by Melissa Weininger

Click here for audio of Episode 2946

Today, what can an old legend tell us about the future? The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

It's a dark night in Prague in the year 1580. Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel kneels by the banks of the river Vlatava to conjure a man out of mud. The rabbi is a wonderworker and a mystic. They say he once impressed the emperor Rudolph by magically turning stones into roses.

Now, he calls on his powers at a time of trouble. The Jewish community of Prague is in peril. They face threats of expulsion and violence, but who will come to their aid? Standing under the Charles Bridge, the rabbi draws a human figure on the ground. He circles it, reciting the secret names of God. At last, the figure stirs and rises from the earth. A powerful giant towers above the rabbi. He has created a golem.

Rabi Loew and Golem
Rabli Loew and Golem (Mikoláš Aleš/Wikipedia)

Jewish traditions about the golem are thousands of years old. But in modern times stories of this human creation have multiplied. The brothers Grimm published a version of the story in 1808; Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was likely influenced by the legend. The golem is not only the subject of classic literature - it also appears in comic books, films, even an episode of The X-Files. Why is this man made of clay, drawn from an obscure Jewish legend, the object of our continuing fascination?

The story of the golem raises basic questions about what it means to be human. In the age of technology and artificial intelligence, these questions are part of our daily lives.

Every day, we eat food that has been genetically modified in laboratories, we benefit from medicines that result from the cloning of human cells, we interact with machines that have near human levels of intelligence. Many of us have given birth to children who began as embryos created in a doctor's office. Under the law, sometimes even corporations are considered persons.

Statue of Rabbi Lów von Ladislav Šaloun (1910), Prague
Statue of Rabbi Lów von Ladislav Šaloun (1910), Prague (Buchhändler/Wikipedia)

The golem is familiar to us because we confront him every day in our smartphones and computers. Like the golem, these things seem almost human, but not quite; they were created by human beings for human use. No wonder that this ancient story is still so compelling.

As legend has it, the golem successfully defended the Jewish community of Prague. Rabbi Loew's creation used his supernatural strength to save the Jews from persecution. Yet the community paid a high price for the rabbi's act of creation. The golem became uncontrollable. He turned on his creator, attacking the very people he was brought to life to protect. In the end, the rabbi was forced to destroy his own creation, returning the golem to a harmless pile of dust.

The legend of the golem reminds us of the costs and benefits of human ingenuity. Like the golem, our creations have unintended consequences. This ancient story asks us to consider whether the ability to harness the power of creation is a blessing or a curse.

I'm Melissa Weininger for the University of Houston, and interested in the way inventive minds work.

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Notes and references:

Baer, Elizabeth R. The Golem Redux: From Prague to Post-Holocaust Fiction. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2012.

Gelbin, Cathy S. The Golem Returns: From German Romantic Literature to Global Jewish Culture, 1808-2008. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2011.

Sherwin, Byron L. Golems Among Us: How a Jewish Legend Can Help Us Navigate the Biotech Century. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2004.

This episode first aired on May 20, 2014.