Monday, May 07, 2007

Jewish Demonology: Demon Origins

A number of Jews are quite appalled to learn that Judaism has such an elaborate demonology, as I have been describing in past entries:
3. Exorcism II: A Jewish Ritual Against Demonic Posse...
2. Jewish Exorcism I: Defeating Demons
1. Samael: Demon Prince, Consort of Lilith

["The Occult and Love," illustration by E.M. Lilien]

Unrelated to the blog, I have been writing an article on Jewish erotic theology for a proposed book on Jews and sexuality. The editor of that project was just as puzzled when I made reference to mystical doctrines that link sexual transgression to the demonic. In critiquing my draft, he wrote back, "Can you justify the use of the word ‘demonic’ here? I’m not sure it fits what you have said, not least because according to some (e.g. Pagels), ‘demons’ are an early Christian invention."

All of which shows how successful and complete was our reworking of Judaism into an Enlightenment religion in the 19th Century. Most modern Jews, even academics, now think of belief in evil spirits as something alien to Torah.

Truly, demons [1] are not a large feature of Hebrew Scriptures, but they are present: satyrs, spirits, and lilits (Lev. 16: 10; I Sam. 16:14-16; Isa. 34:14). It is indeed remarkable how small a role they play, considering the prominent role of the demonic in surrounding cultures, and in that regard, the puzzlement of modern Jews has some basis. It is indeed not until the post-Biblical period that we see a fuller elaboration on the theme of spirit beings. This explosive interest in demonology found in the pseudepigraphia, rabbinic literature, and Hebrew and Aramaic amulets no doubt was in part stimulated by the pervasive preoccupation with demons in Zoroastrian and Greco-Roman religions. But it is a mistake to think the concept of the demonic was alien to Israelite religion.

It also doesn't mean that malevolent spirits are not problematic in a Jewish context. The problem with the demonic in Judaism has always been the problem of monotheism. If there is only one God, presumably beneficent toward humanity, from where do evil spirits originate?

The authors of works like I Enoch and Jubilees make the first attempts to account for the existence of the demonic by drawing upon the cryptic passage in Gen. 6 about the antediluvian "Sons of God" who copulate with mortal women and produce the race of nefalim, "fallen ones." The "Fallen Angel" thesis proves immensely popular in Early Judaism and many non-canonical works reiterate and elaborate on this idea, eventually bequeathing this tradition to both Christianity and Islam.

Rabbinic and mystical Judaism, however, essentially rejects this idea. While there are many portrayals of angelic "willfulness" in Midrash, the idea of fallen angels rebelling against God virtually disappears from later Jewish literature. In its place, the Sages situate the origins of spirits among the initial works of creation. Avot 5.6 asserts that demons were created on the "twilight of the 6th day." This has the virtue of placing them inside, rather than outside, God's creative prerogative, but it begs the question, why would God do such a thing?

Perhaps the answer can be found in a cognate rabbinic tradition that Adam and Eve committed their primeval sin at precisely that time, the twilight of the sixth day. This suggests that the unspoken rabbinic premise for the origins of demons is that they are not a direct creation of God; rather, they are a byproduct of human sin. Such an idea of the demonic draws upon the Biblical image of sin stalking us like a beast (Gen. 4:7). Variations on this idea, that demons are actually our creation rather than God's, appears elsewhere in rabbinic literature, such as the claim in Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer 34 that most demons are actually the souls of the sinful generation that drowned in the Flood.

Kabbalah most fully develops this idea of the human origins for the demonic. Starting with the Treatise of the Left Emanation, Kabbalists argue that the potential for the demonic is rooted in the divine economy that requires justice, strictness and severity in creation alongside mercy, love, and forgiveness. But what transforms these strict but still godly attributes into palpable evil is that we "feed" these forces through our transgressions and sins. Like a healthy cell gone cancerous and feeding on the body's hormones, this aspect of the divine architecture metastasizes through the energy of our own moral actions. In the kabbalistic scheme, the named demons of Jewish tradition are the perverted, cancerous divine structures, while the lesser spirits their toxic mitosis that poison the "body" of creation.

Because they are rooted in the divine structures (Megillah 3a informs us, for example, that demons cannot take God's name in vain), some mystics even go so far as to eschew the language of "demon" and simply call such spirits "destructive angels." Thus the modern Kabbalist Adin Steinsaltz writes:

It follows then, that just as there are holy angels, built into and created by the sacred system, there are also destructive angels, called "devils" or "demons," who are the emanation of the connection of man with those aspects of reality which are the opposite of holiness. Here, too, the actions of man and his modes of existence, in all their forms, create angels, but angels of a different sort...These are hostile angels... (Thirteen Petalled Rose, p. 16).

So while traditional Kabbalists would call this a gross simplification, I would characterize the realm of the demonic in Judaism as a mythic retelling of the great truth that the greatest demons are the demons found inside ourselves.

To learn more, read the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism. http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050/sr=1-1/qid=1159997117/ref=sr_1_1/002-7116669-7231211?ie=UTF8&s=books

[1] "Demon" is a catchall term for the many Hebrew terms for spirits such as sheidim, mazzikim, and lilin (djinns, imps, and night spirits). Yet the word is problematic, because these Hebrew terms do not carry same the infernal, satanic, essence of evil connotation of the English word "demon." While these spirits usually spell trouble for humans, they are as much like fairies as they are like devils. Nevertheless, "fairy" has too mild a connotation in itself. In addition, there are a few extraordinay entities, such as Samael and Lilith, who do fit the criteria of "demons." Therefore I choose the word "demon" as a global term for all spirits in Jewish tradition that are not angelic.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

sorry to post this here, but i couldnt find your e-mail address and my unt e-mail account has been deleted (since i graduated 6 months ago). Anyway, my name is Daniel Hearne and i took a course on jewish mysticism about a year ago and i remember discussing eastern orthodox christianity with you briefly and the "mystical" liturgies and their pageantry. anyhow, my orthodox friend actually linked me to a site discussing jewish roots in eastern orthodox mysticism that i thought you might find interesting. here it is. Not sure if you are familiar with this stuff or not, but thought maybe it would be interesting to look at none the less.


my e-mail is dlh76137@hotmail.com if you would like to contact me.


8:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The "Fallen Angel" thesis proves immensely popular in Early Judaism and many non-canonical works reiterate and elaborate on this idea, eventually bequeathing this tradition to both Christianity and Islam."

This is just plain wrong.

The fallen angel idea is actually alien to islam. Perhaps you are confusing christian views of Satan, with their zorastrian influence, with islam.

In islam there is no such thing as a fallen angel, because angels lack free will. They are born good and always do good for eternity.

As for Satan. Well Islam has very different origins for Iblees (Satan) than the judeo-christian tradition. He was not an angel that reblled, not some snake in the garden of eden. Actually the whole Garden of Eden story, with Adam having to work the land, and Eve being punished with childbirth is completely disregarded in islam. And in fact some muslim writers have written against the unjust account that story portrays of God, who curses all women for Eve, all men for Adam, and all serpants for the one in the Garden. Sin, and punishment for sin, being inherited by generations who took no part in it, is frowned upon in the islamic tradition particularly with the Quranic instruction of 'no soul shall bare the sin of another'.

In Islam Satan was a jinn, creatures who do have free will. At the time when the Earth was inhabited with jinns as its prime species, Iblees (Satan) through virtuous acts and love of God through many devotional prayers over the centuries earned for himself a place in 7th Heaven, the highest of the 7 heavens. A time came when the djinn upon the Earth had become corrupt beyond hope and God ordered Iblees to lead his army to end them all, thus paving the way for the eventual arrival of mankind. (And it may also explain why the dinosaurs were wiped out lol) Sadly Iblees' many victories created in him a pride that was unbecoming of a warrior of God. Anyway in Heaven God brought forth Adam. As a human Adam was labeled ashraful-maqluqat, the best of creation, by God. God demanded that all in heaven perform a sajdah, or prostration for Adam, since he was an intercessor for God. Bowing to Adam was no different than any other commandment of God. All the angels bowed to him, but Iblees who had become arrogant refused, since he felt as a being made of flame he was superior to one who was made from the earth. As his hatred for mankind intensified he got himself banished from Heaven, and Iblees become shaitan, an enemy of mankind who would tempt all humans to sin, since he knows he is doomed, yet his desire is to drag as many down with him.

7:57 PM  
Blogger Geoffrey Dennis said...

Dear Bananas in Pajamas,

Thank you for your long and thoughtful post. Perhaps it would helpful for me to say, "Islam adapted the 'fallen angel' thesis, reworking it into the 'fallen djinn' thesis to explain the origin of evil spirits."

The fall of Iblis clearly is rooted in this particular demon-genesis tradition, but modified it to accommodate Islam's particular order and theology of cosmic beings.

As for the variations between Bible and Quran in Garden stories, well, that's just what they are, variations. Like the myth of fallen angels, Islam reworks the garden myth to reflect its particular theology.

Your clarifying observation is appreciated. Thanks for reading the blog.

9:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

bonjour j'aurai aimé savoir un renseignemnt : on ma dit ke yarane et un demon juive juive avec des yeux rouge comme des flammes il a 1500ans il a 500 femmes/////est 7 humaines j'aurai bien aimé savoir si tous sa est vraix merci d avance

6:51 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home