Have Corporations Become Modern-day Golems?

By Jack Moline 07-22-2014

In Jewish folklore, a golem is an anthropomorphic entity created from inanimate matter. Creative Commons image Matthias Ripp.

Corporations are not people — no matter what five Supreme Court justices and a failed presidential candidate may say.

I take that position on the basis of my religious faith, the very test that the justices applied in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.

My tradition tells me to ask essential questions.

So here is where I start: May a golem be counted in a minyan? A minyan is a quorum required for certain Jewish prayers, and a golem is a mythological creature created from clay and animated by a sacred incantation.

The golem’s “sculptor” controls its actions; it has no real will of its own. It looks and acts enough like a human being, however, that the Talmudic rabbis discussed whether a group of nine Jews could complete the minyan with a golem.

The answer: No.

The golem is really just an extension of someone’s private ambitions. And a golem on the loose is likely to act on its master’s self-serving instincts — think Incredible Hulk without Bruce Banner’s morning-after regrets. It has no conscience, and it takes no responsibility. The mark of a human being — one who may be counted toward the quorum — is recognition of the responsibilities that distinguish us from other forms of life as much as the opposable thumb.

Corporations are the golems of American business. They are created out of inanimate material (Justice Samuel Alito’s “piece of paper”) to act on the self-interests of their owners while limiting the owners’ responsibility.

The laws and regulations that protect employees and citizens are aimed not at the personal values of the kindly Dr. Jekyll, but at the reckless and dangerous Mr. Hyde.

The Hobby Lobby decision extends the privileges of the family that holds a corporation “closely” to restrict the lawful actions of its employees (which, we should note, do not impact the corporation itself). In that sense, it is an extension of the rights of the family.

But in ascribing those rights to the corporation itself as a surrogate for the human beings who formed it, the majority of justices allow an entity unable to assume responsibility for its actions to promote the self-serving instincts of its owners.

The rhetorical devices that ascribe the characteristics of a citizen to the legal fiction called a “corporation” are the mud and magic that produce a golem.

The deeply held religious convictions of the Green family are not evil, but they do serve a worldview that is not necessarily shared by their employees.

Enforcing those convictions on workers whose labors are necessary to the vitality of the corporate golem seems to me to violate inalienable human rights.

In the Torah, we learn that man was formed from the dust of the earth so that he could be a living, breathing human being — not so that five justices or an employer could re-create him in their image.

Rabbi Jack Moline is the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. Via RNS.

Image: In Jewish folklore, a golem is an anthropomorphic entity that is created magically from inanimate matter. Creative Commons image by Matthias Ripp.

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