- H. (YOSSI) CHAJES (Ph.D., Yale University, 1999), the Orange County Jewish Community Scholar Program’s 17th Annual One Month Scholar, is Associate Professor in the Department of Jewish History at the University of Haifa. His research on mystical phenomena such as spirit possessions in Jewish history and the role of diagrams in Kabbalah has garnered him honors such as Fulbright, Rothchild, Wexner, and Hartman Fellowships, and his book “Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism” earned a spot alongside Aldous Huxley’s “Devils of Loudon” on the Wall Street Journal’s list of the top five books ever written about spirit possession.
Q: Were you inspired by stories of spirits or mysticism as a child?
I think everyone grows up interested in ghosts and supernatural phenomena. … I loved magic tricks as a kid, as well as superheroes. Now we know just how Jewish those superheroes were, by the way – especially Superman. The book “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” does a great job illustrating that.
Q: Why do you focus on women in your accounts of spirit possession?
One of the most “in-your-face” facts is that about two-thirds of reported cases deal with women as the subjects of spirit possession within Jewish communities. It’s obviously not a women’s-only phenomenon, but this majority is too obvious to ignore.
As a scholar, I focus on trying to understand what these women felt they were experiencing: how they felt about it, what kind of language they used to speak about it (at least as reported by male writers, which is a significant qualification). Most anthropologists who theorize about this phenomenon have come up with functionalist explanations that imagine women using the idiom of spirit possession as a way to overcome disadvantages they face in a patriarchal culture, allowing them to speak in public, to express hostility towards individuals and groups, and so forth. It allowed them to preach. It was a safe and reparable way for women to vent their most rebellious and critical ideas without having to take responsibility or face direct consequences.
This large scale venting also served the interests of the hegemonic rabbinic leadership because it was good for them when frustration was vented in a way not destructive to the overall system. Everybody benefitted.
I recognize these functionalist explanations, but try to go a little bit further — what about all the other evidence we have that makes it seem that not all of these women were victims of involuntary possession, that some were actively seeking out engagement with the spirit world? This is what led me to women mystics of this era. These women were practicing divination, channeling spirits of the dead. … Men with very similar profiles are usually deemed “mystics” but women are relegated to the status of “possession victims,” what little agency they might have had, taken away.
Q: Do you have any particular lines of research or questions you’re specifically invested in?
The thread that ties all of my work together is my personal interest in understanding what was gained and lost when our society became “modern.” My own inner life, which combines skeptical as well as devotional inclinations, has been a kind of laboratory for me to imagine other times and places.
Q: How does your artistic side manifest in your research into Kabbalah?
For the better part of the last decade, I’ve been researching visual Kabbalah, studying the visual materials of Kabbalah. Whether that’s “art” is a theoretical question—you might say that the artifacts are “images that are not art.” They are diagrammatic, and at times artistic, with illuminations and interesting iconography. My research has connected me to the world of art history for the first time, and in particular, to scholars working on the history of scientific illustration and diagrams. The scholar program is supported by an impact grant from Jewish Federation & Family Services of OC and a generous donation from the Jewish Community Foundation of Orange County.
Emma Seely-Katz is a contributing writer for Jlife.