Demons, Dybbuks, Ghosts, & Golems

The sinister power of life-force gone awry.

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The kabbalists saw the creation of a golem as a kind of alchemical task, the accomplishment of which proved the adept's skill and knowledge of Kabbalah. In popular legend, however, the golem became a kind of folk hero. Tales of mystical rabbis creating life from dust abounded, particularly in the Early Modern period, and inspired such tales as Frankenstein and "The Sorcerer's Apprentice."  Sometimes the golem saves the Jewish community from persecution or death, enacting the kind of heroism or revenge unavailable to powerless Jews. Often, however, Jewish folktales about the golem tell what happens when things go awry--when the power of life-force goes astray, often with tragic results.

The classic narrative of the golem tells of how Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague (known as the Maharal; 1525-1609) creates a golem to defend the Jewish community from anti-Semitic attacks. But eventually, the golem grows fearsome and violent, and Rabbi Loew is forced to destroy it. (Legend tells that the golem remains in the attic of the Altneushul in Prague, ready to be reactivated if needed; this legend reappeared recently in Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay). Likewise in Paul Wegener's expressionist film The Golem (1920), the golem is a brutish creature whose powers are all-too-easily turned to destructive ends.

This is, of course, a perfect encapsulation of the same anxiety that underlies so much of the mystical speculation about demons, dybbuks, ghosts, and golems: the power of life is so strong, that it brings both promise and terror.

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Jay Michaelson

Jay Michaelson is a writer & teacher. He is a columnist for the Forward, the chief editor of Zeek, the executive director of Nehirim: GLBT Jewish Culture & Spirituality, and the author of God in Your Body. He is a Ph.D candidate in Jewish thought at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and holds a J.D. from Yale.