Jewish Heritage Expeditions


Jewish folklore and mysticism in seventeenth century Prague

Jewish folk and fairy tales function as powerful vehicles that reinforce Jewish traditions and values. 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 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 fairy tale icon. He serves as a symbol and affirmation of Jewish beliefs and traditions, both modeling and inspiring the proscribed Jewish thought and behavior.

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, known as the Maharal. 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 our study session, we will 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. We will also study the writings of Max Weber (1864– 1920), a Jewish-German sociologist, and show how the Golem narrative appears in Weber’s conception of the role of spirits and gods in world history and moral life.