Interpretations of the Golem

Universal and particular.

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Interpretations of the Golem

And yet we find the golem himself everywhere: in books, television shows, movies, video games, comic books, even the works of science. Various commentators have pronounced him the progenitor of Frankenstein's monster, the Terminator, Superman, HAL 9000, and almost any other non-human entity that nonetheless displays vaguely human characteristics. As a universal metaphor, he outdoes even Faust as a symbol of the dark side of knowledge, enlightenment, and technology, if not of modernity itself. The golem has been the atomic bomb, the computer, biotechnology, industrial production, indeed any scientific advance that at one point or another has terrified the human race and sometimes its own creators.

As this suggests, it is the later of the two narratives of the golem's career—that of the creature gone mad who turned on his creator—that has decisively captured the common imagination. The reasons are obvious. The golem is one of the few monsters that are not obvious holdovers from pagan myth, and the first who was unambiguously man-made. In other words, he is unquestionably modern: the shadow image of a dawning mechanical and technological age in which, for the first time, the artificial would begin to take precedence over nature as the determinative force in human life.

Indeed, the golem emerged out of a topography as artificial as the modern world itself. Unlike his brethren (werewolves, vampires, et al.), he was not born out of the Teutonic black forests, those symbols of the terrifying indifference of nature. He is, instead, unmistakably urban. He is the minotaur at the heart of the labyrinthine city. In this sense, the golem has come to personify the fear that we are all becoming automatons in the grip of a mechanism that we cannot fully comprehend even as we know that it is of our own making, or at least the making of other human beings. Perhaps we see golems everywhere because they are indeed everywhere: the avatars of our artificial environment.

The Jewish Interpretation of the Golem

This, however, refers only to the universal or the common golem. For Judaism, the legend has a wholly other meaning. In Jewish hands, the golem legend is not a horror story, and the cautionary elements in it are subsidiary to a larger theme. The golem was no Frankenstein, let alone a Faustian stand-in, but an avenger created specifically to vanquish the enemies of the Jewish people and, in the legend's compelling early version, awaiting future summonses to the same service.

A simple revenge fantasy, then? Not quite. Consider the nature of the golem himself. Most cultures build their heroes and avengers out of their idealized selves: their Galahads. But the golem is in every way the antithesis of the ideals of traditional Judaism. In a culture that revered learning and wisdom, the golem is stupid and incapable of reason. In a culture defined by the rigorous discipline of religious law, the golem is unruly, savage, and incapable of self-control. In a culture that took pride in its pacifism, the golem is created expressly for the purpose of committing acts of violence.
So contrary is the golem to the ideals of Jewish tradition that in Jewish circles his name eventually became an insult. To refer to someone as a "golem" is, essentially, to call him an idiot and a fool. The full implications of the insult are suggested by its elective affinity to another term of abuse: goyishe kop, or "Gentile head," referring to someone of notably low intelligence.

Beyond mere chauvinism, it seems, both terms express a contradiction in the Jewish self-image, what might be called the Gentile at the heart of the Jew. The golem embodies action, power, liberating: qualities officially eschewed but, through the medium of fantasy, projected onto a creature that lives and yet does not live, just as these same qualities lived and yet did not live in the psyche of his creators. This is a creature, moreover, given life not only by the wisdom and knowledge of the Jew but by his rage, his thirst for retribution, his hatred of the life he is forced to endure in exile: a life that appears to be life, but is not.

The Jewish golem, then, emerges as a reification not of the horrors of technology or the inhuman architecture of modern existence but rather of the suppressed forces that Judaism historically preferred to hide from itself: forces that, out of the sheer necessity of survival, eventually erupt, creating a new, Promethean form of life. It is not a coincidence that the awakened golem appears at the dawn of modernity as a close contemporary of the false messiah Shabbetai Tzvi, who unleashed another and much more explicit eruption of the same forces. Indeed, for the Jewish people, modernity has consisted of more than one awakening of the golem.

Whatever may be the universal afterlife of the Maharal's golem, for Jews and for Judaism the legend foreshadows something very particular: the reacquisition of the capacity for historical power and agency, which is to say the capacity for creation as well as for destruction. It is a capacity that is not to be trifled with—whose exercise, as the legend implicitly recognizes, demands vigilance and discipline. But without it, existence itself lies fallow, formless and void.

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