Thursday, October 31, 2019

Going Golem

"Going Golem" was the title I gave to this op-ed, which was published on June 14th in the Jewish Standard under the title, Going Golem… Or Moving the Letters Around. Can you remember back that far, when the Game of Thrones series had just wrapped up in a dissatisfying manner?

In any event, here it is now here on Blog Time Passing:

The recent controversy over the final season of the HBO series Game of Thrones brings to mind the essay by Michael Weingrad published in the Spring 2010 issue of the Jewish Review of Books: “Why There is No Jewish Narnia.” 

Weingrad poses that question, noting that fantasy literature represents “an entire literary genre—perhaps the only such genre—in which Jewish practitioners are strikingly rare.” He goes on to note that he “cannot think of a single major fantasy writer who is Jewish, and there are only a handful of minor ones of any note. To no other field of modern literature have Jews contributed so little.” 

Weingard speculates on the reasons for our lack of representation in this area, which include our historical memory. While Christians retain a romantic image of the medieval period as a time of knights in shining armor following a code of chivalry, Jews were shut out from this aristocratic system and often victimized by Crusaders claiming to be on a mission from God. For our people, modernity represented the moment of emancipation and acceptance as citizens in newly formed republics, with progress in politics following progress in science and technology. No accident, then, that there have been a great many Jewish science-fiction writers, not the least of them Isaac Asimov, the most prolific writer in any genre in American history.
While the question of whether there ever will be a Jewish Chronicles of Narnia or Game of Thrones remains to be seen—I imagine that someday there will be—for now I do want to point to one Jewish legend that has enormous fantasy potential—the golem.
There are many variations of the legend. The gist of it is a story about a human being creating an artificial being. A golem’s body typically is made out of clay, following the description in the Book of Genesis of God creating Adam’s body out of clay. In the story of Creation, God breathes life into Adam’s body. In Hebrew, the words denoting breath and wind also mean spirit and soul; breath is intimately associated with life itself, and also with speech.
A golem typically is brought to life not by breath or speech, but by the written word—it may be a series of letters in the Hebrew alphabet or God’s name inserted into the body. Letters also are used to spell out the Hebrew word for truth, emet. Usually they’re on the golem’s forehead. The golem can be deactivated by erasing the first letter, the aleph, leaving the Hebrew word met, meaning death. This reflects the idea of the Hebrew alphabet as sacred, and certain inscriptions as holy, for example, the Torah and mezuzahs.
A golem is not human. In some versions it cannot speak—speech is the defining characteristic of our species—while in others eventually it turns on its creator, sometimes because it follows instructions too literally. The story of the golem, then, often is a story of hubris, of human beings trying to play God, of trying to harness power that is beyond our control. It often is a story of unintended effects.
The best known version of the story takes place in the city of Prague during a time of oppression and pogroms. The golem there is brought to life by Rabbi Judah Loew to protect the Jewish community. We can understand the wish fulfillment fantasy behind this variation. Der Goylem by H. Leivick, a Yiddish dramatic poem and play, identifies Rabbi Loew’s golem with the legend of the Messiah ben Joseph, the messiah from the House of Joseph, who will precede the messiah from the House of David, and sometimes is associated with conflict and war.
The legend of the golem in all probability influenced Mary Shelley in the creation of what often is considered to be the first science-fiction novel, Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus. Prague, after all, is not too far from the setting of Shelley’s story, Geneva, and the Czech connection undoubtedly influenced Karel Čapek in the writing of the play R.U.R. The initials stand for Rossumovi Univerzáln’ Roboti, translated as Rossum’s Universal Robots. This play introduced the term robot, which is a Czech word for worker, and the narrative follows the classic trajectory of a slave rebellion, with our own creations turning against us.
The golem narrative is even more resonant today, given the cutting edge of contemporary technology. On the one hand, there has been a great deal of attention paid to the development and implementation of artificial intelligence, from self-driving cars to facial recognition and surveillance to the easy generation of fake videos that appear to be utterly authentic. It’s not just about killer robots, terminators, and homicidal HAL; Google searches and Amazon recommendations also are types of AI. All these applications are brought to artificial life by a form of writing—this time not a holy word or name or sacred letters, but the zeroes and ones of computer code, which again follow instructions to the letter, entirely literally.
And when it comes to the question of emet or truth, our social media platforms, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and so on come to mind as mechanisms that are so very effective at disseminating falsehoods, making them forms of computer code that have turned a blessing into a curse.
On the other hand, we have unlocked the code of life, DNA, and gained the ability to edit our own genes. Just recently it was revealed that a Chinese scientist engaged in gene editing to create “CRISPR babies” resistant to HIV infection had inadvertently shortened those children’s likely lifespans. DNA is in a sense the sacred script inside our bodies that animates us, and the question of whether clones have souls also could be framed as whether clones are golems. But with gene editing, we are in the process of turning our children and so ultimately ourselves into modern golems.
Admittedly, all this better fits in with science fiction than the fantasy genre, but my point is that a fantasy story featuring the concept of the golem is one that would have great relevance for the present day, just as Tolkien’s war of the ring appealed to post-World War II readers, and Game of Thrones, with its cynical view of conniving characters and political machinations, turned out to be the perfect narrative for the McConnell, Ryan, and Trump era.
Whether the golem legend can serve as the basis of the kind of grand fantasy that Tolkien or Lewis created, or even the more mediocre version written by George R.R. Martin, will depend on the inspiration and imagination of Jewish writers.
But I would suggest that the story, like the golem itself, has a life of its own, and sooner or later it just may write itself.

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