“Do we believe in Ghosts?”

Posted on May 9, 2024

By Hazzan Jacob Sandler.

In this week’s parasha, Kedoshim, there are quite a few eye-catching moments but none quite so jarring as the last verse (Lev 20:27):

“A man or a woman who has a ghost or a familiar spirit shall be put to death; they shall be pelted with stones–their bloodguilt shall be upon them.”

We can discuss offline whether we feel capital punishment is ever appropriate, but I’m more intrigued by the Torah’s mention of those people who interact with ghosts and spirits. Surprisingly this is not the only mention of “Ovot” (ghosts) and “Yidoni-im” (familiar spirits) and the Torah is never particularly fond of those people who seek them out. It makes sense, on the surface, as God doesn’t want us consorting with other spiritual powers and forces which might lead us astray or else tempt us to idolatry. And perhaps in biblical times, it shouldn’t be so shocking that this was part of the wider cultural context. Soothsayers, diviners, sorcerers and necromancers were simply part of their lived reality. 

I’m reminded of an anecdote from my high school days. A kid in my class liked to go to abandoned buildings and hunt ghosts in his free time. I had the same reaction — “is this kid nuts? Ghosts aren’t real! Paranormal activity is just entertainment.” But I was fascinated by this particular classmate because his imagination rivaled mine and perhaps surpassed it. I wanted to see what was really going on, so when he invited me to tag along on a ghost hunting excursion in our hometown, I asked my mom if I could go. She said no (‘cause she’s a good mom) but not for the reasons I would’ve thought.

I assumed that skulking around abandoned buildings with a classmate who believed in ghosts was dangerous, or at least, irresponsible. However, my mother instead insisted, “you don’t want to get involved with spirits — they’re often more dangerous than friendly, and once you get one attached to you, it could be really difficult to get rid of it. Don’t go looking for trouble.” I was shocked. I took a beat and asked hesitantly, “Do we believe in ghosts in this family?” and she said, “oh yeah, totally! Spirits are no different than souls except that they got stuck here.” (Note: I’m paraphrasing from my memory – these are not direct quotes).

Putting aside the various reactions one might have to that discovery, my mom was intuitively in line with our parashah. Even today, I would suggest steering clear of psychics, astrologers and other magical people when seeking help or comfort — not only because their power is limited at best, but because part of what it means to be holy is that God is our go-to spiritual power. And how lucky are we?! We’re on a first-name basis with the Creator of the universe! This is what the Torah states just prior in Leviticus 20:26: “You shall be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine.” Our relationship with God, as Jews, is unique and special. The Torah doesn’t deny that other means of spirituality exist, it acknowledges that they are out there, and may even seem compelling. To be a holy people means that we seek to emulate God’s own holiness, walking, as best we can, the path God set before us. It means accepting our heritage with pride and dedication — its lessons and values and the commandments of the Torah.