The Rabbi & the Golem: A Parable on Synthetic Life

[There was a very exciting announcement recently that synthetic life had been created in a laboratory through the wonderful applications of scientific advancement.  The implications of this are vast and future applications are unimaginable as we truly are about to enter a hyper-accelerated period of scientific and technological advancement.  Amidst all of this, however, is a perspective that I believe should not be forgotten.  So, rather than my usual commentary on the ethics of this situation, I thought I would try something different and provide a spiritual parable about synthetic life.  The message of this story was inspired by a qabalistic joke of sorts, told to me almost a decade ago by a Rabbi who was teaching me about Jewish mysticism.   I hope that you enjoy it.]

In the far reaches of the kingdom, there existed a lonely figure; an isolated Rabbi who had devoted his life to discovering the secret meaning behind existence.  He was not always this isolated, but following his lengthy training to be a Rabbi, he found it difficult to live up to the expectations of the community that began to develop around him – so enthused was he by his personal studies into the spiritual basis of the universe.  After a few years of struggling with such a situation, he decided instead to find a place where he could continue his studies without disruption.

Wandering the lands around his hometown, he soon came across a small cave that had been created by men who had long since passed – abandoned and yet still set up with furniture and fixtures to provide one with all the comfort and shelter needed in order to live a simple existence devoted to metaphysical things.

He stopped outside the cave and briefly called out:

“Hello?  Is anybody still in there?  Please do not be alarmed, I am merely looking for a place to be alone with my creator.” There was no response.

The Rabbi decided instantly that it would be the perfect place to focus on his religious life; to devote himself to the study of G-d and the forms of existence that lie behind the veil.  It didn’t take too long at all before he felt himself settled in, his daily routine consisting of inflaming himself with prayer and slowly but surely becoming more and more overwhelmed with the very core of that which our physical existence depended upon.

One day, after a particularly ecstatic morning of prayer and meditation, the Rabbi came across a book that he had never seen before; hidden away behind some of the furniture that was pushed up against the cave wall.  The book was bound in well-worn leather, and made from parchment that seemed so ancient that he worried that upon handling it might suddenly disintegrate in his hands.

Placing it gently upon a soft cloth on the floor, the Rabbi opened it slowly and began to read.  What he found within kept him reading for the rest of the day; the whole evening; and the following morning.

The book told the Rabbi how to create life from simple, inanimate clay.

It took his breath away with excitement, for this was what he had been seeking.  This was the secret of existence that he had been praying fervently to understand – the true knowledge of creation and the creator; of life and living.  What he held in his hands told of the construction of every living thing in the universe, and how humanity could achieve such a feat themselves.  From that moment on, he could think of nothing but learning the secrets within the book and putting them to practice.

Rabbi and GolemAfter many failed attempts and experiments, many long hours learning complicated rituals and procedures so intricate that it was difficult for one man alone to remember them, he finally found success.  Before him stood the rough figure of a man, shaped from the clay that surrounded him, and with the final carving of Hebrew letters upon this statue’s forehead he uttered the incantation that the book required.

The clay figure opened its eyes.  The Rabbi had succeeded – he had created life from inanimate clay!  This newly formed being had not been made from the hands of the Most High, it had been created by man.  The Rabbi felt an immense sense of pride in his accomplishment, a true feeling that he now understood the mysteries of creation.  More than that, with this latest achievement over the very essence of being, he now had control over the universe and could create new forms of life.

The Rabbi knew that now the time was right for him to return to his community, and he brought walking behind him the newly created figure.  The people were astonished – they had never even contemplated that such a thing would be possible – and quickly word of mouth spread and a crowd began to form around the two of them.  The Rabbi beamed with the sense of his achievements and the importance that the community placed on it.

“You see,” the Rabbi said enthusiastically, “we now know the secrets of the universe.  I can teach those of you who are disciplined enough how to do this!  It is all in this book!”  He held the book that gave knowledge over life up in the air, and the crowd cheered loudly.  They whisked the Rabbi and his creation along the streets, a larger and larger crowd building up behind as they travelled.  Before too long, they had reached the town’s central temple –the High Priest standing at the top of its steps, awaiting the arrival of this miraculous sight.

“So you return my good friend!”  The High Priest said with excitement.  It was good to see the friend he had grown up with, had trained with, return back to the community with such triumph.  “Life emerging from nothing but soft clay?!” He continued, “such a thing must be worthy of a visit from Adonai himself!”

“We do not even need Adonai any longer, my friend.”  The Rabbi said, “He will always be our father, our creator.  But we no longer need Him to create life – now we can do it all ourselves!”  At first, the High Priest and the crowd that had gathered around were taken aback by the Rabbi’s words.  But he soon had them agreeing with him, they now knew the secrets of life; and with that had power over the universe and there were so many wonderful applications that they could pursue.

The High Priest said that such an accomplishment would surely not go unrecognised by G-d, and he began to call up with prayer a manifestation of the Most High so that He might acknowledge how far they had come.  Within moments, G-d appeared before the crowd – taking the form of a pillar of smoke placed in front of the temple doors.  At the same time both physical and ephemeral, there and not there.

“My children, you have called for me and I have heard your call.”  A voice emerged from the pillar of smoke, a voice that did not boom as thunder does in the sky; but rather resonated internally within each of the people present.  “I have seen your recent accomplishments, and they please me greatly.”

“We have learnt everything of value that you can teach us now, have we not?”  The Rabbi asked.

“There are still some things you do not know.”  The internal voice responded to all present.

“But I can teach these people the secret of creation; we can now make our own life in any form that pleases us.  Is this not what it means to be the Most High?”

“You have certainly done well in understanding my creation.  I can applaud you for that, and you will learn many wonderful things through this knowledge if used carefully and with great foresight.  But there is still so much you do not understand, for it is not of your nature to understand everything.”

The Rabbi began to become a bit flustered, and quickly spurted out: “Adonai, my creator, I challenge you that I can create a life just as well and as beautiful as you can.  If I can achieve such a thing – will you admit that we are no longer your children but are growing to become your equal?”

“I would enjoy witnessing the fruits of your labour in such a way.”  G-d replied.

With this challenge set in place, the Rabbi quickly removed the mystical lettering from the forehead of the companion he had brought with him; and in doing so it once more became a lifeless, unformed lump of clay.

“We shall create a learned man, one who can speak and answer questions put to it.  Surely this is the hardest amongst your many creations to match?”  With that said, the Rabbi quickly got to work.  Instantly, from within the centre of the pillar of smoke emerged a perfectly formed simulacrum of humankind – made to appear exactly like the High Priest.  This creation of G-d walked over to stand before the High Priest himself and, with very audible and perfect language, asked:

“May I join you in your admiration of this Rabbi and his achievements?”

“Of course, you may.”  The High Priest said with astonishment at being presented with this newly formed version of himself.   The identical figure turned and stood next to the High Priest, watching the Rabbi as he was putting the finishing touches to his own creation.

When the Rabbi’s statue was completed he carved the sacred letters onto its forehead and leaned in closely to whisper the incantation into its ear.  With this breath of life instilled, this second being opened its eyes and walked briskly over to stand next to the first.  With the two now standing side-by-side, and the real High Priest having taken a rather confused step back,  each member of the crowd walked passed and tried to choose which one was the most impressive creation.  They were free to ask of them any questions they wished, or get them to perform movements or activities in order to test their respective capabilities.  In most regards the two creations actually surpassed the capabilities of the original High Priest, much to his personal chagrin.

After a few hours of such scrutiny, all of the votes were in place and the High Priest took care at counting them out before everybody.

“69…70…71…Our Rabbi’s creation has received 72 of the votes, and that from the Most High,” he paused momentarily, “70 votes?!  This is astonishing, please do not be angry with us Adonai – but we are amazed that we are able to surpass you now, to create life which not only resembles perfectly your own creation; but which can surpass it in tests of intellect and fortitude.”

The crowd went silent momentarily, hoping that their G-d would not be angry at this display of pride.  But there came no wrath from above – or plague to repress their spirits – merely a soft breeze that emerged from the pillar of smoke; washing over them and bringing with it a faint hint of light-hearted revelry.

“Why are you laughing Adonai?”  The Rabbi asked, curious at such a response.

“I am laughing, my child, because I knew from the very beginning that you would not be able to win this challenge.”

“But, what do you mean?  I quite clearly have created something that in every way is identical to what you can achieve – so much so that these people cannot tell them apart and chose mine as the better creation – how is there any difference?”

“There is certainly a difference there, my child.  But I shall ask of you: can you see the difference?”

“We certainly cannot, with all respect.  They look identical, sound identical; have the same knowledge and physical capabilities.  Are you to say that because I took slightly longer to produce mine that I lose by default?”

“Not at all, I shall allow you that one.  There is something else, though.  Can any of you see it?”

High priest in robesThe Rabbi, the High Priest and the crowd all stood silently for a few moments; trying to think of a difference but being unable to find one at all.

The moment stretched out longer, a tangible sense of stillness in the air; a few shaking their heads to indicate that there was no difference to be found, some talking quietly amongst themselves but equally unsuccessful.  Suddenly, out of the crowd emerged a girl of very young age; who had gently pushed her way through the towering adults to come to the front.

“I know what the difference is.”  She said in a meek voice, her head bowed down with shyness.

“Ah, my beautiful child, you come before this whole crowd of those who feel above you.  Of those who think that you have so much to learn.  You come before them and show them what they have forgotten.  Bring the child forwards, and let her tell you what you were unable to see all this time.  I can view into her heart of hearts and know that she has the correct answer to share with you.  Maybe I should make her my High Priest right here and now?”

The High Priest, embarrassed by such an admonishment no matter how light-hearted, guided the girl up the steps of the temple and stood her before the crowd.

“Tell them child, tell them what they cannot see.”  G-d said, and with those final words the pillar of smoke began to spiral and dissipate; leaving the crowd to their own devices.   The Rabbi and the High Priest looked up with anticipation at the young girl that stood before them.  The crowd had gone completely silent.

“What is it?  You must tell us, because with this miraculous achievement our knowledge of creation is surely perfect is it not?!”  The Rabbi said with impatience.

“No, it isn’t Rabbi,” the girl responded, “it really isn’t as good as that which was created by Adonai.”

“But why is it not?!  It is the same in every possible way.  Tell us child, what do you see that we cannot?”

With a deep breath inwards, the child lifted her voice so that everyone could hear:

We didn’t use our own clay.

7 Responses to The Rabbi & the Golem: A Parable on Synthetic Life

  1. Etera says:

    Beautiful article! A clear and simple reasoning. It actually made me think that if the power of creation is denied in existence how creating one artificially would have made sense? Apologies, my thoughts are quite raw here, however if anything creating a life synthetically proves the power of creation (which in the article itself “Where Next for Synthetic Life” is called “a proof of principle”, p2). I however would like to refrain from further comments until a see a “creature” with a free choice, whom we will of course try to create in our own image. Instead I would like to address this thought opposition of science and spirituality.

    A thought came to me when I was going through a catalogue of paintings of baroque and renaissance era last week. Paintings of medical themes reflecting perception of those times mostly depict a unity of science with spirituality/faith expressed with certain symbolism. As such, Gerard Dou, “A Patient at a Doctor’s”, used what would at first sight seem a contrast between spirituality and modern (in those days) science. Contrary, a painting represents rather an accord of mutually replenishing constants. A pragmatic environment of the office is “crowned” with an angel as a symbol of trust in science being guided from above. In “our” days perception of science is thought to oppose religion (in my opinion for no other reason than evolutionary: religious practices getting out-dated). This evolutionary “disagreement” however has served its purpose and I believe a power of creation in science is a natural part of our spiritual evolution.

    Regards

  2. RAGordon says:

    Fantastic response Etera – and I really like some of the ideas you've put out in your post. Raw though they may be, you're certainly onto something!

  3. Luis de la Orden Morais says:

    Wow, incredible and beautiful article. I can see parallels with the Gospel according to John's opening:

    “1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 The same was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life; and the life was the light of men. 5 And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”

    Do you see how life, light and understanding line up in the true creation as described in the verse above? It is not only giving life but also the spark that guides men. In the story, as soon as they started creating artificial life they started to fall apart, the rabbi losing his sense to an inflated ego and the high priest losing his esteem. Both ego and esteem influence your perception of your own identity: the rabbi felt he was equal to G-D, now he was not a man playing with clay but G-D as well; and the high priest going the inverse way spiralling downwards to depression and insecurity.

    I see the rabbi as the man of science or a representation of science, whilst the high priest symbolises spirituality in a context where light (spark) and life are dissociated, causing the duality to break down in every level: a rabbi dissociated from the high priest and the community; spirituality separated from science; light separated from life. It is the combination of the creative light and divine life that creates this third inner (?) light that guides men.

    But not to be missed another divine element that precedes light and life: the “Word” or Logos. The translation of the Greek word logos to “word” has been one of the most unfortunate and perpetuated poor translations in the Bible. The meaning of Logos surpasses that of “word” but it is more related to thought, logic, reason. It is this Logos that, I believe, is the third resulting light that guides men. And now we are back to the beginning again as in a loop, the alpha and the omega of creation starts with divine reasoning and thought and ends with this reasoning and thought becoming the inner light of men, guiding them.

    For us who also call G-D as the Great Architect of the Universe, I can see a point of proof that the term “Architect” fits in the perspective of divine reasoned and logical planning happening before the creation. In the story, G-D mentions that there has to be care and foresight when it comes to manipulating the universe in the creation of life.

    Finally the closing “5 And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” This passage is interesting in which doesn't portray the state of darkness as total deprivation of sight but a rejection of it. As in the story, G-D is trying to make sense but when the inner light has been weakened by the separation of light and life, men will lack the sense of spiritual and intellectual guidance that drives them and they will be lost.

    Ha! Until a child comes along and resets the chip that went loopy. And here comes the beginning again.

    Cheers,

    Luis

  4. […] a secondary motive, in that I am strongly influenced by my personal spirituality (I’ve even written a parable on this very site!) and it infuses everything that I write with a certain direction and […]

  5. […] First off, I would like to let everyone know I found the story of the golem on a blog called Future Conscience. All credit should go to the author of that site, but since I’m in no way looking to profit […]

  6. […] The Rabbi & The Golem: A Parable of Synthetic Life (2010) […]

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