#99 On Jewish Folklore in Steampunk: A Review of Steampunk Torah and Merkabah Rider — Guest Blog by Rachel Landau

"Beis Midrash" by Boris Dubrov. Click for source.

“Hey, did you know giraffes are kosher?”

This made worldwide news in 2008, when a rabbi certified that giraffe milk was indeed kosher. The giraffe chews its cud and has split hooves, and its milk curdles.

Thus: kosher! How wacky of those Jews!

But this wasn’t news to me: I learned this in the third grade, along with the other rules of kashrut and shechita. We don’t eat giraffes, of course, not just because they’re endangered, but because according to Jewish law, you need to slice the arteries at a certain point, so that the blood drains most quickly and the animal dies without prolonged suffering. We know where that place is on a cow, but we’re not sure where that would be on a giraffe. So giraffes are off the menu – but they’re on the approved list.

To me, this story exemplifies much of Jewish law and modern Judaism. With a few basic axioms – just like Euclid’s – you can build a logical framework that supports any question you might have. Accept that G-d exists, and that He gave the Torah to us, and then hundreds of logical implications follow. This is the logical Judaism, the way we make sense of four thousand years of heritage and dense books and missing links. And it does make sense, one law leading to another, one interpretation and one rabbi at a time.

One of the main sources of the interpretation is the Midrash, a collection of interpretations, stories, and parables that explain the text of the Torah.

The Midrash is what happens in the white spaces between the letters on the scroll, passed down through the generations. Often times, it can be relatively prosaic, clarifying the fine points of the law: this is what most people think of, when they think of commentaries.

But there is another type of Midrash in Judaism, where the supernatural is present everywhere and in everything. In a world where miracles happen on a daily basis, how could there not be? And of course there are demons and witches and evil spirits and magical protections.  The ways to deal with these supernatural occurrences follow the same methods as we would to what kind of meat is kosher: follow the midrash, the established world, and it will lead you to the answer.

Women are supposed to wear amulets at childbirth to ward away Lilith, Adam’s first wife and the mother of demons. Adam had a first wife? The Midrash says that Adam had a wife before Eve, because of the differences between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2: Lilith was created equal and didn’t like Adam, and ran off to make demon babies before G-d placed Adam in the Garden of Eden. Adam asked G-d for another, more submissive wife, so G-d created another woman. But this woman wasn’t Eve: Adam saw her being created, and couldn’t love the woman he had seen constructed. So G-d put Adam to sleep, as seen in Genesis 2:21, and made Eve. The second wife exists in the Midrash to explain why Adam was put to sleep.

That’s how Midrash goes: one story leading into another, sometimes contradicting, sometimes with a moral that doesn’t leave you satisfied. So another moral is constructed. This folklore in Judaism is rich and powerful, but is frequently forgotten and explained away as primitive superstition by modern Jewish scholars.

That’s why I was so glad to see two recent works that use this mystical interpretation of Judaism to enhance their world-building. One, Steampunk Torah, takes Midrashic interpretations of the weekly Torah readings and applies them to the author’s own fantasy world, which is inspired by but not a direct analogue of Judaism. The other, The Merkabah Rider, puts a Kabbalistic Hasidic gunslinger in the Old West. Both treat the mystic parts of Judaism with gravity, and give the words great respect: an essential part of Midrash, when you consider every word, every letter, even every stroke of the pen has power.

Steampunk Torah takes an imagined steampunk world and infuses it with lessons from the weekly Torah portions. Mari is a young woman who is seen as an outcast in her home for defying society’s expectations of her, until the Great Archivist Ismael takes her in as an Apprentice to the holy books of knowledge and power.

The author Rivkah Raven uses the Midrash to enrich her story in much the same way that Midrash enriches the original text: she uses it to ground her original world and give weight to the characters’ struggles and interactions. While it starts out very slowly, the writing and the world improve and grow as the chapters go on, and Rivkah uses both her story and the Midrash to as an allegory to illustrate many of the issues facing modern Judaism, such as assimilation and women’s roles.

 By contrast, Edward Erdelac’s The Merkabah Rider series is in a world without Torah at all: it’s a Western with a renegade Jew as its lead. Erdelac treats Kabbalah with the same gravity that other authors treat vampires or werewolves, and populates the world with other people’s folkloric histories as well, including a few nods to popular culture along the way.  Each book so far contains a collection of novellas, all following the (mis)adventures of the Merkabah Rider, a Strider-type who refuses to reveal his own name, because a name has (very real) kabbalistic power. His battles take place in both the physical and the mystical realms.  His adventures aren’t limited to Jewish mythology, either: in the world of the Merkabah Rider, all mythologies are real and valid.

The thing that struck me most about The Merkabah Rider is that the world is gritty and full of anti-Semitism.  This is natural, reflecting the real world in the 1870s and 1880s: rather than a world of harmony, cultures are clashing quite brutally, and no slurs are unimaginable to use. From a story standpoint, it makes sense. As I sit here in the real world, I’m reminded of why throughout history, rabbis and other caretakers of Jewish folklore have carefully de-emphasized and frequently pruned references to the supernatural in our holy texts. They wanted to keep it secret, restricting access to only the learned and settled (and male) scholars, so that nothing could get out that might embarrass us in the eyes of the outside world, no fabrications or exaggerations that so frequently turned into blood libels.

But I don’t agree. I think we should know all there is to know, both about our own culture and others. In this way, we can learn from each other.  Both Steampunk Torah and The Merkabah Rider will give you a taste of Jewish folklore and how it can be used. If it interests you, come play in our sandbox, there’s plenty of room.

After all, we’ve got giraffes.

***
Rachel Landau is a graduate student in public policy. She previously worked as a museum security guard. She has lost on Jeopardy!

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “#99 On Jewish Folklore in Steampunk: A Review of Steampunk Torah and Merkabah Rider — Guest Blog by Rachel Landau

  1. Thanks for the review of Merkabah Rider, Rachel! If anybody’s curious about Midrashic lore but doesn’t know where to start, I can’t recommend Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism enough. He has a great blog as well.

  2. Alan

    Great post, but I have to object to using the “Lilith-first-wife-of-Adam” story as an example of Midrash. It’s actually not in any collection of Midrash, was never written by the rabbis — the source for it is a book called “The [Second] Alphabet of Ben Sira”, a set of bawdy stories riffing on Biblical characters written in the 1300’s. Look into it, it’s fascinating. There are even fart jokes! Some time in the early 1900’s somebody mistakenly decided that “Lilith-first-wife-of-Adam” must have come from Jewish traditional sources, like many other stories about a demon queen/succubus named Lilith, and started including it in English-language complications of “rabbinic tales”, and hence the confusion…

  3. Rache Landau

    Edward – Thanks! I have to admit, I know a lot more about Midrash than I do about westerns, and I’m sure I missed a lot of references. 😉

    Alan – Fair enough. I’ve seen enough references to Lilith in midrash that I felt comfortable saying so, and there is archaeological evidence pre-Ben Sira that Lilith was something warded against by Jews, and I like the story of an example of explaining how a non-Biblical superstition got incorporated.

    Also, I must issue a correction: according to my almost-sister-in-law in Israel (hi Hannah!), “it’s a myth that we don’t know where to cut the giraffe’s neck. It’s just…. where are you gonna find a giraffe?” (And don’t eat giraffes!)

  4. Oh my, thanks for bringing this to my attention! As an Orthodox Jewish steampunk, I can’t wait to get my hands on these books.

    My gears don’t roll on Shabbos! 😉

  5. This is fucking awesome.For years I’ve been looking for more material for jewish-related lore for my RPG characters.Downloading all those books.All jews RPG players add me on FB.We can trade experiences!