Edward Rothstein’s wonderfully suggestive essay on the Golem myth in today’s Times got me thinking. He addresses the myth in the context of the 9/11 anniversary and the very human desire to lash out at our enemies and make them pay the ultimate price for their perfidy:
So the Golem, as an embodiment of resistance or defense, has taken on new metaphorical resonance. And today, on Sept. 11, as commemorations of a major terror attack take place accompanied by continuing debates over responses to it, the nature of the Golem is not just an abstract question.
The Jews of medieval Prague must’ve grappled with these turbulent emotions too in the midst of the blood libel accusations and anti-Jewish violence that rocked that city in the 16th century:
…The creature is brought to life for a specific purpose: to defend the Jews against the pogroms associated with the notorious blood libel. That libel asserted that before every Passover the Jews used the blood of Christian children to bake matzoh.
But the Golem involves more than just legend. It also embodies a strategy: to meet irrational hatred head on, to undermine terror and mitigate its impact with resolve and persistence. Death is the threat; the Golem is the response.
It may seem difficult to imagine the terrors that sprang from the libel, but accounts of massacres, including one elegy from Prague written in 1389, are chilling.
So the Golem in some senses becomes our rock and our redeemer, our Dick Cheney if you will. He represents resistance to evil and the will to avenge the evil deeds we have suffered.
But unlike in American circa 2006, the Jewish Golem is not a perfect antidote to terror. He is flawed as were the emotions of the Jews who made him. After all, Rabbi Judah Low went down to the Moldau to dig clay which he used to form the figure. And from Jewish liturgy we understand that clay is the very symbol of imperfection.
And so, after saving the Jewish community from violent attacks, in some versions of the legend, Rabbi Low loses control of the being. He runs amok causing great hardship for the Jews. He goes too far in avenging Jewish blood. He becomes a liability. At that point, Rabbi Low erases a single latter, aleph, from the word emet (“truth”) inscribed on the Golem’s forehead so that the word now reads meyt or “dead.” Just as he was meant to save Jewish lives and avenge Jewish dead, the Golem’s time to die has come. For the sake of the community’s future relations with its neighbors, the figure must be sacrificed.
Lewis Libby seems to have heeded this message in falling on his sword for his boss. But I only wish Cheney himself would heed it too and realize that if there ever was a purpose for him in the Bush Administration after 9/11 (debatable), his use has long since passed.
The IDF too plays the role of Golem within Israeli society. It is the 900 lb. gorilla which Israelis have entrusted with their very lives. Just as with the Jews of medieval Prague, Israel lives in a dangerous neighborhood. Instead of a blood libel, we have murderous hatred (on both sides). So Israel created its own Golem to fight for it when times required it. Until 1967 (and even after), the IDF-Golem was largely a benign force within Israeli society. It was an honor and privilege to serve rather than an obligation. Its officers were seen as the cream of the nation. It honored the principle of tohar neshek, purity of arms by which arms were only to be used in defense of the nation but never in offense.
This principle was, of course, largely a mirage as illustrated by the seminal Israeli writer, S. Yizhar, who passed away last week. In brutal, powerful stories like Hirbet Hiza, he ripped the drapes off the national illusions and reported what life was really like in the field for the Palmach during the 1948 war. It was not a pretty picture.
But this worship of the IDF began turning after the Six Day War. Gradually, Israelis began to see that they had given away much by thrusting such grave responsibility onto the IDF. For they had essentially given it carte blanche to fight its battles against Israel’s enemies. While not having such grave responsibility might’ve comforted the average Israeli, it also took out of their hands the ability to influence the important security and survival decisions the army made in its name.
This was when Israel, like Rabbi Low, began to realize it had perhaps made a Faustian bargain in creating this avenging angel. Now, to many Israelis (though certainly not all or perhaps even a majority) it is clear that the IDF has become more a monster like the out of control Golem than a savior. The army has become a twisted caricature of what Israel is or wants to be. It represents Israel as a cold, bloodthirsty and inhumane nation. In truth, many Israelis are still quite comfortable with having a strong Golem attacking Israel’s “enemies.” But others have begun to wonder whether the IDF might be finding enemies where there may be none; and that it may be creating new enemies through its heavy-handed militarist approaches to every problem Israel faces with its Arab neighbors.
So in the view of this blogger, the IDF has become the out of control Golem which must be reined in if Israel is ever to find peace with its neighbors. There was a time when having a strong, avenging protector was the right thing for Israel. But now the time has come to face the future on a note of peace and hope rather than with rockets and bombs.
Unlike in the Golem story, Israel can never and will never erase the aleph in the IDF’s “forehead” to kill it off. Unfortunately, the Mideast is still a dangerous neighborhood and promises to remain so for the foreseeable future. There will be a need for the IDF. But it must be an IDF under civilian control; an IDF in which leaders are accountable to the nation; not an IDF run amok in the killing fields of Lebanon or Gaza.