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Golem Stories, from Mysticism to Fiction to the Realm of Plausibility

Friday, April 01, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Matthew Kressel explored the Jewish sources underlying Leonard Nimoy’s Vulcan salute and fantasy literature’s greatest time-traveling epics. He is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Image from Golemchik by Will Exley (Nobrow, 2015)

The Jews living in Prague in the sixteenth century suffered pogrom after violent pogrom, and so their leader, Rabbi Judah Loew prayed to God for a way to protect his people. In a dream, God showed the rabbi how to craft a golem from the clay of a riverbank, how to animate him by using one of the secret magical names of God inscribed on parchment and placed in the mouth of the form. There was one caveat, however: Rabbi Loew could not use his Golem on the Sabbath, when all work is forbidden.

One Sabbath, Rabbi Loew forgot to remove the parchment from the Golem's mouth, and because the Golem was a creature of magic, he became an abomination. Raging and out of control, the Golem killed many people, Jew and gentile, before Rabbi Loew was able to remove the scrap of parchment, disabling the man-made monster. Terrified of his creation, Rabbi Loew hid the creature away in the attic of the Old New Synagogue, where it remains, according to legend, to this day.

The Golem story is a cautionary tale. One should not attempt to play God, it says. This myth enters pop culture most notably in Mary Shelly's 1818 Frankenstein, which is considered one of the first modern works of science fiction. While the settings and characters are different, the story shares many similarities: Dr. Frankenstein, like Rabbi Loew, sets out to create life from non-life, only to lose control of his creation. Both stories end with the creature waging brutal violence on innocents. We see this plot again in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which Hal 9000, a sentient computer, is the ultimate golem: created by man, the computer gains independence from his creators and murders the crew of The Discovery. I'm not sure if Kubrick was familiar with the Golem of Prague story—I suspect he was—but if you re-watch 2001: A Space Odyssey and look carefully, you can spot the exact moment the scientists forget to pull the parchment from Hal's mouth, so to speak, and lose control of their creation.

In John Carpenter's Terminator, another computer called Skynet gains sentience and instantly decides humanity is a plague that needs to be wiped out. It initiates a nuclear war and sends very human-looking robots to destroy the survivors, golems if there ever were. The story repeats in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, where replicants are not only indistinguishable from humans but smarter and stronger too. When the replicants discover they are not real humans and will soon die, they react violently. In the reboot of Battlestar Galactica, the cylons, also indistinguishable from humans, initiate nuclear war a la Skynet in order to gain freedom from humanity's yoke. In last year's Ex Machina, a very humanlike robot uses human empathy to manipulate a stand-in for the viewer, to horrific ends. As these stories approach the present day, the golems appear more and more human, their rebellions ever more and more violent and absolute.

But the myth doesn't end with fiction. The golem has entered the realm of plausibility. Visionary entrepreneur Elon Musk warned of runaway artificial intelligence, "We have to make sure that we don’t do something very foolish. With artificial intelligence we’re summoning the demon." In other words, we have to be careful we don't into being a creature we cannot control, a creature who will wreak violence upon us. The name for that creature is Golem. It is Skynet and it is Hal 9000 and it is Frankenstein's monster, and it's Rabbi Loew's Golem all over again.

So if we are God's golems, as it were, created from clay and filled with the spirit of life, what does that say about our most popular golem stories, where the created one rebels against its creator, often obliterating him? These golem stories, taken in this context, can be viewed as powerful reflections of our shifting relationship with the Creator and how we are continuing to question and challenge the role of God in our lives, certainly a very Jewish thing to do.

Matthew Kressel is a short fiction writer and the co-host of the Fantastic Fiction at KGB reading series in Manhattan with Ellen Datlow. His first novel, King of Shards, was released October 2015 from Arche Press.

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Surviving Leonard Nimoy's Superhuman Salute

Wednesday, March 30, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Matthew Kressel explored the Jewish sources underlying fantasy literature’s greatest time-traveling epics. He is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Legend has it that actor Leonard Nimoy, z"l, was rehearsing a scene where his famous stoic character, Spock, meets a fellow Vulcan for the first time. Rather than have the aliens shake hands, a very human gesture, Nimoy felt the pair needed to do something different. His thoughts went back to a powerful moment he experienced with his father in shul.

The High Priests, the Cohanim, have a special duty during the prayer service to bless the congregants. According to tradition, those descended from the tribe of Levi wash the Cohen’s hands, then the Cohen removes his own shoes. He covers his head with his tallis, recites a blessing, then turns to the congregants and raises his hands so that his palms face downward and the thumbs of his outspread hands touch. The fingers on each hand are split into two sets of two fingers to represent the letter Shin, for Shaddai, Almighty God. With his prayer shawl covering his hands, the Cohen recites the priestly blessing, and while he utters his words, the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence, shines through the Cohen’s hands to bless the congregation. (The Priestly Blessing is popular in Christian liturgy as well, and various forms are used in Christianity around the world, but without the hand signs and head covering.)

Jews believe one should never look at the Cohen’s hands when he recites the blessing, for harm might befall a person if he does. Instead, we should cover our eyes, or turn our backs to the Cohen during the prayer. If a man has a child, he should take him under his own tallis, to bless him and protect him, just as God blesses and protects the congregation.

And so when Leonard Nimoy was a boy, he was in shul, and his father draped his tallis over him and told him not to look as the Cohanim recited the prayer. Well, Nimoy looked. And lived, long and prosperously. Ever after that moment, he became fascinated with this terrifying power the priests had to heal with a gesture, and so decades later, when he needed an alternative greeting for his Vulcan character, he suggested what is now familiar to Jews and gentiles across the world. A hand raised, palm forward, thumb extended, fingers parted between the middle and ring finger while saying, "Live long and prosper." Not too different from the actual blessing, "May the Lord bless you and protect you…"

Now, decades after Spock's suggestion, science fiction fans all over the globe still walk around blessing each other with a (slightly altered) ancient Jewish ritual. Up until about a decade ago, before the Internet made all answers a search away, its origins were known only to a few, mainly Jewish, fans.

Matthew Kressel is a short fiction writer and the co-host of the Fantastic Fiction at KGB reading series in Manhattan with Ellen Datlow. His first novel, King of Shards, was released October 2015 from Arche Press.

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Shortening the Way

Monday, March 28, 2016 | Permalink

Matthew Kressel is the author of the Jewish-themed fantasy epic King of Shards. He is guest blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

A few years ago an article in the Jewish Review of Books by Michael Weingrad proclaimed that there is no Jewish Narnia, that Jews do not write fantasy literature, that the popular fantasy canon has a great big void in the shape of a Star of David.

The premise is absurd, of course. Never mind the fact that Isaac Bashevis Singer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for writing what can only be described as fantasy, a simple Google search would have provided many such counter-examples to Weingrad's theory: Lisa Goldstein's The Red Magician, Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union, and pretty much the entire oeuvre of Neil Gaiman—not to mention the Wandering Stars anthologies edited by Jack Dann. I could go on, but my point is that Jews love writing fantasy (and science fiction) just as much as we love reading it.

This is because Judaism (like all religions) is full of awe and magic and terror and wonder, and those brought up in its traditions, who have been steeped in its rich folktales, cannot help but be influenced by its otherworldly themes. When observant Jews recite at the end of Sukkot, "May I merit in the coming year to dwell in the sukkah of the skin of Leviathan," the fantasy writer among them thinks of ancient sea serpents and victories over unconquerable enemies. When Jews say kaynahoreh to ward off the Evil Eye, the fantasy writer thinks of magical talismans and charms to keep evil at bay. And one doesn't even need to be a Jewish writer to be influenced by Judaism's magical stories.

Consider the astounding tales of the Baalei Shem, the Masters of the Holy Name. According to folklore, these learned rabbis were able to jump across vast distances of space and time by uttering or writing various spellings of the Divine Name. One such master was the famous Baal Shem Tov, and one of his disciples is quoted as saying:

"Somehow the rebbe was able to travel great distances in impossibly short periods of time. I do not know how he did it. Dozens of times we traveled hundreds of miles in only a few hours. As the horses could normally cover only five to ten miles in an hour, we never understood how the master was able to accomplish such a feat. But he did it so many times, we stopped questioning."

The name for this magical power? Kefitzat ha-derekh, the "Shortening of the Way." Science fiction readers will immediately recognize the name. It isnearly identical to the moniker for the Messiah-like figure in Frank Herbert's Dune: Paul Atreides is the powerful Kwisatz Haderach, "the one who can be two places simultaneously" and "the one who can be many places at once”—and Herbert's definition for Kwisatz Haderach? "The Shortening of the Way." Herbert wasn't Jewish, but clearly influenced by a Jewish folktale, using it to construct one of the most popular science fiction (some call it fantasy) novels of all time.

I was at a science fiction and fantasy writing convention several years ago. I was still new to these things, and I didn't know a lot of folks. I was sitting in a circle with ten others, sitting on chairs and on the floor. We broke the ice by describing books, shows, and films we loved. Everyone warmed to one another. We were discussing the astounding ability of one particular editor to do so much with so little time, and I jokingly called him "The Kwisatz Haderach of publishing." Everyone laughed, and I remarked, "Wow, this is the first time in my life where I have been in a room and everyone knows who the Kwisatz Haderach is." I didn't ask, but I'm pretty sure most in the room weren't Jewish. And I'm pretty sure most had no idea (I didn't then, either) that the words I had used as a punchline to a joke came from a 400-year-old Jewish myth with origins in the Talmud.

The thing is, there are dozens of stories like these. Pop culture is rife with Jewish myths, it's just that their direct connection to Judaism has been forgotten or obfuscated, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. The truth is, we are surrounded by Jewish Narnias. A large proportion of pop culture today owes its existence to myths and folktales elaborated by Jews in the last three millennia. Sometimes when a thing sits before your eyes for so long you fail to see it, but that doesn't mean it's not there.

Matthew Kressel is a short fiction writer and the co-host of the Fantastic Fiction at KGB reading series in Manhattan with Ellen Datlow. His first novel, King of Shards, was released October 2015 from Arche Press.

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