's a whole list of questions: Where do you come from? Why are you here? What do you want? There would be bargaining going on: If we do this, will you leave this poor girl? (Sometimes the dybbuk would say, "I'll think about it; come back tomorrow" rather than giving a straight answer or presenting demands.)
Suddenly these young, marginalised women are the focus of the entire community's attention. They will make demands, or spread gossip. ("The rabbi is on the fiddle", or "The butcher is not killing animals properly.") It's always taken very seriously, and elicits astonishment: "You're from Syria, but we're in Morocco; how did you know?")
Rachel Elior introduced the idea that the possession is not such a catastrophe but welcomed by the woman. All her responsibilities are removed. You can say what you like, and it gets you out of the washing up. And for women in desperate plights to be married to somebody they didn't want to be, it might not be such a bad thing, in the world. If you were in such a situation, what could you do to escape it? Your only options were illness (what Freud called hysteria), running away or death.
In the nineteenth century so much literature written by women focuses on illnesses of women, making them unable to engage in normal life. See the book The Mad Woman in the Attic.
in the twentieth century, Ansky, Isaac Bashevis Singer and others played with this idea, that a dybbuk might be a desirable or welcome thing.
When a dybbuk left you, how would you know? It can exit through various orifices, but the most popular one is not an orifice at all. It exits through the little toe of the right foot. Compare the Chinese idea of footbinding: damaging the foot means the woman can't run away.
Elior was once asked, "Do you believe in dybbuks and the supernatural?" She said "No, I believe profoundly in the infinite creative force of the human mind that creates the supernatural to explain ... of the unnatural".—Originally posted on Dreamwidth, where there are comments. Please comment there using OpenID or a DreamWidth account (which you no longer need an invite code to create). Though I am leaving comments enabled on LiveJournal for a bit, please don't comment here if you can do so there instead.