Rabbinic Altered States of Consciousness?

The subject of demonology has fascinated me ever since I first began reading scary stories as a child. In our culture today, the belief in demonic spirits continues to play a role in literature, movies, and religion. The recent stories about Rabbi Batzri and his exorcisms show that in Haredi and Hassidic communities, the belief in demonic possession is still very much alive and well–irregardless whether such malevolent entities exist or not.

In the world of the psyche, the imagination runs amok in our unconscious and conscious minds. Our dreams bear witness to this mysterious reality where the line between the real and the unreal seem to conflate. The Talmud actually has a pretty sophisticated treatment of demons. In one of the more remarkable passages of the Talmud, we find:

Abba Benjamin says, If the eye had the power to see them, no creature could endure the Mazikin [the “damagers”]

Abaye says: They are more numerous than we are and they surround us like the ridge round a field.

R. Huna says: Every one among us has a thousand on his left and ten thousand on his right (Psalm 91:7).

Raba says: The crushing 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. 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 rooster. If one wishes to see them, let him take the placenta of a black she-cat that is the offspring of a black she-cat that is the first-born of a first-born, let him roast it the placenta in fire and grind it to powder, and then let him put some into his eye, and he will see them. Let him also pour it into an iron tube and seal it with an iron signet that they the demons should not steal it from him. Let him also close his mouth, lest he come to harm.

R. Bibi b. Abaye did so,  saw them and came to harm. The scholars, however, prayed for him and he recovered.[1]

Most of you reading this probably think some of the rabbis may have been taking hallucinatory drugs. This is one interpretation we cannot rule out. As we suggested above, the rabbis might have been describing frightening dreams or nightmares they experienced. We do not really know the original context that fueled these interesting discussions. In the spirit of open-minded discussion, it pays not to rush and invalidate points of view that we make find disagreeable.  Continue reading “Rabbinic Altered States of Consciousness?”

Hell has no fury like a Dybbuk scorned . . .

The story about Rabbi Yitzchak Batzri’s exorcism continues to surprise me. How can anyone be so gullible?

Channel 10 archives produced another one of the Kabbalist’s exorcisms involving a woman who claimed to be possessed by the spirit of her deceased husband, who had died about two-and-a-half years earlier. The man was believed to be a drunk who neglected to say Kaddish over his parents and dead sister. To make a long story short, the woman speaks in a deep voice (reminiscent of the Tacoma  trans-medium JZ Knight, a.k.a. “Ramtha”)  and Rabbi Batzri banishes the dybbuk from the woman’s big toe. How conjuring . . .  And so the story ended–or so we thought.

And now you are going to hear the rest of the story . . .

Sometime later, the formerly possessed woman receives an interview on Channel 10 where she claims the Rabbi owes her a substantial amount of money for failing to pay her for her services. To prove her point, she claims the entire story was staged, as she imitates the voice of the dybbuk the rabbi allegedly banished. She alleged that the rabbi paid her NIS 15,000 and had even agreed to pay her royalties from the copies of the tape of the exorcism which were widely distributed after the fact, but failed to live up to his promise.

Hmmm . . . If I were that woman, I would show the bank-records of the original check that the Rabbi gave her.

I am not sure about you, but I think that either this rabbi is either a fool or a charlatan. But again, what else would you expect from a man who gathered a group of kabbalists to circle Israel in a plane, while blowing shofars to drive away the unkosher Swine Flu? Incidentally, the influenza infection spiked up after his shofar-blowing concert.

The moral of our two-part story is simply this: Real life is more interesting than fiction could ever be. In an age of economic difficulties such as ours, people will believe in just about anything. Historically, in bad times, people have often gravitated to the Kabbalah for inspiration; yet, by the same token, there have been many charlatans who have misused Jewish mysticism for personal gain–the most famous being the 17th century charismatic Kabbalist, Shabbatai Tzvi.

My good friend Yochanan Lavie put together a new song I think our readers will enjoy humming to: Continue reading “Hell has no fury like a Dybbuk scorned . . .”

Rabbi Yitzchak Batzri–The Telegenic Exorcist Extraordinaire

Most people usually associate exorcism with the rites seen in the Catholic Church, but how many people are aware that exorcism rites exist also in Jewish tradition? Well, recently in the news once again [1], a Rabbi Yitzchak  Batzri, a telegenic exorcist extraordinaire, recently attempted to exorcize a “dybbuk” – an evil or morally demented spirit that has seized possession of a person. It is also known as “spirit possession.”

According to the news, a Brazilian man claimed that a dybbuk entered him, so he went to Rav Chaim Kanievsky who thought this man was truly possessed.

Reports about the possessed Brazilian man claim that witnesses heard voices emerging from the Brazilian man, even though his lips did not move. The spirit allegedly said, among other things, “The end is close,” and, “I sense many sins,” in a foreign language other than the man’s native tongue, which is the only language he purportedly knows. Curiously, although the man’s lips did not move, noises seemed to emanate out of the man’s stomach—of all places! His wife later said that he had been talking in his sleep as well, in a language other than his native tongue.

The young Brazilian man claimed to have lived during the days of the Second Temple, and called himself Petachyahu the son of Chava. Heaven denied him entry because of several heinous sins that included breaking into a house, murdering the man of the house, raping and murdering his wife, and sacrificing the son to an idol/foreign god.

How strange, last Sunday afternoon  I was reading a famous Jewish medieval story to my class at St. Ambrose University that is very reminiscent of this spirit’s evil deeds. The tale reads almost verbatim from a medieval classic text known as the Orhot HaTsadikim (“Pathways of the Righteous”) Chapter 14 on the attribute of “Envy.”  The parallels are so striking, if one did not know better, it sounds as if the entire story was scripted—word for word—from this perennial Jewish classic of the 15th century. Continue reading “Rabbi Yitzchak Batzri–The Telegenic Exorcist Extraordinaire”

Dancing in the Streets (2/08/10)

In the last thread we observed how the Haredim are initiating ways to keep the sexes apart–separate streets! Sometimes I wonder whether there is a silent competition between the Taliban and the Haredi, vying over “The Most Distinguished Misogynist Community Award of the Year,” better known as “The I am Holier Than Thou” prize.

Many years ago, when I was in Jerusalem, I remember going to a pizza shop where I saw Haredi boys and girls playing video games together. Haredi community leaders did their best to put an immediate end to that kind of familiar but healthy socialization. I speculated that the Haredim are afraid that young men and women might start dancing in the supermarket aisles and streets.

Bear in mind the women already dress pretty modestly in that community. Married women are so strict, they will wear a scarf on the top of their wigs.

Like the foolish Pharisees of our previous thread, the latest fad in Haredi piety is really made for Saturday Night Live comedy.  Jay Leno would definitely have a field-day with this material.

Kudos go to my talented and good friend Yochanan Lavie, who wrote a nice frum version of the song fit for a Broadway musical.


Apology to Martha & Vandellas, et al:

Calling out around the world
Are you ready for a freihlich beat
Haredim here and the time is right
For dancing in the streets
Dancing in Uman
Down in Jerusalem
In New York City

All we need is music, sweet music
There’ll be music everywhere
They’ll be shuckling, swaying, klezmer playing,
Dancing in the street, oh

It doesn’t matter what you wear, just as long as black is there
So come on, every guy, grab a bochur, everywhere, don’t be a slacker
They’ll be dancing, dancing in the street

It’s an invitation across the nation, a chance for frum boys to meet
They’ll be davening and singing and music swinging
Dancing in the street. Continue reading “Dancing in the Streets (2/08/10)”

Meditations: Rediscovering the Meaning of Rosh Hashanah

Meditations: Rediscovering the Meaning of Rosh Hashanah

As I prepare my thoughts for Rosh Hashanah. I become aware of time. Yes, the New Year has arrived. We are blessed to have received it. It ’s true that for many of us the arrival of any New Year on some level makes us a bit anxious. Why is that?!!Time marches on …. We are all a bit older, but are we necessarily wiser? Rosh Hashanah stresses that while time is fleeting, we are ultimately accountable for how we manage and sanctify our time.

According to Jewish folklore, the city of Chelm was famous for its notoriously foolish “wise men and women” Yet, despite their foolishness, there are many wonderful pearls of wisdom in these anecdotes because, in a paradoxical sense, we are all “Chelmites.”

On one occasion the Chelmites complained about the lack of time in their lives. It seemed that they had long lists of things to do and never had time for themselves. At a town meeting, the Chelmites arrived at what appeared to be a novel solution to their dilemma–They would bargain formore Time!They all agreed to send Raizel–her bargaining skills were legendary among the Chelmites.

After she traveled to Warsaw, she met with many of the Jewish leaders and finally negotiated a fixed price for a large shipment of time that would be sent by a train to Chelm. The shipment of time was late. Well, actually, it never arrived.

All the townspeople were complaining; they didn’t know what to do.

One day Beryl, the mayor’s uncle, came to visit and found everyone waiting in the town square. When the Chelmites told Beryl what they were waiting for, he began to laugh. “Foolish people,” he said, “You cannot buy time. You can only use what time you have. Someone has taken advantage of you because you have tried to buy something that cannot be sold.”

There is something more important than the measurement and control of time; how we spiritually utilize our time is also of great importance. Continue reading “Meditations: Rediscovering the Meaning of Rosh Hashanah”

A Modern Story about Pygmalion and the Haredi Rabbi

Yesterday, an interesting story hit the newspapers in Israel  Rabbi Rafael Cohen, chief of the northern city’s kosher division in the city of Tiberias, called for a boycott of all stores that display mannequins in bathing suits, claiming that to merely look at these figures, “damages the souls of the passerby.”

He even threatened to publish a list of stores that continue such displays, saying that “The residents of Tiberias should not set foot in stores of that kind, and that will cause them irreversible damage …. ‘Modest’ mannequins, he said, are acceptable but added, “But there are mannequins that are really revolting, mannequins in bathing suits that damage our souls.”

Are “kosher” mannequins next?

The above story makes one wonder: From where did Rabbi Cohen derive his prohibition? In my discussions with members of the Haredi community, they point out that “lusting” after immoral images is expressly forbidden in the Torah, “When you use these tassels, let the sight of them remind you to keep all the commandments of the LORD, without going wantonly astray after the desires of your hearts and eyes” (Num. 15:39).

However, Jewish law does distinguish between “merely looking” (ri’iyah) and what may be termed “fixation” (derech histaklut), and it would seem that the Haredi rabbi has conflated these two categories together.

To use an illustration: A porno video is made for histaklut, not r’iyiah and anybody with a modicum of common sense ought to immediately grasp the difference. Merely looking at a mannequin is certainly permitted, but being fixated at its presence—well, this reflects more of a psychosis or fetish. This idea is explicitly spelled out in the Shulchan Aruch as well [1], and the principle applies no less to the question of looking at idolatrous idols. [2]

The Mishnah in Avodah Zarah 3:4 tells us about a most remarkable story that is relevant to this discussion. The 1st century rabbinic sage Rabban Gamliel I (ca. mid  1st century C.E.) used to frequent Aphrodite’s bathhouse.

Judging by Rabbi Cohen’s standards,  Rabban Gamliel’s behavior should have been very dubious indeed; I doubt Rabbi Cohen and his legion of Haredi supporters would have approved of any Orthodox rabbi or Jew today attending a bathhouse adorned with the sexy image of Aphrodite “staring” at him.

Yet, even standing in front of the Aphrodite goddess was of no religious consequences whatsoever because the statue was nothing more than an adornment for the bathhouse as the Mishnah plainly states. Remarkably, the Mishnaic Sages realized the statue was nothing more but a graven image.

All in all, the Haredi folks may want to read the old Greek myth about Pygmalion,  a man who  once fell in love with a statue he made. It seems that he was not the only one ….

Postscript:  An American Pygmalion?

Shortly after this story came out, similar incident occurred–not in Israel–but in the United States. In the town of Reading, Ohio, a barbecue restaurant displayed a scantily clad mannequin can keep her spot outside a Cincinnati area barbecue joint, but local officials want her to cover up a bit.

The life-size figure stands as a busty beacon outside a restaurant in suburban Reading owned by Kenny Tessel. He told zoning officials at a hearing Wednesday night that the advertising gimmick has boosted business 40 percent.

The 5-foot-10 mannequin is on the street wearing a bikini top and tight short-shorts, leading some residents to complain about her lack of clothing. Tessel brought the doll to Wednesday’s hearing draped in a long, sleeveless gray T-shirt. The board said Tessel may continue to use the figure only if it’s dressed more modestly in front of the restaurant, too.

What a remarkable coincidence! Who would have imagined that a similar story would occur elsewhere around the world? So I started thinking: What are the differences between the mannequin in Tiberias and its parallel story in Reading? Maybe there’s an important distinction to be made. Whenever going by a dress shop; or a swimming suit shop, one expects to see a mannequin display whatever happens to be the fashion of the day.

However, with respect to the Reading mannequin, some people just felt its appearance was in bad taste, especially since it involves a family restaurant. Ultimately, it is the community leadership that decides the standards used by stores–and such matters cannot be decided by one person’s decision.

Jewish law frequently has to make subtle distinctions between cases, which on the surface appear similar but are not.

Postscript B: May 14th, 2009.

Well, the merchants of Tiberias were finally heard. When Mayor Zohar Oved got wind of the matter on Wednesday, he spoke with the Head of the Religious Council, Yaakov Sheetrit, and called for Cohen to be suspended. “I deplore Rabbi Cohen’s strange actions, which upset the delicate balance between the city’s different sectors,” Oved said. Tiberias is an international tourist city,” he added, “and as such it contains tourist zones which operate peacefully alongside neighborhoods with a religious character ….

The bond between religious and secular in the city is a close one and I will not allow a rabbi acting as he pleases and with no support, to upset it,” he declared.

And let us say, “Amen.”



[1] Y.D. 142:15, see Be’or Halacha.

[2] BT. Shabbat 149b and BT Avodah Zara 50a with the gloss of Tosfot, s.v. בחול אסור.

Timeout for a Moment of Comic Relief. . .


The Italian says, “I’m tired and thirsty. I must have wine.”
The Frenchman says, “I’m tired and thirsty. I must have cognac.”
The Russian says, “I’m tired and thirsty. I must have vodka.”
The German says, “I’m tired and thirsty. I must have beer.”
The Mexican says, “I’m tired and thirsty. I must have tequila.”
The Jew says, “I’m tired and thirsty.
I must have diabetes.”