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The Golem as a Transpersonal Image:

2. Psychological Features in the Mediaeval Golem Ritual

Brian L. Lancaster, School of Human Sciences, Liverpool John Moores University, Trueman Building, 15-21 Webster Street, Liverpool L3 2ET, UK..


Summary Sentences

Two phases may be discerned in the golem ritual as practiced by mediaeval Jewish mystics. The first drew on the principle of male-female polarity in forming a man out of earth and water; the second employed what were thought of as the fundamental agents of divine creativity the Hebrew letters to activate this magical being. These two phases are analysed here as engaging complementary aspects of the transcendent function, leading to self-realisation. The golem triggers a projection of self, through which the mystic encounters the creative essence of God.


Introduction: levels of analysis

The talmudic source for the golem tradition is a passage which comes in the context of a discussion concerning magical practices and their status as permitted or proscribed behaviour:

Rava said: If the righteous wished, they could create a world, for it is written, žYour iniquities have divided you from your GodÓ (Isaiah 59:2). Rava created a man and sent him to Rav Zeira. The Rabbi spoke to him but he did not reply. He [Rav Zeira] said: You are from the fellow scholars [possibly, magicians]. Return to your dust! Rav Hanina and Rav Oshaya spent every Sabbath eve busy with the Sefer Yezirah A three-year-old calf was created by them and they ate it (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 65b).

The latter act, that of creating a calf, is specifically described as permitted behaviour, and the implication that the creation of an artificial man is also permitted is clear.

Before focusing specifically on the golem tradition based on Rava s creation of the man, it is worth considering the sequence in this passage. There seems to be an allusion to the status of man as reflective of a world, i.e., as a microcosm. The calf is a further reflection of the primary ideal of creating a world . There may be a hint of criticism in this instance however: an early mediaeval manuscript cited by Scholem (1969, p. 176) states that as soon as they slaughtered the calf, Rav Hanina and Rav Oshaya forgot their esoteric learning. Taken together with a possible allusion to the golden calf worshipped idolatrously by the Children of Israel (Exodus 32), the message seems to be one of the potential misuse of esoteric, or magical, knowledge. Idolatry substitutes personal and immediate gain ( eating it) for the higher goals of esoteric practise. Moreover, there may perhaps be an intimation of the danger of misunderstanding the kind of realities that are here being discussed: Do not believe the craziness of those who study Sefer Yezirah in order to create a three-year-old calf, since those who strive to do so are themselves calves! writes an anonymous author in the circle of the thirteenth-century Abulafia (cited, Idel, 1990, p. 105).

In confronting a tradition of such long standing, it would be misguided to expect full consistency across diverse ages. Whilst the above anonymous extract stresses the non-physical reality of any creature generated through esoteric study, other sources seem to imply that the calf and the golem were considered to exist physically. The ontological status of the golem is confounded by the blurred boundary between mystical texts drawing on an author s experience, and writings which are more polemical and frequently draw on legend. In considering the appropriate level of analysis to apply to the golem, Wilber s (1979) tripartite division, itself based on St. Benaventura s distinctions between the eyes of flesh, mind, and spirit, might be applied. For Wilber, each sphere, the physical, the psychological, and the transpersonal, has its own dynamics and reality . In this sense, we might entertain three dimensions in relation to the golem ritual. Physically, the adept works with clay, which can activate various psychological realities involving projections onto the figure and, potentially, an inward shift to a higher state of consciousness. At the spiritual level, the ritual is directed to an experience of imitatio dei, for, as discussed below, the ritual appears specifically designed to recapitulate God s creation of man. The mystic aspires to attain the experience of the creative moment of God (Idel, ibid, p. xxvii).

I suspect, however, that the Talmud itself in the above passage is hinting towards a slightly different conception of three levels of meaning: the mundane ( eating a calf ), the human microcosm ( golem ), and the macrocosmic ( a world ). The human is the essential bridge between the world of nature and the macrocosm which depicts the ground plan on which all is designed. It is for this reason that these levels are presented within the context of a discussion of what in contemporary terms concerns creativity and morality. The human challenge is to unify these apparently distinct levels. The passage hinges on the idea that our iniquities have divided us from [our] God in the sense of inhibiting our powers of creativity, the ultimate divine attribute. The subtle subtext concerns the relationship between the perfect human and the divine being on the one hand, and the perfect automaton and the human on the other. The passage intimates that Rav Zeira recognised the man as a golem because it lacked the power of speech. Indeed, the role of language, both in its psychological and transpersonal aspects, becomes the central key to the entire golem tradition.


Elements of the golem ritual

The talmudic passage contains a further cryptic allusion, namely to the role of language in the procedure for producing a golem. The Aramaic original, translated as Rava created a man is Rava bara gavra which involves an almost mantra-like set of permutations on the letters of bara, the word for created. In their various permutations, the three Hebrew letters alef, bet and resh not only generate Rava s name and the verb, to create, but also the Hebrew eiver, meaning limb . The kabbalists drew heavily on these connections, understanding that the pinnacle of creativity was the generation of a complete set of limbs (by which was meant all constituent parts of the body), as in the golem, and that the key to such creativity lay in the technique of permuting Hebrew letters.

Central to this key is the Sefer Yetzirah. Rabbinic thought in general conceived language to be the hallmark of God s creative power. Letters present themselves as the fundamental units of written language and were accordingly thought of as the archetypal elements of creation. In a famous talmudic passage, for example, Bezalel, the architect of the biblical Tabernacle, is described as knowing the secret of combining the letters with which heaven and earth had been created (Berakhot 55a). In the Sefer Yetzirah God s technique of using the letters is elaborated:

He placed them in a circle like a wall with 231 gates. The circle oscillates back and forth.... He permuted them, weighed them, and transformed them: alef with them all and all of them with alef; bet with them all and all of them with bet.... And we find that all that is formed and all that is spoken emerges from one Name. (Sefer Yetzirah 2:4-5)

The exact nature of these permutations has engaged many minds and filled numerous manuscripts. 231 is mentioned since it is the number of two letter permutations from the Hebrew alphabet of twenty-two letters, without including reversals. A separate tradition holds the number of gates to be 221. The Sefer Yetzirah goes on to indicate how letters are related to specific limbs of the body. Thus, for example, bet corresponds to the mouth, gimel to the right eye, dalet to the left eye, and so on (although, again, diverse traditions are found). These correspondences become a further cipher for the initiate attempting to foa golem. As Kaplan writes, stressing the psychological nature of the golem, by chanting the appropriate letter arrays÷ the initiate could form a very real image of a human being, limb by limb (Kaplan, 1990, p. 127).

Further aspects of the golem ritual were written down by mystics in northern Europe in the mediaeval period. A particularly detailed discussion of the ritual is found in R. Eleazar of Worms commentary on the Sefer Yetzirah. He writes of one who would make a golem that

It is incumbent upon him to take virgin soil from a place in the mountains where no one has plowed. And he shall knead the dust with living water, and he shall make a body [golem] and shall begin to permutate the alphabets of 221 gates, each limb separately, each limb with the corresponding letter mentioned in Sefer Yetzirah.... And always, the letter of the [divine] name with them (Cited in Idel, op. cit., p. 56).

He goes on to detail the elaborate arrays of letter-vowel combinations which were chanted in combination with the letters of God s name.

The physical aspect of the golem ritual clearly draws on the symbolism of sexual polarity, the male principle of living water (e.g., spring water) being brought together with the female principle, virgin soil . The sexual imagery is reinforced by various aspects of the ritual mentioned in different manuscripts. One tradition, for example, insists that the union of water and earth take place on the floor of a temple, alluding to a whole variety of imagery connecting the Temple with fecundity and the act of creation. As Levenson writes, The Temple is a visible, tangible token of the act of creation (Levenson, 1984, p. 283). A further development of the sexual theme arises from texts which require the golem to be buried prior to its being brought to life. This instruction relates to a wealth of rebirth symbolism connected with the fecundity of the earth.

We thus find two major themes within the golem ritual. Firstly, in connection with the physical working with clay, imagery is activated related to sexual polarity with reference to the generative function. Secondly, the linguistic phase which activates the form of the golem, draws on the mystic s sense of God s powers of creation. These two were construed to parallel the two stages in God s formation of the first human: And the Lord God formed Adam [of] dust from the ground, and He breathed into his nostrils the soul of life÷. (Genesis 2:7). In the religious sense, this was the essential parallel, for the goal of the mystic was exactly that: to directly imitate the peak of God s creative work. The Jewish mystic aspired to union with the divine through this form of active imitation: A perfect Golem ÷ can be created by a perfect man who is in a state of perfect mystical union, i.e., in a state of union with the Divine Intellect (Idel, op. cit., p. 107).


Psychological Analysis : Intimations of Self

The enlivening of some kind of second body is a theme with extensive developments in the literature of the world s spiritual traditions. The Taoist Secret of the Golden Flower, for example, describes an esoteric practice of circulating light within the body which eventually crystallises, forming the natural spirit-body, or, in Jung s phrase, the incorruptible breath-body which grows in the golden flower (Jung, 1967, p. 51). In his commentary, Jung relates this development to a shift in the centre of gravity of the personality from ego to self, from a state where only consciousness is acknowledged to one in which the unconscious is recognised as a co-determining factor in one s life.

The hypothesis I intend to explore, namely that the golem ritual entails a similar realisation of self, may be supported for a further reason along Jungian lines. Jung s studies of alchemy and other traditions of symbolism led him to emphasise the role of the union of opposites in the process culminating in self-realisation:

The coniunctio oppositorum engaged the speculations of the alchemists in the form of the žChymical WeddingÓ.... The dual being born of the alchemical union of opposites, the Rebis or Lapis Philosophorum, is so distinctively marked in the literature that we have no difficulty in recognizing it as a symbol of the self. Psychologically the self is a union of conscious (masculine) and unconscious (feminine). It stands for the psychic totality (Jung 1968, p. 268).

As we have seen, the imagery of sexual polarity is pronounced in the golem ritual. Moreover, a poignant, esoteric relationship between the sexual function and the power of language is articulated in many kabbalistic texts. Wolfson (1995) has illustrated the way in which allusions to this relationship in early rabbinic literature were explored more explicitly in later mystical writings. As he asserts, the power of the Hebrew language to engage the mystic in an intimate relation to the divine was seen as complementary to the sexual function itself. The Sefer Yetzirah connects this relationship to the work of golem-making, stating that when Abraham was successful in making golems:

Immediately there was revealed to him the Master of all, may His Name be blessed forever. He placed him [Abraham] in his bosom and kissed him on his head and called him, Abraham my beloved (Isaiah 41:8).... He made with him a covenant between the ten fingers of his hands - this is the covenant of the tongue - and the ten toes of the feet - this is the covenant of circumcision (Sefer Yetzirah 6:7).

The two covenants depicted in this extract symbolically express man s power of creativity, firstly, in an intellectual sense (the tongue, i.e. language) and, secondly, in the physical sense (circumcision, i.e. sexuality). The golem ritual is essentially concerned with harnessing such creativity to a spiritual end.

In both its phases, therefore, the golem ritual seems to have activated the transcendent function through its engagement with forces of polarity and complementarity. Firstly, bringing together water and earth depicted the immediate physical union of opposites, and secondly, the linguistic phase, in which letter combinations were chanted and/or visualised, drew on the implicit relation between language function and sexual symbolism. There can be little doubt, however, that the dominant concern in the second phase was the unification undertaken between limbs and letters on the one hand, and letters and the divine name on the other. The union of opposites which Jung viewed as critical to self-realisation may have been seeded by the background of sexual symbolism, but the foreground was focused in the generation of wholeness though the image of a whole body unified in its association with the name of God. As Idel remarks, It was the linguistic alchemy which interested the Jews (Idel, op. cit., p. 186. Italics added).

This conception of the mystical use of language in generating, or, more accurately, re-membering, a higher, more complete body very much goes to the heart of the entire Jewish corpus. In Part One of the present article I remarked that the golem tradition of the mediaeval northern European Jews represented a split from the Sefardi Jews whose interest was in the sefirotic system as intermediary to the divine. The quest to unify a higher body unites the two traditions, for the sefirotic tradition too was focused on the human/divine image, and on the role of the mystic in enlivening, or completing that image. The sefirot form a whole world depicted in human form: [T]he figure of Man portrayed as a most perfect and exalted image, which ... constitutes the overall symbolic framework of the sefirotic system (Tishby, 1989, p. 295). Through appropriate religious practices, the kabbalist acts to influence the dynamics of the sefirotic system, and, via the sefirot, God Himself. All features of normative religious observance were construed as promoting this end of unifying higher and lower limbs of the ultimate body.

Although still obedient to the divine will..., the Kabbalist must invest particular energy in his performance of commandments, which alone have theurgical repercussions. A Kabbalist following ritual becomes a cooperator not only in the maintenance of the universe but also in the maintenance or even formation of some aspects of the Deity (Idel, 1988, p.181).

I have argued elsewhere (Lancaster, 1997b) that the kabbalistic view of humanity as engaged in a transpersonal quest to re-unify, or heal, the Godhead, the world and their own selves each of these levels being an inseparable aspect of the others represents a stimulating myth for our day. It bears a number of features which might usefully be introduced into the contemporary discipline of transpersonal ecology. A link between the concept of the golem and that of the transpersonal, collective human form is provided by a Midrash (homiletic story) thought to date from the eleventh century, in which God is said to have created man as a golem on day one at the beginning of creation. Finally, on day six, He cast the soul into him and set him down and concentrated the whole world in him (cited in Scholem, op. cit., p. 162). The golem might then be regarded as a means whereby the mystic engages with the formative power of the divine, unconsciously retracing his own constitution to a more primordial, and therefore more open, state. I am reminded again of Jung s conception of the self, which, in addition to its status as goal of individuation, carries a primordial quality: The beginnings of our whole psychic life seem to be inextricably rooted in this point, and all our highest and ultimate purposes seem to be striving toward it (Jung, 1977, p. 236). It is relevant to note in this context that the only use of the Hebrew word golem in the Bible comes in the passage, You [God] covered me in my mother s womb÷. My substance was not concealed from You when I was made in secret and wrought in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my golem and in Your book all of them [my parts?] were written (Psalm 139:13-16). In the Talmud, the foetus is depicted as all-knowing, having the benefits of an angel to teach it and enjoying the ability to see from one end of the world to the other. Perhaps one who had mastered the golem ritual had, as it were, drawn on this primordial potential, necessarily re-creating himself as much as any external creature in the process.

In considering the psychological significance of the linguistic procedure used in the golem ritual, the complex of meaning of the English re-member can be a helpful guide. The appeal to memory, paralleling Plato s anamnesis, seems to me poignant not only in relation to the primordial quality of the self/golem but also because the body image is the primary vehicle for our sense of I and therefore of mundane consciousness. The procedure of meditatively connecting limbs with Hebrew letters and with the divine name might be regarded as effecting a major shift of scale in the mystic s psyche. With a successful golem ritual, the bodily frame of reference for memory and thought shifts from the purely physical and personal to that of the collective, divine body .

From a psychological perspective, one of the most interesting exponents of the mystical use of Hebrew was the thirteenth-century Abulafia. He describes his technique as:

The method of returning the letters to their prime-material state and giving them form in accordance with the power of wisdom that confers form. This is the inner path of Kabbalah and is called among us by the general name the wisdom of letter-combination which includes seventy languages. Regarding this [method] it is stated in Sefer Yetzirah: Twenty-two cardinal letters; He engraved them and hewed them and weighed them and permuted and combined them and formed by their means the souls of all formed beings and [the souls] of all that in the future will be given form (cited in Idel, 1989, p. 97).

The intimate relation between language and thought implies that such deconstruction of language (to the letters prime-material state ) constitutes an interruption in the structure of thought. As with other meditative processes, the automaticity of mental process is challenged (Deikman, 1966). Central to such automaticity is the relation between memories and one s sense of I , a relation I have elsewhere conceptualised by suggesting that our memories are stored in association with I -tags (see, e.g., Lancaster, 1997c). I believe that all serious mystical work in some way challenges the automaticity in this relationship of I with memories. In the present case, the deconstruction of thought/memory contingent upon the linguistic practice in the golem ritual is conducted in order to substitute a higher construction of self for the personal I , a goal achieved by dint of the letters root in the creative life of the divine. The golem, in this formulation, appears as a new constellation of limbs , conformed not as a mundane body-image centred on the personal ego ( I ) but as a re-membering in the divine image.

The golem today?

[The myth of the golem] is based on a faith almost as old as the human species namely, that dead matter is not really dead but can be brought to life. I am not exaggerating when I say that the golem story appears less obsolete today than it seemed one hundred years ago. What are the computers and robots of our time if not golems?
Isaac Bashevis Singer

The aspiration to create artificial life has a long and rich history, and is significantly entwined with the greatest advances in human culture. Daedelus, named after the daedala ancient statues is perhaps one of the most influential mythical characters for our age. According to Plato, his statues were so life-like that they had to be restrained to prevent them running away! Ayrton (1962) ranks Daedalus as the greatest mythical progenitor, after Prometheus, of what the artist is. His claim on our age derives from his invention at least in the mythical realm of artificial wings, which brings humanity to a new sphere of endeavour. Prometheus himself, fashioner of man, is also bringer of fire, and thereby awakener of consciousness (Knapp, 1979). And in our day, the most morally acute questions of consciousness, life and death still revolve around the border of the possible where our powers of creativity fence with science.

Key issues such as machine consciousness are often pronounced upon by means of thought experiments (see, e.g., Dennett, 1991). The golem provided the rabbis with their own version of such experiments and they used it to explore, in particular, the nature of idolatry. A golem, representing perfection at the physical level, was thought to be open to higher influence. The mystic, armed with elaborate linguistic meditations, attempts to harness such higher influence for a positive purpose. But in the traditions of Midrash repository of countless thought experiments it was sometimes Satan who entered to animate the golem. For the rabbis, here was the essence of idolatry a device seemingly possessing the characteristics of a higher realm would trick the fallible human mind. Perhaps the golem may yet carry a message for our day...?

What of the practical interest in the golem? It seems to me that the golem ritual can offer insights in two contemporary spheres, the therapeutic and the spiritual . A potent medium for the therapeutic analysis of subtle influences on one s sense of self is provided by doll-work . When an individual produces a (preferably life-size) human form, complete with clothing and jewellery etc., in a setting conducive to therapeutic analysis, a plethora of reverberations of distant influences becomes unearthed. Indeed, any work directed to producing a significant other can be highly revealing, as Turkle (1997) notes in connection with Internet groups. Such activities draw on rich personal material going back to our early years when imaginary companions, or at least animated soft toys, significantly influenced our lives.

On the spiritual plane, the seeds of what I regard as viable contemporary meditative and visualisation practices can be found in the earlier literature. Idel, drawing on fourteenth-century texts, postulates that at least one tradition employed colouas the basis for a golem technique. Specific colours visualised in conjunction with each limb would have taken the place of physical dust. Abulafia certainly had already internalised the entire technique, asserting that the letters be sounded and visualised in relation to the mystic s own bodily structure. Thus, for example, he advises sounding the letter heh in the middle of your head, and draw[ing] it within your head as if you were contemplating and seeing the center of your brain (cited in Idel, 1990, p. 101). Esoteric practices of breath control accompanied such inner chanting and visualisation.

The connections between these kinds of practice and those found in Eastern spiritual traditions will be clear to anyone who has studied them. It is to be hoped that transpersonal psychology will find ways of integrating these diverse traditions without compromising the integrity which inspired their development. Through such a path we may find ways of re-vitalising our sense of connection to the collective body of humanity the ultimate golem.



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