What is the soul? Look for it, and it can’t be seen; define it, and it eludes description. And yet, for many ancient cultures, the idea that life could exist without a soul was unimaginable. However, Talmudic and Kabbalistic rabbis were not entirely dualistic either. Unlike, for example, Plato, most Jewish thinkers had a notion of life-energy that was quasi-materialistic. The spiritual world and the material world were interwoven, and actions in one could directly affect the other — for better or for worse.
The most important process in the material world, for most of the Kabbalah, is that of creation itself. This, after all, is what God does: create the world and bring it into being. And it is what human beings, in their deepest imitation of God, do as well. Sexuality, reproduction, differentiation, and the bringing forth of life were thus both great cosmic mysteries and awesome powers bestowed upon human beings. Spiritual production, too, was important to the Kabbalists: a person’s deeds create worlds, order the cosmic array, uplift the sparks, and participate in the Divine process of destruction and repair.
When it goes right. But what about when the life-energies of the universe are misappropriated? What happens when something goes wrong?
The mythic structure of the Kabbalah provided many colorful answers to that question: demons and dybbuks, golems and ghosts — all of them the results of misspent life energy. But the Kabbalah does not develop its ideas out of nowhere; they are part of a long history of Jewish speculation about shedim (demons – also a word used to refer to foreign gods; see Psalms 103:37 and Deuteronomy 32:17) and demonic personalities such as. As compared with other ancient Near Eastern texts, in which demons play a central role, the Bible is nearly silent about the existence of supernatural beings. But not the Talmud. The Talmud has a rich, though vague, demonology. Houses of study are described as being filled with demons when sexual energy is not properly channeled. Great rabbis are able to perceive demons sitting on the right and left hands of every person. They are able to harness the Divine creative energies to create animals which can then be consumed for food. And, in the Talmudic world, spirits are everywhere: they haunt dark places, homes, even the crumbs left on the dinner table. For example, consider the omnipresence and omnimalevolence of demons described in BT Berachot 6a:
It has been taught: Abba Benjamin says, If the eye had the power to see them, no creature could endure the demons. Abaye says: They are more numerous than we are and they surround us like the ridge around a field. R. Huna says: Every one among us has a thousand on his left hand and ten thousand on his right hand. Raba says: The crushing of the crowd in the Kallah lectures comes from them. Fatigue in the knees comes from them. The wearing out of the clothes of the scholars is due to their rubbing against them. The bruising of the feet comes from them.
Rarely does the Talmudic literature go into detail about exactly how demons and magical creatures come into being, or whether they are really independent beings “out there,” or merely psychological realities. If the latter, of course, then we today can perhaps understand this foreign-sounding discourse — after all, who among us has not been plagued by “demons” when work is unfinished, or when sexual desire runs amok? . And, as in the source above, “demons” (mazzikim — a word which might be better translated ‘harmful beings’) could be seen as anything which causes decay, pain, and the depletion of life-energy.
Still, even in Berachot, it’s not entirely clear whether demons are, in the Talmud, psychological realities or actual physical ones — whether they are metaphors or creatures — especially when the source quoted above goes on to say “If one wants to discover them, let him take sifted ashes and sprinkle around his bed, and in the morning he will see something like the footprints of a cock.”
The Kabbalah, in contrast, does go into detail. Some demons, it explains, are formed whenever a man improperly spills his seed — a sin considered so heinous by the Kabbalah because it subverts the creative process. Other demons are, as in the Christian myth, rebellious angels, or in the case of Lilith, primordial human beings who disobeyed the Divine plan. In all cases, they are instances of life-energy gone awry. In the proper functioning of the cosmos, energy flows like a cycle: down from heaven, then back up in the form of proper ritual action. But when the energy is misappropriated, as in masturbation or rebellion, its intense power falls into the realm of shadow.
It’s important to understand that evil, in most of the Kabbalah, lacks any power of its own. Evil is an illusion: the illusion of separation from God. But evil is given power when Divine energies, such as those of creation, are likewise separated from the cosmic plan. This is how all evil, demonic and otherwise, comes into being — the illusion of separation given power by human beings.
Once again, the mythic narratives of the Kabbalah may be difficult for us to understand today, but not if we situate them within the deep concerns both of the elite Kabbalists and of ordinary Jews who lived in a time of great uncertainty, particularly around the all-important processes of conception and birth. Remember for a moment how absolutely central generation and progeny were, and still are, for many Jews. And yet, just as bearing children was central to one’s identity, it was also rife with peril. Miscarriage, infant mortality, illness, and birth defects were all far more common in the medieval world of the Kabbalah than they are today. Bearing children was awesome, and terrifying.
As, of course, was death. If we are all possessed of life-energy, then what happens to that energy when we die? Ideally, it returns to its Source — or, in some Kabbalistic texts, it transmigrates to a new incarnation in the process of gilgul, the wheel of death and rebirth. As described by Rabbi Hayyim Vital in the Sefer ha-Gilgulim (Book of Transmigrations — the fourth part of the Etz Hayyim, Vital’s magnum opus and the most important source for Lurianic Kabbalah), death is not the end of life; it is only an interruption, or a change of phase, in the soul’s pilgrimage. Thus no vital life energy is lost; it is all, as it were, recycled — and a soul’s work left unfinished in one life may be completed in a subsequent one. Moreover, since there is a finite number of “root-souls” that continue incarnating, some Kabbalists believed they could identify which departed souls shared a “root” with the mystic. For example, Vital’s book links the soul of Kabbalist Moshe Cordovero to that of King Zechariah, and that of Isaac Luria to the soul shared by Moses and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Vital’s contemporaries were also known to prostrate themselves upon the graves of departed rabbis and righteous people, in order both to unite with a previous incarnation and to effect the tikkun (repair, completion) for which the departed soul had returned.
But sometimes the process goes wrong. In such cases, a variety of ills may befall the soul. The most well-known of these is the phenomenon of the dybbuk, or possession, when one soul “sticks” onto another. Here, the tikkun that the departed soul requires takes a sinister turn, as the soul forcibly takes over the body of a living being in order to do the necessary work. Possession by a dybbuk can happen for a number of reasons. Perhaps the departed soul is sinister, and the living person innocent. Or, conversely, the departed soul may have been saintly, but wronged by the living; in this case, possession by a dybbuk is essentially punishment (or revenge) for an improper act. Or, apparently, possession may happen almost at random. Popular in Hasidic folklore, the most popular dybbuk in Jewish cultural history is that of S. Ansky’s well-known play, The Dybbuk (1920), which describes how the soul of a betrayed man comes back to haunt the body of his betrothed.
There are other possibilities as well. A soul may visit a person during sleep, bringing messages from the beyond or prophecies about the future, or it may haunt a place, as in popular ghost stories. Sometimes the soul of a departed righteous person may “impregnate” the soul of a living person, the process described by Lurianic Kabbalah as ibbur — though unlike the dybbuk, ibbur is usually positive, not negative. Sometimes a righteous soul undergoes ibbur so it can complete a task, or perform a mitzvah. Sometimes it does so for the benefit of the “host” soul. Really, ibbur is no different from possession by a dybbuk — but practically speaking, they are polar opposites, as the former is benign and the other sinister.
One might observe, in all of these cases, that the ordinary processes of life-energy are being diverted, for either positive or negative reasons. And life energy, above all, is powerful. When put to proper ends, the transmission of life energy, by means of sex or supernatural activity, is the godly act of maintaining the cosmic flow. But anything that powerful can also create great evil.
Perhaps the most well-known example of this phenomenon, as transmuted by a variety of European sources, is that of the golem, the artificial anthropoid animated by magic. The Talmud relates a tale of rabbis who grew hungry while on a journey — so they created a calf out of earth and ate it for dinner. The Kabbalists, who as usual blend a deep, mythic supernaturalism with an almost scientific curiosity, determined that the rabbis did this magical act by means of permuting language, primarily utilizing the formulas set forth in the Sefer Yetzirah, or Book of Creation. Just as God speaks and creates, in the Genesis story, so too can the mystic. (The word Abracadabra, incidentally, derives from avra k’davra, Aramaic for “I create as I speak.”) Thus, under the rarest of circumstances, a human being may imbue lifeless matter with that intangible, but essential spark of life: the soul.
The Kabbalists saw the creation of a golem as a kind of alchemical task, the accomplishment of which proved the adept’s skill and knowledge of Kabbalah. In popular legend, however, the golem became a kind of folk hero. Tales of mystical rabbis creating life from dust abounded, particularly in the Early Modern period, and inspired such tales as Frankenstein and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” Sometimes the golem saves the Jewish community from persecution, or death, enacting the kind of heroism (or revenge) unavailable to powerless Jews. Often, however, as in the non-Jewish sources, Jewish folktales about the golem tell what happens when things go awry — when the power of life-force goes astray, often with tragic results. The classic narrative of the Golem tells of how Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague (known as the Maharal; 1525-1609) created a golem to defend the Jewish community from antisemitic attacks. But eventually, the golem grows fearsome and violent, and Rabbi Loew is forced to destroy it. (Legend tells that the golem remains in the attic of the Altneushul in Prague, ready to be reactivated if needed; this legend reappeared most recently in Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay). Likewise in Paul Wegener’s expressionist film The Golem (1920), the golem is a brutish creature created by a well-meaning, if proud, rabbi (in the film he is more dark sorcerer than sage) whose powers are all-too-easily turned to destructive ends.
This is, of course, a perfect encapsulation of the same anxiety that underlies so much of the mystical speculation about demons, dybbuks, ghosts, and golems: the power of life is so strong, that it brings both promise and terror.