The Lesson Of The Golem: When Self-Defense Turns Into Extreme Violence


There was a time, wrote the Yiddish author I.L. Peretz, a terrible time, when the ghetto of Prague was under assault.  For the Jews had received word that their women were about to be raped, their children about to be burned alive, and their men about to be slaughtered.  Just when the situation seemed beyond hope and the end imminent, the great Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Yehuda Loew, set aside his studies of the Gemara and went out into the street.  He went up to a large pile of clay, took it into his hands, and fashioned the image of a man.  The rabbi breathed into the nostrils of the golem, and the thing began to move.  Then he whispered into its ear the name of the Holy One, and the golem rose up.  The rabbi turned to go back into the house of prayer, and the golem turned to leave the ghetto.  Once outside the ghetto, the golem fell upon our enemies and attacked them without mercy.

Soon Prague was littered with bodies.  It is said that the golem’s attack went on for days. When Friday came and the clock struck 12, the golem was still hard at his bloody work.

The head of the ghetto went to the rabbi and cried, “Rabbi, the golem is slaughtering all the goyim of Prague!  If this goes on, there will not be a single Gentile left….”

Hearing this outcry, the Maharal left his studies once more.  He approached the altar and there offered up the psalm called “The Song of the Sabbath.”

As soon as the words of the psalm came from the rabbi’s lips, the golem ceased its killing and returned to the ghetto.  Once in the ghetto, it went to the house of prayer and walked up to the rabbi, where it stood motionless.  The rabbi whispered into the golem’s ear, and its eyes closed shut.  Thus the soul that the rabbi had breathed into it fled, and the golem once again became a mere heap of clay.

The mystical tale of The Golem of Prague is a tale of self-defense turned extremist violence, a tale of how faith pursued without conscience destroys without mercy. 

Tragically we witnessed its reenactment two weeks ago, when, it is widely presumed, radicalized Orthodox Jews burned the home of a Palestinian family in the village of Duma resulting in the death of an 18-month-old boy and his father, and life-threatening burns to his mother and brother. 

Make no mistake:  the phenomenon is not new.  Baruch Goldstein, Yigal Amir, and Meir Kahane’s Kach party all justified extremism in defense of land.  Recently in Gaza, certain Israel Defense Force rabbis encouraged their troops to treat the conflict as a holy war, sanctioning excessive force against Palestinian civilians.  This summer’s atrocities are but the latest terrorist exploits of Israel’s Orthodox fanatics who read Torah as a mandate for violence.

Along with its sacred stories and myths, rituals and ethical prescriptions, the Torah, written and redacted over a period of centuries, offers social and political treatises not all compatible with our worldview.  Deuteronomy, for example, commands the destruction of all Canaanite holy sites. 

“Idols will have their heads cut off,” the Hebrew words scrawled outside a Catholic church torched by extremists in June in the Galilee, epitomizes the book’s rhetoric in this regard.  The recent stabbing of six marchers in Jerusalem’s gay pride parade resulting in the death of a 16-year-old girl was another fundamentalist’s response to Leviticus’s censure of homosexuality.

But these polemics against idolatry and the cultic practices of other ancient near eastern religious groups were written for another age.  No extra-biblical record supports Israel having destroyed the Canaanites as the Torah commands and the book of Joshua recounts.  And yet a small cadre of Israeli rabbis today continues to fabricate a Torah of terror, raising up disciples who pervert Judaism just as Palestinian suicide bombers pervert Islam.  Their yeshivas are no better than the madrassas inciting violence in Allah’s name. 

Israel’s leaders must respond.  The Jewish community’s own revulsion and shame demand it.  Just as the golem of Prague had to be put down, so must these Jewish extremists be arrested and punished, and the rabbis who whisper in their ears held accountable, which Israeli authorities have failed to do. 

In a recent Opinion piece in The Jewish Week titled “Condemnations Are No Longer Enough,” Daniel Sokatch notes that while the Israeli government’s clear repudiation of the recent attacks neither “minced words [nor] pulled punches,” the government has too long tolerated an atmosphere of xenophobia and a rhetoric of violence in its ranks.  “One cannot signal,” Sokatch writes, “that Israel exists only to serve its Jewish citizens…and then be shocked when extremists feel free to attack Palestinians.”

Shortly after the tragedy in Duma, my friend and colleague Rabbi Ron Kronish went with others to see the burnt out shell of the Dawabsheh family’s home and bring condolences to their community.  “We were shocked to the core,” he wrote in The Huffington Post.  “We could not believe that some Jews actually did such a disastrous deed in the name of Judaism.  We were there to offer empathy, solidarity and sympathy with the people in the village, and we made it very clear that this is not the Jewish way, that what these extremists did does not represent Judaism.  On the contrary, what they did is a chillul Hashem, a desecration of the name of God.”

It is not easy for a rabbi to say these things.  It is not easy for any Jew who cares passionately about Israel to say these things.  One wants to critique Israel only to those who already love her, and not enough liberal American Jews do.  Israel faces legitimate terrorist threats against which it must defend itself.  Embedded in Palestinian society are those who seek to do Israelis harm.  And they must be stopped.  But 18-month-old Ali Saad Dawabsheh, an innocent victim of the Golem of Duma, was not one of them.

Rabbi Joshua M. Davidson is senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan.

NYC rabbi
is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York.