Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Jewish Zombies: The Walking (and Talking) Dead

[Max Brooks - the world's leading zombie expert is a Jew. What - he couldn't get into medical school?]

So some occult themes seem manifestly not-Jewish. One that immediately comes to mind, given I'm watching the new show on AMC, the Walking Dead, is the zombie. The term "zombie" comes from West Africa. Of course the idea of the undead is not limited to there and the Caribbean. From vampires to Frankenstein, western culture has envisioned various ways the dead could return.

Jews too. A fair case could be made us being early contributors to zombie culture. After all, Judaism introduced the Western world to the concept of resurrection, the bodily restoration of the dead to life and consciousness. That belief transferred to the Roman empire with the whole Jesus back-from-the-dead scenerio. Now Resurrection assumes the complete, even perfected, return of the deceased, which is a far cry from our conception of ambulatory corpses without a neshamah (soul), but these ideas sit on a spectrum, nonetheless.

In our own time George Romero has defined the "zombie rules" we have all internalized: Zomies are human-created, slow moving, simple-minded flesh-eating ghouls who must be physiologically decapitated ("Head shot! Head shot!"). None of this applies to the Jewish phenomenon.

There are relatively few Jewish stories of animated corpses - probably because such stories offend Jewish notions of kavod ha-met (respecting a corpse). Jews don't display corpses, lavish them with make-up, or attempt to preserve them. Every part of a body deserves proper burial, which is why you see those guys in yellow reflective jackets at the aftermath of every terrorist bombing in Israel. That's ZAKA, and those guys are trying to ensure all human flesh is gathered and treated with respect. So making a zombie for the ephemeral needs of the living is unseemly. Still, there are some stories in Jewish traition that overlap the concepts of resurrection with the golem tradition (making an artificial human).

According to these stories, the zombie is created by an adept (a baal shem), usually by using divine names (Maaseh Buch 50b). Most often the name is written on a parchment and inserted under the tongue or under the skin of the deceased, or inscribed on an amulet worn by the body (Sefer Yuhasin, Shivhei ha-ARI).

The most common motivation for performing this radical deed of power was so the corpse could talk: revealing who murdered them, telling of goings-on in the celestial spheres, or to convey vital information and warnings to the living (Maaseh Nissim, Jahrbucher). In this the tradition parallels stories of the hiner bet or hiner plet (Yid. "catatonic"), a condition where a person falls into a death-like coma for days or even weeks, but alien spirits speak through the body, revealing the secret sins of people in the community and calling for the witnesses to repent. In one case, in Sefer Yuhasin, the sage revived a travelling companion out of shame that he had allowed the youth to die, despite a promise made to the parents.

None of these undead creatures are fully-realized people. A give-away is that the animated corpse cannot pray properly. In almost all these stories, the wise come to recognize the unnatural state of affairs and return the corpse to clay by removing the name of power. In the story of the son restored to life, the father poignantly ends his son's pseudo-existence with a kiss, allowing him to extract the name from under the boy's tongue.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, thank you so much for posting this! I've been trying to find out more about zombie creation from a Jewish perspective for about a year. Although I'd read some of this information in your Encyclopedia, this has helped me to fill some more of the gaps.

7:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Max Brooks is not Jewish. His mother is a gentile.

1:11 PM  

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