“When a man tries to play God, the darkness awakens.”
Based in Jewish folklore, The Golem is a tale of looking for a savior, but finding instead destruction. Set in seventeenth century Lithuania, a Jewish village is under attack by local Gentiles who blame the Jews for a plague that is killing people. How should the community respond? Through repentance and prayer? By fighting back?
The central character in the film is Hanna (Hani Furstenberg), a woman who we first see listening to the rabbi from the cellar of the synagogue (since she isn’t allowed to study with the men). We learn that she is there not out of devotion, but because she has emotionally shut down for the last seven years since the death of her son. Her husband Benjamin (Ishai Golan) sneaks books to her about the Jewish mystical teachings of Kabbalah. There she has found the secret process to create a golem, thought to be a being that will protect the Jewish community. While the men of the community have set about a time of prayer, Hanna creates a golem.
The golem she has created is the form of a child—about the age of her dead son. That becomes a problem because she begins to see the child as her own child. After all, she brought it into the world. It liberates her from her mourning and her fear. The two are linked. They feel each other’s injuries. The golem can sense Hanna’s anger. When the Gentiles attack, the golem is vicious and powerful, saving the village. But the thing about golems is that they are really heartless monsters. This one is no exception. Eventually nearly the whole village is destroyed with great carnage.
The story of the golem is much more than the law of unintended consequences. It focuses on the way we can mistake what we do for what God is doing. The whole idea behind a golem is to create something that will do what we believe God would have done. In this case, to protect the Jewish community. Although it soon becomes clear to us (if not to most of the characters in the film) that protection is not its real purpose—violence is its purpose. From Hanna’s (and for a while the village’s) perspective, the golem is something with a divine power. It is, after all, animated by sacred words.
There is much in our own world that could well be viewed as golems. When we believe that God wills bigger weapons and mutually assured destruction, we have created a modern golem. Although it may seem that when Hanna creates her golem, she is acting in faith, in reality, it is a statement of doubt in God’s care for God’s people. We would do well to consider the many ways we have created and trusted in the golems of the world. And we would also do well to consider what that says about our faith.
Photos courtesy Epic Pictures