Skip to content

The Fifth Annual Morton E. Ruderman Memorial Lecture: “Frankenstein & the Golem”

On March 27, Dr. Paul Root Wolpe – the Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Bioethics, the Raymond F. Schinazi Distinguished Research Chair in Jewish Bioethics, and the Director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University – delivered the fifth annual Morton E. Ruderman Memorial Lecture.  In this article, Jack Halliwell, a student in Lori Lefkovitz’s Jewish Religion & Culture class, summarizes and analyzes the lecture.  

On March 27th, I went to the annual Ruderman Lecture to hear a talk by Professor Paul Root Wolpe, an ethicist from Emory University. His talk, titled “Frankenstein and the Golem:  How ancient tales inform modern biotechnology,” was about the intersection of Judaism and bioethics. In it, he raised the questions of what exactly makes something human, can humans make or enhance people, and to what extent is it ethical to do so. To explore this, he considered and compared the stories of the Golem from Jewish mythology and the story of Frankenstein from Mary Shelley’s classic 1818 novel.

Before the lecture, I thought that Golem was just a synonym for a monster or some sort of demon-like creature that lurks in the night. In fact, in Jewish mythology, the Golem is something that is not a fully formed human by virtue of the fact that it does not have a soul. As such, lacking a soul, it cannot speak, a sign of the separation between human and non-human. Golems are creations of rabbis and act as an expression of piety, meaning the more pious the rabbi, the closer to an actual human the Golem is. However, Golems as created by rabbis can never be human because man will always have iniquities, and as such cannot ensoul a Golem to make it human, a power that is reserved for God.

The nature of the Golem contrasts with Shelley’s Frankenstein, the story of a man who develops an ability to become god-like and reanimate flesh. However, Frankenstein abandons his monster because the creature was ugly; he was trying to create an Aryan ideal that was beautiful, but failed in doing so. It is a transgression, something improper for which he is condemned. The being that he creates is different from human beings solely in appearance and physiology, whereas the Golem is different because it lacks a soul. The reason we make the Golem relates to how the Jewish tradition views the world and man’s place in it. Judaism has the principle of tikkun olam, of repairing the world, which goes hand in hand with the idea that man is the co-creator with God and has a duty to perfect God’s imperfect world. However, man is separate from God, as mentioned, because of human iniquities that prevent him from being perfect. The creation of the Golem is an act of piety and being close to God, whereas the creation of Frankenstein’s monster in Shelley’s book is a show of arrogance, of manipulation of technical knowledge without considering morality.

Professor Root Wolpe then tied these ideas to modern bioethical issues. He posited that many, especially in the US, fear that scientists don’t act within the bounds of morality and right and wrong, leading them to go too far and act unethically in their experiments. The creation of things such as supersized salmon, cloned animals, glow-in-the-dark animals, and a chimeric pig raises questions about the ethics of these scientific advancements and their implications for humanity. Just like the Golem and Frankenstein, we are coming to a point in time where the question of what is and is not human is being raised more often in bioethics. And, with that, there comes consideration of what we afford human rights to; is a chimeric pig embryo with human DNA human? What about a rat with an ear growing out of it? Root Wolpe ultimately did not come to a steadfast conclusion on these issues; however, he did present two lessons we can learn from the story of Frankenstein and of the Golem that might be applicable to this area. Firstly, from Frankenstein, we could see Frankenstein as a warning of how scientific experiments inevitably go awry. Secondly, we must consider responsibility or lack thereof when it comes to science and the bounds of man’s arrogance. Alternatively, we could view biotechnical advancements by way of the Golem, as under man’s control, something that we ultimately have power over as creators. Rather than being an issue of man’s arrogance, it involves man’s social responsibility of tikkun olam and bettering the world God has made. Rather than these advancements being scary harbingers of what is to come, we could see them as the next step in defining what it means to be human. Personally, I would exercise more caution than anything else.

Read the rest of the Spring 2017 Haverim Newsletter here.

More Stories

FACULTY PROFILE: Natalie Bormann



Northeastern logo

From the Director

Haverim Newsletter Spring 2017