The Modern Golem: Part One – Recollections of Prague

Prague Golem

Scattered throughout the past are tales regarding beings created from inanimate materials and bought to life by some otherworldly agent or obscure process. From the Norse tale of Mökkurkálfi, a giant moulded from clay built to assist Hrungnir in his second duel with Thor, to the animated corpse of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a veritable jigsaw of a man pieced together from several, disparate sources. These stories litter history, and are often seen as a way to hold up a mirror to mankind’s ambition and hubris.

The Golem of Jewish legend is somewhat different.

While still a creation of clay bought to life by clandestine rituals and divine power, the Golem is seen more as a guardian, a protector, even a force for vengeance; a being capable of committing acts that Judaism, a culture that traditionally prides itself on reasoning and pacifism, would consider abhorrent.

A creature given life by wisdom and knowledge, but, without a soul of it’s own, a creature capable of terrible violence.

Prague2

The following is the tale of Jehuda Loew ben Bezalel, chief Rabbi of the Jewish town in Prague (the capital of what was then Czechoslovakia), in the 16th Century.  The Rabbi’s followers loved him so much he was known as the ‘Exalted One’.

In the year 1580 a fanatical priest named Thaddeus began to sow disharmony and discord in Prague, with the intention of disrupting peace and harmony by raising superstitious accusations of ritual murder against the people of the Jewish quarter.

Rabbi Lowe learned of this. In a dream, he raised a question upwards, hoping to discover a solution to the problem of how to fight this new, evil enemy.

The reply came.

‘Ata Bra Golem Dewuk Hacomer W’tigzar Zedim Chewel Torfe Jisreal.’

Put simply, ‘You shall create a golem from clay, that the malicious anti-Semitic mob should be destroyed’.

But there was a hidden meaning, one that had to be understood for the instruction to be effective. Using Kabbalistic formulae, Rabbi Lowe began to extract the real meaning behind the message. When he was done, he knew how to create a Golem.

Even to one so holy as the Exalted One, the creation of life is forbidden. But, in this case, could such an act be weighed against the lives that would be saved? Rabbi Lowe was willing to believe it could.

He called for two others to assist him, Jizchak ben Simson, his son-in-law, and Jacob Ben Chajim Sasson, a disciple, and entrusted them with the secret of how to create a Golem. 

“I ask for your help because for the creation of a Golem, four different elements are required. Jizchak, you are the element of fire; Jacob, you are the element of water, and I am the element of air. Together we shall create a Golem from the fourth element, which is the earth.”

On a certain day, after midnight, the three men bathed with special devotion in the ritual bath. At home, they performed the midnight lament for Jerusalem and prayed. Lastly, they travelled to the banks of the River Vltava and located a place where clay could be found.

Then they set to work.

Chanting the psalms by torchlight, they shaped a human body from the clay. And there before them lay the Golem, motionless as a dead body, his lifeless face pointing up, towards the heavens. 

Starting at the feet, Rabbi Lowe instructed Jizchak to walk seven times around the body, chanting the words of creation.

When Jizchak was done, the body glowed as fire.

Rabbi Lowe instructed Jacob to do the same.

When Jacob was done, the fiery red faded and water rushed into the body of clay. Hair began to sprout from the head and nails grow upon the fingers and toes.

Then Rabbi Lowe himself walked around the body, placing a parchment into the Golem’s mouth. Written on the parchment was a name; the name of God.

All three men bowed to the east, the west, the south, and the north. They spoke in unison:

“And the Lord formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”

The three elements of fire, water and air combined with the earth. The Golem opened his eyes and looked about him.

He was alive.

Silent, but alive.

The three men walked their new creation to the synagogue.

On the journey, Rabbi Lowe said to the Golem: “We have created you from a lump of clay. Your mission is to protect the Jews from persecution. Your name will be Josef and you will live in the Rabbi’s house. Josef, you must obey my commands no matter when and wherever I may send you – into fire, into water, to jump from a roof or even to the seafloor.”

Josef silently nodded and gestured to show he understood.

Prague3

This is but one of several stories regarding the creation of Golem in Jewish history. This particular account is interesting in that it happens in a specific year, unlike most folk tales of this nature. And, again unlike most folk tales of this nature, the main character is an individual whose life can be traced throughout history.

This particular story ends with the removal of the parchment from the Golem’s mouth, rendering it immobile once the danger in question has been defeated. The clay figure was hidden in the attic of the Old New Synagogue, where it could be restored to life if ever required again. No one was permitted to enter the attic for many years. When the synagogue was renovated in 1883, workman found no inert body of clay. But, interestingly enough, some reports from the time claim that, inside the attic, in the thick dust that lined the floorboards, was the outline of a large man, as if someone of great stature had lain still upon the floor for a very long time.

But all this is just a story. There is no physical evidence to suggest that life can be granted to shapes made of clay.

But I have learned that even the most outlandish of folktales often contain at least a kernel of truth.

Not too long ago, my acquaintance at the Ministry of Defence put me in touch with an elderly individual who would only identify himself as ‘Mr Smith’.

Prague1

Mr Smith and I entered into a lengthy written correspondence, over the course of which this mysterious fellow claimed to be a scientist employed by an organisation known as the ‘Bentov Foundation’, based in Israel.

Mr Smith went on, at length, to detail a most intriguing sequence of events, events that span several decades.

I shall attempt to compile these events in this report.

The first takes place during the Second World War, in the same city where Rabbi Lowe spent his life.

VitruvianMan1

Karl Bentov was born in Prague in 1911. A highly intelligent and driven individual, Karl’s family expected him to become a great scholar.

But the young man had other ideas.

Whilst he did study the Hebrew scriptures with great conviction, particularly the older, more esoteric texts, he also took great interest in the natural sciences. Building a laboratory for himself, he quickly began to learn much about biology, chemistry and physics, alongside the knowledge he was acquiring into the ancient ways of his people.

He became something quite unique amongst his peers; a man steeped in the Kabbalistic mysticism of the past as well as learned in the scientific knowledge of the modern day.

Bentov was fascinated with human anatomy and the forces that drive it. His laboratory was strewn with diagrams of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man and Mechanical Knight, and the shelves of his bookcase groaned with ancient tomes and manuscripts discussing the nature of the soul.

The following is a translated entry from the diary of one Velém Kohn, a resident of Prague and a friend of Karl Bentov. The entry is dated the 8th of July 1937.

‘Karl and I had a very animated debate last night about what it is that actually make a man ‘alive’. I was arguing on the side of God, that only the Lord possessed the power to grant life. He countered that one day science may be able to perform such a feat. I told him that that would be blasphemy, to which he gave the reply ‘not if it were justified’.

‘After a few glasses of beer, our conversation turned to Europe, and events beyond our borders, specifically the dark rumblings coming out of Germany, and how long will it take for her gaze to turn towards us here in Prague.

‘Karl told me that he was working on something, something that might save us. ‘Something new?’ I asked. ‘Not exactly,’ he replied. ‘Something new created with the help of something very, very old’. 

‘We went to his laboratory and he showed me what he was working on. It was a skeletal torso and arm, built from metal and articulated by an elaborate clockwork mechanism. 

‘I could tell as soon as he’d shown it to me that he regretted it. He made me promise not to tell anyone about his work.

‘I suspect it may be wise to stay away from Karl for a while.’

Whether Velém and Karl ever rekindled their friendship was sadly rendered moot in March of 1938.

The Nazis entered Prague.

Sudetenland+Hitler

In 1942, with the Second World War entering it’s third, bloody year, Bentov was separated from his family and deported to Theresienstadt ghetto, then to Aushwitz-Birkenau, on to the labour camps in Hamburg and finally the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Perhaps it was for the best. If the Nazis had known of Bentov and his work, they may not have been so quick to send him away.

After the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen camp, Bentov returned to Prague, only to find his family dead, his laboratory destroyed, and the Jewish Quarter of the city devastated.

Bentov never spoke a word about the horrors he no doubt experienced between 1942 and 1945, but he was often to be heard publicly cursing the Germans and swearing revenge on every single soul who committed those heinous acts on his family and his people.

Prague4

Very little is known of Bentov’s whereabouts and actions until 1950, when a representative from the Israeli Immigration Department turned up in Prague looking for him. He found Bentov, now cutting a somewhat bitter and frustrated figure, praying in the Old New Synagogue.

Bentov returned with this representative to Israel, which was unusual for two reasons: very few Czech Jews emigrated to that part of the world, and it was almost of unheard of for the Israeli government to actively seek out individuals to do so.

But emigrate Bentov did. And here he drops from sight once more, at least until the late 1970’s, when a series of murders occur in South America, murders that can be linked back to a foundation set up in Karl Bentov’s name.

Part 2 of this reported can be found here: The Modern Golem: Part 2 – The Tenth Iteration – C.R.