A number of times in the Torah, and in this week’s parasha also more than once, we are reminded not to interact with or trust in ghosts or familiar spirits. As we know, when something appears multiple times in the Torah, we can assume attention is being called to it (like not boiling a kids in its mother’s milk.)
It’s sort of funny and ironic that, over the thousands of years that have passed since these injunctions were first recorded, Jewish culture has, like many others, become infected with all sorts of superstitions, use of amulets, golems, dybbuks, and more.
When we look at the Hebrew words, we discover some interesting things. The term most often used for ghosts looks suspiciously like it was derived from the root for father/ancestor.
Yet, if our ancestors could truly offer us advice and information, why would we not want it? Or is Torah warning us that such knowledge may appear to be genuine, but that, in this Universe of G"d’s creation, it is not?
The word for spirits is clearly derivative of the verb root meaning "to know" and could perhaps mean "those who know things." Of course, the question is "do they know things they shouldn’t know" ?
In point of fact, one might even question the very existence of Jewish metaphysics (in the form of Kabbalah) as being somewhat inconsistent as well. (The Kabbalists do dance great big circles and take great pains to avoid the trappings that might give the impression of being related to ghosts and spirits. Such beliefs are not what Kabbalah is all about. Nevertheless, are these thiongs that we are not meant to know or understand. Are we looking where we shouldn’t be looking? Seeking to know what we shouldn’t know?
What knowledge is truly esoteric? Is the knowledge of good and evil, that Adam and Chava acquired after eating from the fruit, really knowledge we weren’t supposed to know? It seems likely. Now that we know it, it is surely no longer esoteric. Yet there was that other tree in the garden, the tree of life. Of that tree, Adam and Chava did not eat. Is that knowledge now the esoteric knowledge we aren’t supposed to know?
We are a curious species. We want to know. We want to understand. When we can’t understand, we often turn to religious or metaphysical explanations. Now a whole industry has grown up around trying to blend pure scientific knowledge with esoteric religious knowledge.
We also study history, attempting to gain knowledge from our ancestors. Even here, there is a struggle between empirically clear knowledge of history, and esoteric knowledge. (Think "intelligent design.") Is that consorting with familiar spirits?
If nothing else, the Torah is cautioning us to be suspicious of the information gained from ghosts, through divination, and consorting with familiar spirits. Yet in the Torah we read of the urim and thummim. They were surely oracular devices.
It’s all so confusing, I just don’t know what to make of it all. Oy. So this musing has no conclusion, no great insight. I am going to have to spend Shabbat struggling to understand what these prohibitions regarding ghosts and familiar spirits are all about. I hope I can get rid of enough of my own ghosts to do so successfully.
©2008 by Adrian A. Durlester