The golem in Prague’s closet

The tombstone of Rabbi Loew is one of the leading attractions of the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague. (Jewish Museum in Prague)

The tombstone of Rabbi Loew is one of the leading attractions of the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague. (Jewish Museum in Prague)

PRAGUE (JTA) — Just don’t mention the golem.

According to legend, Prague’s most famous rabbi, the 16th-century Judah Loew ben Bezalel, magically made a mute clay being who alternately protected and rampaged through the Prague ghetto where Jews were required to live.

But ask Czech Jews about the golem and you most likely will be met with eye rolling and heavy sighs, especially if you’re asking about plans for the upcoming 400th anniversary of the death of Loew (pronounced LEV).

“Everyone hates the golem,” said Peter Gyori, a Prague Jew. “Loew was one of Europe’s most famous teachers and, sadly, people come here and ask about a creature he never made.”

Annoyance at the tale of Loew’s golem — unsubstantiated and attributed to the rabbi 200 years after his death — reflects the desire of Czech Jews to refocus attention away from the soulless automaton who has so captivated artists, mystics and even writers for “The Simpsons” television show.

Instead, on the occasion of the 400th yahrzeit of Loew — known as the Maharal of Prague for the Hebrew acronym Moreinu Ha-Rav Loew, “Our Teacher the Rabbi Loew” — many in Prague hope outsiders will come to appreciate the man whom Professor Byron Sherwin, a scholar on Jewish philosophy and mysticism, calls “the greatest and most comprehensive Jewish thinker ever produced by Ashkenazic Jewry, and certainly one of the most prolific and influential.”

To celebrate Loew’s yahrzeit, which falls on Sept. 7, the Prague Jewish community is hosting a conference of scholars on the Maharal, and the Jewish Museum will be putting on an exhibit at the Prague Castle on Loew’s life. The exhibition runs from Aug. 5 to Nov. 8.

The show, at Prague’s most popular tourist site, will examine Loew and his legacy. One part of the exhibit will trace the development of the Prague ghetto and the Jewish cemetery during the rabbi’s lifetime. An interactive installation, “Golem,” by the artist Petr Nikl, will be on view at the Jewish Museum’s Robert Guttmann Gallery from June 3 to Oct. 4.

Earlier this year, an institution dedicated to training rabbinical students in Loew’s teachings, the Maharal Institute, was opened by the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in Prague’s Jewish Quarter.

Born in the Polish city of Poznan circa 1517, Loew was a brilliant and unconventional scholar whose prolific writings on Jewish philosophy and Jewish mysticism are still studied today. He wrote some 27 books, was an inspiration for the founders of Chasidism and is an ancestor of the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Loew also wrote extensively on the state of Jewish exile. Early religious Zionists cited him as a guiding light.

“The leitmotif of all his work was putting Jews in the center of world events, telling them that they have a place in God’s plan even if they are living in the ghetto,” said the Czech Republic’s chief rabbi, Karol Sidon. “He was great for Jewish self-confidence at a time that it was not easy to be Jew.”

Loew also is perhaps the only European rabbi to become a national folk hero. His statue stands in front of Prague City Hall, a naked maiden at his feet in the tradition of 19th-century Romanticist sculpture.

His grave is the main attraction of Prague’s Old Jewish Cemetery; U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama recently left a prayer note there.

The decision this summer to showcase an exhibit about a rabbi at what is arguably the Czech Republic’s most prominent symbol, the Prague Castle, is highly unusual.

Loew rose to prominence in non-Jewish Czech lore as a magical wise man in “Old Bohemian Legends,” by the late 19th-century author Alois Jirasek. The legends, which include tales of Loew meeting magic-loving Emperor Rudolf II, are still required reading for Czech schoolchildren.

One tale holds that Loew asked the emperor to recant the expulsion of Prague’s Jews, stopping Rudolf’s horse and carriage on the Charles Bridge.

There are still many mysteries about Loew, including who his teachers were and why he married at the relatively late age of 30. But the biggest riddle is why Loew is credited with inventing the golem.

One of the first stories connecting Loew to a golem appears in “Galerie der Sippurim,” an 1847 collection of Jewish tales published in Prague. In the book, Loew creates a clay servant using a piece of paper on which one of God’s names is written. The rabbi forgets to remove the paper on the Sabbath, and the golem becomes violent until Loew removes it and the golem collapses into a clay heap. Loew puts the golem’s remains in the attic of the 10th-century Old-New Synagogue — where tourists are told he remains till today.

The story was adopted in 1909 by Poland’s Rabbi Yudl Rosenberg, who cited Jewish records that historians later learned did not exist. In Rosenberg’s telling, Loew and the golem fight off accusations of blood libels — a dangerous problem for Jews in Eastern Europe during Rosenberg’s time.

The word golem is used in the Mishnah to refer to an uncultivated person or lunk, and in the Talmud to refer to the shapeless mass from which Adam was created. The term is derived from the Hebrew word “gelem,” which means raw material.

Commenting on the Mishnah, Loew wrote that a golem is a human who has not obtained wisdom and is thus incomplete. Loew said speech is what makes man complete; hence his golem is mute.

The first creation of a golem-like figure in Jewish lore appears in the Talmud Sanhedrin. In the story, a third-century Babylonian rabbi creates a mute being whom another rabbi turns to dust.

Usually presented in Jewish literature as a harmless clay servant, by the 17th century the golem becomes a mission-driven creature who potentially is dangerous.

The first written record associated Loew with a golem comes in the mid-19th century.

Sherwin, director of doctoral studies at Chicago’s Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies, says Loew was identified as the golem’s creator because of his greatness, even though other rabbis of his era existed who actually were documented as trying to animate golems.

“Loew’s portrait in Czech and Jewish legends as a wonder worker made him a natural candidate for being linked with the legend of the golem,” Sherwin wrote in the catalog for the Prague Castle exhibition.

Pairing Loew with the golem in Emperor Rudolf’s Prague “placed them at the center of a ‘golden age’ of science, technology, humanism, magic and the occult,” Sherwin wrote, making them part of the cultural Renaissance for which 19th-century Czech authors longed.

Arnost Parik, a veteran historian at the Jewish Museum, says the Maharal is important not because of the golem story — which he calls “too much”  — but for his religious thought.

As a teacher, Loew was an early critic of pilpul, the hair-splitting style of Talmud learning, instead urging greater emphasis on the Torah. He was one of the first rabbis to popularize Kabbalah, according to Prague’s Chabad rabbi, Manis Barash.

Loew also was unsparingly tough on those who did not uphold Jewish law.

Loew became chief rabbi of Prague after he had served for 20 years as a chief rabbi of Moravia, now a region of the Czech Republic. He later became the chief rabbi of Poland before returning to Prague, where he died at around age 90.

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