At the center of the Prague ghetto sits the Altneuschul, Europe’s oldest extant synagogue. Built to serve Bohemian Jews in the 13th century, worshippers whispered that angels loaned bricks from the destroyed Temple. Writer Peter Marshall appropriately described this Prague as “an ancient city of flying buttresses and dreaming spires… a center of occult and magical knowledge.” Surrounded by newer, pastel-colored buildings , the paradoxically named “Old New Synagogue” is the earthen color of a clay man; a red-tiled portico above the entrance is the hue of the dirt from which Adam was formed. The roof tapers to a serrated brick arrow, the location of the attic that contains Prague’s geniza.
Since at least the 19th century, though possibly conveyed by word of mouth for longer, it has been said that the attic of the Altneuschul is the place where the Renaissance Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel (commonly known as “the Maharal” by the honorific Hebrew anagram of his name) kept the earthly remains of an artificial clay creature, the golem. No coffin of red earth and no mound of mud from the Vlatava River, where Loew gathered the clay from which he made this Adam, can be found in the Altneuschul’s attic. Perhaps this isn’t the golem’s place of final repose after all. Far from inert, the artificial man lumbers through our history, his unsteady stride slowly paces though not just folklore, but literature, comics, and film. He appears in fantasy writer Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, and Michael Chabon’s great American novel of a book The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. In Cynthia Ozick’s The Puttermesser Papers the golem is a woman who helps her creator become mayor of New York. In James Sturm’s graphic novel The Golem’s Mighty Swing, he aids a turn-of-the-century Jewish baseball team.
The golem endures as a uniquely Jewish vision; a mighty, earthen homunculus who warns us about the dangers of artificial creation. Scholar Lewis Glinert writes that if “there is such a thing as a specifically modern myth, then the myth of the Golem must surely rank as one of the most powerful.” Explaining this narrative of an “artificial man, blessed with supernatural powers, that runs out of our control” requires us also to recognize the 250th anniversary of the most famous manifestation of Rabbi Loew’s creature, albeit one shorn of his Hebrew origins, save for perhaps his superficially Jewish-sounding name.
Mary Shelley’s gothic masterpiece Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus was written in 1816 at the age of 19, after a night of ghost stories traded between her future husband the poet Percy Shelley, the notorious Romantic poet Lord Byron, and the inventor of the modern vampire tale, John William Polidori, as they warmed themselves by the fireplace of Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva on a cold summer night. “Frightful must it be,” the author later wrote, as “would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.” Since Frankenstein’s initial print run of 500, Shelley’s monster has become a convenient symbol for scientific and technological hubris. Glinert has opined that Frankenstein enjoys a “status which appears to literary criticism as an anomaly, a scandal: it is a modern myth.”
Literary critic Northrop Frye notes that a variation of the word “golem” appears millennia ago in Psalm 139, where it connotes that which is formless (or has yet to be formed). Peter Conrad describes this use of “golem” to denote “a shapeless form, a gobbet of chaos,” and explains that in that context, the psalm writer has David reflecting “on the wonders of his making, which happened ‘in the lowest part of the earth’ where he was ‘covered’ by God.” One hears intimations of Frankenstein’s observation that all of us “are unfashioned creatures, but half made up.” Such correspondences can also be seen in the Talmud, where at Tractate Sanhedrin 38b, Adam is referred to as “golem,” drawing out the implications of a dangerous creation all the more literally.
Long before the Maharal, medieval Jewish folktales were replete with golems, often based in readings of Kabbalistic texts such as the Sefer Yetzirah. Scholar Hillel J. Kieval explains that “tales of the creation of life by pious individuals seem to have been most common in Poland,” not Bohemia. An enduring variation details how the 16th-century Polish Rabbi Eliyahu of Chelm created a golem. It was that version described in a 1674 letter by a German-Christian astronomer named Christoph Arnold, which gave the golem legend one of its defining details.
Arnold explains that the golem’s vitality is regulated not by recourse to magical parchment as in some versions of the tale, but rather because “On the forehead of the image, they write: emeth, that is truth,” and with the simple erasure of a letter the rabbi can deactivate the creature, as “meth” means “death.” Arnold explains that the Polish golem “does all kinds of housework, but it is not allowed to leave the house.” Domestic rationales for the golem’s creation evoke robotics as much as Frankenstein; the word “robot” notably coined by another Prague denizen, the 20th-century playwright Karel Čapek.
Scholarly consensus is, however, that the association of the Maharal with the golem was part of the same set of Romantic affectations that produced literature like Frankenstein. Loew’s involvement is a plot point first developed in the 19th century. The recovery of the legend by Jewish novelists, poets, and playwrights was representative of the movement whereby folklorists collected legends as part of the Romantic inclination to literary nationalism. Scholar Cathy S. Gelbin has argued that the golem is “evidence of a Jewish counter-discourse to the Christian Romantic accusation of flawed Jewish creativity.” As such, Jewish writers presented the golem as an authentic example of Jewish folk culture, to be mined as material by formal artists.
Prague Collection of Jewish Legends, a compendium from 1847, explains the basics of Rabbi Loew’s legend as repeated in fairy tale, novel, and film. The author writes (as translated from the German by Kieval) that Loew was “well versed in … the Kabbalah. By means of this art he could bring to life figures formed out of clay … who, like real men, would perform whatever task was asked of them.” Enumerated are the various benefits of such a creature: they don’t eat, drink, or require payment. He continues: “Rabbi Loew had fashioned for himself one such servant … [having] placed in his mouth the Name, and thereby brought him to life.”
This golem performed tasks about the house, from chopping wood to carrying water, until one Sabbath the rabbi forgot to remove the parchment from the monster’s mouth, “and calamity ensued. The magical servant became enraged, tore down houses, threw rocks all around, pulled up trees, and carried on horribly in the streets.” The author duly informs us that said “dilemma with his Golem was like that of the sorcerer’s apprentice and his broom in Goethe’s poem.” Finally, the author writes that the rabbi was able to tear the “magic formula from the mouth of the Golem,” and the creature collapsed into a dusty heap, so that even “today pieces of the Golem are to be seen in the attic of the Altneu synagogue.”
The dark brick of the angular Altneuschul’s roof imparts why the Maharal in particular has come to be associated with the golem. Just as the Alpine laboratories of Frankenstein provide a sufficiently melancholic locale, so too do the claustrophobic environs of the Bohemian capital. This derives from Prague’s status as a city that, taking the lead from the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II, was open to an array of alchemical, hermetic, occult, and in some cases heretical ideas. Dame Francis Yates explained that during Rabbi Loew’s lifetime the Hapsburg capital had become a “Mecca for those interested in esoteric and scientific studies from all over Europe.” This was the milieu in which Rudolph II gathered his “magic circle,” as Marshall calls it, a collection of the “most creative, original and subversive minds of the day.” Men such as the astronomers Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe, philosophers such as Giordano Bruno (who would later be burnt at the stake in Rome), and the astrologer John Dee.
As the locus of the narrative migrated from Poland into what is today the Czech Republic, the justification for the being’s creation also changed. Accounts of the Maharal’s golem often emphasize that his intent was to protect the Jews from pogroms that erupted as a result of the pernicious blood libel. In these stories, Loew’s golem is a defender of the Jews, making him “the homunculus of the tragic people,” as Conrad describes him, whose task is to relieve the “sorrow of the subjugated.” Historical conflation of the Maharal with the golem also reflects on Loew’s position as an exemplar of Midrashic brilliance. As Prague was Loew’s home, so too would the cracked, clay visage of the creature be forever associated with the crooked, winding, cobble-stoned streets of the Jewish Ghetto. Prague is a fallen Eden; Rabbi Loew an uncertain deity, and the golem is the New Adam whose dumb eyes reflect our own hubris back at us.
At their core, both narratives retell Genesis—they refashion Adam. Historian and philosopher Moshe Idel argues that we may describe the golem’s creation as an “attempt of man to know God by the art He uses in order to create man,” or as Victor Frankenstein describes it, the desire to “pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest myths of creation.” Yet deploring the scientist’s arrogance, Frankenstein’s monster implores his creator to “Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam.”
Often understood as a science fiction novel, Shelley’s religious rhetoric solidifies Frankenstein’s thematic connection to the golem. By speaking in the genitive case of the second person singular pronoun, which even in Shelley’s day would have sounded archaic, the monster explicitly connects himself with the sort of scriptural language that Protestant audiences associated with texts such as the King James Version of the Bible. Scholar John Richard notes that even if Frankenstein is an “overreaching scientist,” the novel itself is “couched in highly religious language.” Echoing Shelley’s monster, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem wrote that “Adam was said to the ‘golem’ before the breath of God had touched him,” and so we read Frankenstein more as a Midrash on creation than we do as a manifesto about science.
When tracing similarities between that creature and the golem, let us take Shelley’s monster at face value. His claim of being a perverse “New Adam” recalls the Hebrew pun on that first man’s name, for adamah translates as “earth,” connecting him to the golem, despite Frankenstein’s monster being composed of sutured corpses. Shelley’s monster repeatedly draws the connection to the first man, as when he notes that “Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence” and later bewailing that “God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours.” Scholar Norma Rowen sees in the golem legend a version of this same mournful, writing that “Men might succeed in creating a human being after the manner of God’s creation of Adam, but their creation would be forever unfinished and imperfect, resulting in a draft of a man.”
Historian of science Philip Ball argues that one difference is that in the Jewish legend there is “little explicit suggestion that the intention was ever to usurp God’s power. The fabrication of a golem seems more an act of homage.” In fact, this difference is a superficial one. The homage reveals a deeper congruity, one relying on the act of language itself. Where the golem is incapable of speech, Shelley’s monster provides analysis of John Milton’s Adamic epic Paradise Lost, explaining that “It moved every feeling of wonder and awe that the picture of an omnipotent God warring with his creatures was capable of exciting.” If the Maharal’s story is permeated by the golem’s eerie silence, what the legend shares with Shelley’s novel is a sense that creation is enacted through language—through words and text. This is a profoundly Judaic idea, where God’s initial creation was accomplished with uttering the word “Bereshit,” where the letters of Hebrew both precede and structure our world. The 15th-century northern Italian Rabbi Yohanan Alemanno wrote that letters “are forms and seals [that] collect the supernal and spiritual emanation,” as if they were “emanations of the stars.” The historical Rabbi Loew himself believed that the “Torah is enclosed in material shapes, and when man touches the material part he is drawn towards the hidden one.”
For esotericists and mystics, the Torah wasn’t simply a historical, ethical, and philosophical account (though of course it was those things), it was also anagogical; its very letters containing the ontological genome of how reality operates. And mastery of those words could thus make one a master of reality.
Frankenstein, though presented as a scientist, operates according to a similar metaphysic. His mechanism of animation in part derives from the works of medieval and early modern alchemists such as Albertus Magnus, Cornelius Agrippa, and Paracelsus—scholars not of test tube and beaker, but rather of grimoire, incantation, and theurgy. Though they are Christians, their understanding of how reality can be altered by words bears far more similarity to Rabbi Loew than it does to the scientists of Shelley’s day. This concern with language is connected to the germination of new Adams, uniting both Frankenstein and the golem story in a crucially “Jewish” way. Both have at their moral core an argument about idolatry and iconoclasm, as mediated through a profoundly Hebraic sense of textuality.
These similarities have not gone unnoticed, even while scholars argue whether Shelley was directly influenced by the golem legend. Ball notes that it’s “easy to see how the golem archetype informed Frankenstein” and in his etymology of the term, Frye matter-of-factly described the being as “a mechanical monster … like the one in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” Rowen writes that “In its overall structure, Frankenstein’s method resembled that of the magician priests who made the golem.”
Yet there is a problem with the genealogy that would posit Frankenstein’s monster as the offspring of the golem. John Neubauer has noted that the earliest version of the Prague story has its origins in a novel by the German-Jewish writer Berthold Auerbach in 1837—19 years after Shelley published her novel. As Gelbin has argued, the golem tales that center the Maharal have their origin in the 19th century, so it would seem an impossibility that that version of the creature influenced Shelley.
Classicist Stephen Bertman, however, takes seriously the possibility that Shelley had the Jewish legend in mind when she wrote Frankenstein, and convincingly reasons that her novel was inspired by a variation of it. Bertman points to an 1808 golem tale that appeared in the collection Zeitungfur Einsiedle. Based in the narrative of Eliyahu of Chelm, the story is by the German philologist Jacob Grimm, one half of the famed fraternal duo. Grimm records how the golem “increases in size daily and easily becomes larger and stronger than all his housemates.” The folklorist writes that once “out of carelessness, someone allowed his Golem to become so tall that he could no longer reach his forehead,” making it impossible to easily erase the letter that would deactivate the creature, so “the master ordered the servant to take off his boots, thinking that he would bend down and that then the master could reach his forehead. This is what happened, and the first letter was successfully erased, but the whole load of clay fell on the Jew and crushed him,” a Frankensteinian horror which leads to the demise of the unnamed rabbi.
Grimm’s story had obvious anti-Semitic overtones to his German audience, with Bertman arguing that the moral of the tale was that “Jews can only create profane, Golem-like literary ‘trash.’” Yet Bertman also claims that Shelley may have read this account, and as the progressive daughter of a committed socialist and feminist, stripped Grimm’s tale of its implicit bigotries, and used the broad story as her raw clay in fashioning her Frankenstein.
To make his argument, Bertman returns to the preface of Frankenstein as penned by the author’s husband, the poet Percy Shelley, who wrote that his wife’s novel was inspired by “some German stories of ghosts, which happened to fall into our hands” that summer night in 1816. Bertman explains that while the otherwise unnamed “stories are presumed to have belonged to a work entitled Fantasmagoriana, a French version of a German collection,” there is absolutely no reason to assume that it was that volume which was read aloud that night. Bertman argues rather that it’s just as likely that “another spectre—the Golem of Grimm’s 1808 article … arose in the course of the group’s animated conversations about matters supernatural.” Furthermore, Shelley “possessed a sufficient working knowledge of the language to eventually translate three German poems into English—all within a few years of publishing” her novel. As another potential source, Bertman points to an 1812 novel entitled Isabella of Egypt: Emperor Charles V’s First Love by Grimm associate (and explicit anti-Semite) Ludwig Achim von Arnim, which featured two golems that, crucially, had the ability to speak.
Bertman proffers an additional clue, noting that Henry Crabb Robinson, the Hamburg foreign correspondent for The Times of London was a family friend of her father, the notorious socialist William Godwin, and that he arrived in Germany a year before the publication of Grimm’s essay. Returning two years later, “he maintained his friendships in Germany … [while] often visiting the Godwin home.” Bertman hypothesizes that Robinson, as a member of the literati who’d be familiar with both Grimm’s story and Armin’s novel, was likely to have acquainted Shelley with such writing; imagining that Robinson may have recited to her “the substance of the Golem story, perhaps as an ‘oddity’ that he had encountered,” so that the “future author of Frankenstein would thus have received her earliest introduction to the most famous monster in Jewish folklore.”
Certainly, something about the stories seems to crackle with the same voltage. Archetypes are often the poor man’s literary criticism; best to avoid sweeping essentialisms that have you offering pat “antidotes to chaos.” Yet at their best, archetypes function as a type of shorthand, a way for parsing the intricacies of subject.
The Victorian critic Matthew Arnold famously claimed that “Hebraism and Hellenism—between these two points of influence moves our world,” and argued that those two models have conflicted, agreed, and merged within Western culture. For Arnold, Hebraism denotes a conception of reality which is iconoclastic, faithful, and steadfastly monotheistic; whereas Hellenistic culture is rational, scientific, and polytheistic. Ambiguous as to which pole we can classify Frankenstein, especially with its classical evocation of the Titan Prometheus in the subtitle seemingly marking the story as Hellenistic. I’d argue that by such criteria, and despite her subtitle’s claims, Shelley’s Frankenstein is deeply Hebraic, encapsulating a profoundly Jewish sense of tragedy which it shares with the legend of the golem.
Echoing the Church Father Tertullian, the literary critic and former Jesuit priest Jack Miles writes that “Western civilization is descended from Athens and Jerusalem, and we routinely speak of both kinds of tragedy.” Miles argues that “the first type of tragedy arises from without; the second arises from within.” Extrapolating from Miles, I’d claim that Greek tragedy, where the protagonist is condemned by powerful forces outside of their control (such as the gods or fate) reflects a pagan, polytheistic existence, and is thus perfectly suited as a tragedy of discovery.
Frankenstein, however, is not a novel about discovery, despite its title character being a scientist. Shelley’s novel is about creation. It is in the spirit of the Second Commandment she warns about art. Hebraic understandings contend that there is a fatal error in creating as God did; Shelley is disturbed not by the discovery of the scientist, but rather by the creative power of the artist, of God. Jewish tragedy as literary form, Miles would argue, isn’t concerned with being condemned by impersonal forces from outside of us, but rather by our own freely chosen condemnation. What is to be feared is not that which we chance upon, that which we discover, but rather that which we create in imitation of God. Where in the Hellenic paradigm creation occurs in a universe already present, in the Hebraic cosmology God’s radical act was ex nihilo—and every other act of creation, whether that of Lowe or Frankenstein, inevitably reflects that initial act. All creation is dangerous, hence the injunction against images. Frankenstein’s contention about “how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge,” which less castigates acquirement so much as it simply warns us about it, seems aptly expressed in the image of the golem rampaging through the ghetto on one unfortunate Sabbath, where Marshall argues that the moral of the Jewish legend is that “even the most perfect creation can be transformed into a destructive force.”
What we must remember then, is that Prometheus may have been a scientist, but Loew, Frankenstein, and the Lord were all very much artists. We will see which—artist or scientist, discoverer or creator—is more dangerous.
Ed Simon is a senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books and an adjunct assistant professor of English and Media Studies at Bentley University. He is the author of America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion. His Twitter feed is @WithEdSimon.