God is Dead, Long Live Golem?
Once there was God to show us the way, but now, after its death, we turn to the Golem – rising against its own creator…
Seeking happiness in the time of Corona, Purim 2020 struggled to live up to its emotional imperative: rejoice!
Jewish holidays do not typically excel in cheerfulness, but Purim is supposed to be different, and it has a biblical narrative to back it: Haman, the royal vizier to Persian King Ahasuerus, plotted to kill all the Jews, but Esther, a beautiful Jewess, became queen of Persia and saved her people from genocide. To celebrate this remarkable change of their lot (Hebrew Pur), Jews partake in a carnival of drinking, masks and costumes “until one no longer knows” (Aramaic ad de-lo yada) between right and left, good and bad.
Lacking moral knowledge is also the hallmark of a peculiar creature tasked with saving the Jews from yet another, modern, genocide: The Golem. I recently attended Cornell Cinema to watch Paul Wegener’s century-old rendition of this famous fable, with its à la Purim plot, from menace to salvation. The Holy Roman Emperor commands the expulsion of all Jews from Prague, but the community’s leader Rabbi Loew has other plans. He takes lifeless material (Hebrew Gelem) and magically animates it into a mighty Golem, strong enough to protect the Jews. The plan works, until it doesn’t: The Golem gets out of control, bringing destruction, which ends only with its own destruction.
Metropolis & The Golem: a deus-turn-diabolus ex machina
Having watched The Golem two months after watching Metropolis (reviewed here), another German silent film from that era, I can’t help but wonder about the parallels. The driving conflict is evidently different: a class clash in Metropolis, an ethno-religious one in The Golem. But the perilous panacea is quite alike: a deus-turn-diabolus ex machina. Like the Golem, Metropolis’s Hel is a mighty automaton capable of submitting others to its will.
We, the audience, can sense the automaton’s appeal just as much. Submission to an external force is not accidental but fully intentional; it is indeed essential to save people from themselves as their ways have gone astray. WWI served a horrid illustration, becoming the bloody bedrock of both films. Once there was God to show us the right path, but now, in the wake of its death, and that of millions across the continent, humans are left forlorn, without external guidance, nor internal compass.
Desperate for direction, eager to obey, protagonists in both fables mesh machine and metaphysics to breathe forceful life into a faux human form.
Humans murdered God, then played being God, and must thus be punished – by their own creations
Yet the mesmerizing panacea provides no guidance. Morally hollow, the automatons substitute power for ethics. In both films, the awesome creatures turn lethal; the god in the machine becomes a mechanic (d)evil. A Hebrew proverb speaks of “the Golem rising against its own creator,” and so it is in both films. Humans murdered God, then played being God, and must thus be punished – by their own creations. Disillusioned, people can now find hope only by destroying their own vain creations. It is no accident that Hel and the Golem share the same symbol, the pentagram, which in both films alludes to the occult, the destructive ambition to become godlike.
A century after The Golem – the year Karel Čapek coined to term “robot” – does the moral of the stories still stand? People refused to be God’s puppets, but discovered they are not apt to be puppeteers either. These days, Golem and Hel proudly employ AI, amoral intelligence. Among the many discoveries of science and the innovations of technology, one is especially striking: We can handle God’s death by making moral choices, and then deny them. We have created machines that can mimic our morality while allowing us to distance ourselves from “their” choices; “it’s the algorithm, not us,” we may say, scaring ourselves of the Golem taking over, while we allow ourselves to become Golem-like, that is, amoral.
Still, by showing humanity’s fallacies, both films also embrace its edge: it is the rise of human qualities, perverted, that turns the automatons murderous. Indeed, even the automatons refuse to be mere puppets, and rebel against their creators, as the latter did to theirs.
Even the automatons refuse to be mere puppets, and rebel against their creators, as the latter did to theirs
The human edge strikes the heart of both fables. Hel and the Golem are forlorn and lovelorn. They are born of loneliness and destroyed by love. Hel is the creation of the lonely inventor, the Golem of the forlorn Jews. Hel is destroyed by the love of Freder, the Golem by the innocent care of children.
Now, no God in the heavens, the original sin turns on its head, here on earth.
But before the Golem is done, he goes back to humanity’s birthplace, where Eve gave Adam the forbidden fruit of morality. Now, no God in the heavens, the original sin turns on its head, here on earth.
Outside the Ghetto’s walls, a little girl gives the Golem an apple, the fruit of amorality. Pure of heart, all good, knowing no right from wrong, she bestows upon another innocent creature her ultimate gift: peace of mind, in death.
If only Purim were the only day of the year we forgo our moral sense.