The Making of a Jewish Folk Hero: The Maharal in the Golem of Prague

Article excerpt

But amid th[e] frenzy of Judeo-Christian interaction, one figure stands out. He was born in the early sixteenth century and died in Prague in 1609. The most original Jewish thinker of his time, he led a tireless campaign against the intellectual persecution of the Jews, yet he was intellectual confidant to the Holy Roman Emperor himself. His memory pervades Prague, yet his statue in the heart of the Czech capital was left untouched by both Nazis and Soviets. In a shelf-full of philosophical works, he makes only shadowy allusions to Kabbalah, yet say his name today and people will say "Golem!" He is Rabbi Judah Loewe, known among Jews as the Maharal (Glinert 2001:4).

Jewish folk and fairy tales function as powerful vehicles that reinforce Jewish traditions and values. (1) Their unique construction of Jewish mythical, folkloric, cultural and historical themes maintains Jewish ethnic memory and identity from generation to generation while still remaining relevant and personally meaningful to each listener. An essential part of their uniqueness is in their portrayal of the distinctly Jewish hero archetype, typically a (male) rabbi or biblical figure. He is endowed with an extraordinary intellectual and spiritual prowess that is matched only by his humility. Built as a composite based on genuine figures in Jewish history, the hero is at once a legendary figure, a mythical creature and fairytale icon. He serves as a symbol and affirmation of Jewish beliefs and traditions, both modelling and inspiring the proscribed Jewish thought and behaviour.

The Jewish fairy tale The Golem of Prague provides one of the finest examples of this synthesis of history, culture and religion in its hero the Rabbi Judah Ben Loewe, (2) known as the Maharal. (3) For while his association with the golem is fictional, the Maharal himself was a very real person. Based on the genuine sixteenth century rabbi and teacher, the Maharal's character is an artful blend of historical fact and Jewish mythology. He functions in the story as a primary means of communicating key Jewish ideas and images. In this paper, I deconstruct the role of the Maharal as the Jewish hero in The Golem to provide greater insight into how history, folklore and culture have worked together to create one of Judaism's greatest folk heroes.

The fictional Maharal of the Golem is a complex figure, and his character incorporates multiple themes. As the story's protagonist, the Maharal personality consists of several related identities, drawn out and then incorporated into his fictional persona. These include the traditional role of the rabbi and his family in the medieval Jewish communities on which the story is based, along with the corresponding cultural themes and folkloric motifs. Each of these identities adds its own set of images and themes to the story, which in turn conflate to result in a hero and a story line that is both believable and inspirational.

Like the biblical heroes after whom he is modelled, the Maharal was handpicked by God for his role in history. He did not make the personal decision to create the Golem and save the Jews of Prague; he was selected and then instructed by God to do so. Much like the Agaddic (4) Moses, his role in history was preordained since conception. His mother's cries of labour pain during his birth draw a crowd to his home, thwarting the attempts of the unnamed Christian man to frame the Maharal's father, Rabbi Bezalel, for a blood libel accusation of ritual murder. (5) His destiny as hero is confirmed by Rabbi Bezalel at the feast following the infant Maharal's bris (circumcision). The rabbi tells the crowd: "The child is our people's comforter. He has come into the world in order to free us from the terrible blood-lie, the most ignominious calumny which we suffer" (Bloch 1988:44).

It is interesting to note that the fictional Maharal also sees himself in terms of a biblical hero. In the story, he compares himself to the future King David when David was still a shepherd boy. …