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Two Religious Views Of Power: Agastya The Hindu, And A Jewish Golem – OpEd

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The two oldest holy day celebrations in Jewish life are Passover and Shabbat. The two newest days of remembrance are Holocaust Remembrance Day (April 28 this year) and Israel Independence Day (May 6 this year). The oldest two, Passover and Sabbath, are about freedom from physical, and political oppression. The newest two, Holocaust Remembrance Day and Israel Independence Day, are about power, and the danger of being powerless or of having too much power.

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For example; a male has the potency and the power to create another living being; but he cannot do it by himself. However, when he impregnates a female, he inevitably looses sole control over his creative process. Her genes must be added to his, and therefore the outcome of his desire to reproduce sexually, will never exactly fit his own genetic being.

Although every human parent desires to have children with all the personality and character traits that we ourselves most value; most parents understand and accept that the vagaries of bisexual reproduction must limit both their own power to produce exactly the child they want. Some parents, especially powerful fathers, may try to force the issue of their loins to be exactly what they want, but this often has disastrous results.

Hindu mythology tells us that the very powerful yogi Agastya did succeed in this endeavor. Jewish legends warn us that even the very powerful Kabbalist, Rabbi Judah Lowe, did not.

According to the Mahabharata (book 9&10) Agastya was a rishi, a very powerful yoga sage who once drank up the entire ocean, and on another occasion overcame a great king of the lunar race who had been empowered by the Gods themselves to rule over them, and had then become corrupted.

Agastya was often considered the father of traditional Indian Medicine. He was believed to be the author of a book of medicines of treatments for cancer, fever, impotence, abdominal problems, brain and eye problems, bone problems, etc. Reputedly, his medicines gave quick results without any side effects. Perhaps it was these biological capabilities, or even more remarkable, his having been born to two fathers, the gods Mitra and Varuna, that led him to an unusual act of arrogance.

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Agastya needed to marry and sire a son in order to fulfill his duty to his religious principles. But he wanted to have this child with a wife that would be perfectly suited to his very demanding needs.

Rather than seek and find such a perfect woman, or make any compromise with his exacting demands, Agastya used his vast yogic powers, to create a female embryo that possessed all the special qualities of character and personality appropriate for the wife of a powerful spiritual figure such as himself.

Then Agastya picked a noble and virtuous king, who was childless and was energetically offering prayers to the Gods for the gift of a child. Agastya arranged for the embryo he had created, to be born as the daughter of that noble king. The infant was named Lopamudra by her parents.

Upon her attaining marriageable age, Agastya came to the king and sought the hand of his daughter. The king was chagrined to hear such a suggestion from a sage who was well known as an extreme ascetic, but his daughter, who had already exhibited extraordinary standards of mind and character, was insistent that he should accept the proposal.

She was utterly intent upon renouncing her father’s palace and going out to live in a forest with Agastya. Lopamudra and Agastya were duly married and lived a spiritual life of extraordinary felicity and happiness. They had two sons. Lopamudra attained the rank of one of the Mahapativrathas of the world by her dedication to the worship of her husband Agastya, and was joined with other Noble exalted wives, like Mandodari, Ravana’s wife.

The Agastya myth shows that many people believe that an ideal powerful master can succeed in creating exactly what he desires. But while this successful outcome may occasionally occur; it is very rare. Most such attempts, according to Jewish tradition, have unexpected and unpredictable bad outcomes, because power, even religious spiritual power, tends too corrupt; and total power totally corrupts.

Judah Loew 1525-1609, established a rabbinical academy in Prague in the late 1550’s. He taught many disciples, and wrote several books on Jewish law and Jewish thought. But he is best known for his reported creation of a Golem; a mute giant of a man sculptured in clay, and animated by mystical rites, who could serve as a protecter of the Jewish community in times of danger.

The Golem did protect the Jewish community from a planed pogrom, but when he was no longer needed, Joseph Golem would not go easily into the night.

In subsequent centuries there would be books, plays, two movies and even an opera about Rabbi Loew and his powerful Golem. How the Golem’s ‘life’ ended, has been related in various ways. The following account of the Golem’s life and end is taken from my book “God, Sex and Kabbalah”.

“Suddenly with a tremendous wrench of his powerful legs, the Golem tore the tree from the earth, lifting it high in the air, dirt from its roots showering down on the men below. Then the Golem brought the trunk of the tree over his knee. The trunk gave a loud cracking sound and splintered into two pieces. His mission accomplished, the Golem stood, one-half of the tree in either hand, waiting for further orders.

Yitzchak said in a hushed voice, “He’s ten times stronger than the strongest man I’ve ever seen!” Nodding his head, his father-in-law Rabbi Loew, repeated thoughtfully, “We must be very, very careful.”

When the four returned to the ghetto, the rabbi led the Golem into the Synagogue attic and ordered him to stay there. The next day he asked his wife to make some clothes for a newcomer to the ghetto, a giant of a man. After helping the Golem to dress himself, the rabbi led him down to the Synagogue and introduced him the community.

“This is Joseph,” he said. “Joseph is a deaf-mute. He is a hard worker and will be happy to act as a water-carrier for us. If, at any time, there is a problem concerning Joseph the Golem, come to me. I know how to communicate with him through hand signs.”

The people looked uneasily at this giant of a man, his complexion ruddy as the clay the potters dug up from the riverbank, his silent, passive face. If anyone but Rabbi Judah Loew had introduced him, they would have refused to accept him into their community.

After a few days, however, their nervousness disappeared. They almost began to think of the Golem as one of themselves. Even the children stopped running away when he walked down the streets, carrying on his shoulders a water barrel for one of their homes.

There are many legends told of the Golem’s deeds during this time, the feats of strength he performed, the missions he accomplished for Rabbi Loew. But I will speak only of the end of the Golem, for in its creation and in its destruction resides an insight into the power of an unpredictable free will religious power.

Well aware that Passover was almost upon him, Thaddeus worked feverishly on his plot. He had met privately with many of the nobility badly in debt to Jewish bankers and moneylenders. Having laid the groundwork, he brought them together in a session filled with sanctimonious hypocrisy, and extracted from them a promise that the government would not interfere “if good Christian citizens attempt to drive this pernicious influence from our city.”

Later he used this promise, coupled with his influence at court, to intimidate the Bishop, a kindly man, and, in fact, a personal friend of Rabbi Loew, but also a passive man, afraid to risk his own position in the Church by opposing a dangerous fanatic who had powerful friends.

Finally, by spreading around money belonging to the Church, Thaddeus had accumulated through his agents a small army of cutthroats, ruffians, drunks, and bullies who looked forward to the opportunity of looting and venting their frustrations on helpless women and children.

The people of Prague had not been told what would happen or when, but there was a smell of blood in the air. On Easter Sunday, which came just before Passover that year, the pogrom began. Thaddeus ignited it in the morning, thundering from his pulpit, “The Christ-killers are living among us, rich and comfortable, flaunting their disbelief in our Lord. They endanger the Christian purity of our children, and their presence is an affront to the wounds of Christ, who died for our sins.”

The congregation left his church muttering that the Jews should be driven from Prague. The men Thaddeus had hired mingled among them distributing liquor, urging action. As the people drank, their talk grew hot and more reckless. Soon they became a mob, heading for the Jewish quarter, shouting, and accepting the knives and axes handed them by Thaddeus’ hirelings.

In the ghetto the Jews heard the mob coming. They knew from past experience the futility of trying to get help from the authorities. Jews ran to their homes, hiding their children, and locking their doors, in the hope the thin wood would stop the onslaught of raging men. When the mob hit the ghetto, there were hundreds of them.

They broke into the stores, carrying away valuables, destroying what they could not carry. Many forced their way into the houses, seeking gold, which rumor had it was hidden there. Others went looking for the beautiful women they had seen in the ghetto. A small knot of fanatics headed for the Synagogue “to avenge the wounds of Christ.”

Pushing their way through the doors of the Synagogue, they rushed into the darkened sanctuary. Joseph Golem stood, as he usually did when he was not at work, near the Ark. In the darkened room, the fanatics were too excited to notice him.

One of the men, an ex-seminary student, pointed to the Ark. “That’s where they keep their devilish scrolls,” he said. “Take them out and tear them to pieces!” Other voices chimed in, “Throw the scrolls into the gutter! Trample them!”

Rushing forward, the men opened the doors of the Ark. At that same moment, Rabbi Judah Loew came running into the Synagogue. “Please don’t touch them!” he cried out. “They are your Bible, too. Respect God’s holy word!”

The men only laughed. One of them gave the rabbi a shove that sent him rolling across the floor, stunning him. Four men grabbed the four Torahs stored in the Ark. From the floor where he lay in a heap the rabbi cried weakly to the Golem. “Stop those men! Save the Torahs!”

The Golem stepped forward. With one hand he caught an intruder by the neck. The Golem’s arm jerked. There was a loud crack. The others stood frozen as their comrade dropped at their feet. The Golem started for the second man who dropped his Torah and ran.

The biggest of the group threw his Torah to one side and pulled a knife, advancing on the Golem. The Golem, easily avoiding the knife, reached down and seized the man by the waist, lifting him high above his head, he hurled him through the open Synagogue door into the street twenty feet away. At that, the fourth man fled for his life, the other fanatics close behind him, with the Golem pursuing.

Outside the Synagogue was complete chaos. Women ran screaming, chased by drunken peasants. Shouts, splintering wood, and cries of pain were everywhere. Acrid black smoke filled the narrow streets. Some looters had brought in carts in which to carry off valuables they had plundered.

One of these carts was only a few feet from the Synagogue. The Golem smashed it with his fist. Then, picking up two broken pieces of wood eight or nine feet long, he walked down the street, swinging these clubs, knocking down two or three men at a time.

Many peasants were too drunk to realize what was happening until the Golem loomed over them. Bodies flew right and left. Blood covered the streets. In less than twenty minutes, only the dead and wounded remained.

The Golem was on his way back when Rabbi Judah Loew managed painfully to climb to his feet and stagger out of the temple towards the Golem. The rabbi called loudly, “Golem, stop.” The giant looked bewildered, hesitated a moment, then continued on, jabbing at whatever moved.

Rabbi Judah Loew felt a chill go up his spine. He perceived that the Golem was caught up in the joy of battle. The lump of clay which should have no emotions of its own, was acting as if human passions surged through its being. Perhaps Rabbi Loew’s creation was developing a personality that would be beyond his control.

The rabbi continued speaking, soothing the Golem with his voice and kind words until the giant calmed down, and finally obeyed his command to throw away the timbers and return to the synagogue.

In the streets the wounded and plundered Jews realized that they had been saved from death. A spontaneous feeling of joy swept through the community. People came to the synagogue to cheer the mute water carrier, the man who had saved them.

After a few minutes of excitement, the rabbi called for quiet. He explained that it was not proper to celebrate victory when wounded persons still needed care. “Those who attacked us, also are the children of God,” he said. He reminded them of the Rabbinic Commentary which tells how God rebuked the angels for celebrating when Egyptians drowned in the Sea of Reeds, saying, “Rejoice not over the downfall of your enemy.”

The people of the ghetto began to help the wounded, friend and enemy alike. When that was done, they started repairing their houses and restoring to its proper owners, the property that lay in the streets.

The next day, Yitzchak came to Rabbi Judah Loew and urged him to use the Golem at the head of a group of younger Jews to counterattack the gentiles. Surprised, the rabbi stared at Yitzchak and then sadly shook his head.

Yitzchak argued with him, speaking faster and faster, “Now is the time. Let the children of Israel see that their fathers are not at the mercy of the gentiles’ evil whims. We should attack the barons and counts to teach them that Jews cannot always be beaten with impunity.

We can loot their castles as they have looted our homes. And, perhaps, seeing us, the downtrodden gentile peasants will take courage and rise up against these aristocrats who exploit them. Now that God has given us this power, we should make use of it.”

Rabbi Judah Loew refused, saying, “That is not the Jewish way. Our way is not with the fist, but with the book. Not with the sword, but with the word; with reason and with understanding; with Torah and with study.”

But Yitzchak went on arguing. He protested and urged long into the afternoon until finally Rabbi Judah Loew refused to say more on the subject, telling him it was time for evening prayers, and left.

Yitzchak was not convinced. Instead of going to say his prayers, he walked over to the Golem. He, too, had seen the enthusiasm with which the water carrier had fought. Yitzchak began talking to the Golem, telling him that he had helped in his creation and thus he too should be obeyed. When the Golem failed to respond, Yitzchak added that he also, knew the secrets of the Sefer Yetsirah and therefore, the Golem should follow him.

Still the Golem did not move. Yitzchak left the synagogue and returned with an ax. He held the ax out to the Golem. “We must destroy our enemies!” he said sternly. “Come with me.” This time the Golem obeyed.

Yitzchak led the Golem out of the ghetto. By this time it was dark, but Yitzchak knew the way to his destination. “We will destroy Thaddeus to start with,” Yitzchak said. “He is the source of the evil which fell upon us.”

As they came to the church where Thaddeus had preached his hate filled sermon, Yitzchak thought, let us do unto them as they would have done unto us. He ordered the Golem inside, and pointing to the altar, shouted, “Cut down that altar! Smash their idols!”

The Golem lifted the ax. But before the blade came down, he remembered the words of Rabbi Judah Loew. Slowly and laboriously, the Golem began to think. He remembered the rabbi crying out that the Torah was the Christians’ Bible, too. He remembered the rabbi telling the people that the wounded gentiles were also the children of God. If that were true, how could he chop down this altar? The Golem turned and looked questioningly at Yitzchak. Yitzchak shouted at him, “Smash it! Smash it!”

Yitzchak grabbed the ax, swinging to strike the altar. The Golem caught hold of his arm, trying to restrain him, but Yitzchak fought wildly. The Golem tried to be gentle, but his strength was too great. He knocked Yitzchak down. Yitzchak rolled over and sprang to his feet, blindly attacking the Golem.

A kind of rage swept over the Golem. He twisted the ax from Yitzchak’s hand and with one blow, his fist bashed in Yitzchak’s skull.

A minute later, the rage left, leaving the Golem looking down at Yitzchak’s body in bewilderment and sorrow. He picked up the body and carried it back to the synagogue. Then he went to the rabbi’s home and knocked on the door. When Rabbi Loew saw the Golem, he knew something was wrong.

Running to the synagogue, he found the body of his son-in-law. Even the great rabbi could not know exactly what had happened, but the memory of Yitzchak’s words and the look of sadness on the Golem’s face told him enough. The power he had created had corrupted his son-in-law. The young man had tried to misuse it and had met his destruction.

Yitzchak was a good man, unswerving in devotion to God and the community. His flaw was poor judgment in how to help his people and serve God. Shuddering at the thought of the destruction that would have taken place if Yitzchak had succeeded in using the power embodied in the Golem, Rabbi Loew concluded that what his son-in-law had attempted. others might as well. “Then, the responsibility for their actions would be mine, since I used my knowledge to build the Golem, and I know now the temptation he represents. The Golem is not an evil thing in himself, yet, for the people’s sake, I must destroy him.”

“Bend down,” he ordered the Golem, intending to pluck from the giant’s ear the bit of parchment inscribed with the vitalizing letters of’ God’s highest name. But the Golem’s mind was quickening. He perceived the reason behind the rabbi’s request and shook his head. He had lived long enough to acquire an independent desire to survive, and would not willingly yield up his existence.

Rabbi Judah Loew stroked his beard, thinking wryly, the problems we make for ourselves can be as difficult as those that others make for us. I created this giant to solve one problem, but now my problem is how to destroy him. He measured the great height of the Golem with his eyes and shook his head.

As long as the giant stood, it would be impossible to pull from his ear the parchment containing the hidden name of God—YHVH—which was his life force.”

Why would destroying the Golem be such a difficult problem for the great Rabbi Judah Loew, who had the knowledge and power to create him originally from clay.

Yet consider: Within our lifetime we have seen creations of less substantial stuff than clay—political parties, freedom fighters, idealistic revolutions—acquire a life of their own, and take over their own direction, resulting in actions beyond their creator’s most frenzied intentions. They often end up by destroying those who began them.

While we know that the Golem was finally deactivated, there are several different conflicting versions about how that happened, each one incorporating different insights into the nature of human-spawned creation, destruction, and power. I will relate a four of them.

I

But the Golem’s mind was quickening, he perceived the reason behind the rabbi’s request and he shook his head.
“All right,” Rabbi Judah Loew said. “I share the responsibility for what happened for I created you. Come. Let us reason together. We will talk about what can be done.” The Golem half turned as though to leave.

“Wait!” Rabbi Loew called out in alarm. “I know you are suspicious, Joseph Golem. That is an all too human characteristic. But I wonder if you have become human enough to be curious.” Or, he added to himself, human enough to be ambitious and greedy? The Golem did not move, but his eyes cautiously studied the rabbi.

“I could reveal a secret to you,” Rabbi Judah Loew said persuasively. “A secret about your creation which you could use to become even stronger and much more attractive. But if I do this for you, you must agree for your part to listen to my advice in the future before you act. If you agree to this bargain, lean down, and I will whisper the secret into your ear.

The Golem hesitated, obviously torn between desire and apprehension. Finally, with a look of cunning, he bent down in such a way that the ear lacking the parchment was inclined toward the rabbi, the other safely out of his reach.

Rabbi Judah Loew began whispering. He whispered such marvels that the Golem’s eyes opened wide in wonder and glazed. Softer and softer, the rabbi whispered; the Golem bent closer and closer, intent on hearing every word.

Suddenly the rabbi’s hand darted out and grabbed the small bit of parchment from the giant’s ear. Immediately, the Golem stiffened and toppled forward, crushing the rabbi under his weight. They died together, each one of them the victim of the other.

II

But the Golem’s mind was quickening. He understood the reason behind the rabbi’s request and shook his head. He turned and ran down the street faster than the rabbi could follow. Filled with despair, Rabbi Loew entered the synagogue and approached the holy Ark. Only a short time before he had ordered the Golem to protect the Torah from destruction by a drunken mob of anti-Semites.

But now he bowed his head and prayed for someone, something, to protect humanity from the Golem. All that night he remained in deep prayer. Finally, he became conscious that it was morning and that several people had entered the Synagogue and were waiting agitatedly for him to finish his prayers so that they could speak to him.

“Yes?” he said, straightening up. “Rabbi, something strange has happened…”

“It’s Joseph Golem, Rabbi…”

Still another troubled voice broke in, “Rabbi, you know Merle, Haim and Rifka’s little girl? Well, Joseph Golem is holding her on his shoulder and he won’t let her down. She is crying, but he just stands there without moving and we are afraid.”

“Quick,” said Rabbi Loew. “Lead me to them.”

The men turned and ran out of the Synagogue, the rabbi following as fast as he could. When they reached the street where Haim and Rifka lived, he heard the little girl sobbing with fright and the Golem, standing at the top of some stairs, holding the child on his shoulder.

“He still hasn’t moved,” called out an onlooker. “Not a muscle.”

Puzzled, the rabbi climbed the stairs and the little girl, seeing him, stopped her crying. But still the Golem did not move. The rabbi was about to speak when he noticed something in the child’s hand.

It was the parchment with the name of God written on it. Apparently the Golem had picked up the little girl and placed her on his shoulder. Why? No one would ever know. But the child, noticing the bit of parchment in the Golem’s ear, had playfully or curiously reached up and removed it.

Without the mystical power of God’s holy name to give him life force, the Golem became once more a rigid lump of clay. It had been only a happenstance, a fortunate one, that the giant’s weight at that instant was perfectly balanced so that instead of crashing to the ground, injuring the child, he continued to stand erect like a statue.

The rabbi called to the child to let herself slide down the Golem’s chest and he caught her, comforting her and taking the parchment from her hand as he set her down on the ground. Then he told the people, “Joseph Golem has died. We must honor him for the help he has given us,” adding in his heart,. “It is not you who failed us, Joseph Golem, but we who are not yet ready for you.”

III

But the Golem’s mind was quickening. Perceiving the reason behind the rabbi’s request, he shook his head, and Rabbi Judah Loew’s heart filled with sympathy for this creature’s wish to live. “All right,” he said. ”Let us submit ourselves to the judgment of the Torah. Since you cannot speak, I shall argue your cause for you.

“In your defense, it can be said that Judaism does not teach pacifism. We believe a man has a right to defend himself. The Ten Commandments do not say, ‘Thou shall not kill.’ Kill is an incorrect translation of the word Retsach. It says, ‘Thou shall not murder.’ So it is not murder when a man kills in self-defense. You have a right to use violence to save yourself, just as the Jewish people have the right to protect and defend themselves against their attackers.

“On the other hand,” said the rabbi, “when we fought the Roman Empire in the days of the Second Temple, and the Bar Kochba rebellion, we did not succeed. The Rabbis have emphasized their belief that Israel shall survive by study, by spirituality, and by dedication to mitzvot.

“And, indeed, we have survived for sixteen hundred years since those days when we battled the Roman Empire. Although we have often been persecuted, massacred by the crusaders, victimized by pogroms during the time of the Black Plague, exiled from country after country in Europe, we have always survived. We have long outlived the Romans. We shall survive these medieval kingdoms which now harass us. They will tumble down, but the Jewish people will thrive. We survive not by force, but by the power of faith.

“On the other hand,” continued Rabbi Loew in Talmudic singsong, “a time may come when the gentiles may go beyond pressuring us to convert; they may try to wipe out our very existence. Then shall we not defend ourselves? And will there not come a time during the battles of the Messianic Age when Israel shall once again, as in the days of David, have armies and generals?

“On the other hand,” said the rabbi, deeply troubled, “could we not become corrupted even as Yitzchak was? Could we become like all the other nations, using our military power to oppress and exploit?”

There seemed no resolution to the problem. The pro arguments were as strong as the con arguments. Rabbi Judah Loew began praying for an answer from God and suddenly he saw 360 years into the future: Prague 1939; vastly changed from the medieval town he knew. He recognized it only because his synagogue, the Altneu, still was standing.

Then he saw the Nazis marching into Prague. The city had fallen to madmen due to British and French unwillingness to fight the enemies of freedom, and their willingness to buy peace for themselves at the price of lost freedom for others.

Rabbi Judah Loew saw his people rounded up and thrown into concentration camps. He saw them persecuted and exiled in 1940 and 1941. He saw the Germans murdering men, women and children in the gas chambers in ’42 and ’43 and ’44.He saw the British preventing the escaping refugees from reaching the land of Israel. He saw the Arabs misled into rejecting the homecoming of their Semitic brothers.

Then the rabbi began to cry. “I cannot destroy this Golem.” he sobbed. “My people will have terrible need of him. But I cannot accept responsibility for harnessing him now to use against the anti-Semites. I will leave his use to a generation much more desperate or much wiser than ours.”

He persuaded the Golem to go up to the attic of the Altneu Synagogue and wait.

IV

He persuaded the Golem to go up to the attic of the Altneu Synagogue and wait. Some say Joseph Golem still was waiting for the Jewish people to call on him when the Altneu Synagogue was destroyed during the Second World War; and the Golem died in the flames of that destruction. They say the Jewish people had waited too long to become militant like the other nations.

However, some say that as young boy, the founder of political Zionism, Theodore Herzl, ventured into the locked attic and discovered the Golem was as lifeless as an unbaked pot. But as he stood, looking sadly at the inanimate form of the giant, Theodore Herzl had a divine vision.

He saw that the Golem could be brought to life again by the actions of the Jewish people. If the Jewish people worked together, and fought side by side, they could regain their strength. A new state would be reborn, and from the ends of the earth the exiles could return, in fulfillment of the Bible’s Messianic promises.

The Jewish people themselves could be a powerful Golem waiting for the right spirit to bring them to life and strength.
Power itself is neutral. But unchecked power does tend to corrupt both people and institutions; and holy power can become wholly corrupting. Who can know what a new power like the internet or genetic engineering will eventually produce. May the lessons of the Golem always be with us.

For Further Reading: The Golem by Gustav Meyrink, Golem: Legends of the Ghetto of Prague by Jacob Boehme, Chayim Block, Golem by David Wisniewski (a children’s book for adults),

The Golem by Haiyim Leivick (a play adapted by David Fishelson)

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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