The Postmodern Golem

By Alex Joffe
Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Elizabeth Baer's The Golem Redux promises to take us "from Prague to post-Holocaust fiction," with an emphasis on American Jewish expression.  To Baer, the recent spate of golem literature, going beyond novels to comic books, artwork, even The X-Files, is an “intentional tribute to Jewish imagination as well as to the crucial importance of such imagination in the post-Holocaust period.” She deems this “intertextual,” the way that Jewish culture expresses itself by reimagining earlier texts.  Put another way: Every generation creates the golem it needs. 

The golem itself is the ultimate example of “intertextuality.”  God took inert matter to create man and, as Baer ably recounts, beginning with brief talmudic and kabbalistic musings, Jewish thinkers have speculated on how man could imitate God and create artificial life.  Since the 16th century, the literary expression of this desire has seen man create life in his own image, with golems made to be servants or protectors. The most famous literary golem, "Joseph," was, according to legend, created by the Maharal, the 16th-century Rabbi Judah Loew in Prague to protect the community from the depredations of the Emperor Rudolph II.  Fashioned from earth, the golem was activated by rituals and the word “emet,” truth, and deactivated by removal of one letter, leaving the word “met,” or death.

But, as Baer shows, each literary iteration of the golem added contemporary elements and concerns, such as protection from late-19th-century blood libels.  She is less understanding of early 20th-century appropriations by non-Jews, most notably Paul Wegener’s 1920 film Der Golem.  In Wegener’s interpretation of the story, Loew’s creature saves the life of the Holy Roman Emperor and thereby wins the Jews of Prague his favor.  But the golem, now under demonic control, subsequently runs amok—only to be vanquished by a small blonde girl.  Wegener’s golem is not only the test bed for ideas about life, consciousness, and the soul, but also the mirror of both Jewish concerns and anti-Semitic fantasies.

Baer’s main focus is on post-Holocaust golems.  Following Theodor Adorno, she asks how golems should be written after Auschwitz and whether the Shoah forms a bridge or a chasm for the imagination of artificial life.  Modern golems span from Isaac Bashevis Singer’s and Elie Wiesel’s traditional retellings, to the increasingly fantastic renderings of Francis Sherwood (The Book of Splendor), Michael Chabon (The Adventures of Kavalier and Klay), Thane Rosenbaum (The Golems of Gotham), and Cynthia Ozick (The Puttermesser Papers)—not to mention the ultimate film golem, James Cameron's Terminator.  These are American golems, imbued with greater will, communication skills, and independence than their European prototypes.  They protect and defend their makers and inevitably, their strengths and weaknesses amplify by reflection those of their creators.

But even in a European context, the golem has long been an intertextual and crossover artist: witness Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus.  The traditional Jewish golem combined the fantasy of a magical protector with musings on the unintended consequences of usurping the divine, as much a spiritual violation as a practical mistake.  Shelley’s novel was a horror story of science without limits and the aesthetic revulsion of the creator and the created.  This fear, of being consumed by our creation, is why the golem resonates beyond Jewish myth, today more than ever.

Much as Loew was at ease with his creation at first, we have been lulled by the dull automata that surround and serve us, airbags, heart monitors, cell phones and countless others that bring comfort and security.  But cute robotic vacuum cleaners have morphed into an array of battlefield robots that observe, disarm bombs, and even carry supplies on four legs.  Drones kill miscreants in faraway lands, and are on the verge of doing so autonomously.  Soon Hellfire missiles will no longer be fired at jihadis in Yemen by an overworked airman in Nevada.  The drone itself will answer the questions, who are they, are they a threat, should they die.  As one government study put it, “Lethal autonomy is inevitable.”  (In one early telling, Loew's soulless golem became enraged when Loew failed to deactivate it for the Sabbath.)

The lesson of the golem, especially the American variety, is that what military robotics scientists call “artificial conscience” is hard to install after the fact, especially after the supreme act of hubris that brought the creature into existence in the first place.  Unlike Loew, we have no way to erase a letter and consign our creature to oblivion.  In 1965, Gershom Scholem named the Weizmann Institute's first computer "Golem No. 1."  His sardonic plea to the golem and its creator, “develop peacefully and don’t destroy the world," must also be ours.

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