Scott Copeland

The Golem awake, the Golem amok

A lifeless lump of clay is molded, and sanctified, and animated in gray imitation of the human; a poor, imperfect facsimile of the molding of Adam and Eve. The creature born of magic and mysticism, from the despair of oppression and the hope for redemption is known as the Golem.

‘Golem in Jerusalem.’ Gemini. (May 2024). Generated by large language model on Google.

Although the creation of a Golem has roots both in the Bible and in the Talmud, the most famous tale of the Golem is attributed to medieval Prague, the oldest synagogue in Europe – the Alt Neu Shul, and a fictionalized version of the scholar, community leader, and philosopher – Rabbi Yehuda Loew Ben Bezalel – the Maharal – the Lion of Prague. “Judah is a lion’s whelp; On prey, my son, have you grown. He crouches, lies down like a lion, Like a lioness – who dare rouse him?” (Genesis 49:9). The historic Maharal lived in 16th century Prague. Rabbi Yehuda was recognized as a person of profound wisdom and was the key diplomat of the Jews to the Moravian royal house.

According to legend, the Jews of Prague were again threatened. The Jews of Prague, like many medieval Jewish communities, often found themselves abused and attacked. Medieval Christianity excelled in inventing bizarre stories about the Jews that served as narratives to justify oppression – blood libels, host desecration, and fantastic accusations of pacts between the Jews and the supernatural forces of evil. When the antisemitic menace again raised its monstrous head, Rabbi Yehudah used his mystical powers to bring to life a clay creature in human form. The Golem is roused, as the world was created, through language, through the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. In some versions, the word “EMET” (Truth) is emblazoned on its forehead. In others, a parchment bearing the ineffable name of the divine is lodged inside the Golem’s mouth. The creatures given life by the Divine,  as recounted in Genesis, are imperfect, incomplete. The creature awakened by the Maharal is, like all human creations are even more so, flawed and faulty. Among the deficiencies of the Golem; he is bereft of the ability to speak.

Rabbi Yehudah sends his silent servant out to guard and defend. When the creature runs berserk and rampages through Prague, Rabbi Yehuda brings the monster to heel. The Maharal incapacitates the Golem by erasing the inscription or removing the vellum that granted the clay form the spark of life.  The remains of the Golem, according to the legend, were interred in the sealed attic of the Alt Neu Shul. It awaits the time when it will be awakened again.

Even today, visitors stand in the shadow of the Alt Neu Shul and continue to stare up at the locked door below the roof, wondering if the Golem still lies dormant inside.

No historic documents from the time of the Maharal, including in his own writings and those of his students, mention a connection between Rabbi Yehudah and the Golem. Only centuries later do Jewish and non-Jewish writers weave a legend that includes Prague, the Alt Neu Shul, the Maharal and the creation of a clay robot brought to life by Jewish alchemy. Writers like Gustav Philipsonn (1841) and Gustav Meyrnick (1914) were among many to tell the story of the Golem that is best known today.

The legendary lump of clay has countless descendants. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s tragic (and in the novel highly articulate) creature animated by the scientist Victor Frankenstein in a quest to push the limits of human knowledge and power was likely inspired by tales that Shelley heard as she travelled through central Europe. The German silent film,“The Golem” (1915), written and directed by Paul Wegener and Henrik Galeen, was based on Meyrnick’s novel. It was one of the earliest films and is an ancestor of all horror, fantasy, and sci-fi cinema. Even recent films like the Aliens franchise’s “Prometheus” (2021) and the replicants of “Blade Runner” (1982) are all descendants of the Golem of Prague.

Through the 20th and into the 21st centuries, the Golem also captured Jewish literary imagination. A fictional account presented as a historical document was penned by Rabbi Yudl Rosenberg. “The Wonders of the Maharal” (1909) tells the story of the Golem of Prague as if documented by the son-in-law of Rabbi Yehuda. Works by Isaac Bashevis Singer, Elie Wiesel, and Cynthia Ozick all retell the Golem legend. Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” (2000) tells the tale of a golem coming to America, and the Jewish part in the development of modern comic books. The novel’s Joe Kavalier and Sammy Klayman are modeled on comics pioneers like Jerry Seigel, Joe Shuster (the inventors of Superman) and Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (the creative masterminds behind Marvel Comics.) Several of Lee and Kirby’s most iconic heroes include the brutish, originally grey Hulk and the stone giant Jew Benjamin Jacob Grimm; better known as “The Thing” of the Fantastic Four.

Y.L. Peretz, Yiddish author, socialist, chronicler of Easter European Jewish life, and an unrelenting critic of that life, wrote his own version of the Golem in 1894. As I prepared to guide in Prague, and the Golem was on my mind, I returned to Peretz’s version of the Golem.

The entire text is one page long. Short, sharp – a literary dagger piercing complacency and apathy. Reading it today, knowing what we know following October 7th, strikes like a slap on the face.

“When the ghetto of Prague was under attack and marauders wanted to rape the women, roast the children, and murder everyone, when it seemed that all hope was lost, the Maharal Rabbi Judah Loew put aside his Gemarah, went out to the street, and from the first suitable mound of clay he found in front of the schoolteacher’s doorstep, molded the shape of a body.”

Scenes from the ages – generations of Jews subject to the most outrageous abuse and sickening violence – seemed to be the stuff of past memory and nightmare before October 7th. Are Peretz’s Prague and the bloody landscapes of the Western Negev one inescapable continuum?

The creature brought to life by the Maharal tests the lines between legitimate self-defense and vengeance unleashed. Always defamed, often subject to the most brutal physical attacks; and painfully aware of their inability to defend themselves; the Jews dreamed of saviors and messiahs. Figures like Bar Kochba, David El Roy, Shabtai Zvi, Jacob Frank and others rose and fell with the promise of redeeming the people of Israel. All failed miserably. The legend of the Golem – a creature out of control, wreaking wild violence – is a Jewish revenge fantasy. In a world where Jews had no political or military power, and were subject to a historic hurricane of hatred, the legend of the Golem offered Jews the chance to take half-a-solace in invented justice and make-believe retribution.

The Golem is part of a Jewish tradition that sometimes we prefer to conceal, the psychological need of an oppressed minority to stand up to our enemies – real and imagined – in lieu of being able to act forcefully to change our fate and stand for our own dignity. These Jewish revenge fantasies appear in the closing sections of the Purim Scroll of Esther, and in the words of the Passover Haggadah: “Pour Out Your Wrath…” And although we tend to remember the versions by Jimmy Cliff and Don Mclean of Psalm 137, the dream of the return to Zion also includes a chilling call of a people stripped of all earthly power to defend themselves: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.” Tormented by their Babylonian captors, mocked in their defeat and exile, the refugees from Judaea cursed their oppressors, because their imagination was their only weapon: “Fair Babylon – you predator. A blessing on him who repays you in kind what you have inflicted on us; a blessing on him who seizes your babies and smashes them against the rocks.”

More than seven months into the Israel-Hamas War, the Golem is a cautionary tale. No people, no country, no community who cherishes it’s present and future, its brothers and sisters and sons and daughters can forfeit the legitimate right to self-defense, to strike harshly to make absolutely clear that no citizen of the State of Israel is prey for ravaging marauders.

With that said, the clearest border needs to be drawn between self-defense and feral vengeance. We cannot allow the Golem to walk among us. Recent news warns us that the Golem has awakened within us. When Israeli government ministers talk about using atomic weapons against Gaza, when bereaved parents are attacked in Tel Aviv for daring to criticize the government and calling for the return of our hostages from Hamas captivity, when humanitarian aid trucks are ransacked and looted by hooligans who wrap themselves in blue and white, when mob violence targets Palestinians shepherds and olive farmers – the Golem walks among us.

The State of Israel failed miserably on October 7th. There is no acceptable excuse as to the failure of the State of Israel and our security forces to defend the towns and villages of the Western Negev. No state sponsored ceremonies with solemn words and bowed heads can repair the betrayal of the most fundamental promise of the Zionist movement; the promise that the Jewish people would be able to responsibly defend ourselves and be “a free people in our own land.”

Today, the Israeli government more and more resembles the Golem – thrashing its arms, punishing without discernment, crossing the line between a legitimate war of self-defense to a campaign of revenge. With no strategic plan on the table, even Israel’s few friends are challenged to maintain their support for our policies and actions. The Netanyahu government dresses itself in nationalist slogans and promises of total victory, but it’s representatives cannot face the families of the hostages or of the fallen. Unprecedented on Israel Independence Day, the Prime Minister isolated himself and did not appear in any of the events marking Independence Day. Pre-recorded broadcasts and events with empty seats were produced by dutiful lackeys. The recent statements by Defense Minister Yaakov Gallant and National Unity party head Benny Gantz cannot be written off as irresponsible rantings of amateur political pundits or traitorous backstabbers. Gallant and Gantz seek to take down the Golem, to return him to the attic where he belongs. An Israeli government driven by fantasies of revenge and redemption through blood and fire, understandable when we were a small, scared defenseless minority, encourages national psychosis. A nation that possesses Merkava tanks, F-16s, and Dolphin class nuclear submarines cannot fall into the trap of seeing itself as that same beaten, disgraced, powerless minority. Returning the Golem to the attic – defining clear strategies to bring our hostages home, rebuilding the Western Negev and the Northern border, crippling the military abilities of the Hamas, and rehabilitating Israel’s international standing and good relations with our allies – are all crucial. Amok is not a policy. Sovereignty can only be maintained with empathetic, trustworthy leadership, a renewed civility in our public discourse, and reasoned, judicious policy and action.

The ultimate danger of the Golem is although he is aimed at our real and dangerous enemies; he will always turn his wrath back on us.

About the Author
Scott is a veteran educator and guide with a great passion for all things Jewish and Israel. He grew up outside of Boston (and still has a profound accent) and made aliyah from Young Judaea in 1987. Throughout his career, Scott has held leadership roles in a wide variety of cutting edge projects and educational institutions. Scott is the Executive Vice President at J² Adventures. J² is a leading travel brand that crafts Jewish educational and experiential journeys to Israel and around the world.
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