The Golem of Prague is one of the best known stories in the Jewish oral tradition. There are many versions, but they all tend to share the common thread of a well-respected 17th Century Rabbi in the secluded Jewish ghetto in Prague. Beset by antisemitic raids and pogroms, the Rabbi constructed a clay statue of a man, which when given a scroll reading “shem” (a holy word) came to life. The animated statue defended the Jews from their enemies, but eventually fell out of the Rabbi’s control (some legends point to the Golem falling in love, others to basic monstrous behavior). The Rabbi, realizing that the creature had to be stopped, removed the “shem” from it’s mouth, and it fell apart on the spot.
To me, the legend of the Golem is fascinating because of its ambiguous message. On the one hand, it’s a cautionary tale that warns against overreaching human limits; on the other, it’s an expression of Jewish resilience and ingenuity. The proto-sci-fi angle also reveals some of the more offbeat elements of the Jewish oral tradition. My general impression of the story is one in which the Jews, whether to their benefit or detriment, manage to assert themselves in a hostile environment (a theme which would have absolutely helped the story to endure throughout the events of recent centuries).
The legend of the Golem comes from a fundamental part of Jewish identity and history: persecution. The Golem represents the desperation to which Jewish culture would resort for their very survival, and the inherent risk of playing God in order to do so. The Golem’s influence is evident in many popular legends, most notably in that of the Robot. I think the story is invoked in times of peril.
I think it’s really interesting that my informant didn’t try to tell a definitive version. It wasn’t important to him that the story had a one-hundred percent certain plot, but more so he took the general idea as the important piece of the narrative. He seemed totally comfortable with the ambiguity of the stories and took it as having multiple meanings and lessons more so than having no meaning at all by being ambiguous.