To make it in Hollywood this past weekend, you had to be a Golem. In Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, giant aliens invade the earth, leaving its pogromed inhabitants no choice but to build giant robots to ward off the extraterrestrial beasties. The robots, called Jaegers, are large and unwieldy and exorbitantly expensive, which means that humanity has but four left at its disposal; not so the case with Gru, who was so pleased by his own brand of oafish servants that he made thousands of them. He is the protagonist of Despicable Me 2, a formerly evil genius served by an army of diminutive yellow creatures called minions. They’re considerably more adorable than the Jaegers, and there are many more of them, which may explain why they helped catapult their movie to the top of the box office.
That the No. 1 and No. 3 movies in America this week (the No. 2 spot went to the Adam Sandler sequel Grown Ups 2) both celebrate creatures brought to life to defend humans in peril may, of course, be a coincidence. But it takes no more than a glimpse at the legend of the Golem and its intricate past to admire the myth’s particular metaphysical allure, called upon every time we mortals are feeling as if our surroundings—like the volcano that almost gruesomely consumes Gru—are literally about to devour us.
There are many variations to the Golem’s tale, but the most common one goes like this: In the late 16th century, with the Jews of Prague plagued by pogroms and surges of violence, the town’s chief rabbi, Judah Loew, travels to the banks of the Vltava river to collect clay. Back at his synagogue, he fashions the clay into a colossal figure, the Golem. A master of Kabbalah, he had read the esoteric books and knew of the ancient rabbis who could create life by inscribing the correct combination of letters onto inanimate matter. He tears a slip of paper and writes on it the Hebrew letters Alef Mem Tet, spelling out Emet, or truth. He places the paper in the monster’s mouth. It awakes. For a while, the Golem—the Hebrew word, loosely translated, means lump—serves as an adequate protector of the ghetto, but soon he is swooning with bloodlust, murdering innocents and destroying property. The authorities are alarmed; they beg the rabbi to curb his creation. Calmly, Loew faces the clay giant, retrieves the magical paper from its mouth, and erases the first letter. Now, the writing on the slip spells Met, or dead. The Golem collapses, lifeless clay once again.
Variations of this story have been circulating in Jewish and non-Jewish circles alike since at least the 17th century, but we owe the murderous lump as we know it to Rabbi Yudel Rosenberg. Born in Poland, Rosenberg tried his hand as a blacksmith and a tanner before finding his way to the rabbinate and to Montreal. Remembered today mostly as the grandfather of the novelist Mordecai Richler, Rosenberg was a writer himself; in addition to a large volume of scholarly works, he also published popular works of folk fiction including, in 1909, a book of tales about Rabbi Loew.
In today’s unremitting terms, Rosenberg’s work would have been called a literary hoax: In plain and compelling language, he claimed that his tales are merely transcribed eyewitness accounts to events that occurred three centuries earlier, injecting the stories with a vibrancy lacking from previous incarnations of the story. Rosenberg’s book—to borrow a word sadly used nowadays as a compliment—is cinematic. It was an immediate best-seller, inspiring a torrent of pop culture retellings.
It is not hard to see why the story appealed to a generation witnessing the onslaught of industrialization: The Golem is the ultimate machine, and like the gray behemoths that spit steam and smoke—the engines, the factories, the armaments—he, too, ended up producing more strife than relief. It is similarly not hard to locate the tale in the constellation of contemporary philosophy. As the 20th century crept in, the bond between faith and reason—cemented by Plato, personified by Descartes—was coming apart, loosened by the Enlightenment and its consecration of the rational and the observable. The Golem is the Enlightenment’s dark side, a parable for what happens when we overestimate our ability to manipulate the natural world. As told by Rosenberg, the basic moral of the Golem tale is that Man, unlike God, cannot create a soul; all he can do is breathe temporary life into a lump of clay and watch it become an instrument of destruction.
With its grotesque portrayal of Man as creator, Gershom Scholem argued, the Golem legend could easily be seen as a precursor to Nietzsche’s best-known proclamation. “It is indeed significant,” Scholem wrote, “that Nietzsche’s famous cry, ‘God is dead,’ should have gone up first in a Kabbalistic text warning against the making of a Golem and linking the death of God to the realization of the idea of the Golem.” Neither Nietzsche, the son of a Protestant minister, nor Rosenberg, a devout Orthodox Jew, intended his work to be a call to godlessness. Instead, they were arguing against reason, against the Enlightenment, against the spirit that moved all those who believed that intellect alone could reveal the hidden metaphysical order of life. Descartes, Nietzsche suggests, is ridiculous for setting out to prove the existence of God by making rational arguments. We experience the world not as ideas but as phenomena. We should stop trying to order the world with our minds and instead live in it with our bodies, which is a lonely but ultimately much more honest way to be. Rosenberg’s argument is surprisingly similar: The Golem story, in large part, is a morality tale warning Jews not to think too much and to be careful lest they come to believe that they’re smart enough and capable enough to order the world.
Is it any wonder, then, that we’re once again eager to tell stories about Golems? Nowadays, we needn’t look further than our pockets to locate the monsters gone mad: As recent revelations about the tight bonds between the National Security Agency and Silicon Valley’s giants reveal, the smartphones we have come to trust with so many of our intimacies have been attentive to the voices of other masters all along. When technology evolves faster than our capacity to curb and command it, it curbs and commands us. But don’t expect us to rise up anytime soon: Any attempt to talk about our newly fashioned tools in a way that transcends grunts of disapproval or yelps of enthusiasm requires rational thought, objective measures, and an investment in our common pursuit. And these are just the things we no longer have.
Whatever else it may be, ours is a time that seems to have run out of patience for the cumbersome systems of reason and the dusty and imperfect processes they produce. Anecdotal evidence for this collective abandonment of our formerly lauded sensibilities abounds: In America this week, it was still necessary to write magazine articles reminding the many who were upset because a jury refused to indict a man whose guilt was far from proven beyond doubt that there’s a profound difference between criminal justice and luminous truth; in Egypt this month, a democratically elected, if deeply flawed, president was toppled by an opposition quick to collude with the very remnants of the old and oppressive regime it had once sworn to undo; in Brazil this year, the marchers of the so-called Salad Revolution have thus far showed a great flair for symbolism and much less aptitude for substance; and as the well-meaning cadres of Occupy Wall Street had demonstrated, a concrete agenda is no longer necessary when launching a social movement that aims to radically restructure our priorities. These examples are all complex affairs, and each comes with a set of nuances and facts worth studying carefully, but connecting them all is a thread that would have felt familiar to Nietzsche and Yudel Rosenberg alike, a calling to simply be and a warning that reasoning and planning and taking responsibility only lead to monsters running amok.
The emotional landscape on the cusp of the 21st century, however, is different than it had been on the cusp of the 20th. In the 104 years since the Golem was turned into a cultural staple by Rosenberg’s runaway hit, we’ve lost our taste for unalloyed monstrous matter. Hollywood’s new Golems are nothing like Prague’s. They, too, reserve the same right to be and to brood and to express. They, too, have feelings. In one of the niftiest turns in Pacific Rim, for example, the Jaegers are each controlled by a pair of pilots whose emotions and memories and desires are synced through complicated neural machinery. The classic Golem subtext about humanity’s hubris is still there, but rather than collapsing into a lifeless heap, the creature is animated, literally and figuratively, by being turned into a sensitive machine. Gru’s minions experience something similar; they must have dabbled in Lacan, because when the movie’s villain produces his own purple-and-evil swarm of genetically engineered helpers, the little yellow guys have a blast masquerading as their bad doppelgangers and generally exploring their perception of self as reflected by others. The third sequel in the popular franchise, due in December of 2014, will drop Gru and the rest of the humans altogether and focus on the minions alone. If you’re looking for proof of where we may be heading, consider only this: In our popular culture, to say nothing of our parliaments and our streets, the Golems no longer need rabbis.
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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.