Reprinted with permission from
Jewish Ideas Daily.
The most famous and enduring of all Jewish legends is that of the golem, the artificial man. Indeed, with the possible exception of the demon Lilith, briefly pressed into service as a feminist icon, the golem remains the only post-biblical Jewish myth to be widely adopted by non-Jewish culture. Among its recent incarnations are a computer game that bears its name and the army of humanoids who populate James Cameron’s film Avatar.
The Roots of the Golem
The roots of the legend are ancient: the Talmud claims that Adam himself—and thus, theologically speaking, all of humanity—was a golem until God breathed a soul into his nostrils. But the creature as we know it today has a much later and remarkably precise genealogy. He was born in late-16th-century Prague under the auspices of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, known as the Maharal, who, using kabbalistic magic, is said to have created a humanoid creature out of mud or clay to defend the Jews from their enemies.
From that point on, versions differ in both details and essentials. We are told that the golem was made out of mud, or ash, or perhaps simply dirt. He was brought to life by the application of magical amulets, or by mystical incantations, or by applying the Hebrew word emet (“truth”) to his body, or by the recitation of the names of God, or, most intriguingly, by intoning the letters of the Hebrew alphabet just as, according to the medieval kabbalistic Book of Creation (Sefer Yetzirah), God created the world.
We do not have any real idea of what the golem looked like, or of his nature. Speculations run from an amorphous but vaguely humanoid blob of clay to a near-perfect simulacrum of a man, lacking only reason and free will. Was he simply crude matter with the appearance of life? Or a living creature whose formative materials happened to be crude matter, as Adam was before the divine breath? In other words, was he something wholly other, or merely an incomplete human being? Perhaps he was both, or neither.