BACKGROUND ON THE GOLEM LEGENDS

Kay E. Vandergrift

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In order to understand Golem by David Wisniewski it is useful to read some of the research and writings about this very old legend and the issues connected to it. The story has connections to Jewish mysticism while also possessing a long thread in fictional literature. The excerpts provided below help to frame your understanding of this legend and the additional readings serve to fill out any gaps remaining.

ON JEWISH MYSTICISM

Cabala (Hebrew, "received tradition"), generically, Jewish mysticism in all its forms; specifically, the esoteric theosophy that crystallized in 13th-century Spain and Provence, France, around Sefer ha-zohar (The Book of Splendor), referred to as the Zohar, and generated all later mystical movements in Judaism. See Mysticism; Theosophy. The earliest known form of Jewish mysticism dates from the first centuries AD and is a variant on the prevailing Hellenistic astral mysticism, in which the adept, through meditation and the use of magic formulas, journeys ecstatically through and beyond the seven astral spheres. In the Jewish version, the adept seeks an ecstatic version of God's throne, the chariot (merkava) beheld by Ezekiel (see Ezekiel 1).

The Medieval Period

Medieval Spanish Cabala, the most important form of Jewish mysticism, is less concerned with ecstatic experience than with esoteric knowledge about the nature of the divine world and its hidden connections with the world of creation. Medieval Cabala is a theosophical system that draws on Neoplatonism and Gnosticism and is expressed in symbolic language. The system is most fully articulated in the Zohar, written between 1280 and 1286 by the Spanish Cabalist Moses de Len, but attributed to the 2nd-century rabbi Simeon bar Yohai. The Zohar depicts the Godhead as a dynamic flow of force composed of numerous aspects. Above and beyond all human contemplation is God as he is in himself, the unknowable, immutable En Sof (Infinite). Other aspects or attributes, knowable through God's relation to the created world, emanate (see Emanation) from En Sof in a configuration of ten sefirot (realms or planes), through which the divine power further radiates to create the cosmos. Zoharic theosophy concentrates on the nature and interaction of the ten sefirot as symbols of the inner life and processes of the Godhead. Because the sefirot are also archetypes for everything in the world of creation, an understanding of their workings can illuminate the inner workings of the cosmos and of history. The Zohar thereby provides a cosmic-symbolic interpretation of Judaism and of the history of Israel in which the Torah and commandments, as well as Israel's life in exile, become symbols for events and processes in the inner life of God. Thus interpreted, the proper observance of the commandments assumes a cosmic significance.

From: Richard S. Sarason. "Cabala," Microsoft Encarta 97 Encyclopedia. Deluxe Edition. c. 1993-1996 Microsoft Corporation, Disc 1.

 

ON THE GOLEM AS PROTECTOR

In Jewish legend, an image or form that is given life through a magical formula. A golem frequently took the form of a robot, or automaton. In the Hebrew Bible (see Psalms 139:16) and in the Talmud, the term refers to an unformed substance. Its present meaning developed during the Middle Ages, when legends arose of wise men who could instill life in effigies by the use of a charm. The creatures were sometimes believed to offer special protection to Jews. The best-known of the golem stories concerned a Rabbi Lw of 16th-century Prague, who was said to have created a golem that he used as his servant.

From: Entry on "Golem" in Microsoft Encarta 97 Encyclopedia Deluxe Edition, c. 1993-1996 Microsoft Corporation, Disc 1.

 

ON THE NATURE OF THE GOLEM

In the development of the later legend of the golem there are three outstanding points: (1) The legend is connected with earlier tales of the resurrection of the dead by putting the name of God in their mouths or on their arm, and by removing the parchment containing the name in reverse and thus causing their death. Such legends were widespread in Italy from the tenth century (in Megillar Ahima'az). (2) It is related to ideas current in non-Jewish circles concerning the creation of an alchemical man (the "homunculus" of Paracelsus). (3) The golem, who is the servant of his creator, developed dangerous natural powers; he grows from day to day, and in order to keep him from overpowering the members of the household he must be restored to his dust by removing or erasing the alef from his forehead. Here, the idea of the golem is joined by the new motive of the unrestrained power of the elements which can bring about destruction and havoc. Legends of this sort appeared first in connection with Elijah, rabbi of Chelm (d. 1583).

From: "Golem" entry in the Encyclopedia Judaica. Volume 7. Jerusalem, Israel: Keter Publishing House, 1971, pp. 754-755.

 

VARIANT ON THE GOLEM LEGEND

A variant of the Golem legend gives another explanation for the Maharal's [Rabbi Loew] decision to return the clay monster to the dust lie came from.[sic] Although the creature was mighty in strength, supernatural in prescience, and ever alert in following the orders of his Cabalistic creator, so that he saved the Jews of Prague from many a calamity, nonetheless, his creator decided to "unmake" him because he had grown afraid of the creature he had created, for the Golem, waxing drunk with the immense power he was wielding, menaced the entire Jewish community, even trying to bend the Maharal to his will, which had now turned evil and destructive. Thereupon, using the secret gematria of Cabalistic formulas for the second time, the Maharal returned the clay hulk of his creature to its original inanimate condition by withdrawing from its mouth the Shem, the life-creating, ineffable Name of God that he had placed there when first he made him.

From: "The Golem," in The Book of Jewish Knowledge. Nathan Ausubel. On The First Electronic Jewish Bookshelf, Scanrom Publishers, 1994,Cd-Rom.

 

LITERARY ASPECTS OF THE LEGEND OF THE GOLEM

The Legends concerning the golem, especially in their later forms, served as a favorite literary subject, at first in German literature-of both Jews and non-Jews-in the 19th century, and afterward in modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature. To the domain of belles lettres also belongs the book Nifla'ot Maharal im ha-Golem ("The Miraculous Deeds of Rabbi Loew with the Golem"; 1909), which was published by Judith Rosenberg as an early manuscript but actually was not written until after the blood libels of the 1890s. The connection between the golem and the struggle against ritual murder accusations is entirely a modern literary invention. In this literature questions are discussed which had no place in the popular legends (e.g., the golem's love for a woman), or symbolic interpretations of the meaning of the golem were raised (the unredeemed, unformed man; the Jewish people; the working class aspiring for its liberation).

Interest in the golem legend among writers, artists, and musicians became evident in the early 20th century. The golem was also invariably the benevolent robot of the later Prague tradition and captured the imagination of writers active in Austria, Czechoslovakia, and German. . . . The outstanding work about the golem was the novel entitled Der Golem (1915; Eng. 1928) by the Bavarian writer Gustav Meyrink (1868-1932), who spent many years in Prague. Meyrink's book, notable for its detailed description and nightmare atmosphere, was a terrifying allegory about man's reduction to an automaton by the pressures of modern society.

From: "Golem" entry in the Encyclopedia Judaica. Volume 7. Jerusalem, Israel: Keter Publishing House, 1971, pp. 754-755.

This dissertation examines the ways in which contemporary Jewish American authors rewrite traditional Jewish narratives to both reflect and revise current conceptions of the self and the Jew. Far from denying a connection to Jewish tradition, these authors instead shift the focus, articulating a Jewishness that has less to do with their conception of a specifically revealed will of God than with their desire to integrate inherited stories with those emerging from contemporary Jewish life. I argue that the texts being granted authority have changed, expanded to include narratives of collective memory that stand outside of the sacred canon but nevertheless retain both causal and normative roles in the construction of contemporary Jewish identity.

. . .

[Grauer] contends that by reworking the Jewish legend of the golem to allow for female creation, Cynthia Ozick (in "Puttermesser and Xanthippe") and Marge Piercy (in He, She and It) speak to perceived gender inequities within Judaism while still maintaining that traditional narratives can fruitfully inform contemporary female identity.

From: Grauer, Tresa Lynn. One and the Same Openness: Narrative and Tradition in Contemporary Jewish American Literature. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan, 1995, abstract page.

 

ON MEDIA AND THE GOLEM LEGEND

This is a poster for Paul Wehener's lighthearted 1917 film, "The Golem and the Dancer"--an authentic myth that worked loose from its religious moorings to serve a variety of symbolic functions.

In an article by John Gross entitled "The Golem--As Medieval Hero, Frankenstein Monster and Proto-Computer," he reviews "Golem! Danger, Deliverance and Art," an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in April 1988 in New York City displaying memorable images of the German filmmaker Paul Wegener along with many others.

 

"Between 1914 and 1920 Wegener made three movies on the golem theme: first "The Golem," set in 29th century, then "The Golem and the Dancer," a lighthearted fantasy, and finally "The Golem: How He Came into the World," which goes back to the 16th century and the story of Rabbi Loew. Only the last of the three has survived. It can be seen on video at the Jewish Museum, and it makes an extremely pwerful impression. The golem, played by Wegener himself, is a complelling figure, with his stiff movements and squared-off haricut (remininscent, as Emily Bilski [curator of the exhibit] says, of figures in Egyptian art, though it also makes him look rather like a medieval serf.)"

. . .

"There are golems and golems. A third version, very different from eithr Wegener's or Steiner-Prag's can be found in a verse play, "The Golem," published in New York in 1921 by the Yiddish poet H. Leivick. According to Leivick's stage directions, he visualized the golem as a giant with a black curly beard, a dull stare and a fixed smile that was somehow on the verge of tears. (One of the artists who translated this conception into pictorical terms was the celebrated stage designer Boris Aronson; in the late 1920's he devised some striking sets and costumes for a production of the play that unfortunately never materialized.) For Levick, the golem was a false savior, who promised deliverance but deliverd violence: by the sound of it, the play is heavy with Jewish foreboding. And by the mid-1930's there was a sense of looming calamity in Czechoslovak portrayals of the golem, too--in the fine painting by the surrealist Frantisek Hudecek, for instance, which shows men (or androids) being hammered into life in some kind of infernal smithy."

From The New York Times, Sunday December 4, 1988, p.41.

 

ON RITUAL MURDER OR THE BLOOD LIBEL LEGEND

Among the prime candidates for placement under the rubric of the folklore of evil, I would rank at or very near the top of the list the so-called blood libel legend. Other phrases designating this vicious legend include blood accusations and ritual murder (accusation). These terms are used almost interchangeably but there are several scholars who have sought to distinguish between ritual murder and blood libel, arguing that ritual murder refers to a sacrificial murder in general whereas the blood libel entails specific use of the blood of the victim. In the case of alleged Jewish ritual murder, the blood motivation is nearly always present which presumably accounts for the equally common occurrence of both ritual murder and blood libel as labels.

. . .

The blood libel legend is not only the basis of ongoing festivals, but it has also been memorialized in church decoration. Legends proclaiming the Jewish "ritual murder" of Christian children or the profanation or desecration of holy wafers are celebrated in various European towns in such artistic forms as tapestries or stained glass church windows. For example, there are such windows or pictures or tapestries ornamenting the choir of the Saint Michael-Saint Gudule Cathedral in Brussels, a ceiling fresco in the small Tyrol village of Judenstein, paintings in a church sanctuary in the Vienna suburb of Korneuberg, and a stained glass window in a Paris church chapel.

. . .

It would be one thing if this classic bit of anti-Semitic folklore existed only in ballad or legend form, but the sad truth is that what has been so often described in legend and literature is also alleged to have occurred in life. There have not been tens, but hundreds of actual cases of blood libel tried in various courts in various countries. The map of Western and Eastern Europe and the Near East is profusely dotted with sites where ritual murders were said to have occurred.

. . .

The sad truth about the blood libel legend is not so much that it was created-the need for such a psychological projection on the part of Christians is evident enough-but that it was believed to be true and accepted as such and that the lives of many individual Jews were adversely affected by some bloodthirsty Christians who believed or pretended to believe in the historicity of the blood libel legend.

From: Alan Dundes. "The Ritual Murder or Blood Libel Legend: A Study of Anti-Semitic Victimization through Projective Inversion," in The Blood Libel Legend: A Casebook in Anti-Semitic Folklore. Edited by Alan Dundes, pp. 337, 339, 341, 360.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY ABOUT AND ADULT VERSIONS OF,
THE GOLEM

Alexander, Tamar. "A Legend of the Blood Libel in Jerusalem: A Study of a Process of Folk-Tale Adaptation," International Folklore Review: Folklore Studies From Overseas. Volume 5 (1987):60-74.

Allison, Alida. "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? The Golem as Family Member in Jewish Children's Literature," Lion and the Unicorn. Volume 14, No. 2 (December 1990): 92-97.

Anthony, Piers. Golem in the Gears. New York: Ballantine, 1986.

Basso, Eric. The Golem Triptych: A Dramatic Trilogy. Raleigh, NC: Leaping Dog Press, 2005.

Bilski, Emily D. Golem! Danger, Deliverance, and Art. Foreword by Isaac Bashevis Singer; with essays by Moshe Idel and Elfi Ledig.New York: Jewish Museum, 1988.

Bloch, Hayim, The Golem; Legends of the Ghetto of Prague. Translated from the German by Harry Schneiderman. With prefatory note by Hans Ludwig Held. Blauvelt, NY: Rudolf Steiner Publications, 1972.

Borges, Jorge Luis. The Golem. New York: Grove Press, 1967.

Chabon, Michael. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. New York: Random House, 2000.

Dundes, Alan, Ed. The Blood Libel Legend: A Casebook in Anti-Semitic Folklore. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.

Goldsmith, Arnold L. The Golem Remembered, 1909-1980: Variations of a Jewish Legend. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1981.

Goldsmith, Arnold. "Elie Wiesel, Rabbi Judah Lowe, and the Golem of Prague," Studies in American Jewish Literature. Volume 5 (1986):15-28.

Hamill, Pete. Snow in August: A Novel. Boston, MA: Little Brown, 1997.

Haraway, Donna. "A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology and Socialist Feminism in the 1980's" in Feminism/Postmodernism. Linda Nicholson, Ed., New York: Routledge, 1990, pp. 190-233.

Idel, Moshe. Golem: Jewish Magical and Mystical Traditions on the Artificial Anthropoid. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.

Jacoby, Jay. Selected Resources for the Study of the Legends of the Golem and Lilith. [microform} Charlotte NC: J. Jacoby, 1984. [Nineteenth Annual Convention, Association of Jewish Libraries, June 24-27, 1984, Atlanta, Georgia.]

Jacoby, Jay. "The Golem in Jewish Literature," Judaica Librarianship. Volume 1, No. 2 (Spring 1984):100-04.

Krause, Maureen T., Ed. "Rabbi Loew and His Legacy: The Golem in Literature and Film." SERIES: Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts ; v. 7, nos. 2 and 3. Tallahassee, FL: Florida State University, 1996.

Meyrink, Gustav. The Golem. Translated by Mike Mitchell and with an introduction and chronology by Robert Irwin. Sawtry, Cambs: Dedalus ; Riverside, CA : Ariadne, 1995.

Piercy, Marge. He, She, and It. New York: Knopf, 1991.

Plank, Robert. "The Golem and the Robot." Literature and Psychology. vol. 15 (1965).

Posner, Marcia W. 'The Golem in Art: An Interview with Beverly Brodsky, Creator of Her Own Golem," Judaica Librarianship. Volume 1, No. 2 (Spring 1984):104-06.

Ripellino, Angelo Maria. Magic Prague. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994.

Rowen, Norma. "The Making of Frankenstein's Monster: Post-Golem, Pre-Robot," in Nicholas Ruddick, Ed. State of the Fantastic: Studies in the Theory and Practice of Fantastic Literature and Film, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992, pp.169-77.

Rubens, A. Alfred. A History of Jewish Costume. New York: Crown, 1973.

Schaffer, Carl. "Leivick's The Golem and the Golem Legend," in Patrick D. Murphy, Ed. Staging the Impossible: The Fantastic Mode in Modern Drama. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992, pp. 137-49.

Scholem, Gershom Gerhard. On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism. [Zur Kabbala und ihrer Symbolik.] Translated by Ralph Manheim ; Forward by Bernard McGinn. New York : Schocken Books, 1996.

Sherwin, Byron L. The Golem Legend: Origins and Implications. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985.

Thieberger, Bedrich. The Great Rabbi Loew of Prague: His Life and Work and the Legend of the Golem. New York: Farrar, Straus and Young, 1955.

Teitelbaum, Richard. Golem. Sound Recording: An Interactive Opera. New York: Tzadik, 1995.

Trachtenberg, Joshua. Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion. New York: Atheneum, 1970.

Wechsberg, Joseph. Prague: The Mystical City. New York: Macmillan, 1971.

Wiener, Norbert. God and Golem, Inc.: A Comment on Certain Points Where Cybernetics Impinges on Religion. Cambridge, MA: M I T Press, 1988.

Winkler, Gershon. The Golem of Prague: A New Adaptation of the Documented Stories of the Golem of Prague. Introductory Overview by Gershon Winkler. illustrated by Yochanan Jones. New York : Judaica Press, 1980.

Winkler, Gershon, The Sacred Stones: The Return of the Golem: A Mystical Novel. Illus. by Yosef Dershowitz. New York: Judaica Press, 1991.

 
Created June 2, 1997 and is continuously revised
SCILS, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey