J.H. Chajes, “Judgments Sweetened: Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern Jewish Culture,” Journal of Early Modern History 1:2 (1997): 124-169

J.H. Chajes, “Judgments Sweetened: Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern Jewish Culture,” Journal of Early Modern History 1:2 (1997): 124-169

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  JUDGMENTS SWEETENED: POSSESSION AND EXORCISM IN EARLY MODERN JEWISH CULTURE* J. H. CHAJES Yale University ABSTRACT The century 1550-1650 has been called "the Age of the Demoniac" by European his- torians who have analyzed the prominent role played by the possessed in numerous witch-trials during this period, as well as the propagandistic uses of demonic possession in the era of the Counter-Reformation. Noting that accounts of demonic possession among Jews reappear in Jewish sources after an absence of more than a millennium precisely in this period (c. 1540), J. H. Chajes here assesses the nature of the rela- tionship, if any, between the Christian phenomenon and its Jewish analogue. Chajes identifies many elements common to the Jewish and Christian constructions of the phe- nomenon and its treatment (exorcism). Many of these, however, are near universals as far as spirit possession is concerned; the emphasis in the Jewish construction of pos- session on reincarnation and the locus of the Jewish "proliferation" in Ottoman Galilee further complicates the positing of direct Christian influence upon the Jewish develop- ments. Instead, Chajes suggests that the Jewish proliferation of spirit possession arose for reasons analogous to those which fueled the proliferation in Christian Europe. These include inter-religious rivalry, efforts to reform the religiosity of the masses, and efforts to enhance and strengthen clerical authority. Moreover, the idiom of possession served to express the frustrated sexuality of the victims (nearly all female), as well as the stresses associated with life in pietistic religious environments. Demonic possession and exorcism have been generally neglected in Jewish historiography, scholars having only recently begun to assess their meaning and significance within Jewish life and literature. Cases of possession and exorcism have been examined by scholars of the Kabbalah, who have noted their dependence on the variation of gilgul (transmigration) known as 'ibbur (literally, impregnation). While gilgul generally denotes a soul's reincarnation at the moment of birth, `ibbur refers to the adhesion of one soul to another, beginning at some point  125 after birth.' This manner of transmigration provided the internal conceptual framework for what would come to be called a dibbuk, a possessing spirit, in Ashkenazic Jewish culture beginning in the late eighteenth century.2 The study of demonic possession within Jewish culture was significantly advanced by Gedalyah Nigal, who was the first to compile extensive primary materials on possession.' Nigal's studies, however, are lacking from a number of standpoints. His major work on the subject, Sippurei dibbuk be-sifrut yisrael (Dibbuk Stories in Jewish Literature), is an anthol- ogy of nearly every known possession story. Unfortunately, however, at least in the cases from our period, Nigal often chooses later rather than earlier versions of a particular story; his transcriptions from the srcinal sources are also frequently inexact. Moreover, Nigal does not attempt to analyze the accounts, and restricts himself in a long intro- duction to cataloging the recurring motifs in all of the tales, from the sixteenth to the twentieth century.' Nigal assumes that possession victims suffered from forms of epilepsy and schizophrenia. Subsequent scholars, bringing with them greater expertise in the fields of psychology and the history of science, have  126 since challenged this diagnosis. Yoram Bilu, in a sophisticated article, argues that the possessed were hysterics, and that only as hysterics would they have been capable of participating in the "culturally- dependent syndrome," which he persuasively suggests possession to be.' Jewish possession literature has also been studied recently as a genre of folklore by Sara Zfatman-Biller. In two articles, Zfatman-Biller applies the "tale-type" analysis characteristic of folklore studies to possession accounts.? This type of analysis, she believes, enables her to discern fictive from factual elements in the accounts by distinguishing stereo- typical, recurring motifs from srcinal, particular details in the narra- tives. Her first article is primarily devoted to demonstrating the fictive character of a late, Yiddish account of a series of possession and exor- cism cases, while her second article argues for the historicity of a much earlier narrative account of such a case. The psychological and the folkloristic approaches both tend to obscure the temporal and regional aspects of possession and exorcism cases. Their approach is, then, essentially synchronic rather than diachronic. In the work of Nigal and Bilu, cases spanning nearly four centuries and perhaps three or four continents are lumped together for analy- sis. The "syndrome" is thus assumed to fulfill certain functions within the life of the individual as well as within the larger culture. These functions are relatively static over time, remaining coherent until soci- ety undergoes significant structural transformations.' Zfatman-Biller, on the other hand, treats individual cases in each of her articles, though she makes no attempt to place the accounts in historical perspective.  127 In her studies, the historical question is restricted to the question of the historicity of the accounts; that is, did the events described hap- pen, or not? In approaching possession in the ways I have described, scholars have illuminated its nature in a significant manner. There are, how- ever, a number of approaches to this material that have not yet been adequately pursued. Most importantly for our purposes is the avenue of comparative historical research.' While possession and exorcism have been studied widely by general Europeanists, Jewish historians (and other students of the phenomena) have not sought to describe and account for the similarities and differences between the Christian and Jewish views, descriptions, and treatments of the possessed. Among the Europeanists, there exists a significant historiographical debate over the reasons for the proliferation of witchcraft accusations and cases of demonic possession in the period spanning roughly from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth centuries.' While the shocking  128 rise of witch-hunting in early modern Europe has been well docu- mented, there is less material to demonstrate a similarly exponential rise in cases of demonic possession in the same period. The funda- mental difference between them, namely that demonic possession was not a criminal offense, whereas witchcraft was, by itself accounts for the relative paucity of material bearing on possession. This lack of serial, legal documentation makes it impossible to chart the incidence of possession statistically, as has been done with so much success with the witch-hunt. Nevertheless, a number of historians have suggested that many signs point to a marked increase in the incidence of possession beginning in the mid-sixteenth century. H. C. Erik Midelfort has argued convinc- ingly that demonic possession, part and parcel of the "growing demoni- zation of the world" in the sixteenth century, "became epidemic ... only after about 1560."'° D. P. Walker has also argued that there was an increase in the frequency of possession in this period. In addition to expressions in the sources indicating the novelty of these events, exorcisms became more frequent as they came to be employed, accord- ing to Walker, first as a form of religious propaganda, most commonly by Catholics against Protestants, and later, as intrinsic elements of the witch-hunt.' 1 It appears that after a long period of dormancy, possession and exor- cism reemerged in Jewish culture at the same time as European Chris- tian society witnessed the developments we have  just noted. While stories of possession and exorcism are to be found in ancient rabbinic literature and, of course, figure prominently in the Gospels, they are quite rare in medieval Jewish literature.'2 Might the second half of the
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