This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Dolly and the Golem*

News Item:

February 1997--Amid much controversy, Dolly, the first successful clone of an adult mammal, is produced by Dr. Ian Wilmut and his team of scientists in Edinburgh. Dolly is the product of a donor cell of one ewe, combined with a modified donor egg of another ewe, which was then into the uterus of a third ewe which gave birth to the clone

As I write these words, the moist eyes of Dolly the cloned sheep still adorn the front pages of the newspapers, and learned philosophers and columnists are busily speculating about the imminent cloning of human beings. Several have even alluded to the reputed creation of golems by Jewish mystics and magicians.

Indeed, if we are to believe the Talmud, the creation of a living mammal in a "laboratory" was accomplished by two rabbis as early as the third century, though their choice of animal was a calf rather than a sheep: "Rav Hanina and Rav Hoshaya used to convene every Friday and occupy themselves with the `laws of creation.' They were able to fashion a calf one-third grown, which they ate." This seems to have been a routine matter for them, and they had no qualms about serving up the delicacy as the entrée at their Sabbath table.

What were those "laws of creation" that served as the instruction manual for the calf-cloners? Scholars are unsure whether to identify them with the collection called "Book of Creation"--Sefer Yetzirah--that was familiar to Jewish mystics in the Middle Ages.

Sefer Yetzirah is one of the most unusual works in Jewish literature. Attributed to the Patriarch Abraham, it represents a Jewish version of neopythagoreanism, an ancient philosophy that viewed the mystical combinations of number patterns as the key to the mysteries of the universe. The author of Sefer Yetzirah takes this theme one step further. In addition to elaborating on the mysterious potencies of the ten decimal numbers, he expands upon an idea, found in the Talmud, of creation being accomplished by means of combinations of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. According to the ancient rabbis, this was how the Torah's supreme artisan Bezalel was able to fashion the sacred implements of the Tabernacle.

The medieval "Book of Creation" is founded upon the principle that the structures of mathematics and language reflect the metaphysical configuration of the universe. From this it follows that one who has mastered those principles will be able to imitate the divine process of creation.

If this was the method employed by Rabbis Hanina and Hoshaya in the Talmud, then perhaps it would not be inappropriate to draw analogies between their permutations of letters and modern scientists' permutations of genetic codes. An ingenious medieval tradition claimed that the calf was served at the "siyyum," the festive meal that was held in honour of the rabbis' completing their study of Sefer Yetzirah.

The ancient rabbis appear to have been less daunted than their modern counterparts by the prospect of manufacturing artificial human life. The Talmud ascribes such an achievement to the sage Rava. Apparently the creature was a credible enough imitation to pass itself off as fully human--but for the fact that it could not speak. The faculty of speech, traditionally equated with the uniquely human capacity for reason, continued to elude mortal imitators of the creative process. Later writers disagreed whether or not this limitation was insurmountable. For all its deficiencies, Rava's creature was the first documented case of a "golem." The Hebrew word "golem" denotes an unformed substance, especially a lump of clay or earth. The word is sometimes used with reference to the earth from which the first human being was fashioned, before God imbued it with the breath of life. By extension, it was applied to similar beings that were brought to life by human creators.

It was the thirteenth-century German-Jewish mystical and pietists known as the Hasidei Ashkenaz who were the most fervent in their attempts to produce a golem. Rabbi Eleazar of Worms composed an extensive manual in which he detailed all the incantations and intricate alphabetical combinations that were needed to fashion a viable humanoid. Upon its forehead was inscribed the Hebrew word Emet, "truth," which was also considered a name of God.

In the Middle Ages, the making of golems was restricted for the most part to ecstatic trances; they did not have any existence in the "real" world. Legends that purport to tell about great rabbis, such as Rabbi Samuel the Pious in Germany and Solomon Ibn Gabirol in Spain, who fashioned golems to serve as their personal attendants, gained circulation only in later eras.

As we come closer to modern times, the methods of golem manufacture become more varied, reflecting some of the current scientific thinking. One writer speaks of combining organic material in a vessel, and another of a mechanical contraption assembled from boards and hinges.

The golems were also becoming more dangerous. Their sheer size, if allowed to develop unchecked, was seen to constitute a threat. It was related that Poland's most renowned golem-maker, Rabbi Elijah of Chelm, was killed, or at least injured, when he was crushed while deactivating his overgrown creation. By the nineteenth century, even as alarm at the relentless pace of industrial and technological progress was inspiring works like Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, Jewish legends were also imagining golems who could run wild and wreak destruction. In order to destroy the golem--as was necessary on occasion, since otherwise they would continue to grow uncontrollably--one had to reverse the order of the divine letters from which it had been formed, or erase the first letter of the word emet on its forehead, transforming it into met, "dead"--at which point it would crumble back to lifeless dust.

Notwithstanding the circulation of such horror stories, it appears that the predominant concern was less with the monster's going on a rampage or turning on its creator than with the moral and theological implications of the endeavour.

For all the satisfaction that might result from this ultimate expression of our "divine image," there remained a powerful anxiety that people might thereby obscure the distinction between the Eternal Creator and his mortal imitators, and come to treat the latter as objects of idolatrous worship. The permissibility of "playing God" was in itself questioned; and not all aspiring creators were convinced that Rava's inability to produce a speaking or reasoning being was a systemic limitation. And of course there were always skeptics who insisted that the real golems were the aspiring sorcerers, not their fictitious creatures!

Truly, the discussion sounds very much like the current one surrounding Dolly the sheep.

We might do well to keep in mind that the Talmud introduced the whole topic in order to illustrate its claim that "if the righteous wished, they could create a world."

It seems to follow from that statement that those who are really righteous will have the discretion to refrain from usurping a function that rightly belongs only to the Creator.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, April 7 1997, pp. 8-9.
  • Bibliography:
    • Idel, Moshe, The Golem: Jewish Magical and Mystical Traditions on the Artificial Anthropoid, SUNY Studies in Judaica, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.
    • G. Scholem, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, London 1965.
    • J. Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition, New York 1970..