Life & Culture

The Golem has returned but now he's not so super


When Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the Maharal of Prague, created a Golem, he instructed his wife, Pearl, not to treat the creature as a servant. Though it did not have a human soul, nonetheless it was serving a higher purpose: protecting the Jewish community. Yet one Passover, Pearl, pressed by the frantic preparations for the festival, instructed the Golem to fetch water in order to fill the buckets in the kitchen. Dutiful as ever, the Golem went. The only problem was that Pearl hadn't told him when to stop. The Golem kept fetching water, and the kitchen was flooded.

This may sound like a mere heimishe homily, but it goes some way to explaining why the story of the Golem continues to be refashioned and retold today.

As human technology ushers in an era of hyper-modernity, the ethical debates raised by the Golem are being revisited. What right do humans have to "play God", moulding genetic material to fulfil their desires? Should we, or indeed can we, ever create something that equates to human intelligence?

What might the unintended consequences of our actions be? These questions strike at the heart of contemporary concerns about bioethics, genetic engineering and artificial intelligence.

Proving the Golem's enduring attraction, a play (called Golem) is starting at the Young Vic theatre in London next month. It will use this relatively obscure kabbalistic concept as a base from which to "explore one of the great questions of the modern world: what happens when mankind and machines become inextricably intertwined?"

Scientific advances that let us create artificial life may put man in danger

So what exactly is the Golem? The word itself appears just once in the Bible, in Psalm 139, which references the "unformed substance" from which God created man. Though there are occasional references in the Talmud, the earliest real insights into the Golem occur in the Sefer Yetzirah, an esoteric kabbalistic text sometimes attributed to Abraham. The Sefer contains some explanations as to how to make a Golem.

This must be done by someone who is well-versed in the relevant learning and working with a partner, lest their ego get the better of them. The Golem is formed out of the clay of the same earth from which Adam came, brought to life through some form of incantation (methods vary). Some say the creator walks around the Golem seven times uttering the name of God. To return the Golem back to dust the same walk is done backwards.

Various strands of Golem lore coalesced around the Maharal, whose Golem is portrayed as a righteous vigilante in 16th-century Prague, where he was Chief Rabbi. Formed from the mud on the banks of the river Vlatava, the Golem is charged with defending the rabbi's flock. In one instance, a gentile butcher plans to hide the body of a dead child in the home of a Jewish moneylender, to avoid paying his debt. The Golem intercepts the butcher, preventing a blood libel and saving the moneylender.

Eventually, though, the Golem became a problem, rampaging through the community and policing overzealously. The Maharal had to return the Golem to the dust, which, according to certain sources, could be done by removing the aleph from the word "emet" (meaning "truth") which he had written on his forehead, changing it to "meth" (meaning "death").

It may seem surprising that the Maharal's actions, seemingly "playing God" by creating a Golem, are not prohibited by Judaism. But the making of a Golem is justified by the Jewish view of the world as having been created by God for man to work and improve on, allowing us to use our intelligence to innovate with the materials provided to us.

The influence of the Golem in modern culture is widespread. With the rise of modern antisemitism in 20th-century Europe, the Golem was remoulded for dark times: first in Paul Wegener's 1920 film Der Golem, then later in post-Holocaust stories by Elie Wiesel and Thane Rosenbaum. The Golem has also been credited as an inspiration for Superman, the mensch of steel created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1933, as Hitler's Nazi party began to menace Europe's Jews. It may even have influenced Tolkien's Gollum, a morally ambiguous creature who both serves and betrays Frodo, the hero of the Lord of the Rings.

But in the age of the machine, the element of the Golem story that modern storytellers keep returning to is that of the potential for an intelligent creation to backfire. Man should be careful what it makes, we are warned, for we do not always realise the full consequences of our actions. This warning can be found in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the Island of Dr Moreau and films such as Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Matrix, where artificial intelligence created by humans ends up controlling or attacking them.

The potential for artificial intelligence to radically alter or even destroy human life is currently edging from science fiction into science. Most artificial intelligence experts predict that machine intelligence will have outstripped the human brain before the end of this century.

According to Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at Oxford University and author of a new book on superintelligence, this is the greatest existential threat faced by mankind. He outlines a scenario in which a superintelligent computer could destroy mankind simply because it was utterly devoted to an impossibly basic task, such as creating paperclips, and wanted nothing to get in its way.

The parallels with the Maharal's Golem flooding the kitchen by fetching too much water are clear. So what, if anything, can the Golem teach us about the dangers of creating intelligent life form? Is it really still relevant, or is it only useful as a parable used to inform cautionary cinematic tales?

Jewish ethics has a fairly permissive view of innovation. We are encouraged to create new technologies in order to improve our general well-being on earth. The risks attached to this innovation are acceptable, as long as proper safeguards are in place to protect us from the potential consequences of our actions. A Golem can be created by humans, but only in concert with the name and power of God. Only by righteous people, under supervision from others and with the ability to control their creation, to walk backwards around it and return it to dust.

God aside, Bostrom recommends very similar safeguards for humans when building robots. He argues that human values should be coded into robots (easier said than done), and that human-equivalent artificial intelligence must be created very carefully, in order to ensure that we remain in control of machines that may quickly outstrip our mental capacity.

Bostrom's scenario remains disputed and some way off. But as mankind edges its way into the age of the robot, expect to hear more about the Golem. The lessons learnt by the Maharal of Prague are more relevant than ever.

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