Dybbuks and Jewish Women
in Social History, Mysticism and Folklore
By Rachel Elior
Urim Publications, 2008, 128 pages
Dr. Rachel Elior, professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the author of many works on Jewish mysticism, examines a rather interesting subject: how and why people thought they possess the soul of a deceased person, called a dybbuk, and what happens to the possessed individuals. Her primary focus is, as it should be, upon women, since the dybbuk frequently opted to enter and control females rather than males.
Elior notes that the first appearance of this strange phenomenon occurred in the sixteenth century, after the expulsion of Jews from Spain, when Jews turned to mysticism for solace, when a center of mysticism arose in the city of Safed in Israel and when the subjects of demons and souls was part of everyday speech. The number of occurrences slowed down and soon ceased with the introduction of the enlightenment in the eighteenth century.
What caused women to believe they were possessed and why did people believe them? How did people treat the dybbuk impregnated woman different than witches who were said to be infused by the devil? Why didnít the Jewish community ostracize and demonize the possessed women? How were the women cured? How did Jewish literature address this issue? Elior discusses these and related subjects.
Elior shows how women were adversely affected by their socio-cultural-historical climate. They were married off by their parents without any consideration of love around the age of thirteen. They were usually forced to be submissive and subservient to the authority of their husbands. They were kept home-bound, secluded from society, and prevented from acquiring an education and any economic independence. Many found life with their husbands intolerable.
They were told that women are associated with sin and uncleanliness. They heard obnoxious views about their sex, such as the statement in Midrash Genesis Rabbah 7: "When Eve was created, Satan was created with her." They were assured that all women scheme and act treacherously. They were taught that women are responsible for being raped and for incest. What could they do? How could they express their anguish and frustrations?
"The principle way in which powerless people could deviate from the patriarchal order while still remaining within the traditional world was by succumbing to illness," Elior writes, "a step that occasionally used the power of physical and mental weakness to gain a degree of distance and liberation from the expected order."
The people around them believed that some souls were floating in the physical world and that souls entered the bodies of new born children and live again through reincarnation. The women used these ideas to escape from their terrifying, repulsive experiences and coercion. Either consciously or subconsciously, they developed the notion of the dybbuk, that a soul could enter their bodies, control them, make them sick, and stop them from having intercourse with their husbands, preclude them from the drudgery of housework and bring people to their homes to be interested in them. Frequently, these women, who were unable to speak for themselves, found a voice in a soul from the dead who articulated their concerns and spoke for them.
Elior shows how the phenomenon of the dybbuk disappeared when the forces that prompted its birth disappeared, when the number of coerced marriages declined, the role of women in society became enlightened and women were given their own voice.