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Boundaries
March 25th, 2013 by markowis

In class last Thursday, we focused a lot of our time on the death of Rabbi Ya’aqov Wazana. When I initially read the legend of Rabbi Wazana’s death, I was struck by Yoram Bilu’s use of the word “threshold” to describe the Rabbi’s entrance into the room of the possessed Muslim girl. “When he crossed the threshold to the sickroom, the demon inhabiting her (referring to the young Muslim girl) body addressed [Wazana] through her mouth: ‘Wazana, we are not the same kind that you lived with. Know that if you enter, it is at your own risk. Beware,’”(Bilu, 110). While Bilu notes that his informants repeatedly used “expressions denoting entry and exit,” I began to wonder if Bilu had chosen the word or if informants had used it in their retellings of the story (110). Victor Turner’s rites de passage hinge on the term “liminal” which means threshold. The rites de passage refer to rituals in which a person undergoes a change of status, including circumcision, marriage, and funerals.

When Bilu notes that the informants focused a lot of their retellings on expressions of entrance and exit, he ties it to Wazana’s general trending characteristics of “transgressing boundaries and invading unauthorized territory” (111). I think Bilu makes an excellent point here, but I felt that there’s another element: the healing ritual itself. In most instances, I do not think that a healing ritual would technically classify as a rites de passage. This specific healing ritual, however, deals with death – the moment in which the soul leaves the body and the person leaves this earthly-world for the spiritual realm (heaven, hell, and in some cases purgatory). The demons warn Wazana that the girl must die, she cannot be saved. Wazana does not listen and feels compelled to help the young girl. In this story, it’s especially telling that at first, it’s unclear who will be the person completing the rite de passage (the young Muslim girl or Rabbi Wazana) as the demons make it quite clear that they’re not really concerned with whom, but someone must pay back the debt owed to them with his/her life.

Wazana does not die immediately after he completes the ritual and heals the young girl, however his death is imminent. Bilu’s reconstruction of the legend makes it clear, yet again, that one main reason for Wazana’s death was the crossing of the boundary between the earthly-realm and the spiritual-realm (the human world and the demon world). This theme, which begins at the very beginning of Wazana’s story with the death of his father, finally comes full circle. Throughout his life story, Wazana crosses many boundaries including cultural and religious boundaries between Muslims and Jews and his marriage to a female jinni to whom he has jinn children (crossing the boundary between human and demon domains) however there is one staunch boundary he cannot cross: life and death.

While he is recalled by many as comparable to “the divine presence” (shekhina) and is renounced for his power and courage, his power is limited (78). He cannot bring the dead (or those doomed to death) back to life. In a way, he is trapped by this boundary. He cannot bring his deceased parents back to life, nor can he save the young Muslim girl. He cannot receive everything he yearns for, despite his accumulation of great power.  In light of this limitation, Wazana reminds me of Tuhami. While the two couldn’t have had different socio-political statuses in their respective societies, they both crossed many boundaries (including gender and human/spirit worlds) however, they were both in a way trapped by boundaries. Clearly, Wazana had more control than Tuhami had throughout the course of his dealings with boundaries between the human world and the spirit world. Wazana was able to control demons and use them to do his bidding. However, in the end, the demons were ultimately in control, and orchestrated the Rabbi’s death. It’s interesting to me that these stories of two men, who couldn’t have been less alike in most ways, provided the same warning of the power of spirits and demons.


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