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Notes on The Golem
|CATHOLICISM IN THE GOLEM
Thaddeus the priest is portrayed darkly in The Golem. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find a more despicable villain in any play of the last two centuries. One must guard, however, against the conclusion that The Golem is either anti-Catholic or anti-Christian. The character of Thaddeus was in fact based on a real priest, who lived in Prague at the time of Judah Loew and was responsible for the incitement of the populace of Prague. Throughout Europe, both religious and secular authorities often sanctioned the persecution of Jews by the Christian population. Scholar Ben Bokser describes the nature of this persecution:
In 1559, all Hebrew books in Prague were seized to be examined for possible anti-Christian reference. The Talmud was burned six times in the course of the 16th century, and a censorship of Hebrew books was introduced in 1562. In 1561, the Jesuits issued an order forcing Jews to listen to Christian sermons, which disparaged their own faith and extolled the virtues of Christianity. The Jews were forced to wear yellow badges, and suffered from horrible pogroms and expulsion orders.
In the literally dozens of versions of the myth of the Golem of Prague that have appeared on stage, screen and in print over the years, Thaddeus has appeared in most as a villain of supreme evil. And yet, throughout the centuries, the Golem story has never been accused of being anti-Christian or anti-Catholic. The extremity of Thaddeus' behavior clearly marks him as a madman, which is probably why Leivick's play version of The Golem has remained free from accusations of anti-Catholicism over the last 80 years.
He was not made Chief Rabbi of Prague until the late 1590s, perhaps because of his somewhat controversial interest in Kabbalah. Loew was fascinated with the Zohar, the central work of Jewish mysticism, and he introduced many Kabbalistic ideas into his sermons and writing. He served as Chief Rabbi of Prague until his death in 1609.
It's likely that this connection with Kabbalah made Rabbi Loew the leading character in the legends that arose around the creation of the Golem. A hundred years after the Rabbi's death, Kabbalah emerged as a distinct movement within Judaism in medieval Europe. It was at this time, approximately 1730, that Rabbi Loew started becoming a truly mythic figure, and the legend of his creation of a figure made of clay was born. He began to be referred to as The Maharal: an acronym for the Hebrew Moreinu Ha-Rav Rabbi Liva, meaning "Our teacher, the Master Rabbi Loew." The Maharal has since become one of the most prominent figures of Jewish lore, appearing in novels, dramas, operas and film.
From these roots, the Golem legend was born. In the face of persecution, the unconscious dream of a 'man of might' to defend the Jewish people was understandable. There are countless versions of the Golem story. No less than two winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature recently recounted the various Golem tales in published form: Elie Wiesel in 1983 and Isaac Bashevis Singer in 1984. In 1920, German filmmaker Paul Wegener produced a famous silent film (also called The Golem) that bears little resemblance to Leivick's play, and has incurred occasional accusations of anti-Semitism over the years. Cynthia Ozick, in The Puttermesser Papers (1998), created a female Golem, while Pete Hamill's Snow in August (1997) sees an Irish boy in post-WWII Brooklyn befriending an elderly rabbi and molding a Golem. And the famous Golem of Prague lies at the heart of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000), a novel by Michael Chabon.
One of the most famous versions of the Golem of Prague legend - and the most important dramatization - is the play by Yiddish poet H. Leivick, who published The Golem: A Dramatic Poem In Eight Scenes in 1921. It was first performed by the famous Habima Theater ensemble in Moscow in 1925, and has had a storied performance history over the last 80 years.
"Born in White Russia in 1888 as Leivick Halpern, H. Leivick received a traditional Jewish education in a yeshiva. As a teenager he joined the Bund - the Jewish democratic-socialist mass movement that fought for the expansion of Yiddish culture and for the defeat of the czar - and in 1906 he was arrested and sentenced to four years of forced labor, followed by exile in Siberia. With the help of comrades, he managed to escape from Siberia. After journeying by foot across the frozen tundra, he sailed for America in 1913. "Leivick's poems about spirit triumphing over physical enslavement had preceded him to America, and he was received as a hero in his new homeland, where his work enjoyed immense popularity beyond his death in 1962. He fell in with the group of writers who, calling themselves "The Young Ones," self-consciously sought to create a new Yiddish literature in and for the new land.
"In the same year that The Golem was published - 1921 - Leivick's play Shmates (Rags) was produced at New York's Yiddish Art Theater, depicting a struggle among sweatshop workers over whether to strike for a few extra pennies. His next play, Shop, also draws a portrait of the degradation of Lower East Side laborers; like The Golem, it asks whether ends justify means, and considers what happens when noble ideals are perverted by ignoble efforts to achieve them. Certainly, Leivick raised that question about the Soviet Union. He stopped writing for the Yiddish Communist papers in 1929, when the party supported a violent Arab uprising against Zionist settlers in Palestine. With the Stalin-Hitler pact of 1939, he broke off all relations with the left." When Leivick died on Dec. 23, 1962, days before his 74th birthday, Yiddish literature lost not only its greatest poet but its most revered personality.
Two distinct lines of prophecy exist in Jewish Scripture concerning the Messiah. One portrays him as a humble suffering-saviour. The other depicts him as a conquering king-redeemer. Both competing functions of the Messiah have their source in the Talmud. One explanation invoked to resolve this dilemma was that there would be two Messiahs: one who would suffer and be humbled, and one who would rule and be exalted. The suffering Messiah was referred to as Messiah Ben Joseph. The other, Messiah Ben David, was to "guarantee a resurrection to glory of the righteous in Messianic days." In Leivick's The Golem it is the Messiah Ben Joseph who makes an appearance - prematurely, according to the Maharal.
The other primary text of Kabbalah is The Book of Creation, or Sefer Yetzirah, which was composed in Palestine sometime between the third and sixth centuries. It focuses on meditative techniques and ecstatic prayer through the recitation of divine names, and the recombination of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
The term "Kabbalah" originally denoted the oral tradition, but in the 12th century it was adopted by mystics to denote the practice of magic. Such practice was traditionally forbidden to those under 40 years old. It was purported to heal the sick, raise the dead, bring about the coming of the Messiah, and induce states of mystical experience.
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