PRAGUE, Jan. 25 (JTA) — The stately Charles Bridge transports travelers into old Jewish Town here. It’s a kind of a time portal, built in 1357 by King Charles IV and lined with 30 magnificent baroque statues.
The controversy over whether a creature once lived on the other side of this Gothic bridge makes the journey even more mysterious.
In the late 1500s, Prague’s Rabbi Judah Loew (1520-1609), one of the most respected and beloved sages in Eastern Europe, is said to have built a man of clay, which he called the Golem.
The Jews of ancient Prague had a foothold in this city for 600 years by then, arriving as merchants in the 10th century. By the 1300s, though, the burgeoning community was confined to the walled Jewish Town.
Although Prague’s Jews were treated better by the local aristocracy than were most Jews in Europe, attacks were still commonplace. In the infamous Easter massacre of 1389, 3,000 Jewish men, women and children were cornered in an alleyway and slaughtered.
Fearing for the safety of his community, Loew, also known as the Maharal, practiced Kabbalah — the Jewish mystical tradition — to breathe life into his clay creature. This protector would be summoned when needed, while otherwise laboring in the Alt Neu — Old New — Synagogue during off-hours.
Unfortunately, after performing some heroic feats of rescue, the Golem became infused with ego, disobeying its creator. Loew managed to trick the Golem and cause its life force to disperse.
The legend goes on to say that the Golem’s body has been kept in the attic of the synagogue ever since.
But did the Golem actually exist?
“Many do come to Prague attracted by the legends, especially many Chasidic Jews,” said Leo Pavlat, the director of Prague’s Jewish Museum. “Twice I was woken in the middle of the night when some people called, asking that I take them to the roof of the Alt Neu shul to see the Golem. I managed to convince them that he didn’t exist.”
Pavlat scoffed when told that many consider the Golem to have been a living, breathing thing. He also said that Loew was not a kabbalist. “There is no actual link” between the “rabbi and kabbalah,” he said.
These denials provoked a pointed response from a leading Canadian Chasidic leader, Rabbi Moishe New, director of the Montreal Torah Centre. The rabbi is a noted authority on Kabbalah, giving lectures and teaching classes on the subject to beginners and veterans alike.
“The Talmud recalls instances where sages fashioned Golems for the protection of Jewish lives, much as the Maharal did,” New said.
“The body of the Golem was infused with a soul, becoming a type of angel enclosed in a manmade body. Angels are considered to be like creatures or animals in daily Jewish prayer. They have no free choice and are not capable of making moral decisions — they are spiritual robots, subservient to their makers.”
The Maharal, New also stressed, certainly did practice Kabbalah.
“He was an outstanding kabbalist, philosopher and talmudist and wrote an entire series of books, 20 in all, based on Kabbalah. They were called ‘Gevurot Hashem’ or the ‘Might of God.’ Rabbi Loew’s genius was that he expressed kabbalistic teachings in a rational manner, thus making it accessible to the masses.
“As a matter of fact, the Chasidic movement owes its inception, to a significant degree, to his teachings.”
But what of the existence of the Golem of legend? The tale was certainly inspirational enough to cause German Czech journalist Franz Klutschak, in 1838, to write a story titled “The Golam and Rabbi Loew,” for a popular periodical, Panorama des Universums.
In 1847, the Galerie der Sippurim, published by Prague bookseller Wolf Pascheles, mentions Loew’s Golem amongst its many fairy tales about famous Jews. A 1915 bestseller by Vienna-born Gustav Meyrink featured the Golem as well.
Even Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer got into the act, publishing his English version of “The Golem” in 1982. He had written the Yiddish original for the Jewish Daily Forward in 1969, with his Prague protagonist a kabbalist named Rabbi Leib.
The motion picture world also got into the act with two German silent movies, a 1914 version co-directed by the film’s star and co-producer, Paul Wegener, followed by another in 1920, also featuring Wegener.
Visiting Prague, it’s easy to get caught up in the legend, with two sites of interest to Golem-seekers.
The unforgettably bleak, yet thrilling landscape of the Old Jewish Cemetery in Jewish Town is a Kafkaesque arrangement of over 12,000 stones dating back to the 15th century. Bodies are buried vertically in rows of 12, as Jews were not allowed to inter their dead anyplace else. Many stones are tilted, pointing like jagged shards of glass.
While many of the city’s renowned leaders are buried here, the prize is the grave of the Maharal himself. It is probably the most visited Jewish site in Prague, and like Jerusalem’s Western Wall, is filled with notes of prayer and hope thrust into every nook and cranny.
Then there is the nearby Alt Neu Synagogue itself. Dating to 1280, it is the oldest Jewish house of worship in Europe and one of Prague’s oldest Gothic buildings. Services have been held continuously for over 700 years, with the exception of the World War II years.
Worshipers can gaze at the vaulted ceiling, wondering whether the Golem is in the attic, as purported.
“Certainly, the Golem’s existence was witnessed by the people of that time and forms part of the oral history of the Jewish people,” said New.
As to where its body lies, the rabbi sticks to the legend.
“It is in the attic of the Alt Neu Synagogue, under piles of weathered old holy books. The body may be crumbled by now, but that is the tradition.”
As to why community leaders like Pavlat continue to deny the Golem’s existence, New can only offer an educated guess.
“The Maharal would not have wished it to be venerated, and it has therefore been kept a guarded secret over the centuries. That is probably the motive for not showing the body.”