“An Epoch of Golem-making”: Artificial Intelligence and the Jewish Imaginary

Date: 3/2/2021

Narratives of AI have a deeply rooted history in Central and Eastern Europe, and, in particular, Prague. Central to these narratives is the Golem, a legendary clay creature dating back to the 16th century, said to have been created and brought to life by Rabbi Judah Loew to defend the city’s Jewish population from anti-Semitic attacks. 

The Jewish imaginaries of intelligent machines formed the focus of the first of three workshops on AI narratives in Central and Eastern Europe, a collaboration between the Global AI Narratives (GAIN) project at the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence (CFI), University of Cambridge, and Periculum, based at the Department of Security Studies, Charles University.

The first workshop was held online on 12 November 2020, and explored the influence of the Golem of Prague in literature, cinema, and the fine arts. It brought together presentations by five experts, whose research concentrates on the nexus between cultural identities and artificial intelligence as embodied by the Golem and anthropomorphised robots. Dr Kanta Dihal, one of the principal investigators on the GAIN project, opened the workshop by introducing the project’s goals and sharing her findings on the hopes and fears for AI in the English-speaking world, as well as observations from previous workshops held in Japan, Russia, Egypt, Singapore, and China. Dr Vít Střítecký, Deputy Head of the Department of Security Studies at Charles University, gave an overview of the GAIN workshop series focusing on Central and Eastern Europe, noting the role  the Jewish tradition has played in shaping the region’s history and culture, including local imaginaries of AI. 

Tomasz Hollanek, a PhD Fellow at CFI, chaired the panel, which started with a presentation by the  art curator and contributor to theBarbican’s AI: More than Human exhibition, Emily Bilski. In her talk, Bilski unpacked themes surrounding the Golem as represented in film, theatre, dance, and the fine arts. Her talk marked out the relationship between text as the source of life in Jewish mysticism and code as a way of generating new worlds and new intelligent agents. The Golem could be seen as a communal act of creation in which language plays a symbolic role. It should be noted that although the creator-creation relationship is also present in non-Jewish depictions of the Golem, the specifically Jewish depictions relate the Golem to higher stakes, as a prevailing survival myth for the Jewish community.

Veronika Ambros, professor of comparative literature at the University of Toronto, drew out the key similarities  between Golems and robots, in a talk titled “From Unformed Matter to Uncanny Valley.” Ambros’s discussion centred around the figure’s development within Jewish culture, as it has been refined through successive literary framings –  the Golem has been perceived as a protector of the Jewish people as much as it has been seen as a threat to those outside these communities. The Golem’s ambivalent identity has seen it labelled as “Unformed Matter” but these same ambivalences have also lent it a transformative edge in light of recent developments in robotics. The “Uncanny Valley” turn evidenced in robotics provides a complementary iteration of these same ambivalences: we, as creators and users are compelled to ask about our own relation to these robots: are they protectors, or are they other? 

Ada Ackerman, a lead researcher at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, emphasised the relationship between the Golem myth and the cinematic medium, reflecting on stories of Rabbi Loew’s mastery of animated images. These stories describing the Rabbi’s use of optical illusions, projection, and magic lanterns posit the Golem myth as a force that not only precedes, but also engenders the cinematic medium. In films such as Paul Wegener’s The Golem (1915), The Golem and the Dancing Girl (1917), and The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920), as well as Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), instances of self-reflection or “screenings of screenings,” evidence the intricacies of the relationship between the human, the Golem, and the medium. 

Ken Goldberg, professor of engineering at UC Berkeley, reflected on a longstanding history of ‘Robo-Exoticism’ from the standpoint of a creative and technical expert. Goldberg’s talk noted some of the exaggerations of AI’s negative and positive traits, and how robots have traditionally been perceived in a way that reinforces fears, fantasies, and stereotypes. Notions of formally labelling machines as an Other began in the early modern age with Von Kempelen’s Mechanical Turk, carrying through to the legacies of the Other in E.T.A Hoffman’s Coppelia and Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein. The cultural legacies of Othering in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is carried through to Karel Čapek’s coining of a new term, “robot,” in R.U.R, and finally – to Masahiro Mori’s prosthetic, contributing to the perception of the robot as the ultimate Other. Goldberg suggests that these ideas of robots as inherently Other emerge out of a time of great industrial change. The successive re-labelling of automata in each age also brings with it increased public anxieties around the fears, fantasies, and stereotypes associated with machines.

The  workshop closed with Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum’s response to the other presentations. Rabbi Zarum, the Dean of the London School of Jewish Studies and a leading Jewish educator in the UK,  focused on moral and ethical questions related to  robots and their nature. He also commented on the question of truth, or “emet” – the  phrase that, written on the forehead of the Golem, endows the creature with life (erasing one letter  changes the inscription to mean “death,” and deactivates the Golem). Rabbi Zarum also referenced the Jewish oral tradition, underscoring the similarities between the seven characteristics that make a wise man and the seven characteristics that make a Golem. Such similarities between man and the Golem reiterate themes that featured throughout the workshop, including self-reflection, spoken truth, ethics and morals, and consciousness and responsibility. 

The themes discussed during the course of this interdisciplinary workshop spanned a far-reaching variety of narratives through which to frame AI. The Golem affords rich cultural insights into the Other, transformation, language, and much else. These themes are still pertinent today across a wide scope of genres, seamlessly transgressing cultural boundaries from cinema, to fine art, music, and theatre. The Golem theme  still serves as a major relevance for AI researchers and ethicists alike, helping us to situate our thinking beyond current technosocial imaginaries despite the myth’s initial origins in a seemingly specific set of cultural narratives. 

More information about the Jewish AI workshop, individual presentations, and the speakers who presented can be found here. For further information on any of the themes and topics described in this blog, please contact us here.

Blog post by the Periculum and GAIN teams, with the assistance of Liv Dorak and Jess Poon