The day the golem went berserk

David Katz

  • Mystical Theology and Social Dissent: The Life and Works of Judah Loew of Prague by Byron Sherwin
    Associated University Presses, 253 pp, £12.50, August 1982, ISBN 0 8386 3028 6
  • Judaism on Trial: Jewish-Christian Disputations in the Middle Ages by Hyam Maccoby
    Associated University Presses, 245 pp, £15.00, August 1982, ISBN 0 8386 3053 7

A hoary Jewish joke tells of the Jew who is asked to write an essay on the elephant, and returns with a paper entitled ‘The Elephant and the Jewish Question’. The Jewish tendency to look at all experience through the highly selective prism of its effect on the Jewish predicament may sometimes be useful in certain political and social spheres, but in historical scholarship it can only lead to grotesque absurdities. Exclusive emphasis on the role of the Jews in, say, the Reformation puts one in mind of those photographs of great events with a circle around one of the minuscule heads. At the same time one has to remember that events which seem of crushing importance in Jewish history may make little impact on the larger historical stage. The assassination of the Zionist leader Haim Arlozoroff on a Tel Aviv beach in 1933 was by any European standards a peripheral event, and his murder had far fewer long-term effects even for Jews than, for example, the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand or of Henry IV of France. Jewish historians must always remind themselves that they are specialised workers in the larger historical field which is concerned with what is sometimes referred to as the ‘host community’.

The two books before us, recent publications of the Littman Library of Jewish Civilisation, are both concerned with the history of the Jews in Christian Europe. Byron Sherwin presents us with his view of the life and works of Judah Loew, chief rabbi of Prague in the early 17th century. Rabbi Loew’s name is most often associated with two bizarre events. The first is his meeting in February 1592 with that confused and determined mystic, the Emperor Rudolf II: a session which may have been arranged by Tycho Brahe the great astronomer, who seems to have been one of the rabbi’s companions. What was discussed at the imperial interview is not known: it was said that Rabbi Loew demonstrated the use of a magic lantern, but it is likely that the main topic of discussion was kabbala, the Jewish mystical tradition, already a subject of obsessive importance to the Emperor.

The second event which has kept Rabbi Loew a well-known figure in Jewish history is the creation of the golem, the Jewish artificial man, ancestor of the Frankenstein monster. The story was that Rabbi Loew created the golem out of dust and infused life into him by writing the sacred and secret name of God on a parchment which he placed in the golem’s mouth. During the week, the golem would perform numerous services for the rabbi, but on the Sabbath he would rest with all creatures according to the Biblical commandment. Every Friday evening, Rabbi Loew would remove the parchment from the golem’s mouth, and as the life seeped out of him, the golem would return to clay. One Sabbath the rabbi forgot to remove the name. His congregation had just finished reciting the 92nd Psalm in the Altneuschul in Prague when the golem went berserk, theatening to destroy the entire community. With superhuman skill and bravery, Rabbi Loew rushed at the golem and tore the parchment out of his mouth, whereupon the figure crumbled into dust. Rabbi Loew never again brought the golem back to life, but had his remains stashed in the attic of the Altneuschul. One of his successors was said to have ventured a look at the golem, and on his return downstairs ordered that it be forbidden for any mortal to enter that attic. The golem is said to lie there still.

The legend of the golem was in fact much older than Rabbi Loew of Prague, and in any case acquired a demonic character only in response to similar ideas in gentile circles – notably, the alchemical man, the homunculus of Paracelsus. It was especially associated with the famous Rabbi Elijah of Chelm in the later 16th century, and was transferred to Rabbi Loew only in the second half of the 18th century as part of an explanation for the special prayer practices of the Prague congregation. There was no connection between the legend of the golem and Judah Loew during the rabbi’s lifetime. In the original version of the story, Rabbi Elijah brought the golem to life by inscribing the Hebrew word for ‘truth’ (emet) on the golem’s forehead. By erasing the initial letter, the word would be transformed into ‘dead’ (met). The tale of the golem became one of the great myths of European Jewry and has been the subject of numerous literary works and philosophical investigations. Early Modern Jewry was keenly aware of the story’s theological implications: the descendants of Rabbi Elijah discussed in their responsa whether it was permissible to include a golem in a minyan, the Jewish prayer quorum (they decided it wasn’t).

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