Talking to the Dead?

Moshe Ben-Chaim

Lorne: Your site is by far the most rewarding that I have ever encountered on the net. If your mission is to educate, then I salute you big time. You have certainly done a lot for me.
A minor concern though, would be the strict devotion to rationality to the point where some in the mainsteam of Orthodox Judaism differ, than say Chassidum or othe Kabbalists in a big way. This leads me to ask you a question. In the Torah, there is a strict prohibition from G-d to not contact the deceased. Does G-d say that these practices are imaginary, albeit dispicable and pagan; or that those engaged in them actually communicate with those who passed on? Is it because we live in rational times, in the era of science and reason that we interpret a commandment to mean that the practices are backwards and hold no meaning? Or did G-d intend to tell us this too from Sinai’s time? The main point I think is that the practices are dispicable and dangerous and unholy, but are they also complete delusions, or did peoples actually communicate with the departed in some way, even if the departed's words to them were only stored thoughts in some cosmic scheme?
The Talmud also states that some Jews reported conversations with the deceased in cemetaries. Were the Talmudic sages only saying that the people only believed that they were speaking to the dead, or did the sages imply that these people actually had conversations withe spirits? If the latter, then why was it even mentioned in the Talmud if it is purely a physiological issue or problem?

Rabbi: Yes, there are differences among “orthodox” philosophies. And we differ greatly from Chassidism and Kabbalah. Now Lorne, you must admit that all views cannot be correct, since they oppose each other. How does one determine the true view?
We had discussed the method for determining truth in the last JewishTimes issue. Truth is determined by what we experience. And no one in history ever experienced a conversation with the dead. The dead don’t respond. Never had, never will. That’s what “dead” means. And this is why Torah prohibits this act.
And I will add that we don’t live in rational times, if people today feel they can talk to the dead. These people are also in a contradiction, for they will defend their views by saying “Many things are true, even if not proven”. (The famous fallback for those defending mystical or unproven beliefs.) Yet, ask these Chassidim and Kabbalist this: “Why don’t you accept Jesus; perhaps he really IS the Messiah? And why can’t I accept him...if many things are true as you say, without proof?” Suddenly, they will enagage a line of reasoning to refute Jesus. At that point, tell them to use the same reasoning to reject talking to dead bodies. Hopefully, they will see their contradiction.
Some Jews have the idea that Torah prohibits magic, talking to the dead, idolatry, etc. But sadly, these Jews also think these practices truly work. Ibn Ezra (Leviticus, 19:31) says the following: "Those with empty brains say 'Were it not that fortune tellers and magicians were true, the Torah would not prohibit them.' But I (Ibn Ezra) say just the opposite of their words, because the Torah doesn't prohibit that which is true, but it prohibits that which is false. And the proof is the prohibition on idols and statues."
Lorne, God wishes man to perceive truth, and this is why he granted us intelligence. And as God prohibits numerous actions, it is precisely because they are false and remove us from truth. God does not prohibit man from attaining truth.
The instances you cite where the Talmud describes people talking to the dead must be approached as follows, and I quote a wise Rabbi on this verbatim:
"To paraphrase Shmuel Hanagid(1), the value of Aggadah (allegory) is found only in the gems of wisdom one derives from it. If one derives nonsense, it has no value. Very few people are capable of diving into the deep water and coming up with pearls. [Ramban metaphor] Other individuals have no business delving into Aggadah. They would do better refraining from trying to interpret that which is beyond them. "Bmufrosh mimcha al tidrosh". Such people cannot discern between something literal or metaphorical.”
Regarding the Baales Ove, who the Torah says communicated with the dead Samuel, she in fact did nothing. If you will study that area and read Radak, you will learn from the verses that she knew very well this was King Saul seeking Samuel. So she feigned that she saw Samuel out of recognition of the King. All that came to pass afterwards, i.e., that Saul died, was because Saul lost his own confidence due to his own imagined daydream of Samuel reiterating his previous rebuke, when Saul left Agag alive, ignoring God’s commands that he slay him. Man – when not confident – will err in his activities, and unfortunately, Saul’s next activity was war. Saul truly believed he heard Samuel foretell his imminent death at war, along with his son, and the Jews being captured. This was not prophetic, but Saul’s own imagination. This was all a daydream, as one who is desperate to speak to someone of greatness like Samuel, may actually believe to be doing so. Saul previously displayed great insecurity a number of times; when appointed as king, he was hiding, (Sam I, 10:22) and upon capturing Amalek, he succumbed to the people’s opinion to save the good cattle and the king, Agag. And throughout his relationship with David, Saul was paranoid of David, and sought to kill him. Again with regards to the Baales Ove, Saul demonstrated a great insecurity, and was so distressed, that he sought an idolatrous and useless means of contacting the dead Samuel: “When Saul saw the Philistine camp, he was greatly afraid and his heart trembled greatly.” (Samuel I, 28:5) Out of his horror, Saul resorted to useless idolatry. This event must be explained in the context of King Saul’s personality: instead of assuming forces which have never existed, nor exist today, we may readily explain this metaphorically, “as if” Saul contacted Samuel. The Torah thereby expresses in exaggerated terms, just how real Samuel was in Saul’s insecure mind. n
(1) "Intro to the Talmud", found at the end of Tractate Berachos