In the Age of Trump, Reclaiming the Golem as a Symbol of Jewish Resistance
Finding Solidarity and Strength in Jewish Folklore
“The question of the role of World Jewry,” writes Martin Heidegger in his recently published Black Notebooks, “is not a racial one, but the metaphysical question concerning the kind of humanity, which, free from all attachments, can assume the world-historical ‘task’ of uprooting all beings from being.” Elsewhere in the Black Notebooks, he writes of “the cleverness of calculation, pushiness, and intermixing whereby Jewry’s worldlessness is established.”
I am a Jew. Heidegger’s words concern me, though they are not meant for me. They seek to account for me, not as a possible reader of Heidegger—not as a human being at all—but as a metaphysical phenomenon: as World Jewry, as uprooting, as an apocalyptic worldlessness. At issue is my humanity. For Heidegger, to be human is to have a world. If Jewishness is worldlessness, it’s a state inferior even to animality; Heidegger, in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, describes non-human animals as merely “poor in world.” World Jewry, uprooting, worldlessness. How am I, a Jewish reader of Heidegger, to feel reading these words?
I’m overcome by disgust: at Heidegger, at myself for allowing his thinking the intimacy of impacting mine. After disgust comes a strange disorientation, an uncanny flicker out of my comfort in the world and unimpeded movement through it—a comfort I experience, in part, because I am white.
In “A Phenomenology of Whiteness,” Sara Ahmed describes whiteness as comfort and mobility in a world made for white bodies. Because “spaces extend bodies and bodies extend spaces,” she argues, “white bodies are comfortable as they inhabit spaces that extend their shape.” This is why my body and others like it “move with comfort through space” and “inhabit the world as if it were home.” In the same article, Ahmed briefly considers Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology and Heidegger’s teacher (it is to him that Heidegger’s masterwork, Being and Time, is dedicated). Husserl, though he converted to Protestantism, was ethnically Jewish and thus suffered professionally during the Nazis’ rise before his death in 1938. Ahmed describes this as a case of whiteness coming under dispute:
When someone’s whiteness is in dispute, then they come under “stress,” which in turn threatens bodily motility, or what the body “can do.” [. . .] Husserl’s biography might indeed help us here. For when Husserl’s whiteness came into dispute, when he was read as being Jewish, he literally lost his chair: he temporarily lost the public recognition of his place as a philosopher.
When Husserl’s whiteness “came into dispute,” when he became visible as a Jew during the rise of Nazism, the world ceased to extend him in the same way. As the boundaries of whiteness trembled, Husserl returned, in a new way, to his own already-Jewishness. This meant the inhibition of his philosophical activity and the diminution of his reputation. It meant the temporary removal of Heidegger’s dedication to Husserl from Being and Time.
Reading the anti-Semitic remarks in Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, I feel a disruption. It’s not the same disruption that Husserl experienced. But it is something. Heidegger brings me into contact with the history of the racialization of bodies like mine. This contact forces me—even if only for a moment, in the privacy of my own reading—to viscerally encounter this fact: I am white, so I am safe, but it could be otherwise.
On November 21, 2016, The Lead with Jake Tapper on CNN hosted a discussion on the subject of whether president-elect Donald Trump should formally disavow the so-called “alt-right,” a movement of white nationalists who have vocally supported Trump and have ties to his advisers. As anchor John Sciulto traced recently appointed White House chief strategist Steve Bannon’s connection to the movement and pivoted to a discussion of a remark made by white supremacist Richard Spencer, the banner onscreen underwent an alarming shift. TRUMP MEETS WITH PARADE OF POSSIBLE CABINET PICKS became ALT-RIGHT FOUNDER QUESTIONS IF JEWS ARE PEOPLE. The latter message stood for the remainder of the segment. By my count: two minutes and 46 seconds.
What does it mean for one of the nation’s most prominent and most watched news channels to broadcast the words IF JEWS ARE PEOPLE for nearly three full minutes? The clause’s conditionality, that minuscule yet monumental if, opens up two paths: Jews are people, or they are not. The very opening of the paths lends legitimacy to each. The neutral frame in which the question of Jewish humanity is presented—not ALT-RIGHT FOUNDER SPEWS VILE ANTI-SEMITISM—legitimizes it. The possibility of Jews’ inhumanity, of our not-being-people, cannot, CNN’s banner text suggests, be foreclosed upon in advance.
The manner in which the caption opens—ALT-RIGHT FOUNDER QUESTIONS—recalls Heidegger pondering the “question of the role of World Jewry.” Questions such as these harbor menace but play at innocence. We aren’t claiming anything, such questions suggest. We’re just asking questions. What could be wrong with a question? We know better. Heidegger knew better. In “The Question Concerning Technology,” he writes, “Questioning builds a way.” Heidegger was himself more interested in questions than answers, more interested in building ways than making claims. What kind of way is built by the questioning of Jewish humanity?
“What does it mean for one of the nation’s most prominent and most watched news channels to broadcast the words IF JEWS ARE PEOPLE for nearly three full minutes?”
The remark of Richard Spencer’s that inspired CNN’s viral caption was also posed as a kind of question. “One wonders if these people are people at all,” Spencer said, “or instead soulless golem.” Like Heidegger, Spencer’s words assume the posture of academic inquiry or even idle speculation—One wonders—to open up the possibility of Jewish inhumanity. Spencer’s remark goes further by naming the possible inhumanity, concretizing it into a vivid image: soulless golem.
Here, a note: Spencer’s remark in this instant explicitly referred not to Jews, but rather to “the mainstream media.” Yet CNN’s interpretation holds water, as is clear from the fuller context of Spencer’s words, captured on video by The Atlantic:
The mainstream media—or perhaps we should refer to them in the original German, Lügenpresse [. . .] It’s not just that they are leftists and cucks. It’s not just that many are genuinely stupid. Indeed, one wonders if these people are people at all, or instead soulless golem, animated by some dark power to repeat whatever talking point John Oliver stated the night before.
The plausible deniability the context offers is, to be generous, thin. Spencer denigrates the media by alluding to the anti-Semitic trope that it is controlled by Jews. Though he doesn’t name Jews directly, he refers to “the mainstream media” as “Lügenpresse”—German for lying press—a Nazi term that often explicitly targeted Jews. And then there’s the golem.
The golem is a figure from Jewish folklore. Its earliest roots, according to Gershom Scholem’s seminal study, “The Idea of the Golem,” lie in Psalm 139, in which golmi, a form of golem, means “unformed, amorphous,” as of Adam “before the breath of God had touched him.” By the end of the 12th century, Scholem writes, the word appears in Jewish mystical texts signifying “a man created by magical art.” Variations on the figure’s particularities abound, but the most common themes are captured in Jakob Grimm’s 1808 rendering, which Scholem quotes:
After saying certain prayers and observing certain fast days, the Polish Jews make the figure of a man from clay or mud, and when they pronounce the miraculous Shemhamphoras [the name of God] over him, he must come to life. He cannot speak, but he understands fairly well what is said or commanded. They call him golem and use him as a servant to do all sorts of housework. But he must never leave the house. On his forehead is written ’emeth [truth]; every day he gains weight and becomes somewhat larger and stronger than all the others in the house, regardless of how little he was to begin with. For fear of him, they therefore erase the first letter, so that nothing remains but meth [he is dead], whereupon he collapses and turns to clay again.
The alternative to humanity Spencer posits is the motion of a soulless automaton that doesn’t speak and exists only to do another’s bidding. The golem’s soullessness and speechlessness echo Heidegger’s “worldless Jewry.” Spencer, like Heidegger, imagines Jewishness as a fundamentally deficient mode of being.
My encounter with Spencer’s words mirrored my encounter with the Black Notebooks. Named by Spencer as a soulless golem, I was returned to my body and felt it anew: as only provisionally permitted into the safety of whiteness. As Zoé Samudzi explains in a Twitter thread from November, “there are many Jewish people racialized as white who have access to power and privilege within whiteness . . . but per the white supremacist imaginary, a Jewish person racialized as white can never be white.” Though I move through the world as white, the white supremacist imaginary will never see me as such.
Trump’s election and its attendant elevation of anti-Semitic discourse, crystallized in Spencer’s remarks, has made national a version of my private encounter with the Black Notebooks. In the first months of the Trump administration, there have continued to be occasions for such encounters. The White House’s statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day purposely omitted any mention of Jews. In a February press conference, Trump shouted down a Jewish reporter who asked about rising anti-Semitism. On the first day of Passover, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer suggested that Hitler compares favorably to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Hitler, Spicer said, “didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.” When asked to clarify, he said that Hitler “was not using the gas on his own people.” Of course, Hitler slaughtered countless Jews and others with chemical weapons, and the suggestion that the German Jews murdered in the Holocaust were not Hitler’s “own people” affirms a white supremacist logic.
In her Twitter thread, Samudzi describes the situation of the white Jew in the age of Trump well: “Tfw you’ve been largely comfortable in your whiteness till you were jolted with the reminder that its boundaries are not static.”
When Spencer invokes the golem, he participates in a history of anti-Semitic discourse. In The Golem Returns: From German Romantic Literature to Global Jewish Culture, 1808-2008, Cathy S. Gelbin describes “the golem’s signification of the Jew’s human semblance.” For the German Romantic writers, the golem mirrors the Jew, for it “resembles human form so closely that its artificiality is indistinguishable to the untrained eye.” Like “the assimilated Jew, the golem’s difference lies in its essence rather than clearly demarcated physical features.” But that essence, once noted, is profoundly inhuman. Gelbin marks the rise of this use of the golem in the transition in “anti-Jewish discourses.” “The golem,” she writes, “a monstrous and silent nonhuman, becomes the perfect signifier for the new configuration of the Jews’ absolute difference”—that is, “of their flawed body, soul, and discourse.”
Many white Jews would prefer not to hear Spencer’s opening of the question of Jewish inhumanity and its echoes across the nation and in the White House. And many have responded by clinging closer to whiteness, hoping that it will protect them. These white Jews reaffirm their commitment to whiteness in the hope that, by mimicking the motions, they will be protected and spared.
The history of this strategy in America is long; it’s the history of American Jewish whiteness. In How Jews Became White Folk and What That Says About Race in America, Karen Brodkin traces the absorption of European Jewry into whiteness via post-World War II “policies [that] recognized the categories of whiteness to include European immigrants.” Mark Tseng-Putterman, in “More than a Feeling: Jews and Whiteness in Trump’s America,” extends Brodkin’s analysis back in the “history of American race-making.” He convincingly argues that, well before World War II, European Jews found themselves on the side of whiteness as an American legal construct, from the 1765 Virginia Slave Codes to the 1790 Naturalization Act to Virginia’s 1924 Racial Integrity Act.
“Many white Jews have responded by clinging closer to whiteness, hoping that it will protect them.”
In “On Being White . . . and Other Lies,” James Baldwin writes that “the Jews came here from countries where they were not white, and they came here, in part, because they were not white; and incontestably [. . .] American Jews have opted to become white; and this is how they operate.” Baldwin’s essay appeared in 1984; little has changed since then. Whiteness is in part, Baldwin writes, “a moral choice,” and it’s one white Jews might reaffirm in the face of rising anti-Semitism.
But there are other golems we might choose to be. In Representations of the Post/Human: Monsters, Aliens and Others in Popular Culture, Elaine L. Graham concludes her genealogy of the golem with an exhortation to consider the figure’s infinite possibilities. “Think of the golem,” she writes, “like his clay flesh, as a porous, malleable creature.” The golem is multivalent and thus potent. Spencer summons only one meaning of many. What others might we bring forth?
When Paul Wegener’s 1920 film The Golem: How He Came Into the World opens, the stars suggest danger. Rabbi Loew examines a constellation through a telescope. Words appear: “The learned Rabbi Loew reads in the stars that misfortune threatens the Jews.” Soon, an imperial decree arrives at the ghetto. It reads:
We can no longer neglect the popular complaints against the Jews. They despise the holy Christian ceremonies; they endanger the lives and property of their fellow-men; they practice black magic. We decree that all Jews shall leave the city and all territory in sight of the city before the month is ended.
Rabbi Loew takes his community’s defense into his own hands. As it turns out, he is learned in more than Torah and Talmud. In a mystical tome, he finds his answer. “Venus enters the constellation of Libra!” he cries. “The auspicious hour has come to summon the dread spirit Astaroth, and compel him to reveal the magic word. Then we can bring the Golem to life to save our people.”
The golem here emblemizes action, resistance, self-defense—even rage and potential violence. In Legacy of Rage: Jewish Masculinity, Violence, and Culture, Warren Rosenberg classes the golem legend among rabbinic “fantasies of violence” produced as a response to Jews “living in an anti-Semitic and hypermasculinized medieval Europe.” For Rosenberg, the golem is “a ‘super’ body, a truly impermeable being, who could save the people.” The golem’s body is one built to act—and, if necessary, to act violently.
In Wegener’s film, Rabbi Loew conjures the golem not by means of Kabbalistic and thus Judaic rites, but by a form of demonic black magic drawn from anti-Semitic tropes: Astaroth, the demon who serves the role of the Great Duke of Hell, has no place in Judaic golem lore. Rabbi Loew, and thus his golem, are marked by this. Within the logic of the film, the Jews of Prague have earned their exile. The imperial decree accuses them of practicing black magic, which is exactly what they do in their attempt to rebuff it.
What can we learn from this? Perhaps that we need not cling to the white supremacist imaginary’s understanding of personhood. Just as Rabbi Loew, with his black magic golem, refuses to advocate for Jewish personhood on the anti-Semitic terms set up by the Christian community—white Jews can refuse to hold firm to their whiteness. We cannot, of course, shed it. But we can say, with Baldwin, that whiteness is a moral choice. We can try to make different choices.
Becoming this other golem—the golem animated, in affirmation of difference, to fight back—can provide power, moral direction, and an imperative to act. But this golem has its limits. Rage is powerful. It’s often useful, even necessary. But it’s not the only affect necessary for change. This is clear in many versions of the golem legend, including Wegener’s film, in which the golem turns on the Jews and must be subdued. This kind of rage, deployed as self-defense, won’t help us to stand with those more vulnerable than ourselves. We need a golem of richer possibility—a golem of solidarity.
The text of Psalm 139—the golem’s earliest origin—is, according to tradition, spoken by Adam to God:
It was you who created my conscience;
You fashioned me in my mother’s womb.
I praise you,
For I am awesomely, wondrously made;
Your work is wonderful;
I know it very well.
My frame was not concealed from You
when I was shaped in a hidden place,
knit together in the recesses of the earth.
Your eye saw my unformed limbs [golmi];
they were recorded in your book;
in due time they were formed,
to the very last of them.
Might this be the golem we need—unformed, embryonic, pure potency? Might this be the golem that turns Spencer’s and Heidegger’s opening of the question of Jewish humanity against them? Here, primordiality is pure futurity and thus utopian: another world is possible.
In “The Idea of the Golem,” Scholem examines a rabbinic reading of Genesis from the second and third centuries. The strange gloss draws on Psalm 139 to imagine Adam’s embryonic golem-form in the moment before God’s breath makes him human. The commentary states, “In the hour when God created the first Adam, He created him as a golem, and he was stretched out from one end of the world to the other.”
By returning me to the golem I am, Spencer aims to make me small. But what if, instead, he helps me to become large—to “stretch out from one end of the world to the other,” like Adam’s golem in the beginning of things, before the beginning? Like the golem in Wegener’s film, a dark spirit has animated me. Questioning builds a way. A way is open. Now to move.
Featured illustration from the book Golem, by David Wisniewski.