Did The Maharal Really Build a Golem?
Hey Jew in the City-
Was the Golem real? Have any been attempted since the Maharal? What’s the source for this?
Thanks for your question. This is one of those areas where I feel that, for many people, I’m not the right person to answer their question. On the other hand, for other people I’m exactly the right one to answer the question. This is all because some people really believe in this stuff and others don’t. I don’t.
Oh, sure, I believe in the afterlife and souls and the miracles that are described in Tanach but I’m a real skeptic when it comes to things like magic, ghosts, demons, dybbuks and golems.
Let’s back up. Whether the Maharal created a golem or not, he didn’t create the idea. The Maharal of Prague lived in the 16th century, but the idea of a golem can be traced to the Talmud. In tractate Sanhedrin (65b), Rava created a golem, whom he sent to Rav Zeira. When Rav Zeira spoke to the stranger, he realized that it was an artificial man and returned him to dust.
Now, if the Talmud discusses golems, you might ask how I can be skeptical about them. The reality is that there are a lot of things in the Talmud that I don’t take at face value, including such things as sorcery and sheidim (demons). This is because I’m an adherent of the view espoused by the Rambam, that such things don’t actually exist. (The Rambam writes that there’s no such thing as sorcery in Hilchos Avodas Kochavim 11:
The logical question is: if such things don’t exist, why does the Talmud discuss them as if they do? There are several approaches. Some people believe that these things used to exist but don’t anymore. (I don’t subscribe to this approach because, according to Maimonides, these things never existed. According to his opinion, even the “magic” worked by the Egyptian sorcerers in the time of Moses was really just sleight of hand.)
Some feel that the Sages of the Talmud just believed what the people of their times believed. (This seems reasonable enough but, while I am a confirmed skeptic, I’m not that big a cynic.)
The approach that I favor is that when the Talmud discusses such things, it is using coded language and it’s our responsibility to uncover the deeper meaning. I’ll give you an example:
The Talmud in Baba Basra (73b) tells a series of stories about the great sage Rabbah bar Bar Channa. In one of these tales, he claims to have seen a frog the size of the fort in Hagronia, which was the size of sixty houses. Along came a snake and swallowed the frog. Then along came a raven and swallowed the snake. The raven then landed on a tree. Rabbah’s point? Imagine how strong that tree was! (Rav Papa bar Shmuel claimed to be an eyewitness to the event.)
Did this really happen? Was Rabbah telling tall tales? Or is something else going on here?
Our understanding is that the Rabbah bar Bar Channah tales are allegories with moral lessons. The meaning of this particular tale is as follows:
The giant frog represents the mighty Greek empire. It was swallowed by a snake, representing the Roman empire that succeeded it. This was swallowed by a raven, representing the Islamic caliphates. The raven landed on a tree that must be super-strong to support all that; the tree represents the Torah, which has endured a
So why does the Talmud say things in such an obscure manner? Maybe they’re not so obscure to those in the know. In a famous incident, a Czarist official told a local rabbi that the outlandish stories of the Talmud couldn’t possibly be true. The rabbi responded by saying, “Let’s say that the Czar signed a decree against the Jews of my city. A poet might say, ‘a single drop of ink washed away a thousand people.’ That would not only be true, it would be quite eloquently put. It’s just not literal. Someone living 100 years from now might read that and say it’s ridiculous. But the fault is not in the text, it’s in the reader’s understanding of it.”
Similarly, many such tales in the Talmud are full of hidden meanings and truths. Rather than glossing over them as fables and superstitions, we should try to discern those inner meanings and truths.
So, getting back to the Maharal, did he really build a golem? Some people believe so; I don’t. We don’t have a time machine, so we’ll never be able to prove our beliefs to those who believe otherwise. But assuming that he did not actually do so, why would such a belief arise? To answer that, I’ll share one more story:
The Chofetz Chaim was once called upon to serve as a witness in a court case. The judge asked his credentials and the lawyer responded by recounting tales of the rabbi’s legendary piety – what we might call “rebbe stories.” Hearing these praises, the judge asked the lawyer, “Do you really believe all that?” The lawyer responded, “No, your honor, I don’t. But they don’t tell such stories about you and me.”
There’s a certain truth in stories even if they’re not literal history. We all know that young George Washington never chopped down a cherry tree, but the story persists because it underscores Washington’s well-deserved reputation for honesty. Similarly, the Maharal may never have built a golem but the legend may have legs because of the way it reinforces the way in which that great man protected his community from both internal and external threats.
Then again, for all we know, maybe he did… 😉
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent
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