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09/25/2017 01:48:46 PM


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

Is a Golem a Human?
Rosh Hashanah 5778

Rosh Hashanah is the day we celebrate the creation of the world—hayom harat olam.  Rosh Hashanah is the day that we recognize the awesome and majestic power of our Creator.

But we are now living in a world of such technological advancement where human beings are also capable of creating the most awesome inventions.  Some people mistakenly think we don’t need to recognize the Creator, because, after all, look at all the amazing things man has created.

Indeed, even the Talmud says that tzaddikim can also create a world.  Says Rava in the Talmud, “Ee baru tzadikei baru alma, if the tzaddikim want they too can create a world” (Sanhedrin, 65b).

The Talmud tells us that Rava himself actually created a man.

“Rava bara gavra. Rava created a man.  He sent him to R. Zeira.  R. Zeira tried to speak with him, but the man did not respond.  R. Zeira said, ‘min chavraya at, hadar leafrekh, you are created by humans, return to your earth’” (Sanhedrin, 65b).

Rashi (1040-1105, France) says that Rava literally created a man using the letters of God’s name through a technique he had learned via a mystical work known as Sefer Yetzira.

On the other hand, Rabbenu Chananel (11th c., Kairouan) thinks that Rava did not actually create a man.  He considers it a mirage—it appeared to be a man, but it wasn’t an actual man.  He argues that the proof for this is that this man did not know how to speak, because speech is the domain of the neshama and a person cannot create a neshama.

This man that Rava created is often referred to as a Golem.  This Golem appears again in a responsum of R. Zvi Hirsch Ashkenazi (the Chacham Zvi, 1652-1718, Salonika and German), who discusses the question of can a Golem be counted in a minyan.

Chacham Zvi writes that his grandfather, the saintly R. Eliyahu, created a man using the techniques of Sefer Yetzira.  We know from the Chacham Tzvi’s son, R. Yaakov Emden, that this Golem kept getting more and more powerful and R. Eliyahu eventually had to destroy the Golem by removing the Divine Name from his forehead.  In the process of doing so, the Golem struck R. Eliyahu and left him with a scar (She’elat Yaavetz, 82).  

To answer this question the Chacham Zvi cites the text from the Talmud that tzaddikim are capable of creating a world, and that Rava actually created a man.  Moreover, he says we know from the Talmud (Sanhedrin, 19b) that whoever raises a child in their home, it is as though they gave birth to them.  This would seem to indicate that the Golem should be considered human and male and thus counted in a minyan.  Yet, he ultimately rejects this and concludes that the Golem cannot be counted in a minyan because if so, how could Rav Zeira have destroyed him as that would be murder.  QED the Golem must not be a human being worthy of being counted to make a minyan.

Later the Chacham Zvi’s son, R. Yaakov Emden, also takes up this question of can a Golem be counted to make up a minyan.  He asks why is this even a question?  Of course, the Golem cannot be counted for a minyan as he is unable to speak and therefore must not be intelligent.  In that sense, he argues the Golem is comparable to a minor, who is lacking the intelligence necessary to be considered an adult and for this reason cannot be counted in a minyan.  

This question of a Golem was a real question to these rabbis.  So much so that the Mishnah Berurah, a dry as dust, no frills code of law, rules (55:4) that the Golem cannot be counted in a minyan.

While some of us might chuckle at the very question of a Golem being counted in a minyan, it actually is a very prescient discussion by our rabbis that discusses the boundaries of humanity hundreds of years before the coming revolution of Artificial Intelligence.  They are not only wrestling with the question of a Golem, but also with the issue of how do we define humanity?  What does it mean to be a human?

For R. Yaakov Emden the crux of the matter is that the Golem cannot speak and is therefore unintelligent and is therefore not human.  But today we know that machines and robots are capable of speaking and also highly intelligent.  Siri, is this true?

And indeed, as Artificial Intelligence becomes even more powerful and as these questions once again return to relevance, we can be certain that people will cite this story of the Golem as a proof text for the humanity or lack of humanity of robots.

I feel confident that if the holy R. Yaakov Emden were alive today he would not cite the distinction of speech or even intelligence as the category that defines our humanity.

One scientist who discussed this topic argues that the distinction between machines and humans is not one of intelligence but of consciousness and sensitivity.  A robot can be more intelligent than a human, but it cannot be more conscious and sensitive:

This brings us back to the point raised by Rabbenu Chananel around one thousand years ago.  The definition of humanity is not the presence of intelligence, but of a neshama. 

What does it mean to have a neshama?  It means to have soulfulness—the recognition that we have a spiritual relationship with our Creator, with our ancestors, with the future world.  

For me, after my recent trip to Houston, I learned that what makes us human is not our intelligence and our strength and our power, but our kindness.  

A human can be kind even when it cuts against our own personal interests.  Practicing kindness to strangers is the most human thing of all.

This year as we read the Unetane Tokef prayer, I will be thinking over and over again of the images of devastation I saw on my recent trip to Houston.  Mi yichyeh, u-mi yamut.  Who will live and who will die?  Mi bakitzo, u-mi lo bakitzo, mi bamayim u-mi ba-esh; who in his time and who not in his time, who by water and who by fire?

Our small group had gone to Houston because R. Gelman told me that many people in his congregation lost their tefillin, mezuzot, and tallitot.  I asked R. Gelman if our congregation could have the honor of replacing those sacred objects.  And when I mentioned this in shul on Shabbat, Keira Zakheim said we should also replace their Shabbat candlesticks.  So we traveled together with Keira and Reuven, and Rabbis Antine and Topolosky to personally deliver these sacred items to our friends in Houston.

Here is a slide show of our visit:

In Houston what we saw was completely devastating.  We saw houses upon houses with all of their possession taken out to the street to be trashed.  So many people lost everything.  Everything they had had become ruined in the flood – beautiful houses completely gutted.  

We walked into the synagogue where Rabbi Barry Gelman is the rabbi, United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston, and what we saw moved me to tears.  We saw an entire shul completely destroyed.  A building that had been home to so many tender moments was destroyed in an instant. Outside the synagogue we saw wagons filled with books that were all being thrown out.  Rabbi Gelman showed us his office.  His desk had contained personal records going back decades and they were all destroyed.

R. Gelman told us that more than 150 families in his congregation lost everything.  I know that this is the third year in a row that his house has been entirely flooded and that he and his family had to move from their house into a very small apartment.  Yet there he was continuing to inspire and lead his congregation.   Everywhere we went people were telling us that his leadership through this crisis was giving them the strength to continue.

On our way to Houston, we were contacted by a friend who told us that his friend in Houston needed some help. So we went to the house of a middle-aged family that had now lost everything. Their beautiful house needed to be entirely emptied so that the trash collectors could pick it up before it became a public health threat.  We helped the woman of the house clean out her house and especially a very large piece of furniture.  She kept saying this was so beautiful. She told us with tears flowing down her face that she and her husband had now lost everything they had been working for their entire lives.  

I will be thinking of her face and her tears as we say the words, mi bamayim.  

We saw that morning on the streets of Houston the overwhelming, destructive power of mayim. 
But in the face of overwhelming destructive power, we learned a very important lesson -- that the only way to respond to overwhelming devastation is through the overwhelming kindness of people. 
While its true we saw devastation, we also felt inspiration.
We saw strangers literally embracing each other on the street. 
We saw teams of volunteers rushing to Houston to help people clear their homes.  
We saw a synagogue turned overnight into a food pantry. The rabbi of that synagogue told us that that Friday night the dancing in his congregation during kabbalat Shabbat was more spirited than ever before.
As we walked around the Jewish school, The Beren Academy, we saw a community under enormous stress open up their hearts to the offers of support from visitors.
In the airport on our way out of Houston we stopped to sing with a local duo that was playing in the airport.  The feeling of love was so great that they even asked me to sing with them!!!
Spending that day in Houston reminded me that in the face of the world's enormous challenges, the only chance we have to succeed is if we all respond with enormous kindness.
In the face of the overwhelming power of water who can claim that a human being is strong.  In the face of a hurricane we are like tiny ants at the mercy of Hashem Yisborach.  

But even the tiny ants are not helpless.  

Here is a story about ants in Houston.  

We were picked up at the airport in Houston by a friend of a friend, named Dave.  Dave is not of the Jewish faith, and as far as I could tell he didn’t have any specific religion.  But he was one of the kindest people I have ever met.  He drove us – people he had never met before-- around the whole day, from early morning till late at night.

As part of our day, Dave asked us if we could stop for a little bit to help him on a project.

He and his friends had set up an emergency makeshift center to prepare food to distribute the displaced people in Houston.  He said he wanted to introduce us to his friend who goes by the name, Lucid Lorax.

So we met Lucid Lorax and his team.  Lucid is around 30 years old.  When we got to the site we saw this gigantic teepee, which Lucid said was the world’s second largest teepee.  Lucid spends a few months working every year till he makes $10,000.  Then the rest of the year he uses that money to fund his altruism.  He lives out his pickup truck and brings his teepee with him to set up food distribution centers to people in need.  He drives around from disaster location to disaster location, living hand to mouth, sleeping in his truck, just looking to help people. When the Hurricane hit Houston, Lucid was immediately on the front line delivering food to the hungry.  Meeting with him was a truly inspirational moment.

A local businessman was letting Lucid and his crew, use his parking lot as a staging ground for their feeding project.  As part of Hurricane Harvey this man’s fence had fallen down and so Dave said to us that as an act of gratitude to what this man was doing, he would like us to help him mend this man’s fence.  And so we spent a couple of hours mending his fence.

In order to get to the fence we needed to jump over a small stream of mud and water.  Dave told us to be careful of the fire ants that live in the mud because f they get on you they can stick and sting and really hurt.  Believe me that I jumped as high as I could over the stream.  Dave told us that these fire ants were able to survive Hurricane Harvey by making a floating raft.  Each ant jumped on to each other and combined until they made a raft.  They would then rotate positions and thereby keep each other alive and at the same time they would keep the un-hatched eggs in their mouths in order to preserve them.

In the face of a hurricane we all need to be like these fire ants working together to preserve our community.

To me, that’s the definition of neshama.  That’s what separates us from a Golem and a robot. It is what I saw in Lucid Lorax, and Dave, and these ants, and the entire synagogue.  To have a neshama is to demonstrate overwhelming kindness for another – even when it cuts against our own interests. 

To have a neshama is to go into a minyan as one person and to come out as an improved, more sensitive person.  

To have a neshama means to listen to the sound of the shofar and upon hearing it to proclaim to ourselves that we will be better.  We will be more sensitive.  We will be kinder in the coming year.

This year when we hear the shofar we will promise ourselves that when someone is sick, we will go out of our way to help. When someone is vulnerable, we will go out of our way to protect them.  

U-teshuva utefillah utzedakah maavirin et roah hagezeirah.  To be a human means to respond to the devastation of mayim with prayers and charity.  It means we rush to provide.  A robot would ask the question – why should I go to Houston?  But a human doesn’t ask that question – a human is sensitive.  A human rushes to perform a mitzvah.  A robot might be programmed to go to Houston, but a robot cannot be moved and inspired by their experience in Houston.  

We came back from Houston with a new sense of appreciation for what we saw and who we met.  

A robot would not hear the shofar and be inspired to do teshuvah.  When we hear the shofar it softens our heart.

As humans we cannot control the world, but we can control our response.  We believe in the spiritual.  We believe in the power of a neshama.

When we stood in Rabbi Gelman’s office two things jumped out at me.  

First that he was desperately trying to preserve the eulogy that he delivered for his grandfather many years ago.  The ink was fading but he was drying it out.  The robot would not place value on that, but the human knows that it represents a link to our ancestors and that it symbolizes our relationship with what is important.  

And I saw that the only possession in his office that survived was the parchment upon which his rabbinic ordination was written.  To me that was symbolic:  The Torah cannot be wiped away by a flood.  The acts of kindness that we do can never be wiped away by a flood.  

This year as the shofar blasts we will be moved to tears and joy. We will connect with the spiritual—with the past generations and the future generations.  With the strong and the vulnerable.  We will recognize our Creator in Heaven.

This year as we hear the shofar let us promise ourselves that we will not be robots. WE WILL NOT BE ROBOTS.  We will be humans.  WE WILL BE HUMANS.

Mon, July 13 2020 21 Tammuz 5780