On Sheol, Necromancy and a Bar Mitzvah

Worshipers before symbols of Marduk“I don’t believe in God,” he says.

“Okay,” I answer. “Which God don’t you believe in? The bumbling, fumbling, and mumbling LORD God in Genesis 2:4-3? YHVH of Job 38, portrayed as a birthing mother? What about Adonai of Lamentations, accused by Lady Zion of mass murder?”

For the next twenty minutes we compare and contrast all sorts of ideas about the divine. I pull a text off my shelf to show him how ancient Babylonians pictured their deities – sometimes in purely symbolic form.

“Look at this one,” I say, pointing to a drawing. “A worshiper standing before the symbols of the Babylonian deity Marduk. We weren’t the only ones to think that it might be impossible to make a picture of a god.”

“So,” he asks, “do Jews have a heaven and a hell?”

I start describing Sheol, a dark and murky place mentioned mostly in poetical biblical texts.

“It’s often a code word for grave,” I say.

Sometimes the earth opens up and swallows people into Sheol, I add. The deceased live a kind of shadowy existence there, but the texts don’t indicate that there is either reward or punishment.

“Sounds boring,” he says.

“Yup,” I answer. “I’d be bored.”

We move on to the world-to-come in which all sorts of important Talmudic answers will finally get answered. Then, we end up discussing funerary practices.

“Why do people cover mirrors?” he asks.

“Some people believed that the soul had a really tough time acknowledging that the body it had inhabited was dead and buried,” I say, “and that it would go back and forth from grave to home in a kind of confusion. They also thought that if the soul went past a mirror and didn’t see the body it once belonged to in the mirror, it would be deeply upset and confused.”

“But wait,” he said, “surely the soul had known that custom when it was alive with a body. Why wouldn’t it come back from the graveyard, see the covered mirrors and say, ‘I guess somebody must be dead. Oh. That’s me!’”

I start laughing.

My conversation partner is twelve. Each and every week, between practicing the Hatzi Kaddish or the first prayers of the Amidah or some other component of the service, we find our way into conversations like these. You never know. We might start with Ancient Israelite polytheistic practices and end with medieval ideas around how to trick the dead into revealing the future.  Necromancy is a thing, and not only at that time In Jewish history, either.  Ask the witch of Endor.

(The latter, by the way, requires an invocation that begins: “I conjure you, Duma, prince of dreams, in the name of the Almighty God, that you come to me this night and answer my question.” The invocation actually ends with the adorable command: “Do not make sport of this!”)

We’ve looked at ancestor worship in Chinese Jewish settings (supported by the evidence that incense was burned to venerate Abraham and Sarah, for example). We’ve talked about the archeological record that reveals that our ancient forbears thought YHVH had a consort by the name of Asherah.

He’s brought up Greek mythology, the Khazars, and the Crusades. I’ve talked about the Babylonian Exile and the books that never made it into the canon.

“Like what?” he asks.

“There’s a reference to something called the Book of the Covenant in Exodus,” I say. “There appears to have been something called the Book of the Wars of YHVH – it’s mentioned in Numbers. There’s a book that the prophet Samuel was supposed to have written and one by Nathan.”

“What happened?” he asks.

“They fell off the bestseller list,” I say, and it is his turn to laugh.

Is any other rabbi lucky enough to have this kind of student?  I delight in his frank, fresh thinking. I think he enjoys my delight.

In August, when this young man stands up in front of his friends and family and leads a Shabbat morning service, I will be (yes, it sounds cliché), one very proud rabbi. He has offered proof that our children and teenagers can experience their tradition, heritage and history as an intellectual and spiritual playground.

I hope our conversations continue long after the mazal tovs and the candy tossed in the air.

It’s worth a prayer, I think – to the God I believe in, anyway.