Löw, Yehudah ben Betsalʾel of Prague

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LÖW, YEHUDAH BEN BETSALʾEL OF PRAGUE (1520?1609), known by the acronym MaHaRaL (Morenu ha-Rav Leib, "our teacher Rabbi Löw"). Löw was a Jewish teacher, preacher, and mystic, a social and religious reformer, and a community leader in Poland, Bohemia, and Moravia.

In the course of his long, eventful, and often controversial life, Löw served as chief rabbi of Moravia, of Poznán in Poland, and of Prague. Celebrated as a wonder-worker in both Jewish and Czech legend, Löw was deeply immersed in rabbinic and qabbalistic tradition. His enormous literary output articulates a comprehensive although unsystematic mystical theology. His popularization of recondite qabbalistic notions establish him as a forerunner of Hasidism.

In Löw's epistemology, Jewish tradition, particularly Jewish mystical tradition, is both the essential source of and the only promising gateway to truth. Philosophical speculation can merely offer what tradition has already established. Löw sharply attacked the Jewish philosophical enterprise for its dependence on rational analysis and empirical observation, which he deemed epistemologically subordinate to tradition in the quest for truth. Moreover, Löw considered philosophy faulty, predicated on assumptions considered anathema by tradition (e.g., the eternity of the world), and therefore potentially heretical in its conclusions. For Löw, the higher truth of tradition measures the truth of philosophy; philosophy cannot evaluate tradition.

In his discussion of the nature of the Torah, Löw used a theory of complementary and contradictory opposites. Complementary opposites fulfill and complete one another. For example, male and female are incomplete when apart and are individually complete only when they are both together. Contradictory opposites conflict with one another and cannot coexist unresolved. The conflict may, however, be resolved through a synthesis of the two opposing factors. God and the world are such contradictory opposites. The Torah represents a synthesis of the spiritual God and the material world and therefore effectively mediates between God and the world.

Utilizing a notion of "natural place," Löw argued that until the Jews are restored to the Land of Israeltheir natural place and originthe world remains in disorder. This physical, geographic restoration will occur only in the messianic era after disturbances in the natural order have been rectified through a penultimate process of restoration. The goal of this process, according to Löw, is to restore the Jewish people to its proper and essential nature, thus fulfilling the necessary conditions for the act of divine grace that will initiate the messianic era. Löw maintained that proper study and observance of the Torah, which he felt were lacking in his time, are necessary for the Jewish people to realize its essential nature. Therefore, this restoration process entails a reformation of Jewish life. These theological assumptions served as the premise for Löw's program of social and religious reform. Most noteworthy in this regard are his plans for the reformation of rabbinic leadership and Jewish education.

Löw considered the poor rabbinic leadership and faulty education during his time as conditions vitally requiring rectification. For Löw, the rabbi is to his community what the heart is to the body. A rabbi was ideally a "saint-scholar" serving on the authority of his scholarship and piety, rather than a "political" figure, appointed and sustained through the influence of secular government authority and accountable to a board of Jewish laymen. Löw's educational reforms included the intensified study of the Bible (neglected in his day) and the restoration of study of the Mishnah as the basis for subsequent studies in rabbinics, as opposed to the dominant emphasis upon pilpul (hairsplitting dialectical reasoning). He advocated curricular reforms that correlated content studied and methods utilized to the intellectual and psychological development of the student and he favored a complete rejection of "secular" studies in the curriculuma reaction to the Italian Jewish trend in response to the influence of the Renaissance, of including such studies in Jewish education. Löw called for reliance upon the entire scope of Jewish legal tradition rather than only upon legal codes in the process of decision making in matters of Jewish law and rejected contemporary trends that permitted socioeconomic factors to intrude upon the processes of legal adjudication.

Löw is popularly identified with the Jewish legend of the golem, an artificial man created by magical means. Those versions of the legend that connect Löw with the golem, maintain that Löw created the golem to defend the Jews of Prague during pogroms related to a "blood libel" (a claim that Jews used the blood of Christian children in religious rites). The golem legend seems to have influenced Mary Shelley in the composition of Frankenstein, Goethe in the writing of the Sorcerer's Apprentice, and Karel Čapek in his drama R.U.R, in which the term robot was first coined. The golem legend has been developed in contemporary literature in the works of Halper Leivick, Max Brod, Gustav Meyrink, and Jorge Luis Borges, among others.


Most of Yehudah Löw's works are contained in Kol sifrei Maharal mi-Prag, 12 vols. (New York, 1969), and Gur Aryeh, 5 vols. (Benei Beraq, 1972). Comprehensive works on Yehudah Löw's life and works are Ben Zion Bokser's From the World of the Kabbalah: The Philosophy of Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague (New York, 1954) and both my Mystical Theology and Social Dissent: The Life and Works of Judah Loew of Prague (London, 1982) and my The Golem Legend: Origins and Implications (Lanham, Md., 1985).

New Sources

Jacobson, Yoram. "The Image of God as the Source of Man's Evil, according to the Maharal of Prague." Binah 3 (1994): 135158.

Neher, André. Mishnato shel ha-Maharal mi-Prag. Jerusalem, 2003. (Translation of the French edition, Le puits de l'exil: tradition et modernité: la pensée du Maharal de Prague [15121609], 1991.)

Winkler, Gershon. The Golem of Prague: A New Adaption of the Documented Stories of the Golem of Prague. Illustrated by Yochanan Jones. New York, 1997.

Byron L. Sherwin (1987)

Revised Bibliography