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
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."
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.
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.
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 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."