Judah Loew ben Bezalel

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Judah Loew ben Bezalel ("Judah Loew son of Bezalel"), (according to some his name was Yehudah ben Bezalel Levai [or Loew]), (15251609) was an important Talmudic scholar, Jewish mystic and philosopher who served as a leading rabbi in Prague (now in the Czech Republic) for most of his life. He is still widely known to many scholars of Judaism as the Maharal of Prague, or simply as the Maharal (MaHaRaL is the Hebrew acronym of Moreinu ha-Rav Loew ("Our Teacher The Rabbi Loew").) His descendants' surname may have also been pronounced as Loewy or Lowy.

Within the world of Torah and Talmudic scholarship, he is known for this works on Jewish philosophy and Jewish mysticism and his supercommentary on Rashi's Torah commentary known as Gur Aryeh al HaTorah. He is also known, especially outside of Judaism, for the story about the golem (a type of "kosher" homunculus), which he supposedly created using mystical magical powers based on the esoteric knowledge of how God created Adam rooted in the creation narrative of the first few chapters of the Book of Genesis (known in Judaism as Ma'aseh Bereishis). According to the legend he did this to defend the Jews of the Prague Ghetto from antisemitic attacks against them motivated by false blood libels emanating from certain prejudiced quarters.

It has also been thought that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was based partly on the story of the Maharal's Golem.

Contents

Biography

The Maharal was born in Prague to Rabbi Betzalel (Loew), whose family originated from the German town of Worms. He received his formal education in various yeshivas (Talmudical schools).

He was independently wealthy, probably as a result of his father's successful business enterprises. He accepted a rabbinical position in 1553 as Landesrabbiner of Moravia at Nikolsburg, directing community affairs but also determining which tractate of the Talmud was to be studied in the communities in that province. He also revised the community statutes on the election and taxation process. Although he retired from Moravia in 1588 at age 60, the communities still considered him an authority long after that.

One of his activities in Moravia was the rallying against slanderous slurs on legitimacy (Nadler) that were spread in the community against certain families and could ruin the finding of a marriage partner (known as shidduchim within Orthodox Judaism) for the children of those families. This phenomenon even affected his own family. He used one of the two yearly grand sermons (between Rosh ha-Shana and Yom Kippur 1583) to denounce the phenomenon.

He moved back to Prague in 1588, where he again accepted a rabinical position, replacing the retired Isaac Hayoth. He immediately reiterated his views on Nadler. On 23 February 1592, he had an audience with Emperor Rudolf II, which he attended together with his brother Sinai and his son-in-law Isaac Cohen; Prince Bertier was present with the emperor. The conversation seems to have been related to Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, a subject which held much fascination for the emperor.

In 1592, the Maharal moved to Posen, where he had been elected as Chief Rabbi of Poland. In Posen he composed Netivoth Shalom and part of Derech Chaim (see below). Towards the end of his life he moved back to Prague, where he died in 1609. He is buried there.

His name

His second name (possible also his family's second name - depending on varying sources) of "Löw" or "Loew", derived from the German Löwe, "lion" (cf. the Yiddish Leib of the same origin), which is a kinnuy or substitute name for the Hebrew Judah or Yehuda, as this name - originally of the tribe of Judah - is traditionally associated with a lion. In the Book of Genesis, the patriarch Jacob refers to his son Judah as a Gur Aryeh, a "Young Lion" (Genesis 49:9) when blessing him [1] (http://bible.ort.org/books/pentd2.asp?ACTION=displaypage&BOOK=1&CHAPTER=49). In Jewish naming tradition the Hebrew name and the substitute name are often combined as a pair, as in this case. The Maharal's classic work on the Rashi commentary of the Pentateuch is called the Gur Aryeh al HaTorah, in Hebrew: "Young Lion [commenting] upon the Torah". The Maharal's tomb in Prague is decorated with a heraldic shield with a lion with two intertwined tails, alluding both to his first name and to Bohemia, the arms of which has a two-tailed lion.

Influence

Disciples

It is unknown how many Talmudic rabbinical scholars the Maharal taught in Moravia, but the main disciples from the Prague period include Rabbis Yom Tov Lipmann Heller and David Ganz. The former promoted his teacher's program of regular Mishnah study by the masses, and composed his Tosefoth Yom Tov (a Mishnah commentary incorporated into almost all published editions of the Mishnah over the past few hundred years) with this goal in mind. David Ganz died young, but produced the work Tzemach David, a work of Jewish and general history, as well as writing on astronomy; both the MaHaRal and Ganz were in contact with Tycho Brahe, the famous astronomer.

Jewish philosophy

In the words of a modern writer, the Maharal "prevented the Balkanization of Jewish thought". His systematic and analytical approach to Jewish philosophy has made his works to Jewish philosophy what the Shulkhan Arukh is for halakha.

His works inspired the Polish branch of Hasidism, as well as a more recent wave of Torah scholars originating from Lithuania, most markedly Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler (1892-1953) as well as Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1864-1935). A recent authority who had roots in Judaism's broad scholarly traditions is Rabbi Isaac Hutner (1906-1980). Rabbi Hutner succinctly defined the ethos of the Maharal's teachings as being Nistar BeLashon Nigleh, meaning (in Hebrew): "The Hidden in the language of the Revealed". As a mark of his devotion to the ways of the Maharal, Rabbi Hutner bestowed the name of the Maharal's key work the Gur Aryeh upon a branch of the yeshiva he headed when he established its kollel (a yeshiva for post-graduate Talmud scholars) which then became a division of the Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin in New York during the 1950s, known as Kollel Gur Aryeh. Both of these institutions, and the graduates they produce, continue to emphasize the serious teachings of the Maharal. Rabbi Hutner in turn also maintained that Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) (Germany, 19th century) must also have been influenced by the Maharal's ideas basing his seemingly rationalistic Weltanschauung on the more abstract and abstruse teachings of the hard-to-understand Jewish Kabbalah.

Rabbi Judah Loew was not a champion of the open study of Kabbalah as such, and none of his works are in any way openly devoted to it. Only the greatest of Torah scholars are able to discern his true original inspirations and the intellectual framework for his ideas in their complex entirety. Nevertheless, Kabbalistic ideas permeate his writings in a rational and philosophic tone. His main Kabbalistic influences appear to have been the Zohar and Sefer Yetzirah, as Lurianic Kabbalah had not by that time reached Europe.

Although he could not reconcile himself to the investigations of Azariah di Rossi, and understood all the utterances of the Aggada (narrative, non-legal parts of the Talmud) literally, yet he was entirely in favor of scientific research in so far as the latter did not contradict divine revelation.

Literature

See article on the Golem

The legend of his creation of a golem inspired Gustav Meyrink's 1915 novel Der Golem. Various other books have been inspired by this legend, the authenticity of which has been doubted; although the Golem motif is old, the connection between the Golem on the one hand and the Maharal and Prague on the other is known only from ca. 1840. Maharal is featured in the Dutch work De Procedure ("The Procedure") by Harry Mulisch (1999), which also deals with the Golem legend.

Miscellaneous

It is claimed in some circles of Orthodox Judaism that the Maharal's lineage is from the Davidic line running all the way back to the original Judah. The Maharal's synagogue in Prague, the Altneushul, is still in use.

Bibliography

  • Gur Aryeh ("Young Lion", see above), a supercommentary on Rashi's Pentateuch commentary.
  • Netivoth Olam ("Pathways of the World"), a work of ethics (33 chapters).
  • Tifereth Yisrael ("The Splendour of Israel"), philosophical exposition on the Torah, intended for the holiday of Shavuoth
  • Gevuroth Hashem ("God's Mighty Acts"), for the holiday of Passover
  • Netzach Yisrael ("The Saviour of Israel"), on the Tisha B'Av (an annual day of mourning) and the deliverance
  • Ner Mitzvah ("The Light of the Commandment"), on Hanukkah
  • Ohr Chadash ("A New Light"), on Purim
  • Derech Chaim ("Way of Life"), a commentary on the Mishnah tractate Avoth
  • Be'er ha-Golah ("Pit of the Diaspora"), an apologetic work on the Talmud, mainly responding to interpretations by the Italian scholar Azariah di Rossi (min ha-Adumim)
  • Chiddushei Aggadot ("Novellae on the Aggada", the narrative portions of the Talmud), discovered in the 20th century
  • Derashot (collected "Sermons")
  • Divrei Negidim, a commentary on the Seder of Pesach, published by a descendant
  • Various other works, such as his responsa and works on the Jewish Sabbath and the holidays of Sukkot, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, have not been preserved.

His works on the holidays bear titles that were inspired by the Biblical verse in I Chronicles 29:10: "To you, God, is greatness, power, splendour and shining, as on all the Heavens and the Earth, to you, God is kingship, and greatness and primacy in all." The book of "greatness" (gedula) on the Sabbath was not preserved, but the book of "power" (gevurah) is Gevurath Hashem and the book of "splendour" (netzach) is Netzach Yisrael.

Books

  • Adlerstein Y. Be'er Hagolah: The Classic Defense of Rabbinic Judaism Through the Profundity of the Aggadah. New York, NY: Mesorah Publications. ISBN 1578194636.

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