Pluralistic PerspectivesBeyond Ghosts and Familiar Spirits: Finding Holiness in the Old and the New

Parshat Kedoshim, Leviticus 19:1-20:27

We are on a multi-layered journey. On the Jewish holiday calendar, after leaving Egypt two weeks ago with all the attendant fear and drama of Passover we are moving steadily toward the holiday of Shavuot–on which we celebrate the revelation of the Torah–and thus toward Mt. Sinai. In the Torah reading cycle, this week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, gives us a small taste of what we might receive at Sinai: a fascinating mixture of laws, both ethical and ritual, with the explicit intention of helping us live holy lives.

The Torah seems to be very interested in one commandment in particular, so much so that this commandment is repeated three times in Kedoshim, which is only two chapters long. Is it the commandment about rising in the presence of our elders? Or about having honest weights and measures? Or about avoiding certain sexual relationships? No–the only commandment that is repeated three times in this portion prohibits consulting ghosts or familiar spirits (Leviticus 19:31, 20:6, 20:27).

Why would one consult a ghost? In both biblical and rabbinic sources, people consulted the dead based on the belief that the dead had access to knowledge that we do not have in life. For example, King Saul commanded a woman of Ein Dor, who was known for her ability to consult with ghosts, to bring up the spirit of the prophet Samuel to tell Saul what would happen in the next day’s battle with the Philistines. Samuel told Saul that both he and his son Jonathan would die in that battle, which indeed came to pass (I Samuel 28). And in the Babylonian Talmud (Brachot 18b), there is a fascinating discussion about what the dead know, including the suffering of the living, the best time to plant crops, where money is hidden, and who will die next.

Fascinating indeed. But for those of us modern Jews who have outgrown Ouija boards and who seek guidance on our own journey towards greater sanctity in our lives, how are we to understand this odd commandment that plays such a curiously repetitive role in the biblical passage that has come to be known as the Holiness Code?

One answer might come from noticing the similarity between the Hebrew words kadosh (holy) and hadash (new); the Hebrew differs by only one letter. There is a feeling of newness in the experience of holiness. The 18th-century Hasidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev taught, in his lesson for Rosh Hashanah, that if we could only recognize that we are actually created anew with every breath we inhale, we would be able to serve our Creator with greater devotion. Things that are unchanging are lacking in delight.

When we are in a state of holiness, of connection with the Divine, it feels new and joyful, even if a given practice that helped us come into that state of holiness is ancient and well-rehearsed. But if we consult a “ghost” in our attempt to come closer to a holy life—if we rely on a well-worn practice that has no meaning for us, which is dead for us or to which we are dead–we are turning to something that may be comfortable, but is without any vitality of its own. There is no newness or delight. The answers it provides to questions of meaning are empty and not inspiring. They cannot help us imagine what might be. They can only tell us about the past, with all its missed opportunities.

And why should we avoid the “familiar spirits?” The Hebrew word is yid`onim, which the commentators understand to be the name of a bone through which a diviner speaks. But the word comes from the grammatical root yd`, meaning “to know” (hence the English translation of “familiar”), an important one for Jewish seekers. Its usual noun form, da’at, can mean “expanded awareness” or even “spiritual experience.” We might interpret the word yid`onim, then, to mean something that appears to help expand our awareness but does so in a warped or distorted way. Perhaps we are being warned away from substances that might confuse us, or even qualities that seem righteous but which end up feeding our smaller selves and leading us away from true holiness.

So now we can return to our thrice-mentioned commandment with fresh eyes. “Do not turn to ghosts and do not inquire of familiar spirits to be defiled by them; I am YHVH your God.” In our journey towards living with greater holiness, keep seeking what is fresh and renewed; do not turn to the lifeless past for inspiration–yet insist on what is actual expanded awareness; do not allow yourself to settle for false spiritual expressions. YHVH is our God, ever becoming, ever flowing with holiness. When we truly know that, we too can be holy, and live holy lives.

Guest author Rabbi Lisa L. Goldstein is the Executive Director of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. 

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