April 29, 1999
The Golem in Our Midst
Parashat Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23)
The great rabbi of 16th-century Prague, Rabbi Yehuda Loew, received word of a coming blood libel, an attack on his community. So he prayed for divine help. In a dream, he saw 10 Hebrew words in alphabetical order: "Create a Golem of Clay, Destroy Those Tearing Israel's Heart."
After seven days of fasting and praying, he took his son-in-law and his disciple, at midnight, and went to the banks of the river Moldau. Out of river clay, he fashioned a man, and under the creature's tongue, he placed a slip of paper inscribed with the secret, unutterable name of God. On the creature's forehead, Rabbi Yehuda wrote, "Emet" -- "Truth."
They circled the creature seven times, reciting sacred incantations. The creature came alive. Rabbi Yehuda commanded, "Stand," and the creature stood. They dressed him in servant's clothes and brought him home. As three, they had come; as four, they returned. Thus was the Golem born.
The Golem lived in the rabbi's house. Strong as 10 men, invulnerable, able to turn himself invisible, he repeatedly saved the community from those who threatened the Jews. But the rabbi worried that someone would misuse the Golem's powers. Despite his warnings, members of the household sent the Golem on trivial errands. Once they sent him to the river to bring water. But they did not know how to stop him. Soon, all were in danger of perishing in a flood. Only the rabbi's timely arrival saved them from drowning.
Fearing a calamity, the rabbi brought the Golem to the synagogue attic and commanded him to lie among the old tallisim and prayer books. The rabbi removed the slip of paper from the Golem's mouth, and erased the first letter on his forehead, changing "Emet," Truth, to "Met", "Dead." And the Golem turned back into lifeless clay.
The Golem is said to rest to this day in the attic of Prague's ancient synagogue. In fact, he lives. He lives in Israel. He lives among us here in America.
Jewish discourse is awash in harsh anger. Liberals scream that the Orthodox overthrow the foundations of democracy. The Orthodox scream that liberals upturn the foundations of Judaism. The left accuses the right of imperialism. The right accuses the left of treason. Supreme Court justices in Israel have bodyguards out of fear of Jewish, not Arab, terror. Combat flares up, of all places, at the Wall. As the rhetoric rises, one hears the same cry from every side: "What Hitler couldn't accomplish, you will accomplish!"
We are a bitter and angry people. For 50 years, we have suffered a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder. But now, a half-century late, our rage is finally coming out. Like the Golem, rage is a gift of God intended to protect us. Rage gives us strength to defeat an enemy. But like the Golem, rage has no discretion. It attacks everything. It doesn't know how to stop. Without an external foe, our rage is displaced -- directed internally; not against them, but against our own. It stands behind a banner of emet, truth. It speaks in the name of God. And it will surely drown us.
"The Lord said to Moses: 'Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: "None [of you] shall defile himself for any [dead] person among his people"'" (Leviticus 21:1-2). This week's Torah portion begins with this puzzling instruction: We would expect the opposite. When there is a death in the community, the rabbi is among the first we call for help. Why were priests not permitted to attend to the dead? The Ishbitzer Rebbe answered: In the presence of death, one is filled with rage and bitterness. The priest is Oved Hashem, the servant of God, the embodiment of God's love and care. One so charged cannot carry out his calling with a heart full of anger. Rage and bitterness disqualify him. Only one free of anger may lead and teach the Jewish people.
In the imagination of the Talmud, God prays each morning. And what, the Talmud asks, does God pray? "May it be My will that My love may suppress My anger, and that My love may prevail over My [other] attributes, so that I may deal lovingly with My children." So may it be for us.
Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.