Stephen Hawking’s worst nightmare? Golem 2.0


Stephen Hawking is much in the news these days. His personal story, the subject of the recently released film “The Theory of Everything,” is already spoken of as an Oscar contender. Diagnosed in 1963 with the dreaded Lou Gehrig’s disease and given two years to live, he went on to a brilliant career, became the author of international best-sellers, received dozens of honorary degrees and gained broad recognition as one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists since Einstein.

Hawking is clearly someone undaunted by personal fears. Yet in a recent BBC interview, Hawking confided that he was deeply concerned for the future of humanity. The cause of his concern is artificial intelligence, or AI, the creation of intelligent machines able to “outthink” their creators. What began with IBM’s Watson supercomputer, capable of handily beating chess grandmasters and the best players on “Jeopardy!,” may in the near future, Hawking warned, checkmate its designers to become the Earth’s ruler.

“The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” Hawking said.

Science fiction already has prepared us to contemplate such a scenario. Films like “The Terminator” and “The Matrix” pit puny humans against AI-driven enemies. The upcoming “Avengers” movie depicts superheroes forced to battle Ultron, an AI machine determined to destroy mankind.

There’s a world of difference between the ability to create and the power to control. As Google’s director of engineering, Ray Kurzweil, has put it, “It may be hard to write an algorithmic moral code strong enough to constrain and contain super-smart software.” The greatest danger of scientific progress is the possibility that what we bring into being realizes a life of its own and is no longer subservient to its maker nor human values.

That is what has been the subliminal message for centuries of the famous legend of the golem of Prague. In Jewish tradition, Judah Loew, the 16th century rabbi of Prague, used his knowledge of Jewish mysticism to magically animate a lifeless lump of clay and turn it into a super human defender of the Jewish people. On its forehead he wrote the Hebrew word for truth, “emet,” which mystically gave the creature its power.

Much to his consternation however, Loew soon realized that once granted its formidable strength, the golem became impossible to fully control. Versions of the story differ. In one the golem fell in love and, when rejected, turned into a murderous monster. In another the golem went into an unexplained murderous rampage. In perhaps the most fascinating account, Loew himself was at fault — something akin to a computer programmer’s error — by forgetting to deactivate the golem immediately prior to the Sabbath, as was his regular custom. This caused the golem to profane the holiness of the day and be guilty of the death penalty.

Whatever the cause, Loew came to conclude that the golem had to be put to rest. The rabbi erased the first letter of emet — the aleph with a numerical value of one, representing the one God above who alone can give life. That left only the two letters spelling the Hebrew word for death, “met.” No longer representing the will of the ultimate creator, nor bearing the mark of God on his forehead, the golem turned into dust.

Many scholars believe that it was the legend of the golem that inspired Mary Shelley to write her famous Frankenstein novel about an unorthodox scientific experiment that creates life, only to reap the horrifying results when the achievement goes terribly wrong.

Creation without control is a formula for catastrophe. The history of scientific achievement bears ample testimony to the simple truth that progress detached from the restraints of moral and ethical considerations may grant us the knowledge to penetrate the secrets of nuclear fission, but at the cost of placing mankind in danger of universal annihilation.

The story of the golem of Prague is a paradigm for the hazard of permitting what we create to go far beyond our intent. Artificial intelligence, as an extension of our intellectual ability, certainly has many advantages. Yet it cannot really “think.” It has no moral sensitivity. It does not share the ethical limitations of its programmer. And it is not restricted by the values of those who brought it into being.

Stephen Hawking has done us a much-needed favor by alerting us to the very real dangers of AI. But what I find striking — and highly serendipitous — is the other major revelation just recently ascribed to him: Hawking publicly admitted that he is in fact an atheist. In response to a journalist questioning him about his religious leanings, he said unequivocally, “There is no God.”

Perhaps the biblical God in whom I and so much of the world believe must also deeply regret the “artificial intelligence” with which he imbued mankind. Perhaps we are the greatest illustration of the fear we now verbalize for our technology — creations capable of destroying our world because we doubt our creator.

Rabbi Benjamin Blech is a professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University.

 

Poem: Gospel of the Golem of Los Angeles


The students glisten with youth. Every one of them is beautiful.

The world has yet to enter them and breathe away their souls.

I want to be like the children, but I am dirt and clay.

I woke one day and told myself, Stand up and walk like a man!

I raised my dust up out of bed and looked into the mirror

but couldn’t read the word written by my forehead lines.

I keep a piece of paper under my tongue and on it one word: be.

So I write my way into my life, trying to name it as it leaves

and walk this clay around, a thing empty of belief.

My body’s covered with hair, just like a human being,

but my hands are sticks, my brain’s in rags. These days

I feel the hand of death on my forehead and it feels like a relief.


“The Golem of Los Angeles” (Red Hen Press, 2008).

A tale of a Golem, a Jinni, of love and of humanity


Every now and then a reviewer might have the luck of a novel landing on her table that is not only engrossing, imaginative and a pure joy to read, but also well-crafted and intelligent.   This is the case with Hellen Wecker’s debut novel, “The Golem and the Jinni” (Harper\Harper Collins Publishers).

Rotfeld, a Prussian Jew and “an arrogant, feckless sort of man,” approaches the fiendish Yehudah Schaalman, who “liked to dabble in the more dangerous of the Kabalistic arts,” and places an order for a female golem.  The Golem is delivered to Rotfeld with an important piece of paper that holds the two required commands that will bring the Golem to life and destroy her, when her violent nature is provoked.   We are told that, “once a golem develops a taste for destruction, little can stop it save the words that destroy it.”

Rotfeld sails to New York, with his not-yet-brought-to life Golem safe in a nailed crate.  Despite Schaalman’s warning against awakening the Golem on the crowded ship, where it will raise suspicions, Rotfeld does so.  Tragedy strikes when Rotfeld dies before they reach their destination, leaving the Golem lost and aimless without her master.

At the same time, a Jinni, made of fire as all these creatures are, and imprisoned for a thousand years, is accidentally freed from his oil flask, finding himself in Lower Manhattan, in the shop of Arbeely, a Syrian tinsmith.  The Jinni is handsome and elegant, with a flippant arrogance about him that is reminiscent of Anne Rice’s the Vampire Lestat, minus the taste for human blood.  One wonders how long the imposing Jinni, with his face that glows as if behind a lampshade and the ability to melt iron, create metal figurines and light a cigarette with his bare hands, will succeed to keep his nature a secret.  The same is true of the Golem, with her extraordinary height, inhuman strength, and the power to read minds.  Still, it is inevitable that the two must eventually mingle with their neighbors and, soon enough, Arbeely, the tinsmith, and Rabbi Avram Meyer, who finds himself responsible for the Golem, slowly introduce and encourage their charges to step out into the dangerous streets of New York.  

The Golem and the Jinni are different in many ways, yet similar in that they are both outsiders with no need for sleep and ill-prepared for the world in which they have been transplanted.   The two, when they eventually meet, struggle to comprehend the ways of humans with “their constant sense of urgency.”  In the process, they pose all sorts of questions—philosophical, religious, ethical, cultural, and emotional—that will reveal a human world more puzzling than the fantastical worlds the Golem and the Jinni come from.  In one scene, the Jinni declares “that of all the creatures he’d ever encountered, be they made of flesh or fire, none was quite as exasperating as a human.”  And the Golem, as she struggles to understand why it is sometimes more polite to lie rather than state the truth and why it is not proper to take something away from someone and give it to a more needy person, asks: “If the act of love is so dangerous, why do people risk so much for it?”    Quite perceptive, wouldn’t you say?

The relationship between the Golem and the Jinni unfold against the backdrop of a cast of fascinating characters—the gossipy, kind-hearted Maryam, the ice cream man, Mahmud Saleh, whose sight has been tampered with by an evil spirit, Anna, in the bakery where the Golem works, Sophia Winston, whom the Jinni impregnates with his own spark of fire, Mathew, the orphan boy who forges a bond with the Jinni, and Michael Levy, Rabbi Meyer’s nephew, who falls in love with the Golem. 

It is an imaginative coup to bring the Golem and the Jinni together and through their freshly innocent point of view give life to the immigrant Jewish and Syrian communities of New York in 1899, with their all too real human dilemmas.  And against my own better judgment, I began to hope that the Golem and the Jinni, despite their warring natures, would find love and happiness together and settle in this alien, human world.

But Yehuda Schaalman, in search of the “formula for something called the Water of Life,” makes his way to New York and to the Golem he created.  With his spells and incantations, the man for whom “the fires of Gehenna had long been a foregone conclusion,” wreaks havoc on all of their lives and in the process churns up a flood of unexpected events.

It is a mark of Wecker’s deft touch that the meeting of all these characters and the closure of the story does not feel contrived, but rather inevitable in this fantastical story that is rendered with such precise emotional analysis and detailed sense of place that one is readily engaged, involved and invested.

JDub throws off the label and opts for change




Golem live (‘Romania, Romania!’) at the Knitting Factory in NYC June 2007

JDub was never supposed to be just a record label, and as JDub records celebrates its fifth anniversary with a free concert on July 27 downtown at California Plaza, it is more clear than ever that the organization’s founders have greater ambitions than merely putting out good Jewish CDs.

Aaron Bisman, who co-founded the label with Jacob Harris when the duo were finishing college in New York, readily admits those ambitions.

“We believed there were legs for the idea behind the label,” Bisman says, his eyes alight with the passion of someone who after a half-decade is still excited by what he is doing. “We wanted to change attitudes about Jewish music and culture. We wanted to create something for young Jews, our contemporaries, to create spaces and music that would make them want to be there.”

And it wasn’t about making money. What sets JDub apart from other Jewish music purveyors is their not-for-profit status, which allows them to seek grants and work closely with other Jewish nonprofits. The Six Points Fellowship program, a partnership among the label, Avoda Arts and the Foundation for Jewish Culture, substantially funded by UJA-Federation of New York, is a good example.

“We wanted to bring together artists who had never done a specifically Jewish project before,” Bisman says.

The two-year fellowship program provides 12 artists with a living stipend, financial project support, professional development workshops and ongoing peer- and professional-led learning opportunities.

The vision has already begun to bear fruit. Having built a strong foundation in New York, Bisman and Harris have begun the slow, hard work of expanding their outreach to Los Angeles and other cities with a substantial Jewish presence. They have already cleared a major hurdle, receiving a “Cutting Edge” grant of $250,000 from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles. In the long run, the idea is to create spaces and events for young Jews, whether affiliated or not, with the goal of making Jewish culture cool.

“They have figured out a way to allow their contemporaries to find a way to comfortably express themselves,” says Marvin Schotland, CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation. “It’s another way in a complex environment to test what will attract other people to get comfortable with their identity and to take some step beyond showing up at a concert. JDub has the capacity to get them to show up at a concert, but they’re interested in doing more than that, and they are interested in connecting with other participants in the Jewish community. We believe this initiative will have a major impact on the Jewish community in Los Angeles.”

Of course, no one is expecting an overnight transformation of Los Angeles’ diverse, diffuse Jewish community. JDub’s program is designed to build gradually, creating links between self-identified Jews in the arts communities, the Jewish communal world and audiences. And somewhere along the road, JDub also hopes to nurture new bands and performers to sign to their label.

In the very short term, the July 27 concert is a useful launching pad for JDub in Los Angeles, highlighting two of their bands — Golem, a hard-driving klezmer-punk-gypsy fusion, and Soulico, a powerful crew of Israeli DJs whose guests for this performance will include the Ethiopian-Israeli MCs of Axum and Sagol 59, the grand old man of Israeli hip-hop. In its sheer atypicality, the double-bill is typical of JDub, Bisman says.

“Both [bands] help us fill in the picture of the diversity of the world of Jewish music we’ve always been striving for,” he says. “Eastern European Jewish — and non-Jewish — folk tunes played as rock and punk, led by an amateur female ethnomusicologist, and an Israeli DJ crew building original hip-hop out of Middle Eastern melodies and rhythms.”

Not coincidentally, both groups have new CDs scheduled for release in early 2009. (Hey, we said they weren’t just a record label.)

“New York has been our base of support and our home,” Bisman says. “But our plan is to grow as a national organization, to find artists and funding outside New York City.”

Schotland is optimistic.

“For us, while the art is significant, it’s the vision they have for the utilization of the art to provide a way for young Jewish adults to identify with their Jewish identity [that] was most impressive about their proposal,” he says. “The proof of the pudding will be five years from now.”

Golem, Soulico, with Sagol 59 and Axum as guest artists, and Slivovitz and Soul will be performing free at Grand Performances (California Plaza, Waterfront Stage) on Sunday, July 27 at 7 p.m.

VIDEO: Der Golem (1920) with new original soundtrack


The classic 1920 German expressionist black and white horror film “The Golem” gets a new soundtrack by Hollywood composer Carvin Knowles in this original JewishJournal.com video

Carvin Knowles writes:

In the 16th Century CE Rabbi Judah Loew was said to have created a powerful Golem to defend Prague’s Jewish ghetto.

Although I composed this segment of of score for the scene in Paul Wegener’s 1920 prequel to his silent Golem series in the summer of 2002, I only recorded it during the last weekend of October in 2007.

I played all the brass and woodwinds myself, including the oboe solo near the beginning and the gong, all in my small Hollywood apartment.

In this scene, Rabbi Loew summons the Sumerian demon Astaroth to learn the word that will bring the Golem to life—rendered in the most arcane transliteration from Hebrew that I have ever seen, the word is “Aemath” meaning ‘emet’ (Hebrew)’ or ‘truth.’ I had imagined Rabbi Loew reciting the Shema to hold the ancient demon at bay.

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by Der Golem, the great Jewish monster of clay who only comes to life when Truth is in his breast (or on his tongue, in the original text).

Whether it is the silent film or the Hammer horror version or even Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” (which, incidentally, had it’s premier in Prague), the living statue has always terrified and thrilled me.

It is my pleasure to share a little piece of that with our audiences at JewishJournal.com.

Enjoy

Carvin Knowles
Composer

 

Golems, schlemiels, reporter for a day


Things That Go Bump in the Night


We’re getting into the “spirit” of things this month. YeLAdim loves a good scary story, so we asked our friends at the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles to suggest some of their favorites.

“Golem” by David Wisniewski (Clarion Books, 1996)

This book, which won the Caldecott Medal, tells the story of a rabbi in Prague who made a man from clay (think Frankenstein’s monster) to protect the people who lived in the ghetto. But what happens when the Golem comes to life? Lots of pictures help tell this story of good vs. evil. (Ages 4-8)

“Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins” by Eric Kimmel (Holiday House, 1994)

Every year, nasty hobgoblins ruin Chanukah for the villagers by blowing out the candles on the menorah, destroying dreidels and making a mess of the latkes. But Hershel of Ostropol has a plan to get rid of the little creatures. Find out what it is in this award-winning book full of warmth, humor and really cool illustrations. (Ages 4 to 8)

“Shlemiel Crooks” by Anna Olswanger (NewSouth Books, 2005)

Wonder what happened to Pharoah after the Israelites left Egypt? He moved to St. Louis. Well, sort of. His ghost tries to get two thieves to steal Reb Elias’ special Passover wine and ruin the holiday. Will Elijah come to the rescue? Yiddish humor, history, colorful pictures and a bit of magic make this a fun tale for the whole family. (Ages 9-12)


Off the Page

kids@jewishjournal.com and you could find your article on next month’s YeLAdim page.

Q & A With The Golem


Flurries of white flakes gently cascade onto the spires and turrets of Prague’s skyline, bringing a color relief to the pink, green and blue painted castles, churches, concert halls and magnificent architecture of everyday buildings.

Above the slippery, snowy cobblestones, past the hundreds of European tourists braving the bitter cold, is the Alte-Neue Shul, or the Old-New Synagogue. A gothic structure built in the 13th century, the synagogue is one of the oldest in Europe, and a central attraction in the old Jewish Quarter of Prague.

Inside the sanctuary, the walls are marked by small peepholes for the women to share in the services (some things never change), and if you look upward, you can see cryptic Hebrew acronyms plastered around the sanctuary. But look closely at the ceiling, and you might notice that it sags in some places; listen and you might hear footsteps coming from above, even though the second floor has been closed off for years.

In the back of the Alte-Neue Synagogue, a rope ladder hangs from a small aperture in the attic. I shimmy up the spiked metal fence, stand atop it and fling myself across a 5-foot space to grab the ladder. Fifteen steps and I am at the window. The opening is too small for me to climb inside. But I can see inside perfectly. And that’s when I see it. Him.

The Jewish Journal: Are you The Golem of Prague?

The Golem: No, I’m that other clay creature created by Rabbi Loew, who’s been locked up in his shul for 423 years. Of course I’m The Golem.

JJ: Many people say that you’re a myth, that you don’t exist.

TG: Oh, would that they had seen me in my days of glory! I ruled this town in 1580.

The rabbi was worried about how to his people, so he created me. I wiped out the Jews’ enemies — and a few others who got on my nerves — but did anyone thank me? No. For this I get sent upstairs. "It will only be for a little while," the rabbi told me. "Until things calm down a bit." And now people have forgotten me.

Ah, the fleeting nature of fame.

JJ: But you are famous, especially in literature and film. Every century someone writes about you. Mary Shelley wrote "Frankenstein" in the 1800s, Gershon Winkler "The Golem of Prague" in the late 1900s and just recently Michael Chabon even won a Pulitzer Prize for "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," starring you.

TG: They’re all riding on my coattails.

That Frankenstein was an embarrassment: the stitches on his forehead, the green skin, the awkward shuffle. I was in a good mind to sue for copyright infringement, but the guy came and spoke to me directly, asking me to "share the monster wealth" a bit, so I decided to back off. As for Chabon, couldn’t get through it — it’s a monster of a book.

JJ: You’re everywhere here in Prague.

TG: Actually, I’m about to file a lawsuit against the commercialization of my image here.

JJ: Are you talking about the statue of you? The Golem Mall? The Golem sandwich?

TG: Yes, the mall. They don’t even have a major fast-food chain there, no movie theater, no nothing. It’s not even housed in a stately architectural structure, like my shul here.

We’re actually working on some cross-promotionals with the Golem sandwich. We’re in talks with Mickey D’s. "The McGolem." What do you think?

JJ: I don’t really eat at McDonalds. But I was looking at the statue and wondering if you don’t mind being exploited?

TG: Exploited? Listen, lady, I was as happy as a pack of mud could be, lying around, oozing and squishing it up, when the rabbi and his friends gathered me together to form this blob of a guy. I know they wanted me to be intimidating, but couldn’t they have made me a bit thinner? More muscular? I guess that just wasn’t in vogue back in the 16th century.

They sent me out to kill their enemies, but as soon as I started to have a bit of fun, you know, doing my own thing, the rabbi called me back here.

So if we’re going to talk about exploitation, we’re going to have to begin a long, long time ago.

JJ: Are you a magical creature? What went wrong?

TG: I was created with kabbalah, not magic. The rabbi, I guess you call him the Maharal, dreamed that God told him how to solve the Jews’ problems. The rabbi wrote God’s name on a piece of parchment, and placed it in my mouth. That’s how I was born. But he couldn’t handle the negative PR, I think.

Some people think the rabbi destroyed me, removing the parchment from my mouth, but he just sent me up to this attic. I like to think that he couldn’t bear to destroy something that he had a hand in creating.

If you want to know the truth, what’s really going on here is a classic tale of a father who couldn’t bear to let his son go, who couldn’t stand to see me out on my own. My agent presented it to Dreamworks last month as "Shine" meets "Finding Nemo" with a splash of "Dracula " — but you know, we want to avoid the whole monster thing.

JJ: Um. Good luck with that.

Some people say that the Jewish people today need a Golem. Will you ever roam the streets again?

TG: What do you mean, again? Who do you think saved this synagogue from excessive flooding? (OK, before the water reached the attic.)

I don’t really think that the Jews are in any worse trouble than they were in the 1500s; actually, they’re much better off than they have been for centuries! (Especially the last one.) But I can feel it, especially in this new millennium: things are getting worse … but they’re still much, much better than ever.

I don’t think it’s time for me to come out of full retirement just yet, but I do take a little job now and then.

(Pager rings).

TG: Excuse me, I’m on call tonight. Someone at King Solomon Kosher restaurant is complaining that their soup is too cold. The Golem to the rescue!

Clay Feat


It may have been a silent film, but Paul Wegener made an international noise with "Der Golem." The 1920 German Expressionist classic — screening April 21 at the Skirball Cultural Center — remains a popular incarnation of the Golem. But it was not the first, nor the last, interpretation of the Jewish folk tale to permeate pop culture.

According to legend, Rabbi Yehuda Loew created the powerful automaton from clay to protect Jews from enemies such as Emperor Rudolf II in 16th-century Prague. The cautionary tale underscores how Loew’s attempt to play God backfires when he loses control of it and is killed by his own creation.

Wegener’s film surfaced after Gustav Meyrink’s 1914 novel "Der Golem." Born Gustav Meyer, Meyrink, the illegitimate son of a baron and a Jewish actress, wrote "Der Golem" out of a fascination with the occult that developed following a suicide attempt.

While the Golem appears only briefly and symbolically in Meyrink’s novel, the legend clearly informs Mary Shelley’s 1816 masterpiece "Frankenstein." Gershom Scholem explored the myth in his essay, "The Idea of the Golem," as did Isaac Bashevis Singer in his novel "Golem." More recently, the Prague Golem was a subplot of Michael Chabon’s 2000 Pulitzer Prize winner, "The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay."

Literature notwithstanding, the Golem’s water-fetching fiasco inspired the "Sorcerer’s Apprentice" sequence of Disney’s 1940 animated feature, "Fantasia." The Golem has been a catalyst for superheroes like the Hulk and marked a memorable "X-Files" episode, in which a librarian misinforms David Duchovny that the Sefer Yetzira (Book of Creation) explains how to create a golem.

The Old-New Synagogue, the Golem’s long-rumored resting place, and Golem merchandise still generate tourist dollars in Prague. So what is the continuing fascination with this story?

"Mendy & The Golem" comics creator Tani Pinson believes that the secret of its enduring popularity lies with the character’s identity — as malleable as the clay that spawned it.

"He is so open to interpretation," Pinson said. "And people can seek the Golem within themselves."

The Skirball presents a newly restored print of "Der Golem," featuring a score by Israeli composer Betty Olivero and live accompaniment by the Armadillo Quartet, on April 21 at 8 p.m. $8-$15. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. For tickets, call (323) 655-8587.

Eight Crazy Delights


1. No Nostalgia for Waxing

This Chanukah, there is no more scraping, boiling water, melting with a hair dryer or freezing to remove wax drippings from your menorah because Wax-Off prevents wax from sticking to any candle-holder surface. Visit www.wax-off.net or call (800) 334-9964 for more information.

2. Fiddler-mania!

Question: What would your Chanukah be without your hand-painted “Fiddler on the Roof” Figurine Music Box ($45), “Fiddler” Chess Set ($300), “Fiddler” Chip n’ Dip Set ($50), “Fiddler” Teapot ($36) and set of “Fiddler” Shmear Spreaders ($45)? And the answer: Much less expensive. (www.jewishsource.com ).

3. A Big Blow to the Jewish People

Hebrew Bazooka Joe Bubble Gum Box of 100 ($10.95). If you can’t read Hebrew, don’t sweat it — the comic strips are probably funnier when you don’t understand the gags (www.jewishsource.com).

4. Rabbi Said Knock You Out!

Boxing Rabbi Puppet ($9.50). Finally, a way to one-up your neighbor’s Fighting Nun Puppet (www.mcphee.com ).

5. Ark for Ark’s Sake

The Ark of the Covenant ($11.95). Indiana Jones nearly lost his life searching for his. So why not pick one up for yourself and see what all the hubbub is about? (www.mcphee.com ).

6. Giving You Plaque

Gefilte Fish Plaque ($5.95). A Jesus plate parody for your car. In all honesty, this plaque probably tastes better than the fish that inspired it. Unclear whether it comes packed in jelly. (www.mcphee.com ).

7. When the Golem

Gets Tough…

Share with your children the legend of the Prague protector with a copy of “Golem,” an award-winning children’s book by David Wisniewski. (Clarion Books, $17) (www.amazon.com ).

9. Winnie the Jew

Winnie the Pooh in a yarmulke with dreidel in hand. Nobody saw this one coming, but then again, the lovable bear perhaps makes a more convincing Jew than a boy named Christopher Robin. ($8.50). (The Disney Store. For locations visit disney.store.go.com ).



Bonus Shamash Gift: The Jewish Version of The Spinners?

The Draydelettes, a chorus line of Chanukah tops created by designer Susan Fischer Weis, grace a light set ($19.95) and mug ($7.95) (www.jewishsource.com ).

The Golem in Our Midst


The great rabbi of 16th-century Prague, Rabbi Yehuda Loew, received word of a coming blood libel, an attack on his community. So he prayed for divine help. In a dream, he saw 10 Hebrew words in alphabetical order: “Create a Golem of Clay, Destroy Those Tearing Israel’s Heart.”

After seven days of fasting and praying, he took his son-in-law and his disciple, at midnight, and went to the banks of the river Moldau. Out of river clay, he fashioned a man, and under the creature’s tongue, he placed a slip of paper inscribed with the secret, unutterable name of God. On the creature’s forehead, Rabbi Yehuda wrote, “Emet” — “Truth.”

They circled the creature seven times, reciting sacred incantations. The creature came alive. Rabbi Yehuda commanded, “Stand,” and the creature stood. They dressed him in servant’s clothes and brought him home. As three, they had come; as four, they returned. Thus was the Golem born.

The Golem lived in the rabbi’s house. Strong as 10 men, invulnerable, able to turn himself invisible, he repeatedly saved the community from those who threatened the Jews. But the rabbi worried that someone would misuse the Golem’s powers. Despite his warnings, members of the household sent the Golem on trivial errands. Once they sent him to the river to bring water. But they did not know how to stop him. Soon, all were in danger of perishing in a flood. Only the rabbi’s timely arrival saved them from drowning.

Fearing a calamity, the rabbi brought the Golem to the synagogue attic and commanded him to lie among the old tallisim and prayer books. The rabbi removed the slip of paper from the Golem’s mouth, and erased the first letter on his forehead, changing “Emet,” Truth, to “Met”, “Dead.” And the Golem turned back into lifeless clay.

The Golem is said to rest to this day in the attic of Prague’s ancient synagogue. In fact, he lives. He lives in Israel. He lives among us here in America.

Jewish discourse is awash in harsh anger. Liberals scream that the Orthodox overthrow the foundations of democracy. The Orthodox scream that liberals upturn the foundations of Judaism. The left accuses the right of imperialism. The right accuses the left of treason. Supreme Court justices in Israel have bodyguards out of fear of Jewish, not Arab, terror. Combat flares up, of all places, at the Wall. As the rhetoric rises, one hears the same cry from every side: “What Hitler couldn’t accomplish, you will accomplish!”

We are a bitter and angry people. For 50 years, we have suffered a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder. But now, a half-century late, our rage is finally coming out. Like the Golem, rage is a gift of God intended to protect us. Rage gives us strength to defeat an enemy. But like the Golem, rage has no discretion. It attacks everything. It doesn’t know how to stop. Without an external foe, our rage is displaced — directed internally; not against them, but against our own. It stands behind a banner of emet, truth. It speaks in the name of God. And it will surely drown us.

“The Lord said to Moses: ‘Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: “None [of you] shall defile himself for any [dead] person among his people”‘” (Leviticus 21:1-2). This week’s Torah portion begins with this puzzling instruction: We would expect the opposite. When there is a death in the community, the rabbi is among the first we call for help. Why were priests not permitted to attend to the dead? The Ishbitzer Rebbe answered: In the presence of death, one is filled with rage and bitterness. The priest is Oved Hashem, the servant of God, the embodiment of God’s love and care. One so charged cannot carry out his calling with a heart full of anger. Rage and bitterness disqualify him. Only one free of anger may lead and teach the Jewish people.

In the imagination of the Talmud, God prays each morning. And what, the Talmud asks, does God pray? “May it be My will that My love may suppress My anger, and that My love may prevail over My [other] attributes, so that I may deal lovingly with My children.” So may it be for us.


Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.