Sign In Forgot Password

Better Living Through Jewish Demonology

12/01/2023 07:36:04 PM


          Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Vayishlach, in which Jacob splits up his camp in preparation of his reunion with his brother Esau, whom he believes might kill him. After sending his wives and children in one direction, Jacob himself goes for a little walk in a different direction and ends up wrestling with … someone. There are a lot of context clues that suggest the being is an angel or divine messenger. Yet, interestingly, the word used is “ish” or “man”, which is all the more noticeable because the word “malachim”, which can be translated as “angels” is actually used in the first verse of the parasha, when Jacob sends his messengers (malachim) to carry ahead the message of his arrival with gifts to Esau’s camp.

          Now, I have a lot of go-to opinions on this story and what it means, and there is even more in this portion that I haven’t even mentioned yet. But this week I felt called to focus on a particular angle I don’t normally think about too closely. This past Monday, I attended the first of three classes taught by Olivia Devorah Tucker (the original creator of our Unicorn Shabbat service) on Jewish demonology through the UnYeshiva Project. The course primarily focuses on the Demon King Ashmodai or Asmodeus, and in the first class we read the apocryphal book of Tobit, which is the earliest known writing that includes this character. One of the side-plots of the 14-chapter book includes a bit of a showdown between the archangel Raphael and the demon Asmodeus (he isn’t dubbed a Demon King until a different writing a couple hundred years later). Olivia suggested we write a midrash or journal our parshanut about Asmodeus and Raphael. The archangels are also not named until this time period (only Raphael is named in Tobit, though all four are referenced in the book of Enoch, which was written in the same approximate time period).

However, as we can see in this Torah portion, the concept of angels or divine messengers certainly existed going back to at least Biblical times, if not the earliest periods of human imagination. Not that I’m saying angels are imaginary. Just that, as creatures somewhat beyond human comprehension, they require some ability of imagination and complex, abstract thought to be able to engage with. So, I thought: what if Raphael is the angel Jacob is wrestling with in this parasha? I don’t know enough about the different personalities of each of the archangels, but maybe Raphael is God’s Guy for facilitating interpersonal relationships among humans. Raphael is there to help Jacob get out his jitters so that he can calmly reunite with his brother the next day, just as, a couple thousand years later, he guides Tobit’s son Tobias to his as-yet-unknown betrothed who is being plagued by a demon. He is the angel that made you drop your books so the cute person you’ve never spoken to at school or work will pick them up and facilitate your meet cute. He is the angel that you are really arguing with when you talk to yourself in the shower to prepare for a potentially uncomfortable confrontation with someone you love. He is the angel that encourages children to befriend one another at random and help self-conscious adults make new friends with the other parents, aunts or uncles, and nannies at the playground.

I had a little nugget of an idea about how Ashmodai fits into this midrash as well and where he is in Parashat Vayishlach; how he and Raphael have been eternally entwined from the beginning, but I have to admit that as I started to flesh these thoughts out, I really didn’t like that nugget anymore. However, I’m going to tell you about it anyway, so you’ll have the context and head-start necessary to maybe help me finish the thought in a more theologically sound way. See, toward the end of this week’s Torah portion is the story of Dina and Shechem. Dina is “taken” – sexually – by the prince of Shechem, whose name is also, confusingly, Shechem. Because of the sexual politics of the time, and the terse nature of Hebrew, it’s hard to say exactly if Dina was raped as we would understand that today, or if it was merely an assault on her honor, because she and Prince Shechem did not marry first or get her father’s consent for their triste. In any case, Dina’s brothers (that is, Jacob’s sons) are outraged. While Jacob seems quietly displeased, yet willing to let Dina marry the prince, the brothers commit genocide, slaughtering every last male in the city of Shechem. I was thinking maybe Ashmodai is the one guiding the brothers to commit this heinous act, and/or maybe even the one who takes hold of Dina. It sounds good at first, right? Of course, it would be a demon behind such wickedness!

On the other hand, in the book of Tobit, Asmodeus kills off the fiancés of the Sarah, the female lead of the story, specifically before she has the opportunity to consummate their unions. Thus, it seems out of character for him to be behind Dina’s assault. Further, in the UnYeshiva class, we discussed how the author of the book clearly believes that Tobias and Sarah are bashert, so it may have been God’s will all along to keep her from becoming “defiled” by the other men she betrothed. In the Talmud, demons are generally beholden to their own set of halakha, and still carry out God’s will in a way, just in a way that is really annoying or frightening to humans. And, maybe Sarah’s first seven fiancés were awful people and Ashmodai was doing her a favor.

So once I tried to draw the parallels between the Book of Tobit and Parashat Vayishlach, I realized this interpretation of demonic work in Shechem kind of falls apart.  The next time our ancestors are in Shechem is when Joshua’s army also slaughters all its inhabitants on their way to conquer the Holy Land, so it doesn’t seem like wiping clean the generation contemporary with Jacob’s children has paved the way for any other meaningful Biblical narrative. And, it cannot be true that every man in Shechem was so awful the whole city deserved to be destroyed by the interlopers that are Dina’s brothers. All the men consented to be circumcised for the purpose of joining Shechem’s people with Israel’s! So, if not in Prince Shechem and if not in the murderous brothers, where could we still find Ashmodai in this story? Where is the “break an egg to make an omelet” sort of evil in that demons seem to be in charge of? What might be the ongoing link between him and Raphael? Let’s discuss at kiddush.

In the meantime, I want to make clear that Jewish demons are not agents of evil and darkness the way Christian-influenced demonology may have led us to believe. They are scary and annoying and potentially dangerous, but they have codes of law and ethics. They study Torah, they have their purposes and their restrictions. They belong to God as much as the angels do. The kind of violence we see at the end of this week’s Torah portion is not demonic. It is far too senseless to be otherworldly. It is wholly human. It is also wholly human that Esau and Jacob are able to kiss and make up, even if Jacob needed to wrestle out his anxiety with Raphael first the night before. This is part of what it means to be human. That we have incredibly capacity for good and bad. For forgiveness and vengeance. It is up to us to know how to listen to the angels and demons hovering invisibly around us all the time, how to resist our yetzer hara and strengthen our yetzer hatov. May each of us find goodness in and around us, boosting up joy and love every day. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Tue, July 23 2024 17 Tammuz 5784