The Golem and its History


History of the Golem


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Danger, Danger Will Robinson

By Keith Bloomfield

The volcanic Mount Tambora is located on Sumbawa Island, one of the Lesser Sunda Islands in Indonesia. In April 1815 the volcano erupted with such ferocity that aside from killing at least 70,000 people, its volcanic ash was responsible for 1816 being called the Year Without a Summer. Ultimately, it was also blamed for the death of livestock and extensive crop failure. The damage it wreaked on the climate worldwide was certainly felt at Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva, Switzerland, where an eclectic group, including Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and young Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, the future wife of Shelley, had gathered for a summer vacation.

To a lesser extent, the effects of the eruption of Mount Tambora could be likened to the result of the comet or meteor that had crashed into the Caribbean and signaled the death knell for the dinosaurs some 65,000,000 years ago. In the wake of this "Pompeii of the East," temperatures plummeted when ash clouds rose into the stratosphere and blocked out the sun. Because of the horrendous weather and sense of desperation it generated, the vacationers in Switzerland spent much of their time indoors reading. After pouring over an anthology of German ghost stories, Fantasmagoriana, Lord Byron challenged his guests to compose their own stories. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin's creation was subtitled The Modern Prometheus, but the world remembers it as Frankenstein. The novel follows Victor Frankenstein in the creation and ultimate pursuit of the "creature," which he imbued with the "spark of life."

The quintessential creature that was imbued with life to serve its creator is the very Jewish myth of the Golem. The Golem myth may not only have provided inspiration to Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, but to generations of writers who built upon the idea of man creating life from the inanimate.

While the concept of the Golem dates to the earliest days of Judaism, even Adam was described in the Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin 38b) as having been created as a Golem – "his dust kneaded into a shapeless hunk." In Psalm 139:16, the word golem meant "my unshaped form," though the word is probably a derivative of gelem, meaning "raw material." The most famous Golem was the creation of Rabbi Judah Loew, the Maharal of Prague. Rabbi Loew was a 16th century rabbi, who created his Golem as a response to the Emperor's edict that would result in the killing or the expulsion of the country's Jews. Rabbi Loew formed the Golem from the clay along the banks of the Vltava River. Using the rituals set forth in the Kabbalah's Sefer Yetzirah, he brought life to his creature with the word "emet" – truth, written on its forehead.

The Golem was generally unswervingly obedient. It served its creator and the Jewish community well. Finally, the Emperor implored the Rabbi to call off his creature. Depending upon which version of the story you read, the Golem was responsible for the death of both gentiles and Jews. In some texts, the creature turned on its master. To halt the creature's path of destruction, Rabbi Loew erased the first letter on the Golem's forehead. So, instead of "emet" – truth, it read, "met" – death.

The tale alludes to the idea that the Golem was not destroyed, but put into storage either in the Rabbi's attic or the Synagogue in Prague: in case its services were ever needed in the future. The Lord called the world into creation with a word; it is a word that gives life to the Golem and a word that removes it as well.

In another version of the tale, life is brought to the Golem through the efforts of the Maharal, his son-in-law, and a student. Following the prescribed ritual, the son-in-law, a Kohan, circles the clay figure seven times while reciting the proper letters and holy names. His efforts are followed by a Levi, a student, and finally by the Maharal who repeats the process and slides a parchment on which the Tetragammaton - God's holy four-letter name had been written into the figure's mouth. The ritual is concluded after the Maharal repeats these lines from bereshit seven times in the presence of the Golem, "And He breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and Man became a living soul." While the Golem responded to words, it was devoid of speech, since if it could speak, it would also have a human soul, and only the Lord can create a life with a soul.

In another tale from Prague, the Maharal's wife employs the Golem to gather water from the river for the family's rain barrel, but she is unable to stop the creature before it floods their home. It's only through the Rabbi's intervention that the Golem is halted. Sound familiar?

German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe borrowed a theme from Greece's Lucian of Samosta's story Philopseudes for his own tale Der Zauberlehrling. Inspired by Goethe, Paul Dukas composed his symphonic poem L'apprenti sorcier - The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Walt Disney animated the story in his masterful Fantasia, with Mickey Mouse as the Apprentice. According to the story, the Apprentice brings life to a broomstick and charges it with the chore of fetching water for his bath. Then like the Maharal's wife, the broomstick runs amuck. The Apprentice uses an ax to split the broomstick in two, but then two broomsticks continue his bidding. At last, the Apprentice cries out for assistance and the Sorcerer himself, like the Maharal, restores the peace. As an aside, a live-action version of the tale is under development, with a flesh and blood sorcerer named Yen Sid (Disney backwards).

The Talmud and Jewish folklore are replete with tales about the creation and destruction of Golems. Rabbi Rava, a fourth century sage, sent a Golem to Rabbi Zera. Rabbi Zera commanded it to speak, but the mute creature remained silent. Rabbi Zera knew that it could not possibly be a real man and that it must be destroyed. He told the golem to "return to dust" and it did.

The prophet Jeremiah became a student of the Sefer Yetzirah, so that he too could create a Golem. Once created, the Golem tried to take his own life, telling Jeremiah that people would see him as a god for having created life. Fearful, Jeremiah was told by the Golem to pronounce the letters used to create him backwards. Upon doing so, the Golem turned to dust.

Rabbi Elijah of Chelm, like Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer, the Besht, was a Master of the Name. His Golem grew to such huge proportions that he feared that his creature would destroy the world. In the end, Rabbi Elijah ordered the Golem to bend down so that he could remove the first letter in the word on his forehead. Rabbi Elijah was punished for his deed. Once the letter was removed and the Golem returned to clay, the clay fell on the rabbi and two lives were extinguished.

Even poet Solomon ibn Gabirol of Spain, as the story goes, created a Golem. In his case, it was a woman. The tale is unspecific as to how or why she was created, but her life was short lived. Gabirol was challenged by local authorities for misusing "the name." Gabirol showed them that she was an incomplete creature and she was returned to the pile of wood from which she was built.

While there are many other tales available, we would be remiss in not mentioning the homunculus rumored to have been created by Moses Maimonides, called the Rambam, the twelfth century physician and philosopher.

The term homunculus, or little man, may have its roots in alchemy. Alchemy is a mixture of various disciplines and practices that include chemistry, physics, medicine, semiotics, astrology, mysticism, and metallurgy.

While it has its roots in ancient Egypt, medieval alchemists were often focused on the transmutation of base metals into silver or gold. Some contemporary practitioners believe that it was more a metaphor for the purification of the human spirit than an actual belief in impacting, for example lead, on the nuclear level; a process that requires massive pieces of equipment and tremendous financial resources.

The Rambam's creation is much more aligned with the creature of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin's work. Allegedly, Maimonides, following instructions in the Sefer Yetzirah, entered a pact with his assistant. He allowed his assistant to be killed by the Angel of Death. His assistant's body was mutilated, mixed with the sap of the Tree of Life, and placed in an apparatus that would bring his assistant back to life, thus producing a man who could not be injured and was immortal.

As the tale unfolds, Maimonides observed his experiment over a period of months. He was pleased that his assistant's body was regenerating and terrified that his creation might be deemed a god and would usurp the honor of the Lord. Though he had taken an oath to permit the experiment to go full-term, he appealed to the Great Council of Rabbis to sanction the destruction of the creature. With their approval, Maimonides destroyed both the creature and the book he used to undertake the godless deed. Despite the realization of the horror that he had created, Maimonides was accused of practicing magic and he fled from Spain to Egypt, where he lived out his life.

The common denominator in virtually all of the Golem tales is their creation through "word." Just as the world was called into creation either by words spoken by God, or through the Tetragrammaton, God's four letter name, Golems, were animated by the word emet upon their foreheads and a parchment with the Tetragrammaton placed in their mouths. Inevitably, the creator of a Golem realized, sometimes too late, that they had intruded in God's domain. Usually, the life of the Golem was forfeited, and sometimes the creator's life as well.

Czech Playwright Karel Èapek coined the term "robot" in a 1918 short story and then applied it in his 1921 play R.U.R. Robot is derived from the Czech word robota, a term that means "forced labor" or from robotnik, a serf. The play was about Rossum's Universal Robots, an Englishman who created biological creatures to serve humans. Unlike most Golems, the robots revolted against their masters and destroyed humanity. This is a familiar theme that has been repeated time and time again in print and in film.

For continuation, go to Page Two


from the June 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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