Q. Does Judaism take dreams seriously?
A. Most people would say there are two kinds of aloneness, voluntary and involuntary, but in fact there is a third type, existential aloneness. The Swiss philosopher Henri Frederic Amiel said, “In all the chief matters of life we are alone: we dream alone, we suffer alone, we die alone”. Others may be with us at all these moments, but each of these existential experiences is ours alone.
The Bible relates a number of important dreams, including those of Jacob, Joseph and Pharaoh. These are usually regarded as a kind of Divine language – God conveying a message. In the Midrash, Chanina ben Yitzchak asserted that “a dream is a variety of prophecy” (Gen. R. 17:5). The Talmud saw dreams as having halachic consequences; Rabbi Joseph said, “If one is placed under a ban in a dream, ten persons (a minyan) are necessary in order to lift the ban” (Ned. 8a). To this day people often consider dreams as Divine guidance and use them in decision-making.
However, Professor Isaac Lewin of Bar Ilan University argues that a dream is a psychological and not a religious phenomenon. He says that dreams are a natural outlet for tensions, and points out that dreams are quickly forgotten unless the person is awoken in the middle of the dream. Dreams are unstable, frequently linking places, events and people in an impossible way. The barriers of reality melt away in a dream; what you dream about, even if you afterwards remember it, generally has little basis in firm reality.
Yet from this lack of total reality arises the notion of the dream as metaphor. Dreams carry you into the world of what isn’t… and what could be. In dreams you may see justice, peace, truth and beauty. They are only a dream, because they are waiting for someone to make them happen.
Jacob had a dream like that. He dreamt that earth and heaven were linked by a ladder. But the ladder enabled the person who was earth-bound to come heaven-bent. The sages recognised this in an amazing Midrash. They suggested that God said to Jacob: “Stop dreaming, and start climbing!” That’s why a dream can be an inspiration. You see what should be and what could be, and you determine that it will be.