What follows is a letter I wrote in high school in response to a comment made by my religious studies teacher about the absence of ghosts in Judaism. As one of the few Jews at my Anglican school, I found myself taking more pride in my roots than when I was only one of about 1,000 at my Jewish school.
I'm posting it here with a slight reference to Joel Spolsky's latest post (which briefly talks about my current employer) and also because I am amazed that I managed to find this essay lurking in the depths of i2pi.com
It is very true to say that Judaism has very little historical associations with ghosts in the spooky spiritual sense, but to use this in the formation of the conclusion that there were simply no Jewish ghosts is pure adulteration of facts. This may seem a bold statement, but one must be so when dealing with a topic that is so ‘iffy’.
The first if in the iffiness is the definition of a ghost. To resort to a dictionary, The Macquarie defines a ghost as ‘a disembodied spirit of a dead person’ or ‘a spiritual being’; That will suffice.
I feel that there is enough evidence in traditional Jewish literature to support the claim that there were or are Jewish ghosts. But before one goes jumping into the five books one must firstly realise that the Torah only forms part of a small part of the Tanach textual trinity, containing the Torah, the Nevi’im and the Kethuvim; The Bible, The Prophets and The Writings. These three form, together with the commentaries of commentators like Rashi, the basis of Jewish ritual, custom and tradition. Without its counterparts the Torah is very much a vague thing, and it is probably in this fact where the beginnings of many a war are buried. So to form an opinion on any matter of Judaism one must at least consult the Tanach in its entirety.
If we draw our attentions to the Torah, we can find many references to spiritual beings, most of them classed under the broad heading of ‘god’, and by the second definition of ghost, we can classify these ‘beings’ as ghosts. The prime suspect for such a labelling of god himself (he is referred to as he not she in the Torah, so I will stick to that convention). Take Deuteronomy 4:12, ‘You heard the sound of words, but see no form...’. Here we have a description of god as sort of presence, who can make himself appear ghostlike to people. Now one may argue that this is a tenuous basis for supporting my aforementioned claim, and I agree, but wait, there is more.
In addition to the myriad of ghostlike appearances of god, we have the angels. These group of lucky souls have reached the court of god, and their duty is to appear on earth to carry out duties for god. In his 12th century Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides opposed the idea that such angels are corporeal beings. So if they are not physical they must be metaphysical: ghosts. These beings pop up all through the Torah usually acting as schleppers for god. See Genesis 18:2, 3:2, and 13:6. In these references the angels appear as messengers, fire and in the last case in the form of a person; Not quite white sheet and chains material, but definitely ghosts.
It has been stated that the idea of ghosts as being merely the risen dead is just a recent concept, but if we cast our minds back to Eziekel 37 we find a very such references. In this chapter, to cut a long story short, god leads Ezi down to a valley of dry bones, whereby Ezi asks god if the bones shall every live again and god replies ‘I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live again, I will lay sinews upon you, and cover you with flesh, and form skin over you. And I will put breath into you and you shall live again’. After this Ezi was disturbed by the sounds of rising bones as they formed ghostlike human figures. Also in Daniel 12:2-3 we find further references to the dead rising from ‘sleep in the dust of the earth’ to inhabit the Earth evermore in a ghostlike presence.
So far we have had god , angels and the dead appearing in human form, or some spiritual sense inline with the conditions of the definitions stated above; We have seen ghosts, but one ghost is probably more well known within the Jewish faith than any other, Elijahu. Elijahu was a prophet, and his greatness was such that he was appointed to appear alive again before the judgment, and coming of the Messiah to prepare humanity and resurrect the dead, see Malachi 3:23. But until his appearance he is supposed to appear in Jewish custom, derived from the commentaries, annually at the household of each Jew, signified with the ritual doorpost, the Mezzuzah, where upon he would enter the house during the Passover service to drink a sip of wine especially left out for him, in his own glass. Each year Jewish children sit with one eye poised over the cup to see that fraction of a drop disappear, and each year the same joke is made countless times globally in over a hundred different languages, about how drunk Elijahu will be by the time he has drunk from so many cups, and each year the joke becomes less funny. All of this for a ghost that some suppose does not exist.
We have jumped around from one book of the Tanach to another, some pointing the finger to pillars of fire that lead the Jewish people in Ba’Midbar, others feature messengers of god coming to Earth in human manifestations. We also have god appearing to Ezikel and resurrecting the dead as ghosts. Finally we saw how Elijahu, the archetype when it comes to Jewish ghosts, and his worldwide trek drinking from the cups of Jews in apprehension of the coming of the Messiah, will be the final Jewish ghost, and with his appearance all will be revealed. Until then we will are forced to resort to one of the most holy of Jewish sources, Woody Allen; ‘There is no question that there is an unseen world. The problem is, how far is it from midtown, and how late is it open ? Unexplainable events occur constantly. One man will see a spirit. Another will hear voices, A third will wake up and find himself running in the Preakness... What is behind these experiences ? Or in front of them, for that matter? Is it true that some men can foresee the future or communicate with ghosts? And after death is it still possible to take showers?’