Messianism: Apocalyptics between Magic and Religion

Marla Segol

Apocalypse. Martha Himmelfarb defines it by its concerns with messianism, eschatology, and astronomy. It lives on the border between religion and magic, between ritual and efficacy. In many ways apocalypse is the telos of religion, but it is also religion’s dark and glistening underbelly—the very thing that confounds enlightenment attempts to rationalize it, ethicize it, make it hygienic. Until quite recently, functionalist, social definitions of religion have prevailed, separating religion from magic. Apocalypse in general, and messianism in particular, challenges these theories, because its goal is to end the social as we know it and to stop time. The social functionalist view of religion, then, renders messianism either problematic or invisible.

This view partly characterizes scholarship on the golem. It is, perhaps, a test case for understanding what our critical lenses allow us to see, since its messianic function remains largely ignored. The golem is an artificial anthropoid, a pile of mud or dust sculpted into the shape of a human being and animated by ritual performances consisting of letter combination and circumambulation. The rituals used to make the golem are derived from the late antique cosmogonic work, the Sefer Yetsirah, and elaborated in the form of recipes or ritual instructions in its medieval commentaries. According to the commentaries, the operator recites combinations of either the tetragrammaton (Idel and Bilski, 122), or of the twenty-two Hebrew letters. The operators combine this with a ritual dance, a makhol, in which they circumambulate the creature while reciting these permutations. Together, these actions work to form the creature and alter the constellations. Hence they are often categorized as magic and not religion. Yet medieval commentators hoped that the golem-making ritual would bring the Messiah and end time, clearly a religious goal.

Here’s how it works: each step of the ritual serves either to pre-enact the resurrection of the dead or to stop time and inaugurate the messianic era. Because the Sefer Yetsirah narrates divine creation by letter combination in the golem-making ritual it re-enacts the creation, but it is also meant to pre-enact the gathering of the bones for resurrection. So, too, with the ritual dance performed as the letter combinations are recited. This imitates and anticipates the joyous dancing of the afterlife. Letter combination also acts on the constellations to stop their movements and in this to stop time. It is messianic through and through.

The messianic function of letter combination is widespread across the commentaries. In Eleazar of Worms’s Sefer Tagin (twelfth century) the ritual aims to resurrect the dead:

In the future, the righteous will cause the resurrection of the dead [like] Eliyahu, Elisha, [and] Ezekiel . . . [the verse] hints at the righteous who know how to create by means of the combination of letters, and they created a man by means of the Sefer Yezirah. . .

Joseph Ben Shalom Ashkenazi’s fourteenth-century commentary assigns a messianic function to letter combination, stopping time in addition to resurrecting bodies. Letter combination repairs the Pleiades, which in turn repairs human bodies: “The Pleaides is the strengthening of all the limbs that are broken, and torn off (taken to pieces) and banished, and he (the operator) binds them together.” In a parallel fashion, letter combination also reunites the Pleiades (Kimah) and binds Orion (Kesil),” each of which is understood to be “broken” or missing stars.

In the Pseudo-Saadya Commentary (thirteenth century), letter combination serves to stop time as well; the repair of Kimah and Kesil must be considered in the context of Talmudic aggadah, in which the flood of Genesis was caused by the removal of two stars from the Pleaides (Kimah), so that the heavens could open to rain: “When the Holy One . . . wanted to bring a flood upon the world, He took two stars from Kimah and brought a flood upon the world.” When he wanted to stop the flood, according to the same verse, he removed two stars from Kesil to replace them (Mancuso, 72). These are described as the “sons” of the Great Bear. They were placed among the sisters of the Pleiades, so that the Great Bear constantly pursues the Pleiades, seeking the return of her two sons and causing the movement of the heavens. The Pleiades, in turn, seek the return of their sister. When the Pleiades get their sister back, they will stop looking for her. And when Ursa gets her sons, she will stop chasing the Pleiades. When the constellations end their pursuits, so does time.

The ritual dance (makhol) also has messianic meaning. In it, the operator is instructed to circumambulate the inert form of the golem to animate it. According to the pseudo-Saadyan commentary, “R. Saadyah explained that the dance (makhol) means that someone goes as in a dance (movement) when he wants to create . . .”

R. Aharon Berakhiah of Modena writes about this too (Ma’avar Yaboq, sixteenth century). He links that dance to the one performed in the afterlife, in the Garden of Eden:

and the secret of this going around is in the form [dugma] of that dance [hola] that God will prepare for the righteous in the Garden of Eden, since then the Maiden of Israel will be delighted, in that dance (makhol).

The secret, it seems, is one of sympathetic efficacy. The golem-making dance, performed below, will prepare the righteous for the one performed in the afterlife.

In these steps, the golem-making ritual is messianic, apocalyptic, even. The letter combination simultaneously animates the golem, pre-enacts the resurrection of the dead, and brings the Messiah, while the ritual dance inaugurates the afterlife. The golem creation ritual contains three steps that are embedded in Jewish canonical narratives, and which are meant to bring the salvation they promise. It is religious to its very core. So why don’t we know this better?

Many who have studied the golem do not emphasize its messianic function because they do not see the golem-making ritual as a religious act. The same applies to messianism generally. The past few years have seen big changes in the way we understand religion. Bruce Lincoln’s book, Holy Terrors, took the best of the functionalist views of religion and combined them to define religion as possessing transcendent discourses, practices, communities, and institutions performing particular functions. For example, he defines religious practice by its aim to create the perfect subject and/or world. If human perfection brings redemption, it is the telos of religious ritual, period. Hugh Urban adds to this argument in his 2011 book on the Church of Scientology in which he argues that religion is not merely a product of the scholar’s study nor authorized solely by the institutions that regulate it.

Instead the category of religion is continually negotiated between scholars, institutions, and the individuals assigning transcendent meanings to their actions. We see this interaction in the golem rituals: medieval commentators viewed the ritual as an enactment of sacred discourse, and so it was religious to them. Yet this happened outside, and perhaps even at the expense of, the last two of Lincoln’s categories—community and institution. As such, the golem-making rituals negotiate the content of religion, so, too, does its study.