From golems to robots

From golems to robots

I am sitting at my grandson’s 11th birthday party. Never mind the sleepovers or bowling parties his older sister and brother had just a few years ago. We’re into a new mode with this one. This is a robotics party. If you don’t know what that is, neither did my husband nor I until we got here. It consists, we discovered, of having the guests build small robots and then take turns racing them through an obstacle course. 

The term “robot” is not new. It was coined as early as 1920 in a play by the Czech writer, Karel Capek, from a word meaning “forced labor.” But for many of us, until relatively recently, robots existed primarily in the realm of science fiction. Comic books and films often portrayed them as huge, monstrous creatures from outer space who wreaked havoc on everything around them until subdued by a Superman-like hero. They were a far cry from the innocent little machines at this kids’ party. 

We are living through a technological revolution, the likes of which none of us has experienced before, and it’s happening at lightning speed. “You mean to say there were no cellphones when Mommy was growing up?” my granddaughter once asked me incredulously. No cellphones, darling. No computers in Grandma’s life until she was well into her career as a writer. No terms like “artificial intelligence” or “bots” (although they were probably known in scientific circles). No Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube. Not long ago people took photographs exclusively with cameras, not smartphones, and we believed Polaroids were the cat’s meow (an old-fashioned expression you wouldn’t know). We sent all our letters through the post office and never thought to call that “snail mail.”

Were people of the late-18th and early-19th centuries aware that they were living through an industrial revolution of enormous magnitude or did many of them balk at the machines that were replacing their hand-made clothes and conventional jobs and refuse to change their ways? Did people of the early-20th century realize that horses and carriages would disappear forever as a standard means of transportation and that automobiles would take over, or did numbers of them vow never to step foot into those noisy contraptions? And how many actors of the 1920s slipped into oblivion because they couldn’t — or wouldn’t — make the transition from silent films to “talkies?”

Change is difficult and hard to grasp while it is happening; in a flash nothing is as it had been and people must scurry to keep up with the new or they will be left behind. I haven’t quite learned to text, and I still record appointments in a book rather than on my iPhone (which in itself is an early model). And now come robotics, suddenly used widely in medicine and industry, and taken for granted even for children’s birthday parties. 

Yet this I know: Everything new builds on something that came earlier. I watch the boys with their robots and my mind jumps to a little Talmudic tale. Rava created a man and sent him to Rabbi Zera. When the rabbi spoke to the man, he did not answer. “You are the creature of magicians,” the rabbi said. “Return to your dust.” Rava’s man lacked speech, a symbol of human intelligence in early Jewish tradition, and therefore he could not live as a person. In the tradition he is a forerunner of the golem, a creature lacking true humanity, yet capable of serving human beings.     

There are a variety of golem stories in Jewish lore. The best-known golem was created by the 16th-century Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel (the Maharal of Prague), molded from clay to defend the Jews of Prague. In the end, however, the rabbi lost control of his creation. It ran amok and threatened the community until Rabbi Loew forcefully removed a piece of paper he had placed in its mouth with the mystical name of God on it. The golem dissolved back into a heap of clay. 

It is a cautionary tale. Judaism encourages scientists and artists to extend their knowledge and abilities as far as their minds can carry them, even to forming a being that in some ways parallels God’s creation of humans from the dust of the earth. (In some ancient rabbinic sources Adam is referred to as a golem.) But the golem stories warn that humans must not lose sight of the differences between their creations and themselves. When they forget that even the most brilliantly programmed golem/robot lacks the divine spark that sets humanity apart from all other creatures, the results can be catastrophic. 

The robotics party has ended, and we are all feasting on kosher pizza slices and birthday cake. I’m so glad I’m a human and not a

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