Finding Meaning for a Golem in Unlikely Places

Collage of golems, including a screen cap form The Simpsons "Treehouse of Horror XVII" courtesy of IMDB. Collage by Judy Goldstein.

Protective figures are no new concept. The idea of a mystically created guardian acting entirely in the interest of its controller’s demands is undeniably intriguing. As usual, I find myself most engaged by Jewish narratives. On guardianship specifically, the folklore of my family and ancestors provides an interesting insight, and I am whisked away into sixteenth-century Prague to meet the very first golem. 

This Jewish creature made out of clay is said to come alive after a shem is placed in its mouth. The original golem narrative centers on Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, who created a sculpture out of clay to defend a Jewish ghetto in Prague from antisemitic attacks. It was called Yossel. Golem creation methods differ, ranging from ritualistic engraving to the complete immersion of oneself in Hebrew study. The one thing all traditional golem depictions have in common is their sanctity. However, this most important facet of golems’ existence has practically disappeared from the media.  

The original narrative of an unimpeachably righteous being of godly power, most definitely not to be trifled with, has evolved through countless forms of modern media since its creation. This evolution has become so profound that the original purpose of the golem has been distorted: while searching “golem” on Google, I find myself bombarded with images of video game villains and figurines, Minecraft monsters and Pokemon. One PlayStation Virtual Reality (PSVR) game even boasts to players of an immersive “become-a-golem” experience: a player’s consciousness is injected into an empty golem shell, before setting them against each other in some twisting road of battles and mystery that, based on the poor reviews, leads to nothing. One critic comments on the combat skills of their golem, complaining of slow and poorly adaptive movement. While the reviewer has plenty to say about which spears they’d recommend for defeating other vicious golems in VR, they seem to have next to nothing to say about what, exactly, these “golems” are meant to protect. In a world in which video games are a core tool of social commentary, the PSVR golem depiction falls flat and serves only to enforce a misrepresentation of the golem as a lumbering, ideal-less brute. The golem has become a modern symbol of shallow violence, representing cheaply available power to use in any way one wishes.  

The golem creature lends itself to this narrative: I’ve spent hours upon hours playing Minecraft and the contradiction of a protective monster in a game built on surviving monsters’ antagonism certainly deepens the play. However, this popular, increasingly useful and decreasingly humanoid being is the direct antithesis to everything that the original golem was meant to represent.   

I have, however, found a most unlikely show to be the biggest champion of the golem’s worth: The Simpsons. In the eighteenth season’s Halloween episode, the animated comedy manages to represent the deeply complicated character of a golem with wit, humor, and understanding. The episode begins with Bart, a mischievous adolescent boy, discovering a golem. Antics ensue. Bart passes commands to the golem through pieces of paper in its mouth, perfectly encapsulating the debasement of divine purpose: the original golem carried God’s name in its mouth, whereas Bart’s golem holds an order to steal kids’ lunch money. The dry irony of this comparison is only enhanced when the Simpson family discovers the golem’s powers and uses it for increasingly menial, ridiculous tasks: scolding one’s husband, opening a pickle jar, etc.  

By intensifying the ridicule a Godly creation experiences, The Simpsons also encourages its audience to show empathy for the golem when it later learns to speak, and spouts out typical quips, insecurities, and questions just like any human would. The Simpson family realizes their mistake in manipulating the golem, recognizing his loneliness, so they assuage their guilt by creating a female golem to become his companion. The golems are unequivocally enchanted by each other, and quickly wed. The story ends when the original golem humorously, narrowly avoids arrest when the cop in question is bribed with latkes.  

The Simpsons has, in the span of under ten minutes, artistically acknowledged both modern media’s perversion of the golem narrative and the original story’s intrinsic cruelty. Yes, the core idea of the original golem story is that it acts as a tool to curb injustice and violence. However, if the golem is an indispensable method of protection, why must it be treated as an inferior, controllable being in all other rights? Rabbi Loew permitted Yossel to rest on the Sabbath; must he not deserve other courtesies? Similarly, if The Simpsons’s golem can be used to take revenge on bullies and help someone shave, why should he not have the chance to have a life of his own?  

Whether intentionally or accidentally, The Simpsons’s reputation as laughably irreverent television has driven home the narrative’s central point: if the golem can gain independence even within the comic sphere of fictional Springfield, what's to say we can’t begin to show them respect?  

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

0 Comments
The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Read the latest from JWA from your inbox.

sign up now

Donate

Help us elevate the voices of Jewish women.

donate now

Get JWA in your inbox

Read the latest from JWA from your inbox.

sign up now

How to cite this page

Burgess, Sydney. "Finding Meaning for a Golem in Unlikely Places." 13 March 2024. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 30, 2024) <http://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/finding-meaning-golem-unlikely-places>.