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The Golem of Jerusalem

Updated: Jun 16

Do we lie because we’re weak – or are we weak because we're lying? If Israel is a modern Golem, it risks dying by killing truth. There is another path.

 

I am an owl, so traversing, wingless, 8am traffic from my hometown to my working place, from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv University, is never a pleasure. But the traffic wasn’t too bad last Monday, and an uplifting moment awaited my tired eyes: Launching a new Jewish-Arab course, one I’ve dreamt of for months: “Dugri: Truth, Trust and Art in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.”


With my partner in class, Prof Youssef Masharawi, we devoted much of the first meeting to what’s behind the course’s title: “Dugri” is a Turkic word, which Israelis – both Jews and Arabs – often use to call an open, frank talk. With great guests and students – Jews and Arabs – we had a first taste of what curiosity, honesty and fun can foster: A taste of Truth?


I hope. But fear we may have lost our taste for that ancient flavor. Sweeter ones may have taken its place, not least the taste of feeling right and righteous, regardless of reality – and facts.


Luckily, fables are often just as revealing. One such fable is the Golem of Prague. Desperate to help his people against mounting blood libels, Rabbi Loew – the Maharal of Prague – turned to magic. He took a lifeless material (Hebrew Gelem) and animated it into a mighty Golem, strong enough to protect the Jews. The plan worked, until it didn’t: The Golem got out of control, wreaking violent havoc, so the Maharal had to end his life.

If the Golem expressed the Jewish unconscious – fearing mighty enemies, seeking power to overcome them – Israel made it a reality. The Golem has been reincarnated into the Jewish state: a strong state that casts its powerful shadow. Perhaps like that Golem from Prague, the Golem of Jerusalem too has gotten out of control, has "risen on its creator." For many, we should follow Rabbi Loew’s coup de grâce – save Jews from their own creation, excise Israel’s life.

But what gives Life in the first place? In the case of the Golem, look no further than its forehead, on which the Maharal engraved the Hebrew letters אמת (EMT; Emet), that is, Truth. Upon deciding to do away with the Golem, the Maharal erased the first letter א (Aleph), turning Emet to Met, Hebrew for “dead.” The Golem then is not only power, but power animated by truth – not least against anti-Jewish lies.

Is Truth truly Judaism’s lifeline?


I’m afraid not. Today we celebrate the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, commemorating the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Tellingly, among the Ten Commandments’ emphatic statements—“Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not steal,” even “Thou shall not covet”—none commands “Thou shalt not lie.” There is only an order against perjury as an obstruction of justice.

Rembrandt, Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law, 1659
Rembrandt, Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law, 1659

The bible threads the devaluation of truth. Abraham lies to the Egyptians to defend himself by introducing Sarah as his sister; His son Isaac makes a similar move with the king of the Philistines; Isaac's son, Jacob, deceives his father by impersonating, on his mother's orders, his hairy brother Esau. Even the most illustrious leaders in biblical tales do not shy away from lying, especially David, who deceits to become king (for example, in his quest to obtain the sword of Goliath), and keeps at it thereafter (to gain Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite). There is no moral condemnation of lying in the Bible, and the Jewish sages, however agile in apologetic stunts, can hardly conceal the truth – that is, the lie.

Why?


Because we’re weak. We often urge “speak truth to power,” and the idea goes way back to ancient Greece’s “parrhesia,” which means to speak of everything freely and boldly, indeed to publicly talk “Dugri.” But why, if you’re weak, would you, should you, speak truth to power, and thus disclose your dreams and dreads, your vulnerabilities and insecurities, to those who can hurt you? Wouldn’t it be better to lie and deceive the mighty to undermine them and their control over you—indeed, why not lie to power?

Consider Islamic Shia, which devised the doctrine of Taqiyya, justifying a precautionary deception vis-à-vis the stronger Sunna. And if Truth can harm Shia, it certainly endangers the Jewish people who have felt weak and fragile throughout their history (even Zionism, which sought to defeat this fear, succumbed to it). After all, what did Samson get out of telling the truth to Delilah but his own mortification? In the entire Bible, the only moment of peaceful political power is under Solomon, and this too passes in the blink of an eye – after which the kingdom splits. And what transpires in the Book of Esther in the face of impending genocide? One big masquerade ball. The Israeli Mossad has a fitting biblical motto: “Without deception, the people shall perish” (Proverbs 11:14).

For the weak, it seems, lie is life, truth is death. Israeli politicians nicely benefitted from this deceitful dictum. “For the sake of the Land of Israel, it is permissible to lie,” said former Israeli PM Yitzhak Shamir, the very manifestation of integrity and honesty compared to the current Israeli premier, for whom, it seems, to lie for personal gains is even better.


But maybe, just maybe, we don’t lie because we’re weak – but weak because we're lying. Who knows, maybe that's why the Jewish people have politically fallen time and time again. Perhaps the Golem is an unconscious expression of what happens when we erase the Aleph.


I usually visit my parents on Shabbat, and on their table laid two leaflets that I brought two days later to our first Dugri class. The leaflets are part of The Conversation of the Week newsletter, distributed online and at synagogues throughout the country, sporting the largest circulation of some 200,000 issues. The title of one pamphlet, for Shavuot, declares “There is one truth” and swears allegiance to it. Another pamphlet, from the previous week, jealously details the Arabs’ ability to “lie confidently,” in contrast to the Jewish tendency to respond “politely, with restrained words, and with a constant tone of justification and defensiveness.” I wonder what lesson the authors sought to instruct. Ostensibly, the two leaflets stand in contradiction; in fact, they do not: if we advocate faith-based truth, which is inherently irrefutable, we too can speak lies with complete confidence.

To be sure, Truth is not entirely absent from Judaism, but the desire for it, the insistence on it, are attributed to God, not to the human spirit. The Babylonian Talmud says, “God’s seal is truth.” God’s seal, not man’s. It is as if people are too weak to truly want truth. Psalms beautifully suggests, “Truth from earth emerges, justice from heaven.”

Even King David has his enlightening moment of truth in words that every Brandeis’s graduate should readily recognize (and brood). Repenting for his crime against Uriah the Hittite, David approaches God, who seeks “truth even unto its innermost parts” (Psalm 51): You, David tells God, want the inner truth in the depths of my flawed soul, in things hidden from the human eye.

Herein lies the great challenge of being Jewish today: To strive for the deepest truth, especially that which reveals our vulnerability, weakness, even evil, which can encourage soul-searching onto our failings. Am I naïve to believe that this transformation can transpire in Israel? It is, for me, precisely since Israelis still largely subscribe to Dugri, that they are uniquely positioned to both break the stifling bondages of cancel culture and foster deep dialogues, perhaps even approaching Buber’s I-Thou ideal.


Judaism was born as a revolution – of monotheism. Today, out of the global crisis of truth, it can again revolutionize, even itself. In Hebrew, Golem also means pupa. The Golem of Jerusalem can still become a butterfly.


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