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The Maharal
By: Ben Zion Bokser

In the year 1584, on the Sabbath between the New Year and the Day of Atonement, which is celebrated as the Sabbath of Repentance, there stood in the pulpit of the principal synagogue of the bohemian capital city, Prague, the venerable Rabbi Yehudah Loew. He was tall and distinguished looking. The moment was dramatic because it was a prelude to a great decision. The chief Rabbi of the city, Isaac Melling, had died. Yehudah Loew, a brilliant thinker and one of the Most renowned scholars in medieval Jewry, was the logical person to succeed him in office. A large assemblage of people, including the members of the all-powerful community council, listened attentively. Rabbi Loew, more popularly known as the Maharal, spoke of the dignity of man, of his central position in the hierarchy of existence. But he reminded his listeners that man may forfeit his dignity by living meanly. The address was memorable, and it revealed the full stature of Rabbi Loew, his depth of feeling as well as his moral courage.

The Maharal helped emancipate Jewish thought from the constraining discipline of scholasticism.

A short time thereafter some of these same men who had listened to Rabbi Loew met in another assembly. They were gathered to elect the chief Rabbi. When the vote was finally cast, it proved to be in favor of Rabbi Loew's brother-in-law, Rabbi Isaac Hayot. Rabbi Loew missed one of his life's ambitions and the leaders of Prague Jewry missed covering their community with glory. Yet the results should have surprised no one.

The personal life of the Maharal remains shrouded in obscurity. A prolific writer, he yet tells little about himself. In unguarded moments he offers us occasional personal notes, and they shed invaluable light on his life and his times. These notes are, however, very few. His gaze is consistently turned outward, toward the world which he sought to influence, toward the ideas which he endeavored to expound. His own eventful life received but faint attention from his pen. Our principal sources of knowledge about him are indirect--occasional comments by contemporaries, a tombstone inscription, which extols his many-sided accomplishments, and family chronicles in which an oral tradition is reduced to writing for the benefit of posterity.

Yehudah was born in 1512 to a distinguished Jewish family which hailed from the German city of Worms but which was now settled in Posen, Poland. The Loew family had apparently left Germany to escape anti-Jewish persecutions for which the German people seem to have had an affinity even in those days. Poland was more tolerant, and a stream of Jewish refugees had come to make their homes there.

Yehudah came into a home where scholarship was a normal goal for a young boy. His father, Bezalel, was a learned man. His three older brothers, Hayim, Sinai and Samson were all distinguished scholars who participated in the rabbinic and philosophic discussions of their time. Judah's development was within the pattern of his own family circle.

Yehudah's education began along conventional lines. At an early age, he was introduced to the study of the Talmud. In itself a formidable discipline, Talmudic study was then encumbered with all kinds of commentaries and super-commentaries. And the pedagogy of the time relished the cultivation of dialectical skill by subjecting every Talmudic text to minute analysis, whose triumph was the discovery of contradictions which were then to be removed in brilliant feats of reconciliation. Yehudah was later to break with this kind of pedagogy and he proclaimed a holy war against the sterility of the current education, with its emphasis on "pilpul," as the prevalent method of Talmud study was called. At first, he accepted it, however, and he became quite a skillful dialectician, a master of Talmudic knowledge, even by the official standards of the dominant academicians.

He studied the Zohar zealously, as well as the rest of that esoteric literature. Whereas the Talmud said very little, at least not directly, about G-d and how we were to find a way to Him, here he found a continued preoccupation with the very questions which stirred him most, questions about man and his destiny, questions about G-d Who was both hidden and near, beyond the universe, and yet the very breath of its being. A poetic glow, suffused with warmth and the romance of deep faith was distilled by the Kabbalistic writings. They struck a responsive chord in the imaginative Yehudah.

The Maharal spoke his mind freely on all current problems and he did nor hesitate to point the finger at the abuses which he saw rampant about him.

Yehudah supplemented his education with avid reading in all other branches of Jewish knowledge. He was a master of Biblical study, he read the great classics in Jewish philosophy, the writings of Maimonides, Albo, and Crescas. He had an equally imposing command of secular knowledge of his time. He was familiar with the teachings of the Greek philosophers, and with the current knowledge of physics, mathematics and astronomy. His mind was open to the world. His writings, which were to appear later on, show that nothing missed his versatile mind. He alludes to the popular historical work, Josephus, to the new astronomy of Copernicus, to the discovery of America, and to Luther's translation of the Bible in to German.

The Maharal's marriage to his wife Pearl has been surrounded by the Loew family chronicler, Meir Perles, with romance. The bride's father, a well known Prague merchant, suffered business reverses shortly after the couple was engaged. Thus he could not meet the terms of the financial arrangements in favor of the young couple, as had been stipulated. Thereupon he offered to cancel the engagement. The Maharal, however, was not interested in financial settlement and he persisted in his love for Pearl. There was a long delay in the wedding, while the bride established herself in a bakery shop in order to help support the family. The marriage finally occurred in 1544. Bride and groom, according to the same chronicler, were then 32 and 28 years old respectively.

Their marriage was a very happy one, and they were blessed with seven children, six daughters and a son. All six daughters married into prominent Prague families. His son, Bezalel, became rabbi in Cologne, Germany, where he headed a rabbinical academy. The Maharal was deeply grieved when this son met an untimely death in 1600. The Maharal's public career took him to many parts of Central and Eastern Europe, but his heart was always in Prague, the home of his wife's family and of his own children.

Conflict And Achievement

The rejection of the Maharal by the community leaders in Prague is not indicated in the sources, but it is not difficult to surmise the reasons for it. From the time he came to Prague, the Maharal became a controversial figure in the community. A great scholar, an original thinker and at the same time a forceful personality, he clearly over-shadowed chief rabbi Isaac Melling. The latter continued his work in the city's leading synagogue, the Altneuschul, but the recently constructed Klaus synagogue was made available to the Maharal. People were quick to sense the Maharal's superiority and they came to look to him for leadership. The reorganization of the community's burial society, for instance, was entrusted to him rather than to the chief rabbi. Isaac Melling represented the authority of the organized community and its lay leadership, and it was the official community and its leadership that felt itself challenged by the Maharal's's rise to popularity.

The Maharal, moreover, committed another offense in the eyes of the ruling circles of Prague Jewry. He spoke his mind freely on all current problems and he did nor hesitate to point the finger at the abuses which he saw rampant about him. Many of these abuses centered in the corruption of Jewish community government. The Maharal had, in other words, attacked the very men whose voice was decisive in choosing the chief rabbi.

The Maharal denounced the ruling circles of his community for wielding power selfishly.He denounced the ignorant and corrupt judges who were named to office because of their wealth.

The Maharal denounced the ruling circles of his community for wielding power selfishly. They oppressed the people by denying their workers an equitable wage, he charged, and by shifting tax burdens to those less able to carry them. He denounced the ignorant and corrupt judges who were named to office because of their wealth. The custom of designating one of the community elders as "primus" or "chief' was for him a perversion of the principle of equality which he wanted to prevail in all walks of life.

On that same fateful Sabbath of Repentance, the Maharal took occasion to make a public enactment of his edict of ex-communication against those guilty of spreading the so-called "nadler" calumny. This was a very serious evil, and it had resulted in bringing untold anguish to countless Jewish families in Central Europe who were accused of illegitimacy. The departed were not spared, and they too were included in the slander. It would have set those families as pariahs in the Jewish community, and they had appealed for redress to the leading rabbis of the time. The Maharal reports in the transcript of that memorable sermon how he met the issue. "This we did here in Prague on the Sabbath of Repentance in the year 1584," he writes: "We issued a mighty edict of ex-communication in the presence of ten Torah scrolls which were held by the wise men of Prague, each scroll in his hand, against the spread of any slander against the departed and against calling anyone in Israel by the slurring epithet of 'nadler.'"

The Maharal showed himself a strong character, a man of passionate convictions, a crusader for a good cause. The Maharal's conduct on that Sabbath was not calculated to ingratiate him with those whose consent was indispensable for the final decision as to the election of the chief rabbi.

There was also opposition in some circles to the Maharal's theology. The Maharal adopted the principal doctrines of the Kabbalah and tried to popularize them in his writings as well as his oral discourses. There were many who resented the inroads of the Kabbalah into the religious life of Jewry. Some of its doctrines seemed strange and bewildering. The Kabbalists generally kept their doctrine from the common people, and wrote only in hints and veiled allusions. The Maharal's excursions into the Kabbalah show the usual reticence of the Kabbalist. Yet for those who could read between the lines his meanings were clear enough to be disturbing. Thus his emphasis on G-d's incomprehensibleness brought upon him the charge that he had made G-d totally unreal, and he was forced to defend himself against the accusation.

The Challenge of Rationalism

The conflict between religion and rationalism was a major theme in the writings of the Maharal. Jewish culture in the 16th century was dominated by rabbinic learning, above all by the Talmud and its copious commentaries. But every age has had its bold spirits who manage to cross the frontiers of conventional life, to explore new paths. And the time of the Maharal had its circle of these bold spirits, men who dabbled in philosophy and science and who tried to relate their new truth to the precepts of their traditional faith.

The Maharal denounced the morbid outlook on sex; the male and female principles are indispensable to each other in human life even as they are in the universe at large.

The spokesmen of this rationalism varied in their doctrine, but essentially, they were all under the spell of the Greek exaltation of reason. Reason alone, they taught, brings man to the highest vistas of truth and to the noblest attainments of the good life.

The Maharal's defense of religion had little in common with the obscurantism which prevailed in some circles and which had sought to ban all preoccupations with science and philosophy. He challenged, however, the thesis of rationalism--that there is no more in the universe than could be seen with the eyes of the intellect, and that our sciences and the philosophies we build on them give us infallible truth, The reality which underlies all existence is far vaster than any formulae we may draw up to interpret it. The ultimate truth about the universe cannot be grasped by our mortal minds. Science is a valuable tool to know the physical universe, but there it halts. It can probe into the universe as a given fact, to unravel the detailed procedures by which it operates. It can describe what exists. It cannot give us the answer to the deeper riddles the heart seeks to resolve. It cannot enlighten us as to the ultimate source or purpose of our lives or of the universe.

The Maharal placed the natural order within the context of the workings of divine creation. It is G-d who endowed the qualities of each being to behave as it does in relation to other beings. The universe, moreover, is not completely determined; and the phenomena of the universe are not exclusively the result of the workings of natural necessity. For G-d's relation to the world, taught the Maharal, is not, as Aristotle pictured it, a necessary consequence of His being. It is a relationship of free grace, He willed creation, and He willed the character of existence as welt as the goals and purposes which it is seeking to realize. Above the realm of nature and natural necessity, which reason can investigate, there is a realm of freedom, where G-d retains the initiative and when it seems good to Him, He injects Himself into human life to continue his providential ordering of existence.

As an illustration of G-d's continuing activity in the universe, the Maharal cited the ceaseless urge to unity which dominates all creatures. One of its most glorious manifestations is the love between the sexes, which is the foundation of marriage and the family. All this for the Maharal was but the continuing expression of G-d's presence. On the natural level, distinct lives would remain isolated from each other. The subtle force working against separatism and striving for oneness reveals a universe in which G-d is an ever present activating agent, stirring people toward goals He meant them to reach.

The Divine Character of Life

The Maharal undertook his vast literary labors not merely in order to respond to the challenge confronting the Jewish community of his day. He was also inspired by the theologian's normal interests in dealing with the general problems of religion and life. His writings endeavor to cope with those questions which sensitive men have always raised about G-d and the world, about man and his destiny.

The major issue which the Maharal considered in this phase of his thought was the perennial problem which has agitated scientists as well as philosophers--the quest for a "knowledge of the ultimate immutable essence that undergirds the mutable illusory world." In Jewish thought this quest has assumed special urgency because of the need of meeting the intolerable contradiction between the conception of G-d as the Creator of the universe and the facts of general human experience. If G-d is the Creator and sustainer of the universe, then all life within it ought to reflect its divine source. It ought to reflect harmony, unity. Our life on earth ought to reveal qualities of wisdom and goodness, as befits the handiwork of a creator who is all powerful and all-good. The baffling fact, however, is that, at least in common human experience, the unity of life is obscured. It appears to be broken into a multiplicity of individual existences, of particular creatures, all differing among themselves. And instead of living with each other in harmony, these particular creatures all too often spend their substance and their energy in fierce antagonism and constant strife.

This clash between the conception of the universe as a divine creation and the facts of common experience has confronted every theology that has taken its task without evasion and without compromise. It is one of the central problems in Kabbalistic mysticism. For the Kabbalah always insisted that we can know G-d not merely in the abstractions of thought, but also in the intimacy of direct experience, that divine elements permeate the total drama of cosmic life, as well as all individual beings who share in it. Thus it became important to deal with the world of personal experience, to find in the world about us, in man as well as in nature, the tokens of G-d's presence.

In resolving this paradox the Kabbalists developed the principal features of their doctrine. Existence, they taught, is at its core an unbroken unity, and all divisions within it are but an illusion; the world is essentially good, and even the evils we encounter in mundane existence somehow contribute to the advancement of life; asceticism is not the way to G-d, since the body is His creation and He could not have consigned it to mortification; the divine spirit which brooded over the primeval chaos to bring an ordered world into being, is still at work to extend order and harmony and to overcome the lingering irrationality and chaos in human existence, man, the crown F of creation, faces the responsibility of enlisting as a co-worker with G-d in bringing the good to ever greater ascendancy in the world, till the divine plan attain its fullest maturity and life grow to the true perfection, which is its destiny. The Maharal drew on these ideas, though he often expressed them in his own idiom.

The Maharal summoned men to took at the world with sensitivity and understanding, and then he was confident that they would discover its divine elements. The world is a material expression of a spiritual reality. It is a kind of "garment" worn by a divine essence. "This world," the Maharal declared, "enjoys a high dignity. And G-d's very presence, His shekhinah, is in this world."

How can we recognize G-d's presence in this world? The Maharal adopted a familiar theory among the Jewish mystics that the very physical attributes of the world we live in abound in suggestive parallels to the higher realm of the divine. The higher and the lower are part of one larger universe of being, and one corresponds to the other.

As to the alleged conflict between the multiplicity of the world's creatures, and the unity which we expect to find in G-d's creation, fact and intuition are both true, explained the Maharal. There is an underlying unity to life, and life is also broken into a multiplicity of individual beings, each enacting its own private destiny. It all depends on the perspective from which we judge. If we judge each creature from its own standpoint, and eliminate from our consideration the divine plan in which each has its particular Place, then we can only see diversity and separateness; we can only see a multitude of different creatures living and struggling for seemingly unrelated ends. From the standpoint of the Creator, however, they are all integrated in a pattern of underlying harmony.

The unity of life is more clearly discernible as we ascend the ladder of creation. The closer we proceed to the divine source whence all being arises, the more do we find existence fusing toward harmony, toward unity and simplicity. It is only as creation proceeds downward to realize the fullness of being with which it is impregnated, that it moves from the simple to the complex, and there sets in a process of particularization. What was whole divides into a multiplicity of fragments. Like trees which spring from one simple root and then branch out into many varying parts, so is the life of the universe. It stems from G-d who is the one root of its being and its growth is a process of expansion, of branching out, of differentiation into varying parts. All those parts persist, however, in an underlying unity. They all link to form one chain of being, one enterprise of common life.

The Maharal's conception of the universe carried special implications for man and his destiny. The divine plan which is at work in creation must also work itself out in every individual person. It is his growth that advances or retards the fulfillment of the larger plan. Thus man's life is confronted with a fateful challenge, to make the most of his own life, and thereby to carry the larger purpose of life toward fulfillment.

The Maharal extolled man as the most important element in the hierarchy of life. He is the goal of all else in creation. It is he who develops the highest potentialities of nature. For nature, as launched by the Creator, has areas of incompleteness. By discovering her inherent properties and drawing upon them, man brings nature toward completion. Man outranks even the angels in value. He is a microcosm, a miniature of all the vast enterprises of cosmic life. He is, moreover, the ideal synthesis of material and divine elements, thus linking the different strata of existence into one unitary chain of being. Alone among all other creatures, he is capable of speech.

Man's highest attribute is his freedom. He is uncoerced by his own nature as to his actions, and his is the capacity to exercise sovereignty over other creatures on earth below. He walks erect in the world, and this fittingly symbolizes his higher dignity. By his nature, he was meant to be unbowed, a free being.

Man is distinguished objectively by his attribute of freedom. He is also distinguished subjectively, by the constitution of his being. All other beings are endowed with matter and form. Man has those also. They are his body and spirit (nefesh). The latter is the source of his vitalities. It makes him a living, rational being. But in addition to his spirit, which remains enmeshed in his material self, he is also endowed with a third element, a divine soul. It is this divine soul which gives direction to his total life, and it is this soul, too, which equips man for divine pursuits and enables him to cultivate the highest reason, the divine reason embodied in the Torah.

The divine soul does not, however, function in all men equally. For the spiritual life is not pursued by man in detachment from his society, and the character of that society affects the spiritual propensities of the individual. By an act of divine determination, a unique propensity for the spiritual inheres in Israel.

The Maharal conceded readily that man, as we find him in the world, does not always reveal his noble stature. But this derives from the fact, explained the Maharal, that man's excellence is not an endowment with which he comes into the world. It is rather a development which he must attain through his own efforts. As formed by the Creator, a man is incomplete, and the whole burden of his life is a striving for completion, a quest for perfection.

Our striving for perfection begins necessarily with meeting the obligations we owe to ourselves, These commence with the physical and they rise ever higher, toward the spiritual. Man is a bodily creature, in which resides a spirit, a mind. But the body is the base from which all development starts. The Maharal polemicized against the pessimism of Christian doctrine, which holds the "flesh" and its claims as wholly sinful. He denounced particularly the morbid outlook on sex, which regards it as something shameful or evil, meant for man's ensnarement. It may become so if it develops into the all-absorbing interest in a person's life. In itself, however, it is one of the most glorious of life's experiences. And the comradeship of husband and wife which fuses their lives into one is surely not something "material." There is a pragmatic element in the love of husband and wife, in the sense of appreciation for incidents of mutual helpfulness. But there is another dimension to that love, transcending all pragmatic considerations. That element in love is divine; it is an incident of the love which is at the essence of creation itself. The male and female principles are indispensable to each other in human life even as they are in the universe at large.

The Maharal's tribute to the spiritual significance of sex followed a general trend in Kabbalistic mysticism. The Kabbalists saw the very dynamism of existence as the yearning of masculine and feminine principles to find each other, and by their juncture, to beget new life. They even differentiated the ten sefirot, which emanate from the ineffable oneness of G-d to beget the finite universe, as male and female. What was true of the universe, the macrocosm, could not be false in man, the microcosm. The act of sexual union was therefore seen as an instance of the universal rhythm of all existence.

His Legacy

The Maharal helped emancipate Jewish thought from the constraining discipline of scholasticism. In its own time scholasticism was a positive achievement. It brought religion into harmony with science and made an impressive gesture toward assigning a significant role for reason in life. But in the course of the centuries scholasticism exposed its deficiency. In its attempt to fashion all culture into a comprehensive unity, it made religion the peak of a pyramid. The foundation of that pyramid was to be natural science. Through a knowledge of nature, one was to move to an awareness of the G-d who was the source of its being. Religion was thus enmenshed in the limitations of any science which may be prevalent at a particular time. In rejecting the hypothesis of scholasticism, the Maharal restored religion to the common man's domain. In the Maimonidean conception, a sharp line was drawn between the few intellectually advanced members of the human race, and the great multitude of people.

The snobbery of Greek thought was thus introduced into religion. For only the meta-physician, the man who had mastered the sciences, could rise to the love of G-d. The multitudes of humanity were doomed to live mediocre lives grasping only illusory goals. An impenetrable veil separated them from life's highest good--the realization of being at one with G-d. G-d's essence was eternal reason engaged in contemplating its own perfection, and only by the way of reason could man draw close to him. The Maharal pushed this veil aside and summoned all men to draw close. They could enter through piety, through faith, through the study and practice of Torah, through the simple love and fear of their Maker.

The Maharal was a forerunner of Chasidism. The great masters of Chasidic thought acknowledged him as one of the sources of their own inspiration. Thus Rabbi Simkha Bunim hailed Rabbi Yehudah as his teacher par excellence, whose writings had greatly enriched his own religious faith. He went on pilgrimages to the Maharal's grave and even expressed the hope that he might be privileged to study under him in the spirit-world after death.

Chasidism was a continuation of the Kabbalah, stripped only of some of its excesses in symbolism and transformed from a secret doctrine into a popular movement. The transformation of a new subtle theosophy into a mass movement was effected largely through the development within Chasidism of the idea of the Tzaddik, the holy master, about whom there organized a fellowship of disciples, and who served as an intermediary between the higher spiritual realms and the common people.

The Maharal played an important role in this transformation. In his own idiom the ideas of the Kabbalah are presented with a minimum of that symbolic imagery in which the classic texts of the Kabbalah abound. These ideas, too, are developed toward a statement of faith and of discipline which can point the way of life for the common man in his spiritual dilemmas. For the Maharal was not a writer for the chosen few. He stood in the midst of life and battled strenuously to give it direction and shape. Thus he helped prepare the way for the Chasidic phase in Jewish mysticism.

Adapted from The Maharal: The Mystical Philosophy of Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague by permission of the publisher, Jason Aronson Inc., Northvale, NJ