THE GOLEM: History, Influence & Unintended Consequences
As a person, I feel lucky to have Jewish culture. Although, I would say that I am not very religious, I do respect the culture of my Jewish heritage. I like the cool myths, and also like participating in the events, like Passover, Hanukkah or Shabbat Fridays, which I do at my grandparents’ house. We do it almost every Friday, and what I like about it is all the nice food my grandma prepares, I like lighting the candles, and I also like cutting the bread. The prayers don’t mean much to me, but they do to the Jewish religion in general. When I say the Shabbat prayers, I think about all the struggles we’ve been through and why this holiday is here: because Shabbat is the day of rest. And all people need to rest.
I don’t really like the idea of there being a God though, because if there really is a God, then why did he, she, or it just leave us? I mean, we’re alone to fend for ourselves from the start, basically without anyone except our parents, and our relatives. We come into this world with nothing, and it’s our own job to make it something. And I think that if God really did exist, wouldn’t he want to help his creations go through life?
Humanity has a lot of problems we can’t fix, like Cancer, Ebola, or Nuclear Warfare. And if there really was a God, wouldn’t God want to protect us from these things? Also, some people decide that their life isn’t worth it, and shouldn’t God be the feeling of a person’s conscience telling them that they have so much potential in their life? I think that we (as in all of us) make the choices we need to survive and that we fix the problems that life throws at us. If there really is someone out there looking after you, it would probably be the people that care about you the most in life. Your family. Your friends. It’s not that I don’t believe in the potential of the ever-knowing universe, it’s just that I don’t believe in God.
I believe the reason so many people want to believe in the concrete notion of God is fear. Fear drives people to do things that can change them for the better, or for the worse: and the belief in this all-powerful being looking out for you makes people less scared. As a small child, you feel like someone’s always watching over you. It’s a warm and comfortable feeling. I remember one moment from when I was very young, four or five, my dad was showing me the magic thumb trick, the one where it looks like he’s taking it off, and I remember as a kid, “How do you do that!?”.
And it just shows how much you look up to your parents, almost as if they were supernatural, and the thing is, from the perspective of a kid, your parents are practically gods. They can do things you can’t, they take care of you, and protect you, and make you feel better when you are scared, hungry, upset, or worried.
But who does this for your parents? Maybe that’s why a belief in God becomes so important for so many people. Because God can be that power adults look towards that takes care of them, in the same way parents do for their children.
People want something to protect them. And that brings us to the topic for my bar mitzvah presentation.
I first became interested in the Golem when I saw it in a game called Minecraft. The Minecraft Golem, also called an Iron Golem, is very tall with a big face, long, thin arms, short-ish legs, and it has a blank expression on its face, and there is also a Snow Golem in Minecraft that has a jack-o-lantern-head, and otherwise looks like a snowman. At night, monsters come out and the Iron Golem fights them and protects you; but sometimes if you attack it, it will attack back. The Snow Golem does the same thing, except it throws snowballs.
Then I saw a rendering of the Golem again in a Pokemon game. It was called Golett. In Pokemon, the creatures are divided into types, such as fire, ice, grass, or water. So, Golett is a Ground-type, and a Ghost-type. It can also evolve into Golurk, and as Golurk, it can push its legs inward and then shoot out fire like a rocket and fly.
The first mention of the Golem appears in the Bible, in Psalms 139:16, which says, “You saw my unformed body . . . ” The word for “unformed body” is “Galmi” Gimel, Lamed, Mem, & Yud. This is the origin of the word Golem: unformed body. In other words, a body that must be shaped by its maker. In the Bible, the maker, obviously, is God.
The next appearance of the Golem is in the Talmud, which are volumes of rabbinic interpretation of the Hebrew Bible. In the Talmud, it is interpreted that the first Golem was, in fact, the first human being, Adam, “when his dust was kneaded into a shapeless husk.” If we agree that Adam was the first Golem, who, according to Genesis, was created from nothing by God, then the myth of the Golem takes that one step further, in which man replaces God, creating his own twisted interpretation of God’s creation.
As time went on, the mythology of the Golem spread. The Kabbalah, in particular, contributed to the building of the Golem myth. The Kabbalah is a book of Jewish mysticism that finds secret codes within the Hebrew Bible that are believed to hold a great power. Kabbalists believe that the letters of the Hebrew alphabet contain magical powers.
While I was learning about the history of the myth of the Golem, I noticed how much of its story takes on similarities to Alchemy. Alchemy is not like magic; you can’t just perform it. You have to give something of equal or greater value to get the thing that you want. In other words, creating a Golem takes something away as well.
Between the 14th and 18th centuries, the Golem myth started to gain a life of its own, becoming embedded in the folkloric traditions of Jewish communities from Chelm in Poland to Vilna, Lithuania, to arguably the most well-known home of the Golem myth, Prague, in what is now the Czech Republic.
There are several variations of the Golem myth as it evolved through the Middle Ages and into the modern era.
In the Vilna myth, the Golem is made of sand, clay, and water. It is made by a great rabbi, a Gaon, or genius. The Gaon knows the five books of Moses and the commentaries by heart, as well as all the secrets of the Kabbalah, and the Lord’s secret name of names, which he then writes on a piece of paper. The Gaon then puts God’s secret name in the Golem’s ear, and the clay becomes like a human being. The secret name of God, the Hebrew letters Yud-hey-vav-hey, actually isn’t so secret. When sounded out, it’s Yahveh. Some people pronounce it Yahweh. Others pronounce it Jehovah.
The Golem’s creation in the Prague myth is slightly different. In this story, the Golem is created during the late 16th century by Rabbi Judah Loew Ven Bezalel. Rabbi Loew was a real person, who lived from 1512 to 1609, and was also known as a “Maharal”, an acronym for “Most venerated teacher and rabbi.” Some have called Rabbi Loew the chief sage and spiritual leader of his era. He also dabbled in Jewish mysticism, including the Kabbalah. Rabbi Loew brings the Golem to life not with the secret name of God, but by writing the Hebrew word EMET, which means “truth.”
What happens from here, whether in Vilna, Prague, or Chelm, is more or less the same. The Golem can be commanded to do anything. The Golem provides fish on the Sabbath and feeds the Jews. It leaps from roof to roof, and is able to disguise itself so no one knows it’s a Golem. It is also allowed to violate the Sabbath due to its being both human and inhuman. But the most important thing is the Golem’s ability to defend the Jews when peasants would become drunken and violent.
In the 1920 silent film, The Golem, which I watched as part of my research, the Golem at first is useful, doing chores and providing protection for the Jews of Prague. But ultimately, it becomes destructive because it takes its commands too literally, and kills someone.
If you created your Golem with the secret name of God, all you have to do is remove the paper from its ear and it turns back into clay. If you created it through the word EMET, you simply remove the E, the Hebrew letter Ayin, leaving it with MET, which means dead, and then the Golem is no more.
Is the Golem good? Yes and no. Yes, because it can help people and protect them. No, because it can also be used as a weapon to hurt people. Some people deserve it, like those who wanted to hurt the Jews. But the problem with something very powerful is that there is often an unknown consequence. In the end, the Golem is a little bit good and a little bit bad.
Why did the Golem myth become so popular? Well, for one thing, it’s a cool story. But it also has a lot to do with what life was like for Jews several hundred years ago.
In the Middle Ages, Jews were scattered across Central and Eastern Europe. One of the largest Jewish populations was in Prague, which was one of Europe’s primary commercial hubs. The first evidence of Jews in Prague was the year 906. Back then, the Jews were treated with respect and allowed to live their lives like normal human beings. Then, approximately two hundred years later came the first Crusade, at which point life for the Jews of Prague became MUCH worse.
There were forced conversions, there were Jews being killed, and there were unjust laws against Jews, such as, quote: “A Jew found with an unmarried Christian woman shall be sentenced to death. A Jew found with a married Christian woman shall be impaled at the crossroad,” end-quote.
Then, in the 13th century, the Jews were forced to live in a ghetto. Yet still, they were not left alone. There were instances of Jews being accused of ritual murder, which, even without proof, would lead Jews to be burned at the stake. Another time, there was a rumor that gold was in a synagogue’s foundation, and an angry mob destroyed the house of worship.
During Easter of 1339, a procession of Christians were walking through the Prague ghetto and saw Jewish boys playing with stones. A priest claimed that the host, or communion bread, he was carrying got hit on purpose by the stone-throwing boys. This later led a procession of Christians to kill over 3,000 Jews, which was almost the entire Jewish population of the city at the time.
These are only some examples of Jewish persecution in Prague. Jews did not have rights back then. Often they flourished, but were also very much persecuted whenever other citizens or people in power decided to blame or steal from the Jews. This persisted throughout the centuries.
Perhaps this begins to explain why the Jews needed protection. Today, people get protection through law. Back then, they had no legal protection. So, our monster made out of clay was created.
The story of the Golem, of human beings becoming like gods, creating life not in the usual way, but through animating the inanimate, appears in lots of other stories as well.
During my studies, I was reminded of the homunculus, which looks human but has no soul.
Or, think about Frankenstein, the story of a mad scientist who reanimates dead tissue to create a creature. The question its author Mary Shelley grapples with is whether it is the lumbering creation of Doctor Frankenstein that is the true monster, or if the creator is the monstrous puppetmaster. Like the story of the Golem, Dr. Frankenstein’s defiance of natural laws creates tragic and unforeseen consequences.
Other artists have been inspired by other aspects of the Golem. The Golem myth, in fact, had a huge influence on one of Prague’s most famous secular Jews, the great author Franz Kafka.
When Kafka was 16, a girl was murdered and the Jews were blamed, which led to anti-Semitic attacks and boycotts of Jewish businesses, such as the assimilated Kafka’s grandfather’s butcher shop. Perhaps it was all this anti-semitism around him that gave Kafka his famous “Kafka-esque” self-loathing, which is why many have called him a “self-hating Jew.”
In Kafka’s famous novella, “The Metamorphosis,” he explores the more grotesque and monstrous elements of the Golem myth. “The Metamorphosis” begins with the famous sentence, “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning after disturbing dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into an enormous bug.” The twist here is that the transformation is from a human to an insect, but the notion of transformation into a monster, something that is both human and inhuman, is very present. Gregor had been supporting his parents and sister with his job, but as a big bug, he couldn’t help them at all, which is basically the opposite of the Golem. However, in the end, Gregor becomes as much of a problem as the Golem ultimately becomes, and the best way he can help those he loves most is simply by dying and leaving them in peace.
Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinian author and poet, was also obsessed with the idea of humans creating life through unconventional means. One of his most famous stories, “The Circular Ruins” grapples with this idea. Borges was also enthralled with Jewish mysticism, which is explored in another of his most well-known stories, “The Aleph.” And he even wrote a poem called “The Golem,” in which he wrote, “If . . . the name is archetype of the thing/in the letters of ‘rose’ is the rose and all the Nile is the word ‘Nile.’”
What Borges is saying is that we are conditioned to think of words as interpretations of things, but the myth of the Golem, like the study of Kabbalah, says that it’s the word (whether it’s Yahweh or EMET) that is the thing — in this case God, or the power that God possesses.
I even realized that I’ve seen the Golem story in an anime show I like called Full Metal Alchemist about a boy and his brother who have lost their mother, and their father, who left behind all of his notebooks on alchemy, and in one of those books it says that there is a way to bring back the dead. And, remember how I said before the first rule of alchemy is that in order to get something out of alchemy, you need to give something of equal or greater value? So the brothers perform an alchemical ritual, except in order to do it, Edward loses his left leg, and the younger brother, Alphonse, loses his entire body, and what they produce isn’t their mother, it wasn’t even human; it was just a lump of flesh and bones. So then, Edward pays his right arm to seal his brother’s soul to a suit of armor, which then comes to life as Alphonse, and is a lot like the Golem.
The heroic aspect of the Golem also appears in popular culture, and is very intimately tied to the Jewish experience. Think about superheroes; they have unnatural abilities, some use them for good, and others, known as super villains, use them for evil. These hero stories often mirror the Jewish immigrant experience. Superman, for example, was created by Jerry Siegel, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, and Joe Shoe-stir (Shuster), also the son of Jewish immigrants (his mom was from Ukraine, and his dad from Holland). Superman was born on Krypton, which blew up, and his parents sent him to Earth, where he grew up as a normal boy with superpowers. Think about that in terms of the immigrant experience, in which largely young people (those who were strong enough to make the arduous journey across the ocean) were sent from situations of extreme poverty and violence, to start a new life in a new world. Even the name Super-MAN is a Jewish name. Say it fast: Superman. Or, in a sentence like: Isn’t that Superman such a nice boy?
The Golem is also very much a metaphor. I read an article that called science a Golem because like the Golem, science can create things that are very powerful and useful. But these things can also be hard to control. Guns can be used for protection and to hunt for food, but they can also be used to create terrible violence. The atomic bomb ended World War II when the US military dropped it on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some people argue that it was a necessary evil that made it, so that there wouldn’t have been a terrible invasion from Japan. But, however you think of it, it ushered a frightening new era in which human beings now possessed the ability to end life on Earth.
I believe the enduring power of the Golem story has to do with people being so scared they are willing to forget all reason. The people in the legend who created the Golem had the idea that if this all-powerful creation could be made, that we would be God. We would be the person that wasn’t scared of anything. But if you’re not scared of anything, you don’t have common sense.
There’s a theory I’ve heard that God is afraid of the capabilities of his creation, and that’s why we don’t see God reaching out—because he is too afraid of what we are capable of. Which, when you think about it, is often what the Golem becomes once it loses control.
The way I see it, the way we human beings see the Golem, that’s the way God sees all of us. When we were created, God believed us to be nothing more than lifeless dolls to play with. But that wasn’t true. And when God found out what we were capable of, there were too many of us to destroy. And God was afraid, and so we were left alone on our world to one day be destroyed by our own Golems. However, that doesn’t mean that we are lifeless, what it means is that we, as a people, are our own God.