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May 25

“Fall From Grace With Me”: Free Will, the Golem, and the Angels

Originally published March 19 2013 on Tumblr.

Golem: Yifalkhunbi!
Aaron:Enough! Please! Quiet time!
Sam: All right. What was that? What was he saying?
Aaron: It’s Hebrew for something like “take charge,” but I have no idea what he means.

 The Hebrew “word”/ phrase that the Golem speaks to Aaron, Yifalkhunbi—most likely ‘פלחנב’ in the Hebrew— is an interesting one. It presents a subtle counterpoint to the presented “good” of Aaron’s ownership of the Golem.  Aaron loosely translates it as “take charge”, but this phrase does not translate to anything related to “taking control” or “taking charge.” In fact, the phrase seems to translate most directly as fall-grace-with (or for) me.

The phrase can be separated into three component words: yifal, khun, andbi.Yifal is (sort of; I think I’ve always seen it as yipol, so I’m not even sure this is an accurate form) the masculine future tense form of nfl, נפל, which means “to fall”—hence, “he will fall.“ I’ve never seen khen (חן), grace, pronounced as khun but that is the most likely candidate for the translation of that part of the phrase. Bi (ביhas multiple translations, but generally means “in me”, “with me”, or in some cases “for me” (in the sense of “for my sake”)—the latter being most likely here. Together, the phrase translates to English as “He will fall [from] grace with me” or “He will fall [from] grace for me.” The from is assumed here; technically from grace should be mi-chen (מחן). Even leaving aside the odd verb form of fall—if the Golem is addressing Aaron, it should be “You will/must fall”—this is certainly not a phrase that is naturally translated as take charge. There is clearly a deliberate secondary message here.

This made me consider how this phrase might have developed. I don’t know, but I presume when other languages (in this episode, German, Yiddish, and Hebrew) are used the writer writes the dialogue in English and it’s then translated into the appropriate language. This is probably generally pretty straightforward; the German dialogue at the beginning is (as far as I can tell) more or less translated directly by the subtitles; the same goes for the Yiddish. This phrase, however, is distinctly different. It is not in any way a phrase that a translator would naturally use to translate any form of take control of me into Hebrew. It’s not archaic; it’s not a known poetic form. This wording was absolutely deliberate, and not an oddity of translation. Whatever the path of this phrase, Edlund clearly wanted the true meaning of the phrase that the Golem utters to Aaron to demand that he create their bond to be fall from grace for/ with me.

It says something about Aaron and his relationship with the Golem. In the action of the episode, Aaron’s writing his name on the Golem’s scroll and thus taking charge of him is presented as a good thing. It represents Aaron’s maturity, his acceptance of his role as the sole member of the Judah Initiative, and his recognition of the value of his grandfather’s legacy. Yet if it is solely good, why does the imperative phrase refer to this taking control as falling from grace? It’s tempting to consider Aaron’s previous state of ignorance as a state of “grace”, and thus his acceptance of his responsibilities a loss of that grace, but the Hebrew word does not carry that connotation; it’s something closer to favor. So the phrase suggests that in taking charge, Aaron has fallen from favor. The question, therefore, is why? If this is good—and it’s presented as such—then why is it referred to in apparently negative terms?

The explanation may be in what Aaron has to do to take charge— accepting his ownership of the Golem. Throughout the episode, the Golem has been presented as a thinking, feeling being. He even has the ability to communicate—through speech—something that, as Sam points out, traditionally golems are not supposed to be able to do. There is a brief reference to the creation and destruction of a golem in the Talmud. A rabbi creates a golem and sends him to another rabbi, who questions the golem. When the golem cannot speak, the second rabbi commands it to destroy itself:

Rava said: If the righteous wished, they could create a world, for it is written, “Your iniquities have been a barrier between you and your God.” For Rava created a man and sent him to R. Zeira. The Rabbi spoke to him but he did not answer. Then he said: “You are [coming] from the pietists: Return to your dust.”

 Sanhedrin65b (translation from Golem: Jewish Magical and Mystical Traditions on the Artificial Anthropoid, p. 27)

This excerpt, of course, has been interpreted many ways. One interpretation—and the one I’m going to use here—is that R. Zeira commands the golem to return to dust because it is not fully human, as it cannot communicate. It is an inferior, failed creation. The implication is that if it could speak, it would be considered human, and thought to be endowed with the soul-level that is associated with humanity. In Jewish tradition, there are three “parts” to the soul—the nefesh, which is the basic endowment of life common to every animal; theruach, which is the spirit which is capable of discerning good and evil; and theneshama, the “human” part, which is intellectual and capable of “higher” thought and connection to the Divine. The golem was generally considered to have only the first two soul-parts. This golem was destroyed, therefore, not because it was an imitation human, but because it was an incomplete copy—it was sort-of-human-but-not-really.

By these standards, the Golem in this episode is a fully ensouled being, the equal of any human. He is a person. Aaron is taking ownership of a person. The Golem himself even demands it, at one point saying, “It’s not my place to guide the rabbi, to teach the teacher. It’s not my place! You own me!” (This transcript gives the last sentence as Yifalkhunbi again, but it definitely sounds like you own me to me. I don’t have subtitles, so I can’t check for sure.) The Golem was created to see being owned as his purpose. He has strong ideas as to what that owner should be having him do, and of his responsibilities, yet there is an essential directive: I must be owned. Someone must be in charge of him, have command of him. The Golem is insistent that he does not have free will. His existence is predicated on service to his owner.

On the surface of this episode, this ownership is blatantly presented as good, but that phrase subverts that narrative with the suggestion that in claiming that ownership, someone is falling from favor, falling from grace. And if the phrase is translated as “fall from grace with me,” rather than “for me,” it also suggests that in accepting ownership, the Golem himself will also fall. There is a tension between what we are told and what we are shown in this episode. On one level it’s shown as good that this being is rejecting free will, and on another more subtle level we’re told that this is not good. Free will isn’t easy, and it isn’t really free—you can make your own choices, but you still have to pay for them. It’s simpler to act on command—it removes the messy what should I do from the equation. But this episode suggests that while it may be desired, and seem good in some ways, rejecting free will is not the right path—that it leads one to fall from God’s grace and favor.

The question of free will of course leads back to the angels, and Castiel in particular, who have had and are continuing to have their own struggles with free will. Just as with the Golem, the angels were created to be commanded—as far as they have been aware, they do not have free will. (In fact, in an interesting parallel, falling has been presented as a prerequisite for an angel to understand their free will.) Anna chose humanity and free will, and was consequently sentenced to death by her fellow angels. In season 6 Cass learns, painfully, that having free will is both a wonderful and terrible thing. Freedom to make your own choices means the freedom to make the wrong choices—and you are the only one responsible for your actions; there is no one else to blame. In general, the show has often shown that free will leads to bad things for angels. But we’re also asked to see these angels’ choices as a good thing. Anna believes that she is a better being for having fallen; we see Cass’s growing understanding of humanity and the value of free will as a good thing, as him learning to fight for what is good and right even if it goes against what he is commanded. In this season angelic free will is being explored again through Naomi. She has taken away Castiel’s free will in order to achieve her goals. While Naomi is something of a mystery, her actions do seem to represent the traditional angelic position—do what you are commanded—and this has terrible consequences for Castiel.

As with the Golem in this episode, there is an ongoing tension in the theme of angelic free will. And it’s not at all clear what God wants. If the angels were programmed, as “Torn and Frayed” suggested, solely to serve God, then they do not have free will. But Castiel tells the angels that “God wants you to have freedom,” in “The Man Who Would Be King” (another Edlund episode.) There are two possibilities here—either Cass is wrong, and angels are not meant to have free will, or he is right—and free will is what God wants. I think the show has fairly consistently stated that free will is a positive—Godstiel was not a statement that free will is bad, but that it is difficult, which is not the same thing—so I think it is fair to suppose that the show intends for us to think that Cass is right, and angels are free beings. They may not want to be free—hence Naomi—but that does not change the fact that they should be free. This leads us back to the phrase from this episode. If free will—for angels or anyone—is truly God’s will then it makes sense that rejecting it leads one to fall from grace—to fall from God’s favor.

Final note: I’ve tried to be careful with both the Hebrew and the Jewish texts here, but it’s been a few years since I’ve intensively studied either—and I’ve never studied that particular golem text—so there could be some mistakes. Also, credit to this post for pointing out that the khun part of the phrase was grace.

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