Rabbi Dr. Benji Levy
The Maharal: Savior of the Jews
Updated: Nov 15, 2022
(First published on Aish.com on the 6th of November 2022).
A Frankenstein-like creature, made of clay, is brought to life by an old medieval rabbi through a series of incantations and mysterious rituals. On awakening, the creature provokes both fear and wonder. After averting a political catastrophe, and crushing an evil tyrant, the Golem suddenly turns on its maker and rampages through the town sowing chaos and destruction. In a bittersweet denouement, the rabbi finally confronts his creation, returning it to the dust from which it was formed.
For some reason, this is one of those stories that truly grabbed me as a teenager and invited me to learn more about Judaism. Whether or not the legend has any basis in historical fact, one thing is certain – the old rabbi of the story was a real-life saviour of the Jewish people – and one of the greatest Torah scholars of all time.
Rabbi Judah ben Bezalel Loew, better known as the Maharal of Prague, was fated to be a legend from birth. He was born in Posen, a town in present day Poland, around the year 1512. On the night of the Passover Seder, his mother began her labour pains and guests ran out to fetch a midwife. At the same time a menace walked through the Jewish quarter of the town lugging a sack with the corpse of a child. His plan was to plant it in order to make trouble for the Jews.
The blood libel, rife in the 16th century, accused them of barbarous behaviour. Jews were said to kidnap Christian kids to bake matzah for Passover with their blood. The deadly ritual of Pogroms against the Jews erupting throughout the city continued and was set that Seder night in Posen.
When the guests came running from the house to fetch the midwife the conspirator thought they were giving chase, dropped the grisly sack and fled. Already the Maharal was averting calamities, his renown as a miracle worker and protector of communities set in motion.
While I went to visit the attic of the Synagogue in Prague and many locals believe the story of the Maharal’s Golem to this day, it seems to be just that – a story. This, however, has little importance when set next to the real greatness and wisdom of Rabbi Judah ben Bezalel Loew.
The Maharal was celebrated beyond the Jewish world. An acclaimed knowledge of mathematics and astronomy made him influential with great scientists of the day. Tycho Brahe, the foremost astronomer, introduced him to Emperor Rudolph II. According to legend the Emperor would visit the Maharal in the dead of night to discuss politics and science. He also had an official audience with the Emperor to whom the Kabbalah held a fascination. These friends in high places added to the rabbi’s power to protect his communities against persecution. He was the outstanding Jewish mind of the sixteenth century and has left to posterity volumes on Jewish law, philosophy and ethics.
He is known to have revolutionised Talmudic study. According to the Maharal, every detail in the Torah and Talmud, down to the most obscure metaphor, is exact:
One must not reach conclusions on the basis of hasty first impressions. There is no doubt that the words of the Rabbis are teachings of great depth, not having been said out of personal opinion, ‘approximation’ or simply their own intuition. Rather every word reflects deep wisdom and truth, said with compelling accuracy (known through transmission of Divine revelation) and requires deep analysis and understanding, rather than superficial reactions.
At the same time, regarding Midrash in particular, the Maharal wrote that:
Most of the words of the Sages were in the form of metaphor and the analogies of the wise… unless they state that a particular story is not a metaphor, it should be assumed that it is a metaphor. Therefore one should not be surprised to find matters in the words of the Sages that appear to be illogical and far from sensible.
This diverse and intuitive approach to Torah learning is why many strands and streams of Judaism felt the Maharal’s influence. From Rabbi Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel who said he fathered both the Hasidim and the Mitnagdic counter-movement of the Vilna Gaon; to Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad (himself a direct descendant of the Maharal) who has based much of his work, the Tanya, on the Maharal’s teachings. Great contemporaries such as Rabbi Solomon Luria (Maharshal), Rabbi Meir (Maharam) and others gave him accolades such as: ‘The iron pillar supporting Israel’, ‘Our breath of life’ and ‘The marvel of the age.’
How great a mystic was he? Rabbi Isaac Hutner defined the essence of the Maharal’s teachings as: ‘The hidden in the language of the revealed.’ By this, he meant that the Maharal explained ideas from Kabbalah in non-kabbalistic language, creating deep works that were nevertheless widely accessible to ‘laypeople’ scholars (perhaps another echo of his protean Hasidism).
As a mark of his devotion, Rabbi Hutner bestowed the name of the Maharal’s key work, the Gur Ayeh upon a branch of his yeshiva. This work meaning ‘Young Lion’ is a super commentary in five volumes on Rashi’s own commentary on Torah. Intriguingly, the Maharal’s wife, purportedly a brilliant Talmudic scholar in her own right, studied with her husband five hours a day and played an instrumental role in editing Gur Aryeh.
Other masterworks followed, including a commentary on Pirkei Avot entitled Derech Chaim, which explores the philosophical underpinnings of this seminal tractate on Jewish ethics and Netivot Olam, which details 33 ‘pathways’ to self-transcendence. All the more remarkable, there is no evidence of the Maharal having received formal education, and he is believed to have been an autodidact.
One extraordinary teaching – and some consult their copy of Tifereth Yisrael in a mixture of disbelief and indignation – involves his opposition to the codification of Jewish Law in monumental works such as the Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah and Yosef Karo’s Shulchan Aruch.
We know, of course, that actual halachic rulings in the Talmud are indeterminate. The Maharal’s position was that halachic authorities of his time had become too reliant on existing codifications, and were neglecting the (admittedly extraordinarily difficult, fraught and technically demanding) task of excavating the halacha themselves from the Oral Torah source texts. Indeed, citing the uniqueness of each individual case, he went so far as to argue that it would be better for them to arrive at erroneous conclusions through their own strivings than rely on the efforts of others.
Loved by literate, illiterate and the spectrum in between, the Maharal nevertheless ran afoul of Jewish leadership. In Moravia he battled slanderous claims of illegitimacy spread against families in the community, which affected his very own family. He boldly denounced the slandering, while also championing broader social reforms in areas such as electoral politics and taxation.
His rise to prominence was not plain sailing. The Maharal was passed over for election as the chief rabbi of Prague in 1584 in favour of his brother-in-law who was of a more philosophically conservative bent, and not prone to criticize community leaders. After serving his native community in Posen, he moved back to Prague in 1588, to replace his brother-in-law. It was short lived. In the same year he moved back to Posen to take up his election as chief rabbi of Poland, during which he composed many of his greatest works.
Said to be a direct descendant of King David, the Maharal’s own descendants include the Hassidic masters such as Rabbi Nachman of Breslov and the Baal Shem Tov, and the famed violinist Yehudi Menuhin, among other luminaries.
Toward the end of his life, the Maharal returned to Prague where he died in 1609. Both his tomb in the old cemetery and the synagogue which he presided over remain a tourist attraction. The true genius of the Golem maker is not pervasive beyond the Yeshiva world, but its relevance transcends those privy to his works.