Can a Golem be counted as part of a minyan?

Childhood Memories

As a child, I used to love reading the golem stories attributed to Rabbi Judah Lowe, a.k.a., the famous “Maharal of Prague” (1525-1609).  Since my father came from Czechoslovakia, I grew up hearing many family tales about the golem. These stories were especially delightful since my father was a naturally talented storyteller.  The golem was something like a medieval super-hero who protected the Jewish community from pogroms in its time.  It is interesting to note, that despite the numerous tracts Maharal wrote on various philosophical, talmudic, and mystical themes, never once does he ever refer to the golem that is associated with his name.

What is a Golem?

The term gōlem is a “shapeless mass” (Ps. 139:16), but according to Jewish folklore, a golem is a creature that is made from clay, and is animated by magical and mystical means. One of the more apocryphal stories of the Talmud relates how a 4th century scholar named Rava, magically created a man through the Sefer Yetzirah and sent him to Rabbi Zera. The latter tried speaking to him, but the poor golem could not speak. When there was no response, he declared: ‘You must be a  product of our colleague. Return to your dust!’ and so he died (BT Sanhedrin 65b).

Ironically, it is with no precedent in the Bible, except for the creation of Adam–except, now, it is man who is attempting to act as a mini-creator. How could such hubris not fail?

Indeed, in nearly all the golem legends, it appears that anytime mortals attempt to create human life, it is an activity that is fraught with danger. It seems that our ancestors felt suspicious about the full extent of man’s creative powers. In many of the stories, the golem goes out of control, destroying everything in sight.

Adaptations of the Golem in Western Literature and Cinema

The Frankenstein story is a European re-adaptation of the golem legends. In J. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Hobbit Gollum devolves into a treacherous shape-shifter under the malign influence of the Ring, it seems obvious that the author had these legends in mind.

In Star Trek: The Next Generation, the character Data personifies  the golem legend. When attempting to integrate the emotional chip, he becomes capable of erratic behavior–even violence. Countless sci-fi films have developed this theme in numerous tales about humanoid-like robots turning against their masters, i.e., like the Terminator series. Even the X-Files had an interesting episode of a betrothed woman who turns her murdered husband into a golem, in order to avenge his death.

According to some medieval tales, the golem is indestructible; if the golem had been created by writing the Hebrew word “אמת” (emet; “truth”) on its forehead, it could be destroyed by erasing the first letter to produce the word “מת” (met; “dead”). If one had created a golem by placing the name of God in its mouth, all that was needed was to remove the parchment.

Can a Golem Join a Minyan?

The golem has found a respectable place even in the Halachic literature. In one case study, Rabbi Zvi Ashkanazi (1660-1718) writes in a responsa how his grandfather, Rabbi Elijah of Chelm, once made a golem in his garage. In this remarkable responsa, he asks whether (1) can a golem count as one of the ten who make a minyan or quorum for prayer?  (2) If someone killed such an entity, would be considered a murderer? Each of these questions revolves around one basic question: could such a creature possess a human soul?

If the golem can be counted, does that mean that a golem may be considered as a Jew?  Or does he have a gentile status? On the other hand, it is logical to say that the golem should be no worst than an adopted child, who is considered “Jewish.”

The rabbi wondered:

“’Should it occur to you that a golem could have been counted for a minyan (or for that matter any occasion requiring a minyan),  why would R. Zeira deliberately destroy it? It could only mean that the Golem is not considered  a person, for otherwise Rava would have most certainly used him for a minyan!

According to this piece of “dazzling” wisdom (of course I am not being real serious) , it would appear that a Golem is not really a ‘person’ in any real sense of the word, for the Torah clearly states, ‘If anyone sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; For in the image of God has man been made” (Gen. 9:6). In fact, were one to kill such a creature, it would not even be considered murder! [1]

In the case of Rava’s golem, since he was artificially made, therefore,  he could not actually be considered “human.” Rabbi Ashkenazi concludes, “Nevertheless, Rabbi Zeira should not have done away with it, unless it served no constructive purpose. If that is the case, its destruction can be of no consequence; therefore, it could not qualify for a minyan or, for that matter, any other sacred purpose . . . Moreover a golem is inferior even to the souls of women, and they are never counted for anything pertaining to a minyan.”

Defining “Personhood”

Right . . . . I am curious: Since when is a soul, by itself, subject to gender? But that is another topic for future day.

It seems strange that the idea of a woman being a part of the minyan was not even a consideration, but the golem at least made the venerable rabbi pause for reflection. I suspect the Ortho-feminists of our time would most certainly have straightened Rabbi Ashkenazi out, if they could go back in time and argue with the rabbi.

Needless to say, a modern medical ethicist would definitely have serious problems with Rav Ashkenazi’s assertion that any person who  is artificially created– intrinsically–lacks the status of a “person.”

If Rav Askenazi’s logic is consistent, would a human being who  is in a deep comatose state also be considered like a “golem,” since he lacks the obvious visible signs of personhood?

Ultimately, it really boils down to the question: What is personhood? Using Descartes’ cogito ergo sum, if an entity is capable of thinking and self-reflection, then it is safe to presume it has the property of “personhood,” irregardless whether its origin is artificial or not. Equally important is the  matter of “reverence for life,” for once sentience and self-consciousness have been established, how can anyone not respect the “person” who possesses these two traits?

As one of my colleagues once said, “If you wish to see ten golems, just come to an evening service  at my Shul.”

Ditto . . .



[1] Responsa 93

3 thoughts on “Can a Golem be counted as part of a minyan?

  1. Yochanan Lavie says:

    Any sentient being should be treated as a person. And as a religious computer scientist once speculated, perhaps a merciful God would endow an artificial intelligent life form with a soul. I also believe that many animals have a degree of self-awareness and therefore have a form of a soul and even an afterlife of some kind. I can’t prove any of this, but it comforts me to think of it.

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