The Ghostbusters franchise has come back from the dead, raising questions on what Judaism teaches about ghosts. According to the Torah, do ghosts haunt our society, crossing over from the dead to appear before and communicate with the living? Texts spanning millennia offer two different approaches within Jewish belief.
Judaism teaches that death does not end a soul’s journey. The soul, which was joined to a body in life, continues into an Afterlife. Classical Jewish theologians debate the nature of the Afterlife. According to Maimonides (Rambam, d. 1204), the Afterlife is a purely spiritual experience of souls receiving reward and punishment for the good and bad things they did during their lives. Nachmanides (Ramban, d. 1270) believes that people in the Afterlife have souls and bodies, just like we do in this world. If a body commits a good deed it should receive reward, not just the soul. This debate about the nature of the Afterlife has never been resolved, with two schools of thought spanning centuries.
This discussion connects directly to the ghost debate. According to Maimonides, souls in the Afterlife have no bodies. Purely spiritual beings, whether angels or souls, cannot be seen by human beings. Maimonides even says that any biblical text about a person seeing or speaking with an angel must have taken place in a prophetic dream or vision, not in physical reality. A spiritual being cannot appear physically. Nachmanides disagrees completely. He contends that angels can appear physically if they want.
The Torah (Deut. 18:11) forbids inquiring of the dead, conducting seances and otherwise attempting to communicate with those who have passed on from this world. This seems to imply acknowledgment that the living can communicate with the dead but forbids Jews from engaging in that activity. Rabbi Yehudah Levi (cont.), in The Science in Torah, explains that there are two traditional opinions on this subject. One view accepts that it is possible to communicate with the dead but we are not allowed to do so. However, Maimonides took another approach. He decried all types of witchcraft, sorcery and communication with the dead. These forms of invoking spirits are not only nonsense but pagan activities, undermining the pure monotheism of Judaism.
The Torah’s most well-known ghost story is that of Shaul HaMelech (King Saul) who, with the help of a witch, summoned the recently-deceased Shmuel HaNavi (Prophet Samuel) for help in defeating the Philistines, even though this was prohibited (I Samuel 28). Rabbi Shmuel Ben Chofni Gaon (d. 1034) explains that there was no ghost. Rather, the witch fooled Shaul into believing that she was conjuring the spirit of the deceased prophet. In contrast, Rabbi Sa’adia Gaon (d. 942) and Rabbi Hai Gaon (d. 1038) suggest that while normally the deceased do not appear in this world, Shaul experienced a unique miracle. All three agree that, absent a miracle, the dead remain among their fellow deceased, not roaming among the living as ghosts. Others, more mystically inclined, take this story as an example of interactions between the dead and the living, forbidden to us but technically possible. To them, ghosts can be real but we must avoid calling them.
The Talmud contains occasional stories of interaction between the dead and the living, as well as spiritual demons that inhabit this world (known as “sheidim” or “mazikin”). Many take these stories at face value. However, the Talmudic sages frequently spoke in parables and non-literal language. Maimonides and those who follow in his path read non-literally these passages about the dead appearing in this world. Maimonides defines “evil spirit” as mental illness, not as a ghost. In his commentary on the Talmud, Rabbi Menachem Meiri (d. 1310) consistently explains stories about demons in a non-literal fashion. Somewhat differently, Maimonides’ son, Rabbi Abraham, writes that any Talmudic story about a demon must be describing a dream. In reality, according to these Jewish thinkers, there are no demons, evil spirits or ghosts.
Yet others take all these discussions literally. Rabbi Eliyahu the Vilna Gaon (d. 1797), in discussing these types of issues, accuses Maimonides of being misled by Greek philosophy. Those who are mystically inclined tend to take evil spirits and demons very seriously. They believe that, in unique cases, the dead sometimes appear in physical form.
Throughout many centuries, Jewish thinkers have debated whether the deceased take a physical form or exist merely as spiritual souls. Those who believe the former can allow room for ghostly phenomena. However, those who take the latter view, and generally also read stories about demons and evil spirits non-literally, see an impenetrable wall between the physical world we see now and the spiritual world that awaits us. According to them, when someone dies his physical existence ends and his soul ascends to the spiritual world. The only remnant in this world are his good deeds and teachings, and his cherished memory among his family and loved ones.