Interpretations of the Golem

Universal and particular.

Print this page Print this page

Reprinted with permission from Jewish Ideas Daily.

The most famous and enduring of all Jewish legends is that of the golem, the artificial man. Indeed, with the possible exception of the demon Lilith, briefly pressed into service as a feminist icon, the golem remains the only post-biblical Jewish myth to be widely adopted by non-Jewish culture. Among its recent incarnations are a computer game that bears its name and the army of humanoids who populate James Cameron's film Avatar.

The Roots of the Golem

The roots of the legend are ancient: the Talmud claims that Adam himself—and thus, theologically speaking, all of humanity—was a golem until God breathed a soul into his nostrils. But the creature as we know it today has a much later and remarkably precise genealogy. He was born in late-16th-century Prague under the auspices of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, known as the Maharal, who, using kabbalistic magic, is said to have created a humanoid creature out of mud or clay to defend the Jews from their enemies.golem

From that point on, versions differ in both details and essentials. We are told that the golem was made out of mud, or ash, or perhaps simply dirt. He was brought to life by the application of magical amulets, or by mystical incantations, or by applying the Hebrew word emet ("truth") to his body, or by the recitation of the names of God, or, most intriguingly, by intoning the letters of the Hebrew alphabet just as, according to the medieval kabbalistic Book of Creation (Sefer Yetzirah), God created the world.

We do not have any real idea of what the golem looked like, or of his nature. Speculations run from an amorphous but vaguely humanoid blob of clay to a near-perfect simulacrum of a man, lacking only reason and free will. Was he simply crude matter with the appearance of life? Or a living creature whose formative materials happened to be crude matter, as Adam was before the divine breath? In other words, was he something wholly other, or merely an incomplete human being? Perhaps he was both, or neither.

What Did In the Golem?

The accounts of his end are similarly conflicted, leading in turn to divergent understandings of his significance. The most popular and widely known version is that, having successfully defended the Jews, the golem turned on his maker, wreaking havoc in the ghetto, terrifying its inhabitants, and eventually attacking the synagogue he had been created to defend. Thereupon the rabbi destroyed the work of his hands, returning it to the primordial mud whence it came. In a manner befitting the creature's birth, his destruction was accomplished (or perhaps not) by effacing the letter alef from the word emet, leaving the word met ("dead").

As it happens, this is a relatively late version of the legendary events. According to an earlier one, perhaps the oldest, the golem proved so powerful that the Holy Roman Emperor himself begged the Maharal to restrain him, promising in return to ensure the security of his Jewish subjects. The rabbi complied, and the golem sleeps to this day in some unknown corner of the Prague ghetto, waiting to be reawakened from his mystical hibernation when his people once again require a champion.

Such is the happy freedom of legends. Today, the golem remains quietly ubiquitous, but also opaque and elusive. While popular culture has successfully visualized and digested the vampire, the werewolf, the ghost, the unicorn, fairies, trolls, witches, and innumerable other ancient personifications of the uncanny and the impossible, the golem still has no concrete visual iconography. We all know that Dracula is Bela Lugosi and Frankenstein is Boris Karloff, but the only even vaguely memorable cinematic depiction of the golem is in a silent German Expressionist film now known mainly to historians, film buffs, and eccentrics.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Benjamin Kerstein, who lives in Israel, is senior writer for the New Ledger.