Just a Thought: On the Golem

According to legend, about the year 1580, Rabbi Judah Loew, known as the Maharal, created a golem, a humanoid creature, from the mud of the Vltava River.

February 2, 2017 12:25
4 minute read.
The Pinkas Synagogue in central Prague

The Pinkas Synagogue in central Prague. The walls in the synagogue are overwritten with some 80,000 names of the Czech Jews who died in the Holocaust. (photo credit: REUTERS)

It’s easy to dismiss the story of the Golem as fiction.

According to legend, about the year 1580, Rabbi Judah Loew, known as the Maharal, created a golem, a humanoid creature, from the mud of the Vltava River. The Golem was to serve as protector of the Jews against blood libels and antisemitism.

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In Elie Wiesel’s book about the Golem, he writes that the Golem was “without pity for the wicked, fierce toward our enemies.” As the protector of the Jews, the Golem would turn violent when feeling threatened by the gentiles and would lash out and hurt anyone who provoked it. The dark twist of the story is that the Golem turns on the Jewish people or sometimes its creator, serving as a lesson against hubris or of how even good can be corrupted.

This simple story, like many on the Jewish bookshelf, is pregnant with meaning and lessons. The easy pickings include the idea that by creating the Golem, the Maharal took on the role of God; and like God, his creations, once autonomous, endanger the creator.

But there is so much more once you scratch the surface.

Isaac Bashevis Singer once said, “I am not exaggerating when I say that the Golem story appears less obsolete today than it seemed 100 years ago. What are computers and robots of our time, if not golems?” If you think about it, Singer is correct. The myriad of ethical questions raised by artificial intelligence were hashed out centuries ago by rabbinic literature.

In fact, the Golem story is the archetype of all stories in which men attempt to create anything nonhuman with human- like capabilities. Judaism has always taught that man was a partner with God in the creation of the world. Judaism teaches that God wants us to continue to create as well, but what is that creation supposed to be? The stories of Frankenstein’s monster, HAL 9000, and the Terminator are all examples of golems and the lesson of them all is to be careful in what you create. Yet while the lesson from these stories may overlap with that of the Golem, the contrast is also clear.

All golem stories have the same theme. They are expressions of the fear we men have over our own creative abilities. Coming from the dawn of the mechanical and industrial age and continuing through to the dawn of the technological and atomic age, they share the same theme of warning that the creations that we make are doomed to destroy us.

Thus, the Golem is the paradigm of man’s ability to create as a reflection of God’s ability to create, the ultimate imitatio Dei. This is why God, in the Creation story of Genesis, must spill much ink in telling us time and again that what He created was good. This is to teach us that not all creation is in fact good. The one thing that God does not call good is His ultimate creation, Man. That’s because even God himself doesn’t know if we are in fact good; only we can determine that.

When you understand the Golem as the archetype for Faust, Frankenstein, HAL 9000 and the Terminator, you realize that these are all horror stories, while the story of the Golem, even in its most fantastical form, is simply not a horror story. It is a cautionary tale. Quite different.

We do not read the legend of the Golem and get frightened; instead, we get enlightened.

At first blush, one might think of the Golem as revenge fantasy, and that, too, isn’t true. The Golem is not a super-Jew. He doesn’t read or write and is literally quite dumb. In fact, he is the anti-Jew, devoid of intellectual acumen or power. In fact, the Golem has become such an anti-Jew that till this day one Jew insults another Jew by calling him a golem, or in its Yiddish pronunciation a goylem, a dullard and dummy. Nothing can be more foreign to the Jewish psyche. Perhaps the most interesting lesson of all is that according to legend, the Golem still lies in the attic of the Altneuschul in Prague, waiting to help the Jews. Yet when the Jews of Prague needed him most, during the Shoah, he did not appear. Perhaps the lesson is that the bottom line is that we have no one to rely on but ourselves and our Father in heaven.

My children often ask me if the story of the Golem is true. I always tell them that it absolutely is. As my teacher used to say, “There are golems amongst us” all the time. The secret is being able to recognize them as such and to know when to pull the plug, when necessary.

The writer holds a doctorate in Jewish philosophy and teaches in post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot in Jerusalem.

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