The Golem in Berlin

Introduction to the Catalogue to the Exhibition GOLEM

Peter Schäfer

The golem can look back on a long career, in Judaism and far beyond. Its story begins in the Hebrew Bible and continues, in constantly new transformations, into the present day. The word "golem" as a noun is found only once in the Bible: in the Psalms. There, Adam praises God as his Creator, who knit him together in the womb of his mother, the Earth. "Thine eyes," he says to God, "did see my golem" (Heb. golmi), my unformed embryo, its limbs not yet fashioned, lying in the dark depths of the Earth (Psalms 139:16). You cared about me and attended to my needs before I was even a fully formed human being.

This wonderfully poetic psalm brings to mind what we know about Creation from the story at the beginning of the Bible. To be precise, there are two stories. The first says merely that God created humans in his own image, male and female (Genesis 1:26–28)—with no explanation of how he created them. That omission is rectified in the second account, which tells us that God formed Adam out of dust and then breathed the breath of life into his nostrils (Genesis 2:7); woman was "made" only later, out of Adam’s rib (Genesis 2:22). In other words, the story as told in Genesis names the two essential components of Adam’s creation—his body comes from the Earth, while his spirit, which makes him a living being, comes from God—but the psalm leaves open the question of how exactly life is breathed into the golem-embryo, made of dust and hidden in the Earth. This enigma would form the springboard for all the golem legends that followed.

The first human attempt to create a human being is recorded in the Babylonian Talmud. There, it is asserted that a perfectly righteous rabbi—one completely free of sin—would be able to create not only a person, but a complete new world. Unfortunately, however, no mortal human fulfilled that condition, which is why the project could never work out. One rabbi tried it anyway, and actually succeeded in creating a "man." But the creature could not talk, proving that it lacked the most important thing: the breath of life. The rabbi’s colleague exposed the being as a magical concoction, and immediately turned it back into dust. Two other sages could not resist trying it out themselves, but their experiment failed, as well. Instead of a human being, they only managed to create a little calf, which they then ate for dinner. With this ironic twist, the Talmud reduces human fantasies of omnipotence to absurdity.

Despite the Talmud’s warning, an anonymous author wrote Sefer Yetzirah, the "Book of Creation," which would become an instruction manual for all subsequent golem-making endeavors. The Book of Creation derived the totality of divine creation, both humanity and the cosmos, from the numbers one to ten and the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, as the elemental building blocks of creation. It offered the very first secret code (in the true sense of the word) that would enable the golem, a lump of clay, to become a living person. Anyone who knows how to combine the ten numbers and the twenty-two letters correctly can create a new world and, of course, also a new human being. The letters of the tetragrammaton—YHWH, the four letters of God’s name—play a special role in this account, being considered the most magically powerful letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

That opened the path to further experiments in creating a golem. But knowledge of how to combine the letters and numbers was esoteric magical lore, only to be transmitted and applied within an elite circle of mystics. It was not until the high Middle Ages that the next attempts to create a human being were ventured. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries, especially in the Rhineland, saw the formation of Jewish circles that called themselves the "Hasidim of Ashkenaz." These rabbis were convinced that they possessed the piety and perfect righteousness whose absence is deplored in the Talmud. They left behind precise and interminable tables listing the necessary permutations of letters and numbers, and we know that they put these tables to use. They took "virgin" (that is, unworked) soil, shaped it into a golem, and then recited the prescribed permutations over the inanimate figure. If they did this in the correct order, the golem came to life and got up from the ground. This kind of golem, though, had no practical functionality. Making it was a ritual that served only to demonstrate the creative power of the Jewish "pietists." Once that aim had been achieved, the permutations were recited again in the reverse order, sending the golem back into the earth.

This ritual, free of practical use, was not the end of the matter. Once it was possible to create a living human being, the temptation arose to harness that ability for the Jewish community’s day-to-day needs. And what purpose could be more important than using the golem to defend the Jews from persecution? In many ways, it was perfectly suited to the task. It had no will of its own, but obeyed only its creator, the rabbi. It was big, it was strong, and it was discreet, originally being unable to speak. Most importantly, the golem could not be killed by external violence—only when the rabbi revoked the magical charm that kept it alive did it dissolve back into dust. This repurposing marks the beginning of a new stage in the golem tradition, one that would bring forth a whole flood of legends. The first point of crystallization for such stories was the figure of Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague (d. 1609), though even today we do not know how the rabbi came to enjoy that distinction. He is said to have been the first person to successfully create a golem, doing so in order to defend the Jews of Prague. Thanks to Rabbi Loew, Prague has remained a focal point of golem traditions, or even what might be called a golem cult. Rumor has it that the remains of Rabbi Loew’s golem, turned back to dust after its work was done, still lie in the attic of Prague’s Old New Synagogue.

The golem of Prague was not immune to misappropriation, however. When the pious rabbi’s wife decided to put it to profane use by getting it to do her housework, serious trouble was inevitable. A direct descendant of such misuse is Goethe’s story of the sorcerer’s apprentice. The inexperienced apprentice enchants a broomstick to carry water for him, but the broomstick cannot be stopped and soon the whole house is awash, until the sorcerer, the only one who knows the spell, finally gets home and puts an end to the commotion.

The golem of Prague generated an almost explosive proliferation of golem ideas and images. The golem overran literature, theater, music, film, art, comics, and children’s books. In Jewish settings, the predominant aspect has been protection against persecution—whether the medieval blood libel or Nazi racism. But the dark side of the golem also makes itself felt: a golem can get out of control and run amok. If that happens, the rabbi who controls it must quickly turn it back into dust (which sometimes results in the golem, now grown to enormous proportions, completely burying the poor rabbi under a heap of earth). The literature of German Romanticism, especially, emphasized the golem’s dangerous aspect. The fear and horror that can be spread by the golem is the leitmotif of Paul Wegener’s famous golem films of 1915, 1917, and 1920. The golem as a doppelgänger and a symbol of the eternal human conflict between reason and unreason, intellect and impulse, is addressed in Gustav Meyrink’s still-popular novel The Golem (1915). And the terrifying creation of Frankenstein’s monster in literature, cinema, and art is also based on the golem legend.

A question around which many portrayals of the golem revolve is whether the golem can be described as a human being, and if so, in what sense. Certainly, it is alive, but it has no will of its own and only executes the orders of its creator. Some sources attest to a scholarly debate over whether a golem can be counted as part of the minyan, the quorum of ten male members of the congregation that is required for a regular religious service to take place. If the golem is a human being, is the rabbi permitted to "kill" it just as he sees fit—does the rabbi rule over life and death, like God? Or is the golem not a person at all, but just a lump of clay that simply borrows "life" for a limited time and a defined purpose? In fact, the golem itself sometimes ponders these questions. In some tales, it begins to acquire consciousness, wishes to go to school and study, or even falls in love. In other words, the golem becomes more and more of a true human being—and the further this process of becoming human advances, the less inclined the golem is to follow its rabbi’s commands with slavish obedience. Often, this is exactly what triggers to the destructive force of the golem, a force almost impossible to control. One thing is for sure: in principle, the golem is male. It was not until Cynthia Ozick’s story Puttermesser and Xanthippe that a female golem was created. She turns into a man-eating monster and drives the whole of New York to destruction.

The question of the golem’s humanity is closely linked to issues of great concern today: cloning and genetic technology, computers, artificial intelligence, robots. All these topical and highly controversial themes may be regarded as the direct continuation of an ancient human dream, the dream of creating a golem and thereby imitating the creative power of God. When Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism, was asked to deliver the ceremonial address dedicating the Israeli mainframe computer at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot in 1965, he suggested calling the computer—what else?— "Golem No. 1." Scholem wrote a learned study of the emergence and development of the golem legend that is still respected today, but he also laughed at himself with a spooneristic verse roughly translatable as "Do you see old Scholem go? There the Golem I can show!"

My own golem story began many years ago at Princeton University. There, I developed an interdisciplinary course on the golem that I later repeated several times in different variations. It turned out to be my most successful course at Princeton, even achieving the sought-after "cool course" sunglasses symbol in the course catalog one year. These courses gave rise not only to scholarship—such as an excellent study of the golem in German Romanticism—but also to poems, music, and stories that carried on spinning the thread of the golem legend. After many years of intense academic interest in the golem, I have now found the fulfillment of a personal ambition in our exhibition GOLEM: to participate in visually implementing what I learned about the golem in dialogue with my students and making it accessible to a broad audience.

I wish all of us great enjoyment in this encounter with the golem of Berlin.

Peter Schäfer was appointed as the new director of the Jewish Museum Berlin Foundation on September 1, 2014. He taught at Princeton University from 1998 to 2013 as the Perelman Professor of Jewish Studies and Professor of Religion. He is one of today’s most respected scholars of Jewish Studies internationally, and has been honored with the Leibniz Prize, the Mellon Award, the Ruhr Prize for Art and Science, the Leopold Lucas Prize, and the Reuchlin Prize.

Translated by Kate Sturge

Citation recommendation: 
Peter Schäfer (2016), The Golem in Berlin. Introduction to the Catalogue to the Exhibition GOLEM.
URL: www.jmberlin.de/en/node/4681