– By Marc Estrin, Vermonters for Justice in Palestine

“Israel has launched air attacks on Gaza hours after rockets were allegedly fired near Tel Aviv, raising fears of a major escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” 

No matter what the provocation (if any) and no matter how disproportionate the response, the same comment will be heard from many Jewish mouths: “Israel has the right to defend itself.” But concerning this, Jewish wisdom has a tale to tell — the story of The Golem.

Back in 16th century Prague, a huge pogrom was brewing. While the Jews were baking matzoh for Passover, a little girl in the city was discovered missing. That two plus two might eventuate in a five of big-time violence given a surrounding Polish culture convinced that the “best” matzohs were made by adding the ground bones of Christian children to the flour and Christian blood to the dough. Word was spreading, gangs were forming, a punishing attack was being readied, a violent handwriting was on the wall. Death to the Jews.

The chief rabbi, the sainted Rabbi Lowe, dug barrowfuls of clay from the banks of the Vlatava, and lugged them to the attic of the Old-New Synagogue, that strange building still standing. The old clay, the new threat. The old threat, the new clay. He would make a golem to protect the Jews.

Locking himself in the attic, he fashioned a huge clay creature, and like Victor Frankenstein three centuries later, brought it to life. But the creature couldn’t talk.  For all his power, mute.

There was some disputation among later Talmudists about whether a golem could be a member of a Jewish congregation — would you have a minyan if the golem were the tenth man?” Jews. Who else would worry about such things?

A Jewish joke:  A rabbi, to show his humility before God, cries out in the middle of a service, “Oh, Lord, I am nobody!”  The cantor, not to be left behind, also cries out, “Oh, Lord, I am nobody!”  The janitor, deeply moved, also raises his head and cries out, “Oh, Lord, I am nobody!”  The rabbi turns to the cantor and says, “Look who thinks he’s nobody.” So why is this relevant? Humble is relevant.

So Rabbi Lowe shapes the clay into a giant, and then there are various versions of the story — all relevant.  One is that the rabbi wrote the Shem, the name of God, on a piece of parchment and placed it in the golem’s mouth.  Shem in mouth, active, Shem out of mouth, lifeless or passive.  On the Sabbath, Rabbi Lowe would take the Shem out of the golem’s mouth, and it would sit quietly in the back of the shul all day, waiting….”

A more interesting version is that the Rabbi carved the words YHWH ELOHIM EMET, “God, the Lord, is Truth”, into the clay forehead. But the first move the golem made was — accidently or not — to rub his forehead, and erase the E of EMET. What was left was “God, the Lord, is Dead.  Met = “dead”. It was a warning about making a golem. Rabbi Lowe, however, had gone ahead.

Saturday night, after sundown, in went the Shem, and the golem patrolled the neighborhood for the rest of the week. Rabbi Lowe instructed that no one but he was to give the golem any orders.

The day came when Rabbi Lowe forgot to take the Shem out of the golem’s mouth on Shabbat.  It went berserk, throwing boulders around, tearing up trees. This was serious business.  For one thing, it proved the Jews were a threat to the larger community. So Rabbi Lowe instructed the golem to climb with him up to the attic of the Old-New Synagogue.  It is debated whether the golem knew what was going to happen. If he did, it must have been a deep understanding which kept him from killing the Rabbi.

There is a lot of later golem literature which develops themes similar to Frankenstein — the golem’s loneliness, his need for love — even sex.  It seems possible that the creature could have developed a full soul through experience or grace.

In Hebrew, the word “golem” means something like shapeless matter, something like primordial slime, something that has potential, but is not yet formed, not yet finished. There is only one use of the word in the Bible.  In Psalm 139, the singer praises God for having raised him from earth and made him into golem. Unperfected substance.

The golem tale resonates through time and many cultures: humans must beware of stepping beyond their limits. We, in our world, have built our own golems — the huge security apparatus stirring in national laboratories comes readily to mind. The monster SUVs which we empower to serve and guard ourselves on the road are taking their toll. And the most dangerous golems of all are at play in the minds of individuals and nations lusting to be invulnerable.