Friday, May 28, 2010

An Exorcism

The latest issue of Reform Judaism magazine contains an article about a Reform Rabbi who, at the request of one of his congregants, performed an exorcism on their house. It seems, from the article, that the Rabbi in question did not believe in the literal need for the exorcism. He didn’t think that there were malevolent spirits which lived in the house, which could be banished through the proper recitation of a ritual. Instead, he believed that the ritual was going to fill a need for these congregants, one which they were going to get filled somehow, so it might as well be through him, in a way which was as honest as he could manage.

Those who know me will, no doubt, be very unsurprised by the following two opinions: I think it’s a bad idea to do something like this. And, I see a lot of merit in the other side of the argument.

First, the bad. Spirits aren’t real. Ghosts aren’t real. Religion is a great way to be superstitious, but that is, in my not-as-humble-as-it-probably-should-be opinion, not a good thing about religion. As religious leaders, or as generally intelligent, thinking, religious people, I think part of our job is to get people away from the superstitious aspects of religion.

Ultra-Orthodoxy (the extreme, reactionary, fundamentalist, literalist version of Judaism) is infamous for telling its people that all sorts of horrors will befall them if they make ritual mistakes. Someone in your house sick? You must not have a kosher mezuzah on your door. Got into a car crash? You must have driven that car on Shabbat. And so on. It’s a patently ridiculous theology. It is demonstrably untrue, and it’s not even something we should want to be true. As I’ve said before (more or less), if God really does give people cancer because the parchment inside their mezuzah is defective (an actual claim I’ve heard), then I don’t want to work for that God anymore!

As a Rabbi, I’m often called on to do something which skirts the line of this kind of superstition. The best example is the Mi Sheberach, the prayer that we often say for healing (technically, that’s just one form of that prayer, but don’t worry about that for now). I know that the intent of that prayer, when we say it, is to give people strength and hope. To make people feel supported, and thought of. But, I also know that many people think of it as a kind of totem – if the Rabbi says my name before Mi Sheberach, then I have a better chance of being healed. In these cases, I do my best to teach, clearly and repeatedly, what is, and what isn’t, really going on (that is, I say often that this isn’t a magical healing prayer). And, I acknowledge that some will see it has magic, anyway. I don’t like that, but I can’t control how people interpret their religion.

But, at some point, a prayer, or a ritual, becomes too “magic-ish” to explain away. I don’t know what the line is, or if there is even a exact line at all, but somehow doing an exorcism, for a family which has explicitly told you that they believe that there are spirits infecting their house*, and using elements of a ritual which was clearly, by our definition, superstitious – well, again, everyone has their own line, I suppose, but this is just over it for me. I am a teacher, not a miracle worker. As my Rabbi, Rabbi Jerome Malino (z”l) used to say, “Sorry – I’m in sales, not management.”

* as I think about it, this may be the dividing line in this case. I can pretend and/or hope that people reciting Mi Sheberach won’t see it as magic. This family, based on their own statements, clearly will. Thus, were I to conduct the ritual, I’d be doing it fraudulently.

But, that brings me to the good. The Rabbi in question does a decent job laying out the arguments – to him, it’s not that different from things like Mi Sheberach:

Most Reform Jews don’t believe in intercessory prayer, the idea that God will necessarily give us what we ask for. When most of us ask God to heal those who are ill, we do not expect the Eternal to automatically grant cures; we are really asking God to give them and their healers strength, courage, and hope. This house blessing would then be a personalized misheberach. I would simply be asking God to bring health to a family in need of healing, and try to bring some light into the darkness that surrounds them.

I also heard from another Rabbi, by the name of Geoffrey Dennis (feel free to check out his blog at who defended this practice, and in a fairly convincing way. In the end, I still don’t think that I would do this ritual (I’m not giving an absolute “no,” because these things are always more complicated when you’ve got an actual person making an actual request). But, (with his permission) let me let Rabbi Dennis make his argument:

I love the Enlightenment and endorse the insights of the rationalist tradition, but we are not creatures of pure reason. We are creatures of paradox, like the world itself. Rationalism does not address every need in the human experience. Rituals and their efficacy can be explained rationally if one likes - see Catherine Bell's extensive works, for example, or read some of the work published in the Anthropology of Consciousness journal. To quote Erika Summer Efller,

"Rituals generate group emotions that are linked to symbols, forming the basis for beliefs, thinking, morality, and culture. People use the capacity for thought, beliefs, and strategy to create emotion-generating interactions in the future. This cycle, interaction → emotions → symbols → interaction, forms patterns of interaction over time. These patterns are the most basic structural force that organizes society"

In my (limited) experience, these purgative rituals, judiciously used in conjunction with the more modernist rituals of clinical psychology, help displace negative "emotion-generating interactions" with feelings of confidence, security, and solidarity with the tradition that affirms the values expressed in such rituals.

Human beings are ritual creatures – we’ve always structured our world, in large part, through the creation and performance of rituals. And, those rituals can have a powerful, meaningful, positive effect in so many ways. But, at the same time, rationality can’t be thrown out the window. We can’t claim to believe that which we know to be false, and we shouldn’t be affirming that which we don’t believe.

You know what? It’s hard being an ardent rationalist who believes in the power of ritual. It really is.

But, I guess that’s exactly what I am. So, I’ll have to keep trying to figure out what exactly that means.

Shabbat Shalom!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The term exorcism has very strong connotations in our society. As someone who has been the victim of an evangelical Christian "exorcism of a demon from the body and spirit" I can tell you it is a scary, painful, and almost abusive process. I know that the Rabbi did an exorcism on a house and that the methods for "Jewish exorcism" are different than what I was subjected to, but it still frightens me to think that people out there are dabbling with these types of rituals. Spirits and ghosts may not be real but the human imagination is and it can make us conjure up all kinds of demons, spirits, ect.. My fear is that if we start allowing these types of rituals we will see a resurgence of people “requiring” them.
All that being said, I can see other side of the argument. I can see how these rituals can have healing effects for those that request them. If one truly believes that they, or their home, are in need of an exorcism often that is the only thing that will give them peace.