Welcome back to The Stuff of Legends! Once again, we’re looking at a story from somewhere in the world that’s steeped in both folklore and history. This story, more than many others actually shows how the historical side and the folklore sides can actually come into conflict. This is the story of Rabbi Judah Loew and the Golem of Prague.
The story goes like this. In Prague in the year 1580, the Jewish community was under threat by a priest by the name of Taddeush. Taddeush was baiting non-Jews into attacking the Jews by means of Blood Libel. Blood Libel is an age old practice of accusing Jews of ritually murdering Christians to use their blood for religious ceremonies. As should be obvious, this is an outright lie (hence the use of the word “libel”). It’s safe to say that it was a dangerous time to be a Jew in Prague. Now, among this community was a great scholar and teacher by the name of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel. When faced with this crisis, Rabbi Loew started to receive dreams from upon high telling him that he could protect the people if he built a golem. Using the instructions he received from his dreams and his own studies of Kabbalah, he along with his son-in-law and his student, built the shape of a man out of river clay. Then, through some very exact and esoteric rituals (some of which are described in different versions of the story found online), they brought this figure to life. Now, some sources I read say that the golem was animated by the true name of God being written on a piece of paper and placed in the golem’s mouth. Others claim that it was the word emet or “truth” inscribed on the golem’s forehead. In order to render the golem inert, the e needs to be erased creating the word met or “death”. However, as the story goes, the golem went about its business at the behest of Rabbi Loew. He would use his tremendous strength to protect the Jews of Prague and do manual labor. He even had a name: Josef. The only rule was that the golem needed to be rendered back into inert clay again for the duration of the Sabbath. Now, stories vary as to the destruction of the golem. The simplest and possibly most fitting is that the golem’s services were no longer needed and Rabbi Loew saw that and simply deactivated him. Another story claims that the golem started to become more and more violent and when he went on a destructive rampage, at which point Rabbi Loew deactivated him. Yet another story claims that the golem actually fell in love and when he was spurned he went on a destructive rampage after which he was deactivated. Whichever way the story goes, the golem was interred in the attic of the synagogue where it was left to crumble to dust until all that was left was the outline of a man.
Not a bad little story, right? Honestly, considering all the persecution the Jews underwent throughout history, it makes sense that they’d develop a legend about a super-strong protector (well, other than Superman). So, what could possibly be the problem with this legend? Well, it seems like just with the story of Frankenstein that this legend is often compared to, the monster has started to overshadow the man.
You see, the Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, also known as the Maharal, was a real person. He was considered to be one of the greatest Jewish scholars of the 16th Century. He wrote numerous books on Jewish law and morality. He established a prestigious Talmudic school known as the Klaus. He spoke out against Nadler, which were sort of slurs against legitimacy which could sabotage someone’s ability to get a marriage match. Rabbi Loew was also supposedly very skilled in the sciences and mathematics and was friends with scholars like Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler. There are even those who say that the story of the Golem doesn’t fit with the Maharal’s story because he would likely be against the act of trying to create life.
Despite all this, it’s the story of the Golem that seems to get all the attention. I’ve even read a couple of sources where the authors seemed a bit exasperated by this.
It’s not hard to see why. While many of the good Rabbi’s accomplishments are admirable, they’re also a bit insular. They are of great interest to those within the Jewish community. However, a grand tale with supernatural elements like the story of the Golem is likely to get people’s attention across cultures and across faiths. It will draw the attention of anyone who ever felt the need for a protector or could imagine what it was like to feel persecuted. Heck, it drew the interest of a non-Jew like myself. That’s why I’m writing this.
Whether some people like it or not though, the story of the Golem seems like it is unlikely to go away. Popular culture has latched onto the story. There was a 1915 horror film entitled The Golem. There was also another Golem-related horror film in 1966 with the less than descriptive title of It! The Golem has appeared in the Disney action cartoon Gargoyles. The Golem of Prague also appeared on one of the Halloween episodes of The Simpsons. Golems of different sorts appear in the Castlevania video game series (though, the one in the video seems more like a Frankenstein-type monster). There was even an episode of Grimm featuring a golem. That doesn’t even get into the appearances that the Golem has made in comic books. For example, back in the '70s when Marvel was having a boom in supernatural characters, the Golem appeared in the title Strange Tales. Speaking of comic books, I'd be remiss to forget that the Golem is also mentioned numerous times in Michael Chabon's novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay about the early days of the comic book industry.
The one bright spot is that these appearances could get people curious. Not being Jewish myself, I knew next to nothing about the real Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel. However, I knew about the Golem from TV and comic books. So, after a little research, now I know more. With that in mind, I think I’ll include some links to sources about both man and creature (yes, including Wikipedia. It's usually a good starting point):
Rabbi Judah Loew:
Now whether you’re interested in man or monster, protector or holy man, I’m sure most people can agree that they are both deserving of being The Stuff of Legends!