Jewish Monsters: A History

Research Project by Dr. Iris Idelson-Shein

Amongst the many monsters of Jewish lore, one has attracted particular attention. Created of clay and brought to life in order to protect the Jewish community against blood libels and anti-Semitism, the image of the Golem has captivated Jewish and non-Jewish imagination for centuries. In one of the most widely read versions of the tale, the monster is brought to life by the inscription of the Hebrew letters aleph, mem and taph on its forehead, forming the Hebrew word emet– truth. When, after a while, it becomes too strong to handle, threatening to destroy the world, the Golem’s creator removes the first letter of the inscription, thus changing the word emet to met – dead – and the golem is at once defeated.

In discussing the Golem’s facial inscription, scholars have often pointed to the mystical meanings of the term emet.However, the notion of a truth inscribed into the flesh of a monster is a recurring theme in European imagination. In fact, the very word monster is derived from the Latin monstrum, meaningwicked or monstrous creature, but also – to demonstrate, to warn or to reveal.And indeed, in the early modern period, monsters were often taken as signs of God’s will, and more often – of his discontent.Monsters were also viewed as signs of hidden desires and concealed fantasies. Thus, in the ubiquitous early modern reports of monstrous births, the birth of a monster was oftentaken as an indication of its mother’s impure thoughts.

It is this unique revelatory power of the monster that is the main driving force behind the present project. Indeed, as early moderns suspected, monsters have the power to reveal specifically those truths which the men and women who produce them desire most desperately to conceal. These ominous creatures, which lurk in the back alleys of history, expose the fragilities, insecurities, fears and desires of the cultures they haunt. Thus, by peeking deep into the darkness - new light is shed on historical processes and periods.

The present studydraws a history of horror, which demonstrates how, during one of the most turbulent periods of European-Jewish history - namely the period extending from the sixteenth to the late eighteenth centuries – Jewish writers confronted some of their deepest and most disturbing fantasies and anxieties by imagining and reimagining the monster. Depictions of monsters during this period convey some unique Jewish reactions to the radical transformations which occurred in European society of the time, such as changes in notions of identity and difference, understandings of the body and sexuality, the status and nature of religion, the relationships between Christians and Jews and the “discovery of the new world.” Throughout the early modern period, these issues were closely intertwined, and the image of the monster ran through them all, binding them together with strings of exoticism, mystery and horror. It is to a history of these mysterious creatures that the present study is dedicated.