Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

Archive for October 2020

In recent weeks, I’ve had some run ins with neo-nazi accounts on Twitter. The accounts belong to Americans, possibly a small number of individuals, opening a new account as soon as one gets closed down, or conceivably, as they insist, a large number of people, preparing retribution against non-whites, Jews, Muslims and LGBTQ. One can see the advantage of having them hate diverse minorities, in the sense of them promoting solidarity among us, their targets.

What after all is more painful than division between black and Jewish, Muslim and Jewish, gay and trans, gay and Muslim, Zionist and non Zionist, BLM and African Americans for Trump?

You would think the neo-nazi accounts might be an amusement almost, but they are so queasily gruesome, with their Stürmerish cartoons of Jews and their graphic depictions of black people as primitive, that they do have at least one power if no other, the power to disgust. And they are worse than I describe them here, as I don’t like to linger over their effluvia, which trickle sometimes into my notifications.

When I am exposed to far right racism, I think it must surely be worse than racism as it occurs on the left. If I were prepared to discount the antisemitism of the left, this would be nothing but the truth, but obviously, or not obviously, this isn’t something I’m prepared to do.

Whether it is myself or other Jews who are being called supremacist, colonialist, apartheid lover, Khazar or murderer, I’m not prepared to give these ‘anti-racist’ self-congratulatory, ill-informed moralists of the left the benefit of the doubt.

The very names which they call us tend to belong to the left and not the right. There are those on the left who say that our bloodlust targets Palestinian children. The neo-nazis say that our victims are white children, like little Saint Hugh of Lincoln. The word Khazar is used by the left to deny the Jewish connection with the Land of Israel. The far right call us Semites and embrace antisemitism, regarding us as non-white. Supremacist is not derogatory in their book.

Holocaust denial is de rigueur on the far right, while the radical left on social media ask why Jews should get special treatment in the memorializing of the Holocaust – were there not other victims and anyway, they sometimes ask, how many really died? And were Zionists not in cahoots with the nazis, they ask and what was wrong with Ken Livingstone’s remarks, he got it right didn’t he?

The left speaks of Jewish political power and martial brutality while the right maintains that we are insidious, physically weak but paranormally potent. There is an overlap. I have seen left wing forums where members maintain that Jews use occult power as well as money, to dominate the entire world.

The far left says, ‘If you don’t want us to hate you, stop being bad to Palestinians.’

The far right doesn’t offer us any terms for eluding their hatred.

Both far left and far right accuse us of complaining too vociferously about antisemitism. Why don’t we just shut up about it and, as Len McCluskey might say, go into a room and count our gold?

I am referring to the racists of left and right, not to the spectrum of opinion which appears in parliamentary democracies. After all, I am myself left and right, albeit, most of all, centre. Political quizzes place me on the centre left, socially progressive but tending to favour a free market economy, more so in recent years, observing the Corbynist attachment to government regulation. But, to be honest, I don’t even know what that last sentence means.

I resent that left antisemitism undermines the natural solidarity I would feel with people whose causes they rightfully embrace. As for the neo-nazis, I resent that they are still with us, showing up in my notifications, while Twitter averts its algorithmic eyes.

As an undergraduate, I resided in a large hall of residence where, in my final year, I met my first husband, not Mr Gould zichrono livracha nor Mr Lazarus, but the father of my first two children.

There were three communal television rooms for the entertainment of the students residing in three adjacent blocks. Watching television must have been a bit of an event because I remember what I watched and how it felt. For example, on the night that I believed I’d mastered truth tables in symbolic logic (I probably hadn’t) I  went light-hearted to the TV room where The Third Man was showing. I had seen it before but never with such appreciation and exquisite enjoyment. When I see it now – and it holds up marvelously well – I think of truth tables.

Another film, and why this 1936 classic was being watched by students in 1970 is a mystery, was San Francisco with Jeanette MacDonald and Clark Gable. There was some laughter at the cheesier moments but the earthquake montage, when it came, was met with a stunned silence. In the nineteen thirties, special effects were special indeed.

As Sartre was then my favourite living philosopher, I watched with great interest a BBC serialization of his trilogy The Roads to Freedom, with Michael Bryant, Georgia Brown and Daniel Massey – BAFTA nominated, but it seems to have vanished, leaving behind only a footprint on IMDb.

Most memorable, in terms of viewing, was the night of the 1970 General Election, 18 June. I would have been home with my parents in London where, for the first time, I had the right to vote, but I had become ill after the exams and, while the lurgy persisted, was holed up in my room in the hall of residence. By 18th June, I was well enough to make my way to one of the television rooms. I imagine that all three were tuned to the election results.

I was a Labour supporter. My parents and sister were Labour supporters. So were most of my friends, even the revolutionaries from the Socialist Society. So also were my grandparents, uncles and aunts although there was one cousin who said he voted Conservative. That got talked about in the family, in lowered voices.

It was just two years after the Evenements de Mai, the groundswell of student and trade union activism which flourished in France in May 1968 and spread across Europe and the USA. It made stars of student leaders Danny Cohn-Bendit in France and Rudi Dutschke in Germany. Here we had Tariq Ali, notching up more television appearances than could be claimed in 2019 by Ash Sarkar and Owen Jones combined.

The most average and conventional of the students at my university, those who were still comparing A level grades, suddenly grew their hair, called each other ‘Man’, became revolutionary socialists and, in many cases, ‘dropped acid’.

 For the record, I never did LSD – too fearful of hallucinations. ‘For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come?’

Well, Labour was defending a majority of over a hundred, the like of which we don’t see these days, and their poll lead was around 12% so the odds looked favourable on Harold Wilson being returned to Downing Street.

As you will know, the Conservatives won the General Election of 1970 and Edward Heath became Prime Minister.

The TV room gradually emptied, leaving just a disconsolate few, myself among them, to see in a Tory dawn.

In 1968, France at least had seemed to be on the cusp of revolution. By 1970, De Gaulle had retired and Georges Pompidou was the President. In America, the Democrat Lyndon Johnson was out and the Republican Richard Nixon was in.

What happens when the Left gets disappointed? Does the conservative Right consume the middle ground?

During my teenage years in the SWP, I heard Tony Cliff blame the failure of the German revolution in 1919 on the Social Democratic Party of Germany which, insisting on a parliamentary system of government, then put down the Spartacist movement, whose leaders Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht were killed by the paramilitary Freikorps. Weimar followed and we know what beast burst forth in its wake.

The post 1968 narrative of the left was that, as in 1919, it had been betrayed by the centre, a motif overused at the present time by the disappointed ‘Many’ following the most recent UK General Election of December 2019.

Surrounded on the streets by like-minded people, calling in their thousands for justice, peace and plenty, with banners and placards carrying variations of the same message, some more inventive than others, and the chants of so many voices:

…one, two three, four, we don’t want this particular war,

Two, four, six, eight, choose the villain, feel the hate…

how can we account for the conservative tendencies of ballot box voters? Is it a desire for the quiet enjoyment of the life adumbrated in the final speech of Trainspotting or a fear that those street activists who may have been us in a previous year or decade will gain power and be the most conservative of all?

In 2019, for the second time in my life, I didn’t want a Labour victory (the first time was 2017) because the Left seemed to have taken on a brutal and intolerant triumphalism. It looked possible that we were at last on the cusp of a societal change which would harm me and many of those close to me. I realize that this is denied most emphatically by the disappointed hard left.

Where do the hard left go when they are disappointed? Presumably to the same place as the electorally disappointed far right: the fringes, the shadows and the room above a pub, to plan the next upheaval, the next threshold and how to cross it.

Yom Kippur discussion group 5781/2020

גָּלְמִי רָאוּ עֵינֶיךָ 

You saw my unformed substance/golmi

Psalm 139: 16

I wanted to talk about golems, because it seemed relevant to the repentance theme of Yom Kippur to discuss the aspects of ourselves which might be excessively defensive, or offensive, or triggered or even out of control, the way the Prague Golem became too powerful and delinquent for its creator.

The most well-known golem legend attributes its creation to Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague, a mystically inclined rabbi and scholar who was born about 1520 and died in 1609. He is sometimes referred to by the honorific acronym Maharal, Morenu ha Rav Loew, our teacher, Rabbi Loew. In order to protect the Jews of Prague from pogroms, he created a humanoid from the mud of the Vltava River and brought it to life by inserting into its mouth a clay tablet bearing the name of God. The rabbi would deactivate the creature every shabbat by removing the clay tablet. One week he forgot to do this and the Golem went on a destructive rampage until Rabbi Loew removed the clay tablet.

This legend post-dates the lifetime of the Maharal. It was a fiction which resonated with Jewish and non-Jewish authors alike.

What brings a golem to life is the name of God or another mystical formulation of letters which the golem wears, on his forehead or over his heart and when this is removed, life departs from the golem.

It was believed that a letter of God’s name would animate the clay figure of the golem or, conversely, subtracting a letter would take life away.

In 2009,the Czech Republic issued a stamp depicting the Maharal, minus the golem, price 21 korunas.

The German film director and actor Paul Wegener made two films about the Golem, the first one in 1915 being lost but the second film, from 1920, is extant and available on Amazon Prime. I watched it. Unavoidably, there is a slightly King Kong aspect to the narrative in which the monster falls in love with a beautiful girl. Paul Wegener played the role of the Golem in his films, so it is his image which we see in the stills from the movie.

Rabbi Jacob Emden, eighteenth century, gave an account of the Golem of Chelm, created by Elijah Ba’al Shem, a near contemporary of the Maharal, but not blessed with the Maharal’s longevity. The story is told in an anonymous manuscript dated 1630. The word emet, meaning truth, was inscribed on the Chelm Golem’s forehead. When it became too powerful,  Rabbi Elijah destroyed it by removing the letter א aleph from the word emet. This left the word met which means dead and so the Golem was rendered lifeless.

In the popular American television series X Files, an episode called Kaddish concerns a golem wreaking vengeance on some neonazi killers. As always, the golem goes beyond it remit and is returned by its makers to dust. In this dramatization, it is terminated by the removal of the aleph.

The Babylonian Talmud makes reference to the creation of a man by the sage Rava, in Babylon, third to fourth century CE.

רבא ברא גברא שדריה לקמיה דר’ זירא הוה קא משתעי בהדיה ולא הוה קא מהדר ליה אמר ליה מן חבריא את הדר לעפריך

Indeed, Rava created a man, a golem, using forces of sanctity. Rava sent his creation before Rabbi Zeira. Rabbi Zeira would speak to him but he would not reply. Rabbi Zeira said to him: You were created by one of the members of the group, one of the Sages. Return to your dust.

Sanhedrin 65b

The Gemara relates another story to support the statement that the righteous could create a world if they so desired:

Rav Ḥanina and Rav Oshaya would sit every Shabbat eve and engage in the study of Sefer Yetzirah, and a calf would be created for them, and they would eat it in honour of Shabbat.

Sanhedrin 38b

Their arcane knowledge is said to be obtained from a mystical work Sefer Yetzirah, which means The Book of Creation. The date of Sefer Yetzirah is generally thought to be Talmudic although there is a view that it dates from the later Geonic period. As it is referenced in  the Babylonian Talmud, fifth or sixth century CE should be the terminus ante quem unless it is a later insertion. The subject matter is creation through the force of words, letters and speech. In the account of creation which we read in Genesis, it is God’s words which create everything in the universe, from light on the first day to a human being on the sixth. Sefer Yetzirah served as a kind of How To manual for creation ex nihilo.

Another Babylonian sage states that Adam was created initially as a golem.

It is taught in a baraita that Rabbi Meir would say: The dust that served to form Adam the first man was gathered from the entire world, as it is stated: “When I was made in secret and wrought in the lowest places of the earth, Your eyes did see my unshaped flesh” (Psalms 139:15–16).

Sanhedrin 38b

God breathed the breathe of life into Adam and he became a man, in the divine image.

Midrash speaks of Abraham as having mystical powers of creation and this is based on Genesis12:5:

וַיִּקַּ֣ח אַבְרָם֩ אֶת־שָׂרַ֨י אִשְׁתּ֜וֹ וְאֶת־ל֣וֹט בֶּן־אָחִ֗יו וְאֶת־כָּל־רְכוּשָׁם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר רָכָ֔שׁוּ וְאֶת־הַנֶּ֖פֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר־עָשׂ֣וּ בְחָרָ֑ן וַיֵּצְא֗וּ לָלֶ֙כֶת֙ אַ֣רְצָה כְּנַ֔עַן וַיָּבֹ֖אוּ אַ֥רְצָה כְּנָֽעַן׃

And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran; and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan; and into the land of Canaan they came.

The souls they had made is interpreted usually in Midrash as referring to converts Abram and Sarai had made.

It is said that the eleventh century Andalusian sage Ibn Gabirol created a female servant – an early medieval Stepford wife, perhaps. Although a story about Ibn Gabirol creating a golem is found in more than one contemporary source, I can find nothing which isn’t modern and it may be derived from a fantasy or a metaphor which can possibly be attributed to a twentieth century American Rabbi Ben-Zion Bokser.

What do all the golems have in common? They are created by humans in their wisdom, in imitation of God’s creation. The golems are physically mighty and the creators tend to lose control of them.

A golem is servile, obedient, physically strong, primitive, wild, sometimes emotional and sometimes vengeful. It can be a servant or a weapon, an industry or a movement. It may be managed or it may be out of control, like Dr Frankenstein’s monster or like a nuclear bomb. A golem can be a creation made by humans, or by God. There is usually a danger of it becoming more powerful than its creator intended.

In Freudian terms, the Golem might be our id, out of control and disempowering the superego.

It may be a synth who gets ideas above their station.

It may be a powerful political leader whose clout exceeds their reason.

According to cinematic representations, it may be an emotionally sentient creature who falls in love.

God’s creation, humanity, got out of control in many ways. The disobedient Adam was followed by the fratricidal Cain and eventually an entire generation did ‘nothing but evil’.

וַיַּ֣רְא יְהוָ֔ה כִּ֥י רַבָּ֛ה רָעַ֥ת הָאָדָ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ וְכָל־יֵ֙צֶר֙ מַחְשְׁבֹ֣ת לִבּ֔וֹ רַ֥ק רַ֖ע כָּל־הַיּֽוֹם׃

The LORD saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time.

וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם יְהוָ֔ה כִּֽי־עָשָׂ֥ה אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ וַיִּתְעַצֵּ֖ב אֶל־לִבּֽוֹ׃

And the LORD regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened.

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהוָ֗ה אֶמְחֶ֨ה אֶת־הָאָדָ֤ם אֲשֶׁר־בָּרָ֙אתִי֙ מֵעַל֙ פְּנֵ֣י הָֽאֲדָמָ֔ה מֵֽאָדָם֙ עַד־בְּהֵמָ֔ה עַד־רֶ֖מֶשׂ וְעַד־ע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם כִּ֥י נִחַ֖מְתִּי כִּ֥י עֲשִׂיתִֽם׃

The LORD said, “I will blot out from the earth the men whom I created—men together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I regret that I made them.”

וְנֹ֕חַ מָ֥צָא חֵ֖ן בְּעֵינֵ֥י יְהוָֽה׃ (פ)

But Noah found favor with the LORD.

Genesis 6:5 – 8

We, God’s creation, are likened to clay. Our beginning is the unformed substance – ‘Like clay in the hands of the Potter,’ said Jeremiah.

וַיְהִ֥י דְבַר־יְהוָ֖ה אֵלַ֥י לֵאמֽוֹר׃

Then the word of the LORD came to me:

ק֥וּם וְיָרַדְתָּ֖ בֵּ֣ית הַיּוֹצֵ֑ר וְשָׁ֖מָּה אַשְׁמִֽיעֲךָ֥ אֶת־דְּבָרָֽי׃

“Go down to the house of a potter, and there I will impart My words to you.”

וָאֵרֵ֖ד בֵּ֣ית הַיּוֹצֵ֑ר והנהו [וְהִנֵּה־] [ה֛וּא] עֹשֶׂ֥ה מְלָאכָ֖ה עַל־הָאָבְנָֽיִם׃

So I went down to the house of a potter, and found him working at the wheel.

וְנִשְׁחַ֣ת הַכְּלִ֗י אֲשֶׁ֨ר ה֥וּא עֹשֶׂ֛ה בַּחֹ֖מֶר בְּיַ֣ד הַיּוֹצֵ֑ר וְשָׁ֗ב וַֽיַּעֲשֵׂ֙הוּ֙ כְּלִ֣י אַחֵ֔ר כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר יָשַׁ֛ר בְּעֵינֵ֥י הַיּוֹצֵ֖ר לַעֲשֽׂוֹת׃ (פ)

And if the vessel he was making was spoiled, as happens to clay in the potter’s hands, he would make it into another vessel, such as the potter saw fit to make.

הֲכַיּוֹצֵ֨ר הַזֶּ֜ה לֹא־אוּכַ֨ל לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת לָכֶ֛ם בֵּ֥ית יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל נְאֻם־יְהוָ֑ה הִנֵּ֤ה כַחֹ֙מֶר֙ בְּיַ֣ד הַיּוֹצֵ֔ר כֵּן־אַתֶּ֥ם בְּיָדִ֖י בֵּ֥ית יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ (ס)

O House of Israel, can I not deal with you like this potter?—says the LORD. Just like clay in the hands of the potter, so are you in My hands, O House of Israel!

A golem has its origin in common with Adam, who was made from the dust of the ground, and adam is a generic name for mankind.

and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

Ecclesiastes 12:7

In the ensuing discussion which was via Zoom after the Yom Kippur musaf service, members spoke about aspects of personality which may appear to be out of control and the relationship of hidden aspects of the self to creativity. The question arose whether comparing a human to a golem emphasised the passivity rather than the free will of the human being.

By the time the discussion was over, there were only four hours remaining until the end of the fast.

אבינו מלכנו זכור כי עפר אנחנו

Our Father, our King, remember that we are dust.

Avinu Malkenu


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