Friday, September 28, 2012

Esoteric Judaism Brought to the Public Eye

 It's been four years since I wrote the The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism, and three years since it was selected as a Finalist for the Jewish Book Council Award, but it was only last week I was interviewed about the book by Aaron Howard for the Houston Jewish Voice. It is perhaps the best composed article yet written about the book and the subject, so I provide a link here:


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Possession: The Dibbuk Box - A Review

[The paranormal investigator will see you now]

So I finally got to see the new Jewish-flavored horror movie Possession, and my assessment is....meh. The centerpiece is really a domestic drama of a disintegrating family. The first two acts are dominated by this, and the box is, what, a symbol of the toxic emotions penetrating the family? Not that I object to deeper meanings, I rather like them, but I prefer more horror leavened with metaphor than melodrama spiced with horror metaphors.

And as for the Jewish part (which only really comes to the foreground in the third act), well, it feels like not so well-conceived window-dressing. For example:

  • Dybbuks are a form of pneumatic (spirit) possession, not, as the movie indicates, demonic possession. We have become rather casual about how we use words. Spirits are usually some manifestation of dead humans, rather than infernal entities. This is actually important, and it is what make the dybbuk tradition of Judaism so distinctive from your run-of-the-mill Exorcist/Rite/Constantine possession. Because Jewish adepts (there is no office of exorcist in Judaism, the writers got that right) are dealing with two souls, the possessed victim AND THE DEAD SOUL, their project is doubly therapeutic - to help both regain the right path. This involves expelling the spirit, but also getting him/her on with the journey into the afterlife. 
  • The "name" of the demon is a strange conflation of the dybbuk tradition with the much earlier greco-roman Jewish belief in named demons (ala The Testament of Solomon). 
  • In Jewish dybbuk traditions, dybbuks do not possess "innocent" or "pure" souls, but invade those whose lives have made them vulnerable to such infestations through sin and lax observance of the Jewish faith. 
  • The fearful shuffling of the elders is pretty silly. Dybbuks are not contagious. 
  • Other than the little news story that inspired this movie, the "dibbuk box" itself is not a part of the authentic dibbuk tradition. WHAT WE DO SEE is a couple of accounts of Jewish exorcism where the adept forces the spirit into a bottle (ala the djinn tradition). This is taken as a sign the exorcism was successful. What did they do after that? I've never seen a "spirit disposal" report, but I assume the now takanah (repaired) spirit is released to continue its gilgul (transmigration). 
  • Jewish rituals of expulsion are usually communal affairs - at least a minyan (quorum of ten) is present, and often the whole community that can fit in the house participates. 
So what did they get right?

  • Jewish "exorcists" are any menschlik person (yeh, Matisyahu, nice film debut) with the knowledge to perform the rituals - rabbis, local holy men, the educated.
  • The recitation of Ps. 90, the "Psalm of Affliction," along with Ps. 121, 16, and others, is the centerpiece of this Jewish ritual. 
  • Though the explanation doesn't make a lot of sense to me, Jewish occult beliefs do regard mirrors as potential doorways between the living and the dead (Read Chaim Vital's autobiography, for example).
  • Tallisim (prayer shawls), shofarot (rams horns) and other Jewish ritual objects are often integrated into the process. 
So what can I say, given this movie and the slightly older The Unborn, except perhaps Jews should simply be happy that we have "arrived" - Hollywood is finally as open to making crappy movies about Judaism as it is to making crappy movies about Catholicism and Protestantism. For something better, I suggest The Secret (Israeli), the golem episode of the X-Files, or even Keeping the Faith.

Oh, and you can read my book, The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism.