Crowding into the Spirit World: Reclaiming a Metaphysics of Multiplicity by Jill Hammer

A number of years ago, I had the opportunity to take a class with Chava Weissler, a scholar at Lehigh University who studies Jewish history, community, and sacred practices– particularly those practices related to women.  My fellow students in the class were other rabbis, taking a break from their work in order to do some learning.  Dr. Weissler was teaching about an Ashkenazi Jewish women’s practice known as “soul candles”—the making of candles during the High Holiday season to honor the dead of the community as well as the mythic ancestors.  Candles for Abraham and Sarah were made alongside candles for grandparents and other deceased relatives, using wicks that had been laid out along the graves to take the “measure” of the dead.  During the making of the candles, the candlemakers would ask that these ancestors would pray for the living, just as the living prayed for the dead.  As Dr. Weissler described this practice, a nervous giggle passed through the room.

I remember being shocked.  I understand that my colleagues have varying beliefs around life after death and around spirit in general.  And, hearing my colleagues laugh at such a ritual and its attendant beliefs surprised me.  Those same colleagues would never laugh at the idea that God wrote the Torah (even if not all of them believe that) or at the idea that God answers prayers (even though I’m sure many of them struggle with that idea too).  But the belief in ancestors who could intercede on behalf of their relatives was alien enough to be funny.  This caused me to notice that the contemporary spirit world, for some Jews, is rather empty.  It contains an abstract God, and no one else.

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