Voices from beyond: Parshat Mishpatim
In London, on All Saints Day, 1882, Stainton Moses and Alaric Alfred Watts revived The Ghost Club, a selective and secret group which had first begin in Cambridge in 1855. Its aim was to discuss and investigate ghosts and psychic phenomena. When you first hear about The Ghost Club, you may think about a 1980s movie featuring a trio of hapless ghostbusters. But the original version of the Victorian Ghost Club membership list included many luminary greats such as Charles Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, W. B. Yeats and Sir Oliver Lodge.
Of that list, you have probably heard of the three literary giants, but may be less familiar with Lodge. However, in Victorian and Edwardian England, Lodge was well known as a physicist who made technological advances that shaped the future of radio, electromagnetism and early motor vehicles.
Lodge was born in North Staffordshire, today’s Stoke-on-Trent, on June 12, 1851. At the age of 12 he made his first makeshift laboratory and began experimenting during his summer vacations. When he was 14, Lodge left school and started working for his father selling clay to pottery manufacturers. He continued working for the family business of Oliver Lodge & Son for the next eight years. As a traveling blue clay salesman, he was able to attend physics lectures in London and the Wedgwood Institute, named for the potter Josiah Wedgwood. Standing 193 centimeters (6 feet 4 inches) tall, he must have been an impressive figure.
In 1875, Lodge earned a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of London and two years later completed his doctorate. In 1881, he became the Professor of Physics and Mathematics at University College in Liverpool. Then, in 1900, he became the first principal of Birmingham University, where he remained until his retirement in 1919. He was knighted by King Edward VII in 1902 at Buckingham Palace.
In 1898, Lodge won the Royal Society’s Rumford Medal, “”For his researches in radiation and in the relations between matter and ether,” joining a long list of physics greats including Michael Faraday, Louis Pasteur, James Clerk Maxwell and Heinrich Hertz.
In 1888, Lodge presented a paper entitled, “On the Theory of Lightning Conductors,” in which he showed how electromagnetic waves were transmitted through space. Based on this research, he came up with the ideas of electrical resonance and inductance. Lodge also used these principles to invent the spark plug, known as the Lodge Igniter.
In 1894, two years before Guglielmo Marconi’s first radio broadcast, Lodge demonstrated a radio transmission at Oxford University. He later patented the moving-coil loudspeaker (which turns radio waves into audio sound) and the variable tuner. Marconi’s company ultimately bought several of Lodge’s radio patents, giving Lodge the title of “scientific adviser.”
Lodge and his wife, Mary Fanny Alexander Marshall, had 12 children, six boys and six girls. While the eldest son became a poet, four of the other boys started businesses based on Lodge’s inventions – the Lodge Plug Company and the Lodge Fume Deposit Company Limited. Lodge passed away near Salisbury on August 22, 1940.
Lodge himself didn’t see much advantage to his wireless technology over the standard wired communication of the time. Yet he is recognized to this day as one of the great pioneers of physics. An obituary in the “London Times Literary Supplement” on August 31, 1940, described him as “one of the last of the great Victorian physicists.”
That same obituary also described Lodge’s interest in the paranormal.
Lodge’s first interest in the subject was stirred when, in 1889, he was introduced by F. W. H. Myers to the American medium, Mrs. Piper. He was deeply impressed by her powers and became inspired from that time with the desire to find scientific proof for the survival of the personality and the possibility of receiving communications from the spirits of the dead, a line of research that was not incompatible with the orthodox Christianity that was his single religious faith.
In addition to The Ghost Club, Lodge became president of the Society for Psychical Research. This organization still exists, and its website proclaims it was the “first organization to conduct scholarly research into human experiences that challenge contemporary scientific models.” (I must admit that it is confusing to write about a physicist who was also into psychical research – the words are too similar for my eyes to distinguish easily).
Lodge was interested in investigating the supernatural for a long time. But after the death of his son Raymond in World War I, he became a firm believer in the afterlife and the possibility of communication with the dead.
In 1916, he published (against the advice of his scientific colleagues) a book entitled, “Raymond or Life and Death: With Examples of the Evidence for Survival of Memory and Affection After Death.” The book is in three parts. Lodge describes the second part as:
Specimens of what at present are considered by most people unusual communications; though these again are in many respects of an ordinary type and will be recognized as such by other bereaved persons who have had similar messages. In a few particulars, indeed, those here quoted have rather special features, by reason of the assistance given by the group of my friends “on the other side” who had closely studied the subject. It is partly owing to the urgency therein indicated that I have thought it my duty to speak out, though it may well be believed that it is not without hesitation that I have ventured thus to obtrude family affairs.
I should not have done so were it not that the amount of premature and unnatural bereavement at the present time is so appalling that the pain caused by exposing one’s own sorrow and its alleviation, to possible scoffers, becomes almost negligible in view of the service which it is legitimate to hope may thus be rendered to mourners, if they can derive comfort by learning that communication across the gulf is possible… Some few more perhaps may be thus led to pay critical attention to any assurance of continued and happy and useful existence which may reach them from the other side.
Through a medium, Lodge came to believe that after he was killed in Ypres in 1915, Raymond had gone to a place he referred to as “Summerland” where, “The very highest can come to visit you… He thinks you have the best of it there, so far as he can see.”
In 1917, The Strand Magazine posed the question, “Is Sir Oliver Lodge Right?” To which the answer proposed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes, was a resounding “Yes.”
Perceived communication with the dead goes back to at least biblical times or even earlier. For example, Saul famously contacted the spirit of the prophet Samuel through the Witch of Endor (I Samuel 28:3). However, mediumship became popular only in the 19th century. Spiritualists sometimes assert that March 31, 1848, was the beginning of their movement, when Kate and Margaret Fox of New York claimed they had made contact with the spirit of a murdered peddler.
Belief in mediums continues until the present day. One of the most famous mediums was Lilian Bailey who gave seances to royalty and move stars, including Mary Pickford, Merle Oberon, Mae West, and on one occasion brought the spirit of the late King George VI to Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.
However, the heyday of seances and mediums was in the immediate aftermath of World War I. Both Lodge and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had lost sons due to the Great War and wanted to remain in contact with their loved ones. Almost everyone in Europe had been affected by the war. A letter printed in The Courier in 1919 stated that:
Mothers and friends of fallen soldiers resorting to table-rapping, creakings, automatic writing through the medium of the planchette, Ouija, heliograph etc. in the hope of once more communicating with their loved ones.
This belief that their friends and families had somehow survived the horrors of death in the trenches and had merely transitioned to a spirit world made seances very popular.
This search for spiritual connection coincided with the new radio technology, which allowed communication with the other side of the world. If someone in England could receive a wireless communication from New York, why not also from an astral plane? Furthermore, as listeners turned their radio dials, they occasionally thought they could hear voices from another world speaking to them through the static.
In 1962, Arthur C. Clarke wrote in “Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible” that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. After World War I, with the development of radio communication, the technology became indistinguishable from spiritualism.
Even today, many people who visit mediums are looking to contact recently departed relatives. The power of belief can easily beat the cold scalpel of scientific debunking.
This week’s Torah reading, Mishpatim, is almost entirely a list of laws – mostly civil laws governing how people should or should not act toward each other, and the punishments for breaking the social covenant. And some religious laws, including the prohibition of eating meat with milk.
But there is a strange interlude, that at first appears out of place. After the verse (Exodus 23:19), “You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” the Torah states:
Behold I send an angel before you, to protect you along the way, and to bring you to the place I prepared. Beware of him and listen to his voice, do not rebel against him, for he will not forgive your sins because My Name is within him. But if you listen to his voice and do everything I say, I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries. For My angel goes before you.
Some commentators explain that this angel is Michael, the guardian angel of the Jewish people. Other say he is Metatron.
However, Rashi says that this verse was a foreshadowing of God’s immediate response to the sin of the Golden Calf. In Exodus 33:2, God says, “I will send an angel before you.” But Moses responds, “If Your face does not go, do not bring us up from here,” (33:15). God responds, “Also this thing that you spoke I will do. For you have found favor in My eyes,” (33:17).
Moses rejected an intermediary. He only wanted God to lead the Israelites. There could be no substitute, no medium. He knew that the only way to truly serve God was to be led by Him directly.
However, after Moses’s death, that direct connection was no longer available. As Joshua stood at the banks of the Jordan River, about to enter the land of Israel, an angel appeared to him (Joshua 5:13-14):
He lifted up his eyes and saw, and behold, a man was standing before him with his sword drawn in his hand. Joshua went to him and said, ‘Are you with us or with our enemies?’ And he said, ‘Neither. I am the minister of the host of God. Now I came.’
From then on, we have searched for guides and intermediaries to help us find our path. The angel of Joshua was replaced by the biblical judges and prophets, the rabbis (and false messiahs) who tell us what to do. Perhaps today the advances in technology have led to a situation where social media and the future AI will fool us into thinking they are the angels we should follow.
But I wonder if those few non-legal verses in Mishpatim are there to remind us that we do not need that angel that was rejected by Moses. We have been given the laws. We know how we should behave with our friends and neighbors and with God. Any intermediary is a rejection of our own free will to choose right from wrong.
It is an article of Jewish belief that there is an afterlife. But our guide for doing what is right should be how our friends and family lived their lives while they were alive. Not messages from beyond the grave.
My next class on WebYeshiva in the series entitled “20th Century Responsa” will be on February 21st. And I’ll be giving a pre-Purim shiur on Rabbi Moshe Isserles’s “Mechir Hayayin” on February 27th. You can sign up on WebYeshiva. I’ve also started sharing more of my Torah thoughts on Facebook. Follow my page, Rabbi Sedley.