Tuesday, October 22, 2013
The Walking Dead: Jews, Judaism and Halloween
But that's not to say Judaism does not have a rich and vivid lore about spirits, monsters, and the undead. So I thought I'd share with you one aspect of this - Jewish lore on zombies. The term "zombie" comes out of West African tradition, but the idea of an re-animated corpse without it's neshamah ("soul") pops up in a few places in Jewish literature.
Director George Romero has defined how we think about zombies in the 21st Century, having set up the "zombie rules" in his movies Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead: Zombies are flesh-eating corpses who must undergo physiological decapitation (be shot in the head) to be stopped. Ok, so the Hollywood zombie is really more of a ghoul, a creature derived from Islamic folklore, but whether you call them zombies or ghouls, the walking dead are much different in Judaism.
Jewish undead traditions overlap the bigger and more prominent ideas of T'chiyat Metim, "Resurrection" (body and soul restored to perfected existence in the World-to-Come) and the Golem (an artificially animated being). Perhaps the reason there are not more than a few stories of the animated dead is that the very idea violates an aspect of Jewish law that most Jews take quite seriously - kavod ha-met, "showing respect for a corpse." Kavod ha-met is why Jews generally don't put our dead on display in open-casket ceremonies, why we don't embalm, why we are fastidious about collecting all the parts for burial (ever notice those in the films of bus bombings in Israel, the ones in reflecting vests picking through the debris? Most of those aren't Israeli CSI, they are ZAKA, a group of pious workers who ensure all parts of people get a proper burial), and why we are cautious about organ donation. Animating a corpse for the ephemeral needs of the living, even if possible, is unseemly.
Yet there are stories. According to most of the legends, animated corpses are created by an adept, rather then rising spontaneously. As in some Golem traditions, a divine name of power is used, either written on a parchment and then inserted under the tongue or sown into the skin, or inscribed on an amulet placed on the corpse (Sefer Yuhasin, Shivhei ha-ARI, Meisa Buch). Zombies are raised mostly so that they can talk: relating secrets about the World-to-Come, the divine spheres, or to solve a crime with knowledge known only to the deceased (Meisa Buch, Meisa Nissim, Jahrbuecher). In this last aspect, these traditions are also closely related to the hiner bet or hiner plet (Yiddish, "Catatonic"), a condition in which a person falls into a death-like state for days, or even weeks. Their only sign of life is that they speak sporadically, revealing the secret sins of people in the community, giving divine messages, or instructing us from the beyond about how we the living need to better oursleves.
So, if you are planning to attend someone else's Halloween party this year (should a Jew really be hosting his own?), a Jewish zombie is definitely an option; and its better then a run-of-the-mill zombie - they only groan, while you get to tell people off.
Also consider these Jewish costume options:
The Angel of Death (Jewish authenticity junkies go with a sword dripping gall, not a scythe)
The Sar (princely angel) Metatron (fiery body with 365,000 eyes)
Behemot (a gigantic ox)
Leviathan (a sea dragon)
Ziz (a giant chicken)
Dybbuk (ghostly style, but always be sure to be clinging or hanging onto someone living)
Lilith (hairy body, bald head - unless you want to do the "succubae" incarnation)
Golem (clay complexion, word "Emet" on your forehead, not much of a conversationalist)
Ketev Meriri, the demon "Bitter Destruction" (He is scaly and hairy and rolls about like a ball)