My Dear Rabbi Talmudic Advice Column for September: Troubled by Demons

Dear Rabbi,

I’ve been studying the Talmud and have come across some passages that take seriously things like demons, demon possession, and exorcisms. This got me thinking and asking: If the Talmud promotes primitive superstitions that I reject, why should I take seriously anything else that it teaches?

Possessed in Paterson

Dear Possessed,

You are correct to be concerned about this content. The Talmud’s Jews lived in Babylonia 1500 years ago, in a world that was filled with shedim, mazikim, and ruhot — demons and spirits, some evil, some not. The Talmud’s Jews believed that demons lived all around them, in trees, in bodies of water, on housetops, and in latrines. The Talmud cautions its readers that it’s a good thing that demons were invisible since, “If your eye could see them, you could not endure with them around. They surround a person. They are more numerous than people. Each person has a thousand demons on his left side and ten thousand on his right side.” So yes, demons appeared persistently throughout the Talmud and in the midrashim.

That cultural fact reminds us vividly of something that most observant Jews would prefer to forget — that the wisdom of our ancient books comes along with the naive baggage of a less scientific, less philosophical era.

So what are your options? Sure, you can insist on a take-it or leave-it approach to the Talmud. Since part of it is superstition and you reject that, then you may say let’s toss away the whole work.

As a rabbi I am obligated to remind you that we believe the religious and theological wisdom of the Talmud provides a profound and meaningful basis for our spiritual lives. It’s part of the extended Oral Torah that derives its authority from what God gave to Moses at Sinai.

And so does that mean that we rabbis today believe that the demons spoken of in the Talmud were, and are, real entities?

Some fundamentalist rabbis, even today, will say that yes, demons are real, exactly as described in the sacred texts.

More modern rabbis will suggest to you that there are sophisticated ways to handle this issue.

The traditional nuanced believer’s response will be to remind you that for centuries great scholars and sages have distinguished between the halachah (the legal and ritual content) and the aggadah (the folklore and legend) in the Talmud. Serious sages have agreed that we need not accept the aggadah at literal face value. And teachings about demons are part of the aggadah that can be glossed over or taken symbolically.

A common modern and somewhat trite and obvious explanation based in this free approach to the aggadah is the idea that demons are merely metaphors. We can say that we all have our own personal “demons” of one sort or another, demons with which we struggle. In this frame of interpretation we affirm to take hold and keep the aggadah, including what it says about demons, but with a grain of salt and a heap of free associations.

What’s my advice to you then? Talmudically, I see three possible paths. First, if you have already decided to reject your faith and community, you will conclude that you must be utterly consistent and throw the baby out with the bathwater. A second path open to you, if you have decided to continue in your community, is that you accept the traditional answers that distinguish between that which we consider to be authoritative and that which we no longer need to heed.

And a third path for you is that you continue to explore and struggle with the metaphoric use of talmudic ideas like demons. I know one person who spends several hours every month with a professional therapist trying to deal with the personal issues of his life in a modern behavioral way. Yet on occasion he finds it most helpful to concretize an issue that he faces, and to imagine it takes the form of a demon, and then to actively banish it from his life.

Whatever path you choose, I hope this question does not haunt you much longer and that the paths of your life not be beset by demons.

Tzvee Zahavy has published several new Kindle Editions at Amazon.com, including “The Book of Jewish Prayers in English,” “Rashi: The Greatest Exegete,” “God’s Favorite Prayers” and “Dear Rabbi: The Greatest Talmudic Advice” which includes his past columns from the Jewish Standard and other essays.

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