The Golem


by Richard S. Ehrlich

PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- To protect innocent Jews from execution in the 16th century, their rabbi created a mythical, artificial human in a Kabbalah experiment, which today inspires robot-makers and computer programmers, and even appeared in a US government warning about the Y2K bug.

The rabbi's hulking humanoid, however, spun out of control. As a result, people now warn that America's atom bomb, and the world's other untamed creations, display ominous parallels to the Jewish "Golem." Modern Prague enthusiastically features the monstrous creature as a tourist attraction complete with statues, souvenirs and lots of t-shirts adorned with the bulky Golem's portrait.

But here in Prague's decimated Jewish Quarter, or Ghetto, people are forbidden to examine the attic atop the synagogue where Rabbi Yehudah Loew allegedly hid his famous, big-eyed automaton. The small Staronova Synagogue, also called The Old-New Synagogue, is one the oldest Gothic structures in the Czech capital, dating back to the 1270s. Nearby, among 12,000 crowded, weather-worn tombstones in the Old Jewish Cemetery, also known as the Zidovsky Hrbitov, rest the remains of the revered, prolific, real-life Rabbi Loew.

Hailed by Radio Prague as "the most famous person to be buried" in the cemetery, the rabbi lived from 1510 to 1609, when he was esteemed as The Maharal, a title honoring his wisdom. Hasidic Jews, who wear black hats and long black coats, proudly hail the founder of Chabad Hasidism, Rabbi Shneur Zalman, as the great-grandson of Rabbi Loew.

But Loew's Golem has never been found, causing most people to believe it was a myth. Authors and film makers, excited by the danger and intrigue, have enshrined the Golem in books, films, theatrical productions and music. One writer, Mark R. Leeper, traced his awareness to the Golem to "when I was 10 or 11 years old" playing with "monster movie bubble-gum cards" which portrayed "a human-shaped furnace with glowing eyes" and huge fists. "It was labeled simply, 'The Golem'." Leeper soon learned "this monster was somehow a Jewish monster."

During the 1500s in Prague, "the Jewish community was threatened by blood-libel claims that they were murdering Christian children, and using their blood to make matzo," or traditional unleavened bread, Leeper wrote. "Actually, Jewish law strictly forbids the consumption of any blood at all."

Asset Forfeiture

Nevertheless, "a Christian who murdered a child, and planted it in a Jew's house, could report the Jew. The Jew would be executed and his property would be split between the Christian who reported him and the government. Clearly the ghetto needed a very good watchman," Leeper added. "Rabbi Loew used information from the Kabbalah -- the central book of Jewish mysticism -- to learn the formula by which God first made man out of clay and, with the help of two other pious men, (Loew) built a man out of clay and brought him to life.

"The final step of this process was to place God's secret name on a parchment and place it in the forehead of the Golem" or in its mouth. "Loew's Golem was between seven-and-a-half and nine feet tall, and had tremendous strength, but had a very placid and passive disposition when not under orders to act otherwise. He also lacked the one faculty that only God can give, the power of speech. "Because this giant was passive and mute, people in the ghetto assumed he was half-witted, and the word 'golem' has also come to mean 'idiot'," Leeper explained.

"This tendency to do what he was told to do, not what he was expected to do, has endeared the Golem story to computer people," added Leeper, who is a New Jersey-based technical staff member at Bell Laboratories, where he trouble-shoots computer problems. "At night, the Golem guarded the ghetto, catching all would-be libelists red-handed. He single-handedly ended the possibility of successfully blood-libeling the Jewish community. Loew then got the emperor (Rudolf II) to end the practice of letting blood-libelers profit from their actions." Leeper, who also helped establish a science fiction society among telecommunications workers in his region, noted, "A popular variation on the story has the Golem rebel, and become an uncontrolled monster, before being stopped and returned to clay. It has been speculated that (British author) Mary Shelley patterned Frankenstein on this story" in the 19th century. Throughout history, several Golems have allegedly been created.

Digital Golem

Itamar Even-Zohar, of Israel's Porter Institute for Poetics and Semiotics, said, "When computers became known to my generation, in this country in the 1950's, people referred to them as 'the golem'. This connoted computers' brainlessness." Even-Zohar added, "Rabbi Loew probably invented software" because "the Golem would work only when Loew put in (its) mouth a piece of paper with the name of God written on it, and when he took it out, the Golem would again become a piece of clay. This is what happens to our PCs, isn't it?"

Some religious experts and philosophers say the Golem is an updated twist on the story of how God created Adam and Eve, who then disobeyed the Lord's rule not to eat the apple of knowledge — similar to the way the Golem eventually got out of the rabbi's control. Ken Goldberg, associate professor of industrial engineering and operations research at Berkeley's University of California, examined "the linkage between Adam, Golem and robot." Goldberg told his colleagues, "Initially, the creator takes great pride and delight in the creature, until at some point the creature takes a life of its own and runs amok, and in the end the creator pays the consequences for this act of hubris." Goldberg added, "As a vivid example, recall the horror of the Manhattan (Project) physicists when they witnessed the awesome potential of their creation" — the atom bomb of 1945. "By then, it had gotten away from them, and some, in particular Oppenheimer, suffered a Promethean downfall," Goldberg said. Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer was the New York-born, Jewish director of the US government's secretive Manhattan Project, which successfully tested the world's first atomic weapon in New Mexico. At the end of World War Two, Washington dropped two atom bombs, one on Japan's Nagasaki and the other on Hiroshima, killing more than 200,000 men, women and children. Goldberg also sees the roots of modern computer software in the Golem's behavior.

Flipping 1's to 0's

For example, to finally turn off the Golem, "the rabbi tricks it into leaning close enough, so that the rabbi can erase the first letter inscribed on its forehead, thus changing 'Emet,' — Truth, or Life — to 'Met' — Death. "Whereupon the Golem turns into a lifeless mass of clay, which crushes the rabbi to death. Again, harsh consequences for the creator," Goldberg added. "As a computer scientist, I note that the rabbi's fatal error was to forget to specify what we call a 'termination condition'. The Golem went into an infinite loop due to a programming error!" Despite these problems, "in artificial intelligence, success is often declared at the moment when the program, or robot, is capable of surprising its creator," Goldberg concluded. "I would like to argue that in all the cases we have considered, from Adam to Golem to robot, although conventional wisdom warns against hubris, and views rebellion or loss of control as a downfall, it seems plausible to read the event instead as a step forward and upward." The Golem, meanwhile, isn't being revived only by alchemists and nerds. The European Armwrestling Federation lists the "Golem's Golden Hand" as the "top competition in the Czech Republic" when strong-arming your opponent.

Radio Golem

Prague also boasts a "Radio Golem," one of about 60 private radio companies in the country. The Czech Republic also hosts an international film festival called, "The Golden Golem." And, for aspiring capitalists in post-communist Prague, they can enjoy the elitist "Golem Club," founded in 1991.

Golem Club

"In an elegant Prague club, which bears the ominous name Golem, everything is first-class," noted a group of online writers calling themselves Banka on the Web. "Antique furniture, valuable paintings, expensive drinks and cigars and, of course, its guests. Golem is frequented by the Czech millionaires, the fine company of the richest few, whose newly-gained status is confirmed by their membership of the club." Banka added, "Nobody has yet refused their invitation, not even the President Vaclav Havel or the Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus. Golem is the place where they discuss new laws and the national economy, but also lighter topics, if, that is, the rich have time to talk about mundane things. "Since Golem opened its doors, Fidelis Schlee has been one of its most frequent visitors. Schlee says himself that he is extremely rich. He says he bought his Rolls Royce from Mick Jagger," the writers said. Washington also used the Golem in an official warning about Y2K devastation. US Information Agency (USIA) Chief Information Officer Jonathan Spalter, at a 1998 "Millennium Bug Conference" in the Czech capital, stated: "This new digital age is not unlike the mythical Golem of Prague. Though it may yield considerable benefits, it also carries with it certain unintended consequences. And none among them is more imminent and difficult than what we're here today to discuss: the Millennium Bug or Y2K." As the Chair of President Clinton's Council on the Year 2000 Working Group on International Public Diplomacy, Spalter added, "Unlike the conjurers of the Golem, we do not want to undo what we have wrought. "On the contrary, it is from these high-tech connections — and our ability to overcome some of the difficult challenges they pose, like Y2K — that we will ultimately derive robust and sustainable economic progress, strong democracies, better solutions to global and local environmental challenges, improved health care, and, in the end, a greater sense of shared stewardship of our small planet."