Thursday, October 8, 2009
Escape to the Golem
In between my adventures in Active Dreaming in Lithuania and Romania, I have taken a day to catch my breath and take in the sights in the storied city of Prague. The Czech capital is as beautiful as you have ever heard, but overrun with tourists. As I walk through the square in the Castle district where Obama spoke, and through the gates of the Castle itself, I sigh at the droves of visitors following the fluttering banners of their tour guides, cameras swinging. My attention is diverted by a huge poster showing a rabbi with a high hat and a long beard, with a giant clay-like figure. I can guess the identity of the giant. Famously, Prague is the city of the golem, an artificial being supposedly created by a medieval Kabbalist to defend the Jews in tomes when their survival was in doubt. The legend has been the stuff of countless amazing tales up to the present day; in the parallel reality of the popular young adult "Bartimaeus" trilogy, for example, the magicians of Prague are still whipping up golems to deploy against their enemies.
I inspect the poster more closely. I am in luck; in the Royal Stables there is a temporary exhibition curated by the Jewish Museum devoted to Rabbi Judah Loew (c.1525-1609) the reputed golem-maker of Prague, and it is going on now. By some merciful act of contemporary magic, the exhibit seems to be invisible to the swarms of tourists. I rush for sanctuary inside.
It's a fine exhibition, putting the life and work of a great rabbi and scholar in the context of his times and the communities that he guided. The story is edged with tragedy, since much of the Jewish Quarter of Prague has been demolished.
The section on the golem tracks a legend that only began to gain popular currency more than two centuries after Rabbi Loew's death, in folk stories that were printed in 1847. German Romantics seized on the story of the golem, and then it flourished in the early 20th century with Gustav Meyrink's novel The Golem (and the haunting illustrations by Hugo Steiner-Prag), followed by movies that included Paul Wegener's versions and Martin Fric's 1951 film "The Emperor's Baker and the Golem". Yet the idea of the golem predates the fantasy. A passage in the Talmud refers to the possibility of crearting an artificial man. The formula for doing this is later said to be in the Sefer Yetzirah. Early rabbius dsicussed the morality of killing an artificial man (and concluded this was permissible) and in early folklore pious rabbis create a calf in a time of hunger and consumer it for dinner.
Rabbit Loew was received by the Emperor Rudolf II, perhaps because of Rudolf's appetite for magical practices from every source the Empire could access. One of the most intriguing features of the exhibit is a display of magical objects that were used by Rudolf himself, in the time when he made Prague his residence and patronised a group of alchemists, scientists, neo-Platonist philosophers and "Christian Kabbalists", including the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe and the Englsih sham-magus John Kelly; some of their houses can be viewed along the Golden Lane in the Castle.
I inspected Rudolf's magical bell, composed of seven metals adorned with images of gods associated with the planets. Imagine - the head of the Holy Roman Empire ringing a bell to summon planetary spirits! Here is a set of three rings that the Emperor had buried with him. One is green jade, another gilded wood, a third is set with jewels and four zodiacal signs on the outside and on the inside with four archangelic names (Gabriel, Michael, Uriel and Aniel) and the magical work AGIA. And here is a kabbalistic amulet that belonged to Rudolf. On the obverse is a Jewish menorah, surmounted by the imperial crest and surrounded by jewels "from the breastplate of a high priest".
In the section on the old Jewish cemetery, there are old paintings and modern photographs of Hasidim trooping to the grave of Rabbi Loew to post their letters to the Maharal (as the rabbi was known to the faithful). Such a letter, know as a kvitl, requests one of the righteous (Tzaddikim) to intercede with the Lord on behalf of the supplicant. Kvitl-writing was introduced by the founder of Hasidism, the Bal Shem Tov (1700-1760) more than a century after Rabbi Loew's death, and was originally a process of appealing to a living Tzaddik for intercession. Later these letters were addressed to departed Tzaddikim, to whose ranks Rabbi Loew was posthumously promoted. So to this day, letters of appeal are pushed into the cracks on his tombstone in the Jewish cemetery. I visited the cementery itself later, rising up a man-made hill (produced by "shelves" created to accommodate 12,000 graves) near the Old-New Synagogue, which abuts the designer stores of Paris Street in the Old City.
Kabbalist footnote: A Kabbalist friend who read this piece wants me to be sure to note that genuine golems come with an ON/OFF switch. You write the Hebrew letters for EMET ("truth") over the third eye to turn a golem on. When you erase the first letter, producing the word MET ("death") the golem is ready to return to the mud. I haven't road-tested this. Try it at your own risk.