Originating in the 17th century, the standard form of the golem legend has the 16th-century Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague (better known as the Maharal) using his kabalistic powers to animate a sort of primitive robot to protect Jews from Christian violence. The story gained popularity when it began cropping up in 19th- and early-20th-century literature and film and has recently experienced yet another revival. Reviewing some recent examples of the form, Michael Weingrad compares them with their predecessors and seeks to explain the legend’s hold on the Jewish and non-Jewish imagination:
One reason for the attraction of the golem is that it has served as a charged metaphor for Jews and Judaism themselves, reflecting the biases of Christian writers who first took this obscure story and popularized it in the course of the 1800s as well as attempts by later artists, Jewish and Christian alike, to reframe the figure in more positive terms.
Golems, after all, are ugly, crude, lumbering clods of earth. They are of limited utility, cannot think for themselves or can do so only in the most literal-minded fashion, and must not be allowed to get out of hand. They are, in short, a classically negative Christian imagining of Judaism itself: unlovely, slightly threatening, and hopelessly literal and earthbound. The golem is a perfectly Pauline figure for Judaism as crude and unimaginative materialism, the dominance of the letter (in this case, the Hebrew letters famously inscribed on the golem’s brow) over the spirit. . . .
A second factor in the popularity of the golem is its use as a figure for meditations on Jewish power, violence, and vengeance. The theme of the golem as a malfunctioning household servant dates from the 17th century; by the end of the 19th century, the golem becomes the protector of the Jews against Christian violence, a protector that sometimes grows so indiscriminately violent that it must be destroyed by those whom it protects. In 1893 [the Yiddish writer] I.L. Peretz penned a brilliantly satirical version of the golem story in which the golem successfully defends the Jews of Prague from being massacred by their Christian neighbors. Peretz’s Jews then plead with their rabbi to deactivate the golem since if it continues its rampage “there won’t be any Gentiles left to heat the Sabbath ovens or to take down the Sabbath lamps.” Committed to the status quo of diasporic powerlessness, the Jews allow the golem to be locked away in the synagogue attic under cobwebs—a symbol of dormant Jewish vitality.
By contrast, in a number of 20th-century American iterations the golem is a figure for what Peretz in his own time was satirizing: Jewish discomfort with violence. From Marvel comics to Michael Chabon’s novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the golem becomes a figure for Jewish vengeance against Nazis, about which the stories express deep ambivalence.