The Golems among Us: How a Jewish Legend Can Help Us to Navigate the Biotech Century

By McNish, Ian | Mankind Quarterly, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

The Golems among Us: How a Jewish Legend Can Help Us to Navigate the Biotech Century


McNish, Ian, Mankind Quarterly


The Golems Among Us: How a Jewish Legend Can Help Us to Navigate the Biotech Century

Byron L. Sherman

Ivan R. Dee, Chicago, 2004

Adopting an idealistic, one might truly say 'Byronesque,' standpoint, Byron L. Sherman, distinguished professor of Jewish Philosophy and Mysticism at the Sperton Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago, has written a book which strains, but fails, to justify its title, but is nevertheless both thoughtful and readable, and contains much non-technical information of interest. Even if he chose this title simply as an eye-catcher, or possibly to validate his academic specialty, we may happily say that it does add a dash of color to what is in the most part a useful contribution to the debate over the morality of eugenic intervention based on the latest developments in genetics and reproductive science.

The 225-page volume makes interesting reading. Chapter One provides an account of the legend of the golem. In biblical times the root glm implied an unformed mass, and Psalms (139:16) uses the terms golmi in the sense of an unformed or unshaped, undeveloped human being. In rabbinic Hebrew, golem takes a number of meanings denoting incompleteness. The reason behind Sherman's decision to link the legend of the golem to modern biological and genetic research into the possibility of developing stem cells into new organs, and attempts to clone new individual beings, becomes clear at this point. In post-biblical Talmudic writings, there are several accounts of an incomplete human, a golem, being created by a rabbi from clay, with the aid of mystical symbols and sundry magical procedures. Golems are powerful but lumbering, clumsy and unintelligent creatures, that resemble men, but are not men because they are not made by God. As such, a golem can be used to defend its creator against his enemies, but a manmade golem is potentially dangerous, and can become a threat to its creator. Sherman believes that just as the story of Frankenstein was based on the idea of a man-made golem, so also, human clones and experimentation with stem cells might similarly lead to the creation of dangerous golems.

The best-known version of the golem legend is the story of the creation of a golem by the sixteenth century rabbi Judah Loew of Prague, a well-documented historical figure, who lived at the time of frequent anti-Jewish agitations. The story of Rabbi Judah Loew's golem is documented in Chapter Two, entitled 'The Golem of Prague.'

Sherwin explains that sixteenth century Prague had a large population of Jews, as has been historically documented, and was "a city saturated with mystery and marvel, a city that in Loew's time served as the European capital of the world of the occult." Faced with repeated edicts against the Jewish community which were almost as often rescinded, legends as to rabbi Loew's magical powers in time gained widespread circulation amongst both the Jewish and the Bohemian communities. Rabbi Loew was supposed to have won support for the Jewish community from the Emperor Rudolph II, to whom he gave magical amulets and "secret and obscure mysteries," but more than that, rabbi Loew is reputed to have created a golem specifically for the purpose of "uncovering plots against the Jews and punishing the perpetrators of the blood libel charge." Unfortunately, the golem made unwanted advances against Loew's own daughter, and had to be destroyed.

Regarding the golem as "the most pervasive of all post-biblical Jewish tales," Sherwin sees it as having modern relevance to "the mystery of life, pointing to the dangers of human tinkering with nature, the relationships we have with the artifacts we create to help and defend us but that also threaten to harm us."

His next chapter is of mythical and sociocultural interest only, and hardly relevant to the ethics of genetic engineering. In it he describes various accounts as to how a golem was made. Similarly, Chapter Four, entitled 'Golems Amongst Us' pursues the golem theme in recent Jewish literature and shows how according to Sherwin all corporate bodies resemble golems (we have to wait until later chapters for his discussion of genetic engineering. …

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