Was Frankenstein Jewish? The easy and obvious answer to this question is no, of course not – his mother was not Jewish (in fact, he had no biological mother at all) and there is not even the glimmer of a suggestion through two centuries of commentary and analysis that the monster ever had a halachic conversion – but the subject is far broader and more interesting than that simple conclusion might suggest.
English novelist Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851) edited and promoted the works of her husband, poet and philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley, but she is best known as the author of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), considered one of the earliest works of science fiction. The first run of only 500 copies was published anonymously in London on January 1, 1818, when Shelley was only 20, and her name appeared on the novel for the first time when the second edition was published in Paris in 1821. Since then, it has become perhaps the greatest metaphor for scientific and technological hubris run amok; it remains one of the most popular and best-known works of all-time and it has generated countless adaptations and versions, including particularly by 20th-century filmmakers, that continue unabated to date.
Shelley famously first developed the idea for Frankenstein while spending a summer with her husband near Geneva with Lord Byron and John William Polidori, who is credited as the creator of the modern vampire story. (His short story The Vampyre (1819), the first published modern vampire story, was first erroneously credited to Lord Byron.) Sitting around a log fire at Byron’s villa, the group entertained themselves with German ghost stories, which prompted Byron to propose that each of them write a ghost story. Mary was upset about not being able to come up with a story until a group discussion about the nature of the principle of life led her to consider whether a corpse could be “re-animated.” Obsessed with the idea, her original plan to write a short story turned into Frankenstein, her first novel. Mary was unambiguous about crediting her husband with the original idea but, even to this day, critics argue about the extent to which he contributed to the novel, with some commentators arguing that Percy’s role was so extensive that he was more co-author than editor/collaborator.
There are so many versions of the Frankenstein story and, since so many people know the story only through the films, particularly the seminal Boris Karloff version (1931), it is useful to summarize Shelley’s original narrative.
The novel begins with Robert Walton, an unsuccessful writer who, en route to the North Pole on a scientific exploration, spots a dog sled driven by a gargantuan man. A few hours later, the crew rescues an emaciated and nearly frozen Dr. Victor Frankenstein, who has been in pursuit of the giant. [“Frankenstein” is not the creature, who is never named.] As Victor recovers, he sees Walton as a sympathetic fellow-obsessive and narrates his unhappy life story in an attempt to warn Walton to avoid obsessive ambition.
As Victor narrates his story, he has been obsessed with alchemy from his youth and, when his mother dies of scarlet fever, he buries himself in his experiments to deal with the grief. He develops a secret technique to animate non-living matter and he creates an android which, because of the difficulty in duplicating the smallest parts of the human body, he makes about eight feet tall and proportionately large. He fully intends to fashion a beautiful humanoid but, when he sees the ghastly results of his creation, he flees his laboratory and, when he later returns, he finds that the monster is gone.
Four months later, he receives a correspondence from his father advising that his brother, William, has been murdered. When he arrives in Geneva, he sees the monster near the crime scene and becomes certain that his monster is the murderer, even though William’s nanny is convicted of the crime and hanged. Overcome with guilt and loss, he hikes through the mountains, where he is approached by the monster who begs Victor to listen to his story.
Both intelligent and articulate, the monster explains how, upon leaving the lab, he found that people hated and feared him due to his appearance, so he hid alone in an abandoned structure connected to a cottage. Growing fond of the poor family living there, he secretly performed various physical tasks to help them and, learning to speak by surreptitiously listening to their conversation, he became even more devoted to them. With hopes of befriending them, he eventually entered the cottage while only the blind father is there but, when the others returned, they are badly frightened by his appearance, he is attacked by the blind man’s son, he flees the house, and concludes with bitterness that he will never be accepted by humans.
Although he hated Victor for abandoning him, the monster travels to Geneva to reconnect with him, believing that his creator is the only person obligated to help him. He demands that Victor create an “ezer k’negdo” [Genesis 2:18], a female companion, and threatens to kill Victor’s family and friends unless his demand is met. Fearing for his family, Victor grudgingly agrees.
Back in England, Victor is convinced that he is being followed by the monster and he is deeply concerned about the breadth of things that could go terribly wrong, including the female hating her intended mate, her becoming even more evil than the monster, and, worst of all, the possibility of a female counterpart to the monster leading to the breeding of a monster race that could destroy humanity. When he catches the monster peeking through the lab window, he quickly destroys the unfinished female creature, in response to which the monster bursts in and threatens to “be with you on your wedding night.”
Later, back in Geneva, Victor marries Elizabeth and, while he is out searching the grounds for the monster, the monster murders her. Seeking revenge, Victor pursues the creature through Europe, Russia, the Artic Ocean, and finally to the North Pole where, on the verge of encountering the monster, he collapses from exhaustion and hypothermia and is found by Walton.
Finally, Walton completes the novel’s narrative. A few days after the monster vanishes, the ship becomes trapped in ice and, after several crewman die, the remainder of the crew reject his passionate plea to continue the expedition in the name of scientific discovery. When the ice clears, Walton regretfully decides to return and Victor, determined to kill the monster, announces that he will go on alone in his quest, but he dies a short time later. Walton finds the monster on his ship, mourning Victor’s death and, after telling Walton that he will never be able to escape his miserable existence, the monster drifts away on an ice raft, never to be seen again.
The Golem and Frankenstein are inextricably linked in the public imagination, but the Frankenstein story has generated an intriguing two centuries-old question: Was Shelley’s monster based upon the Jewish golem folktale?
Most people associate the golem story with Rabbi Judah Löew and the Golem of Prague, but Jewish history is replete with the idea that a particularly holy and righteous person, possessed of deep knowledge of Torah and esoteric wisdom, could create an artificial human being out of inorganic matter, and the notion that man could thereby imitate the Divine arguably has its roots in the Tanach, the Talmud, and the earliest kabbalistic sources.
Jewish accounts of the golem can be found as far back as in Tehillim, where the Hebrew word galmi (“my golem”) first appears in Psalms 139:16 – “Your eyes saw my galmi; all my days were written in Your book and fashioned for me before a single one of them began.” Galmi is usually translated as a shapeless mass or an embryo, suggesting an incomplete human being.
Early rabbinic literature understood the term “golem” in the context of the biblical creation story of Adam, the first human being, before “ya’yipach b’apav nishmat chaim” [Genesis 2:7], i.e., before G-d blew a living soul into his nostrils. For example, in Sanhedrin 38b, the Talmud discusses how Adam was initially created as a “golem” with the dust taken from the site of the Har Habayit (Temple Mount) in Jerusalem. Adam as Golem – i.e., his state as a “shapeless husk” without a soul for 12 hours before G-d breathed life into him – was incapable of speech. The Gemara in Sanhedrin 65b tells the story of the sage Rava creating a “gavra” (a man) and sending him to R. Zaira, who spoke to the creature and, receiving no response, says “you were created by the Sages; return to your dust.”
The term “golem” became more commonly used in the late twelfth- to earliest thirteenth-centuries, when German Kabbalists adopted the term to describe a silent man artificially created from clay and brought to life through an incantation of Hebrew letters and words.
The Sefer Yezirah (“Book of Creation”), a Jewish guide to magic during the Middle Ages, includes instructions on how to create a golem and, although various rabbis at the time had different understandings about how to follow these directions, most included shaping the golem into a figure resembling a human being and pronouncing G-d’s ineffable name to bring him to life.
Nor was it only the Kabbalists who dabbled in the physical creation of a golem. For example, the Vilna Gaon, inspired by his study of the Sefer Yezirah, began creating a Golem, but stopped after seeing what he described as a figure circling above his head, which he interpreted as a heavenly sign to cease his experimentation.
In virtually all the early stories, the golem was a powerful, but harmless, creature who helped the Jews with various domestic tasks and physical labor. At least one version of the story characterizes the golem as essentially a “shabbos goy” given directions before Shabbat to light fires in stoves and perform other work forbidden to Jews on Shabbat. Beginning in the seventeenth century, however, a new and dangerous element was added: now, the golem became a source of danger. For example, in the Shabbos goy story, the golem misunderstands his instructions and, as a result, he burns down the entire shtetl.
In perhaps the most important version of the story which would become a template for many, if not most, future versions, a golem is created by 16th-century Polish Rabbi Eliyahu of Chelm (died 1583), an important Talmudic scholar and a kabbalist said to know the shem hamiforash (the Ineffable Name of G-d). The historical account was described in a 1674 letter by Cristoph Arnold, a German-Christian astronomer and folklorist, which went on to play an important role in defining the parameters of the Golem legend. Arnold departed from the traditional use of the Golem coming to life through the insertion of a magical parchment and instituted the idea of creature coming to life through the inscription of the three-letter Hebrew word “emet” (truth) on an amulet (later versions had the inscription on the beast’s forehead) and its deactivation through the removal of the letter aleph, resulting in the word “mes” (dead).
As Arnold tells the tale, Polish Jews pray and fast before creating a man out of clay, and the final step in bringing their golem to life is the pronunciation of the shem hamiforash (the Ineffable Name of G-d). Although he cannot speak, the creature’s ability to understand basic commands is clear, and the Jews use him as a servant to perform menial housework and order him never to leave the house. When the creature grows larger than the house, Rabbi Eliyahu, fearing that his mighty earthen homunculus would destroy the universe, seeks to destroy him through the removal of the letter aleph. However, the Golem’s incredible size was such that R. Eliyahu could not reach the amulet to erase the letter, so he devises a clever ruse: he instructs him to bend down and remove his master’s shoes and, when the creature does so, the Rabbi was able to erase the letter. In Arnold’s version, when the golem transforms back to the mud from which he was created, he collapses and falls atop R. Eliyahu, killing him.
However, in the version related by Tzvi Hirsh Ashkenazi (a descendant of R. Eliyahu) to his son, Yaakov Emden (1697-1776), better known as “the Ya’avetz,” there is no mention at all of anything being written on the creature’s forehead and, although the golem in death falls on his master, R. Eliyahu is injured, but not killed. Rav Emden’s son, Rabbi Jacob Emden, confirmed hearing the entire story “from my father’s holy mouth regarding the golem created by his ancestor, the Gaon R. Eliyahu Baal Shem of blessed memory.” Inspired by his grandfather’s golem experience, R. Jacob Emden discussed several halachic questions related to the halachic status of a golem, including whether a golem may be counted in a minyan.
In 1808 – almost 150 years after the appearance of the first Chełm Golem story – a virtually identical version was published by German philologist Jacob Grimm (one of the famous Brothers Grimm) in the journal Zeitung für Einsiedler (“Newspaper for Hermits”) who, ironically, was a rabid antisemite. At this time, golem stories had become broadly popular, and many analysts agree that if Shelley borrowed the golem idea for her Frankenstein monster, her most likely source was Grimm’s version.
Although most golem tales from the beginning of the nineteenth century follow the basic outlines of the Arnold, Emden, and Grimm versions, the best-known adaptation is undoubtedly the Golem of Prague narrative, pursuant to which sixteenth-century Renaissance Rabbi Judah Löew, aka, “the Maharal,” responds to an existential threat to the Jews from a blood libel leveled by the church against them by forming his Golem – called “Yossele” – from clay from the Vltava River and animating it through his knowledge of Kabbalistic secrets. The Golem has superhuman strength and a dogmatic allegiance to its creator, but he lacks the power of independent thought (the word “golem” in modern Hebrew means lummox) and cannot speak. Many enemies of the Jews are killed by the Golem, others flee in fear from the monster’s might, and the Jews are saved.
There are differing stories regarding the reason for R. Löew’s decision to terminate the Golem, but perhaps the most important difference is whether the Golem ultimately becomes a threat to the Jews. In some versions, the Golem has fulfilled his task and R. Löew returns him to the clay from whence he came – just like a real person (Genesis 3:19: “You shall] return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; because you are dust and to dust you will return.”) However, in some variations of the Golem story, particularly in Yudl Rosenberg’s famous The Golem of Prague (1908), the Golem turns on the Jews and must be destroyed. According to almost all the contemporary stories, R. Löew stored the body of the Golem in the attic of the Alteneu Synagogue, where it could be restored to life if needed, and his ban on anyone entering the attic was reaffirmed by his successor, the great Rav Yechezkel Landau, aka the renowned “Noda B’Yehuda.”
However, that Golem of Prague story and its progeny are largely irrelevant to our Frankenstein analysis because the first literary ascription of the golem legend to the Maharal did not appear until Berthold Auerbach published his novel Spinoza in 1837, decades after Shelley published Frankenstein. In fact, there is considerable evidence that it was actually Shelley who inspired the Golem of Prague story and other post-Frankenstein golem tales.
Some critics suggest that the Frankenstein monster was named after Jacob Frank who, at the time that Shelley wrote her novel, was perhaps not only the dominant issue in the Jewish world of Eastern Europe but was very well known in non-Jewish circles as well. Frank developed a huge, cultlike following that ultimately lead to one of the great tragedies in Jewish history when many Jews, following their charismatic false messiah, converted to Roman Catholicism. Others note, however, that the more likely origin of the name was the Frankenstein Castle in the Rhine area where Shelley vacationed in 1815and where, two centuries earlier, an alchemist had conducted experiments.
Other analysts find a connection between Frankenstein and the Golem in the famous story of the Wandering Jew, which Shelley certainly knew – notably, Percy Shelley wrote The Wandering Jew’s Soliloquy, a poetic treatment of the story of the Wandering Jew tale – where a Jew who taunted Jesus on the way to the Crucifixion was then cursed to walk the Earth until the Second Coming. Both the Wandering Jew and Shelley’s monster restlessly wander across the countryside seeking to come to terms with who they are, avoid ostracism, an attain some measure of peace.
At the very least, it is beyond dispute that the Frankenstein and Golem stories involve a similar archetype; one critic concludes that “Shelley’s Frankenstein is deeply Hebraic, encapsulating a profoundly Jewish sense of tragedy which it shares with the legend of the golem” and another even goes so far as to argue that Frankenstein and the Golem story must be read more as a Midrash on creation than as a story of science gone wrong. In essence, both stories are rooted in the creation story of Genesis and the refashioning of Adam; the creators in both tales exhibit extreme hubris in attempting to bypass G-d’s role in creation; and the two narratives both involve the creation of a human-like, yet critically non-human, creature.
In both stories, the creators of the creatures were brilliant men; Victor Frankenstein was an exceptional scientist and the various Jewish golem creators across the centuries were consummate masters of Torah and Jewish scholarship. Moreover, both were engaged in studies outside their respective mainstreams, Victor dabbling in esoteric scientific studies, including alchemy and the occult, and the creators of the golem drawing their ideas from mystical and preternatural Kabbalistic sources.
Both the Frankenstein monster and the golem are constructed from inert materials, the former from an amalgamation of dead bodies and the latter from the clay earth of Prague. Both are soulless creatures who are almost human, yet eternally nonhuman, and both are metaphors for “otherness,” dehumanization, and alienation: The Jews are “others” who have been oppressed through two thousand years of bitter exile – and, indeed, persecution against Jews is at the core of many of the golem stories – and the central psychosocial theme at the heart of the Frankenstein story is the monster’s quest for acceptance and normalcy and his inherent inability to achieve it.
Neither creature eats, drinks, or requires remuneration for its work, yet both grow stronger over time. Both creators lose control of their artificial creations, which go on to become destructive forces; as such, both tales thereby become a metaphor for animated beings assuming a life independent of their creators and contrary to their creators’ design and intent. Both creators ultimately endeavor to kill their creations and, in accordance with Cristoph Arnold’s version of the golem story where the dead golem falls atop his creator and kills him, both are killed in the course of attempting to kill their creations. If one accepts the standard Golem of Prague account, it is possible that both beasts will reappear at some future date.
Both monsters have their origins in tragedy; Victor Frankenstein’s interest in reanimating dead bodies has its source in his grief over the death of his beloved mother, and Rabbi Löew’s interest in creating the Golem was to prevent the Jews of Prague from joining the annals of 2,000 years of pogroms, death, and tragedy. The two humanoids were created in similar environments, the Frankenstein monster in Victor’s dark, gloomy and mournful labs and the golem in the dark and secret places of the shtetl.
Finally, both stories share common moral lessons: “It’s not nice to mess with Mother Nature”; the work of our hands cannot be separated from our inherent morality; even the most perfect creation can be transformed into a destructive force; and even the most benign intentions by scientists, religious leaders, or anyone else can lead to great harm when they interfere with G-d’s creation plan.