Thursday, 26 December 2013

Are Golems Physical or Not?

In the closing days of 2013 my thoughts often turn to the question of whether golems are phyiscal beings or spiritual/astral creatures? I think that to try to answer this question, it is important to consider the closing chapter of the brilliant Professor Moshe Idel's book: "Golem: Jewish Magical and Mystical Traditions: On the Artificial Anthpoid".
Summary pp. 275-6
"After presenting the major texts concerning the creation of the artificial man in Franco-Ashkenazi and Sefardi mysticism, some general observations on differences between their treatments of this topic are in order. One major difference seems to be the attitude on the very act of creation: the Franco-Ashkenazi descriptions of the techniques of creation do not inelude a basic reticence regarding the performance of the ritual of creating a Golem. Indeed, they require certain conditions of purity, but that is basically all. In the case of Ashkenazi texts which include a warning against the creation, it is obvious that these are parts of an earlier text, which were influential on the Franco-Ashkenazi authors. I would like to emphasize that even then the warning does not occur together with the technique to create the man. On the other hand, those Sefardi texts which elaborate on the issue of the Golem end with a warning, as in the case of Abulafia, or the act of material creation is presented as an inferior activity to be transcended by the intellectual creation. In the most extreme case, that of Cordovero, the creation of the Golem is presented as a totally meaningless activity from the spiritual point of view. This last motif is totally absent from the Franco-Ashkenazi texts. This basic divergence is to be understood, as we have already remarked, by the influence of philosophical speculations which preferred the intellectual over the material, thought over matter, intellection over action. This fundamental divergence is carried down to the later centuries, when the Golem is discussed in a favorable light by Ashkenazi authors, as almost a human being, in comparison to the continuation of the line of Cordovero, so evident in the Sefardi milieux. 
Each of the important types of thought in the Franco-Ashkenazi provinces developed, in the thirteenth century, a certain view on the technique of the creation of the Golem. The differences between these techniques are obvious, and the common interest in this topic in the different circles may be important evidence that the deep concern with the Golem predates the period when the above texts were committed to writing. This situation stands in sharp opposition to the indifference toward this topic among the Sefardi mystics who, with the exception of Abraham Abulafia did not pay much attention to this tradition. Let us ponder the implications of the above distribution of the interest in the Golem. The early Kabbalists, Provencal and Catalan, deliberately minimize the interest in this topic in comparison to the Ashkenazi Hasidim. The attitude of the theosophicaltheurgical Kabbalists in Castile during the last third of the thirteenth century is even more reticent. It is highly significant that the luxuriant Kabbalistic production, which is unpreceded in Jewish mysticism, including the works of R. Joseph Gikatilla, R. Moses de Leon, R. Joseph of Hamadan and the literature which constitute the Zohar itself, are indifferent to the practice of creating a Golem. This is the case also in Safedian Kabbalah. As we have seen, R. Moses Cordovero, the single important Safedian Kabbalist who has something new to contribute to the idea of the Golem, is rather reticent in attributing any spiritual degree to the Golem, assuming as he does that no real spiritual faculty can be infused in the artificial being. The great Kabbalistic corpus of literature named Lurianic Kabbalah seems to totally ignore the issue of the Golem.19 Therefore, the two main bodies of Kabbalistic literature, the Castilian and the Safedian, were reticent in including this topic in their spiritual agenda. On the other hand, the Ashkenazi Hasidism and the ecstatic Kabbalah seem to be the only types of medieval Jewish mysticism which developed this idea, presenting it either as a mystical or as a magical technique. The most important influence of their interest in the artificial creation of man are the texts of the Renaissance authors, whose affinity to the texts of R. Eleazar of Worms and Abulafia is conspicuous. Therefore, using the distribution of the discussion of the topic related to the Golem, we may design two lines of medieval mysticism: the theosophical and theurgical Kabbalah running from Provence through Catalonia and Castile to Safed, indifferent to the problem of the artificially created man; the ecstatic one, flourishing in Germany, appearing momentarily also in Spain, but resurfacing basically in medieval and Renaissance Italy, and the East, namely, the Land of Israel..."
And to understand why there are divergent opinions and emphasis on the debate about golem creation, Prof. Idel adds to the above chapter:
Summary pp. 278
"The difference between the two religious emphases is due, I assume, to the influence of the alien philosophical theologies on the respective Jewish theologies. The Ashkenazi and French masters were immersed in the ancient Jewish mystical theology of the Heikhalot literature with its magical and anthropomorphical proclivities. The influence of the Sa'adyan thought, great as it is considered to be, did not totally erase the importance of the older forms of thought and practices. On the other hand, Spanish Jewish authors of the eleventh and twelfth centuries were already under the impact of Neoplatonic and Aristotelian philosophies, without betraying a significant stratum of older Jewish theology, formulated under the influence of the Heikhalot literature. The impact of philosophy in Spain was earlier, greater and more profound than it was in Germany and France. The Franco-Ashkenazi elite was much more closed to external influence and even the influence of philosophy was already mediated by Eastern or Spanish Judaism. In comparison to the fine knowledge of Islamic philosophy found in the Spanish elite, the Northern European Jewish masters seem to be much more isolated and even reticent toward the alien lore. Even when the Spanish Kabbalists did refer to the Golem, it is as part of a more speculative discussion in the context of arguments on the nature of the soul; these discussions are conspicuously consonant with their general philosophical concerns..."

So there you have it... One set of Kabbalists who believe the golem to be a physical creation and the other who consider the golem to be an intellectual creation. Whilst I would normally side with Rabbi Abulafia in most discusson on Kabbalah, when it comes to understanding the creation of the golem - I hold with the opinions of the Chassidei Ashkenaz (German Pietists).

Clay Terminator?