Harold Behr

Golem: A myth of perfection in an imperfect world

Perfection is a goal more easily pursued in the cold, impersonal world of science, but this does not stop some individuals from seeking it in the uncertain world of human relationships. Whether the search for perfection is in the self or in another, the inevitable outcome is a tyranny of sorts. Those with perfectionistic traits impose a burden not only on themselves but on others.

Musing on this subject, I found myself wandering into the realms of mythology. The study of legends and myths, dismissed by some as irrelevant to psychological enquiry, is, to the contrary, an invaluable source of insight into human behaviour.

I was introduced to the Golem in childhood. A charming series of stories comprising ‘The Children’s History of Israel’ by Ish Kishor, presents the Golem as a robotic figure modeled from clay by a certain Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel in Sixteenth-Century Prague. The Rabbi invests the creature with life in order that the Jewish community of Prague can be protected from anti-Semitic attacks.

I subsequently discovered that there were several predecessors of the Prague Golem, dating back at least to the Twelfth Century, but as with all myths, the story is ever-changing and multifaceted, and its precise origins are shrouded in mystery. What we do know, however, is that Rabbi Judah Loew was steeped in the mystical movement known as Kabbalah and that he lived at a time when Jews were turning in desperation to mystical solutions for the perennial problem of persecution.

Having moulded a larger than life in human form, the Rabbi endows it with sacred properties by embedding in its forehead a piece of parchment on which is written the single word denoting God, ‘Hashem’ (literally ‘The Name’), and by so doing brings to life the perfect saviour of the Jewish people.

Given its murky origins, there are several variations of the story to choose from. In one, the Golem, named Josef, makes himself invisible and summons spirits from the dead to aid his cause. In another, the Golem continues to expand, growing ever larger until the Rabbi who has created him is forced to de-activate him by removing the sacred word, (proponents of artificial intelligence might think of this as the password), causing the Golem to crumble into dust.

Short story writers, movie makers and novelists have had a field day with this theme. In a 1997 novel, ‘The Puttermesser Papers’, Cynthia Ozick has her heroine create a female Golem out of the soil in her flowerpots to serve as the daughter she never had. This Golem helps the heroine, Ruth Puttermesser, to become Mayor of New York before it too runs out of control. There is yet another version of the story in which the Golem falls in love (‘Well, he would, wouldn’t he?, to paraphrase Mandy Rice-Davies) and when his love is unrequited he runs amok.

In the original Golem legend, the Rabbi, who has devoted his life to study and prayer and is therefore, like his fellow scholars, ill-equipped to deal with the muscle-bound brutes who would persecute him, creates a strong man whom he can control and invest with magical powers to protect him and his people while they pursue their learning without interruption. A perfect solution, one might think. But alas, in every version of the story, the creature gets out of control for one reason or another. A relationship, whether between individuals or groups, seems destined to break down if it is built on the need to control one of the parties and reduce them to eternal subservience.

About the Author
I was born in South Africa in 1940 and emigrated to the U.K. in 1970 after qualifying in medicine. I held a post as Consultant Psychiatrist in London until my retirement in 2013. I am the author of two books: one on group analytic psychotherapy, one on the psychology of the French Revolution. I have written many articles on group psychology published in peer-reviewed journals. From 1979 to 1985 I was editor of the journal ‘Group Analysis’; I have contributed short pieces to psychology newsletters over the years.
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