Golem, Tikkun Olam, and Synthetic Biology

According to an entry in the Encyclopedia Judaica written by Gershom Scholem a Golem is:

 a creature, particulary a human being, made in an artificial way by the virtue of a magic art, through the use of holy names.  The idea that it is possible to create living beings in this manner is widespread in the magic of many people

As the philosopher Henri Atlan mentions in his Sparks of Randomness the idea of creating a golem was known to be an art form that was related to theurgy, in which the practitioner would share in the creative act of creation.  The sharing would render a union with the divine.  As Moshe Idel explains the most influential passage in this tradition is from the Talmud:

Rava said:  If the righteaous wished, they coudl create a world, for it is written, “Your iniquities have been a barrier between you and your God.”  For rava created a man and sent him to R. Zeira.  The Rabbi spoke to him but he did not answer.  Then he said: “You are [coming] from the pietists: Return to your dust.” 

Some precedence for the creation of an artificial man of course can be found in Simon the Magician (a.k.a. Simon Magus).  “Simon Magus, conceiving himself as the representative of the divine on earth, argues that he could form a human creature even from the air, which is condensed so as to become ultimately a human-like being.” (Idel)  Also, the actual term golem in the literature perhaps from Zelem could possibly have relations to an astral body, or ethereal body and not of the actual flesh.  It is interesting to take this idea even further along the lines of the ‘King’s two Bodies’ in which the body of decay and flesh is separate from the symbolic body of the King’s.  The King’s Zelem or ethereal body being the representative of God on earth (of course this is later, however, as Agamben has shown the political body is caught up with the theological body with remnants of Judeo-Christian theology).  R. Moses Cordovero writes that the term Golem stands for “the form of the body of man which collects in it the three other spiritual parts of man: nefesh, ruah, neshamah.” (Idel)


It would be remiss of me to skip over the text that had the greatest influence on all later ideas of the golem and perhaps moves it away from the ethereal to the corporeal, the text is Sefer Yezirah.  As Moshe Ideal writes, “Almost all the medieval and modern authors who dealt with the Golem issues have mentioned this text.”  The text explicates that the right combinations of letters are used as the specific technique to create a Golem.  In order to get where I plan to end this post I will quote the linguistic ideas behind the creation of an anthropoid:

Twenty-two letters, He engraved them and He extracted them and wighed them and permutated them and combined them, and He created by them the soul of all the formation and the soul of all the speech, which will be formed in the future…Twenty-two basic letters, fixed in the wheel

The modern idea of the Golem of course seems to be mixed in (ultra)Orthodox circles according to Moshe Idel.  He writes about a 1987 article in the supplement to Yated Ne’eman which calls into question the historocity of creating a life or anthropoid (golem).  However, we now have the means to create life and very soon of creating a new man or Golem which the legends have written about.  Even within Halakhahהָלַךְ the legal system we have precedence (500 BCE) to begin a discussion on the idea of creating a new man or life.

Henri Atlan believes that to create synthetic life or a golem is not necessarily ethically wrong but if everything remains the same in our political situation to create a new race would have detrimental consequences because of the current behaviors of men.  He also wonders about the “sparks of randomness” which means of course once we add something to a standard environment this creates consequences that we might not have fully understood.  However, Laurie Zoloth in an unintentional way speaking like a Kabbalist states that, “The world is a broken place.”  Of course anyone can see this for what it is, the bioengineers using the idea of Tikkun olam which can be translated as “repairing the world” or “mending the world”.

Synthetic biology is about making DNA, new DNA, and then controlling the cell better than we can control cells in our bodies.  This of course cuts down on what many call the messiness of biology.  The creation of new systems, that can be designed is really the goal of all synthetic biology, this has enormous potential.  Of course Atlan is right to question the social apparatus but in a sense Zoloth asks us an important question regarding the existential nature of our world.  I will explore more in later post.

About specularimage

Scott Maxwell is a cultural critic, social theorist and creative historian interested in : Psychoanalysis, Biopower and Biophilosophies, Romance philology, Religion and Theology, interested in living philosphers/thinkers Agamben, Zizek, Badiou, Malabou, Johnston. Past thinkers: Foucault, Heidegger, Marx, etc.
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2 Responses to Golem, Tikkun Olam, and Synthetic Biology

  1. Sol says:

    Interesting. I might get a little too Lacanian here but… What i think could also be said about this is that in every version of how a golem is created, language (letters, words; it changes according to the version you read) is responsible for the magic, for giving the entity life. Without them they would remain a pile a mud.
    And What i also find interesting is that the golems had no names (they were known as “The golem of Prague”, etc) and thus remained as automatons, with no will or desire of their own.

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