The Golem

The Golem – Yom Kippur 5765 (2004)

In the late 1500s, the Jews of Prague were besieged by fierce anti-Semitism. Their chief Rabbi, Jehudah ben Loew – otherwise known as the Maharal – was well-respected in the Christian community, and had even been granted audiences with the Emperor. Nevertheless, the Jewish community was isolated, persecuted, and accused of a panoply of horrific crimes.

Central among these crimes was what has become known as the "blood libel" – the fiction that Jews killed Christian children and used their blood to make Passover matzohs. The Maharal’s entreaties to the Christian community fell on deaf ears, and his access to the Emperor was cut off.

The Jews grew more and more fearful with every passing day. When Reb Mordechai Meizel, an upstanding leader of the community, was arrested and charged with the murder of a young Christian girl, the rest of the Jews fell upon the Rabbi and demanded action. In desperation he turned to the Talmud and found an obscure reference to a ritual that might hold some hope. He studied further, digging deep into the Zohar, until he was sure he had the answer.

Gathering a handful of his most trusted disciples together, the Maharal set out in the middle of the night, and under the cover of darkness escaped into the nearby woods. He searched and searched for just the right spot, a place with free-flowing, clear water. Just before dawn he found it, and gathered his disciples around him, instructing them on the rituals to be performed.

First they took knives and drew the form of a large man – some say seven feet tall, others say ten – in the clay which bordered the stream. Then they circled around the outline, seven times in one direction, then seven times in the other, reciting Torah, Mishnah and the secret chants of the Zohar. Finally, as his disciples ringed the outline carved in clay, the Maharal knelt down and wrote the word "Emet" – Truth – on the forehead of the man. Others say he wrote the ineffable Name of God on a piece of parchment and placed it in its mouth. Whatever the last spell might have been, as dawn broke a creature of clay arose from the bank of the river and stood before the Maharal and his disciples. It stood before them, mute, powerful, and obedient. The Golem.

Dressing the creature in cast off clothes, the Maharal whispered a command in the Golem’s ear: "Save Reb Meizel." The Golem, unable to speak – for speech is a gift of God, and the Golem was made by a man – nodded and lumbered off towards the town.

It was later that day that the Golem returned, carrying a man from the Christian city by the scruff of his neck, his other hand tenderly leading a young girl. When the Maharal saw the girl, he recognized her in an instant – it was the girl that Reb Meizel had supposedly murdered! He spoke again to the Golem, and together they went to the town judge. The man immediately confessed his deception, and Reb Meizel was released from the jail. But this only served to anger those who hated the Jews even more.

The next night, they stormed their way into the Jewish sector with clubs and knives and torches, setting fire to the homes and shops of the Jews. A great cry went up, and the Maharal again called to the Golem – "Protect us!"

Being made of clay, the Golem could not be harmed by the angry mob. He matched blow for blow, and drove the hate mongers away. He would have followed them and destroyed their homes as well, but the Maharal called him back. After that, there were no more attacks on the Jews.

Then one night, without any explanation, the Maharal called the Golem to his study. "Come with me," he said, and together they crossed the street and entered the Altenue – the Old and New – synagogue. Once inside, the Maharal led the Golem up into the attic and had him lie down. Once the Golem had reclined, the Maharal erased the Aleph from the word on his forehead, changing its meaning from Truth to Death. Others say he removed the Ineffable Name from the Golem’s mouth. In any event, the Golem fell fast asleep, and – so we are told – he waits in the attic of the Altenue Shul of Prague until this very day, waiting to be revived and resume his protection of the Jews.

A fanciful story. And a typically Jewish one, for it is wrapped in mysticism, fraught with questions, and spiced with multiple meanings and ambiguous endings. The most obvious question we must ask is, why did the Maharal "turn off" the Golem? Couldn’t we have used such protection many times since then?

Naturally, there are as many answers to that question as there are Jews. And more. For example, some say that the Golem had fallen in love with the Maharal’s daughter. And we all know how fathers feel about the men who come to court their daughters! Others say that the Golem discovered liquor, and was always getting drunk.

But the answer I like the best is that the Maharal realized he had unleashed a power that was too dangerous for the world. He knew that the Golem, without free will, would do exactly as he was told. He knew that the Golem would protect the Jews by whatever means necessary, even if it meant killing all our enemies and destroying all their homes and property. And so, even though the Golem would only punish the wicked, and even though putting him to sleep would result in the pain and anguish of so many Jews yet to come, the Maharal did just that. He removed the breath of life from the Golem, and set our safety back into our own hands.

The Golem was a source of Justice, but of Justice without Mercy. The Golem was a source of safety, but of safety without discovery. The Golem could give us our shtetl, secure and isolated from the rest of the world, but he could not let us grow, and discover the riches of that world. He could give us Eden, an Eden from which we could never escape.

We live in a world that is fraught with danger, fear and hatred. And we live in a world that is adorned with opportunity, courage and love. If we are to encounter those opportunities, we must face danger. If we are to teach the world about courage, we must overcome our own fears. And if we are to discover love, we must face the hatred, and understand it without condoning it. We must reach out together, without the assurance that we will be safe, or successful, and embrace the risk that gives us freedom.

For the alternative is to live in a world – no, a shtetl – in which we barricade ourselves from the opportunity to grow by reinforcing the walls of fear and hate.

I, for one, choose to venture outside. Come, let us leave the Golem behind, and discover the stranger. And in so doing, liberate ourselves.

L’Shanah Tovah!

© 2004-2007 James F. Brulé