Excerpts of a JTA report by Dinah Spritzer:
According to legend, Prague’s most famous Rov, the 16th-century Maharal, Rav Yehudah ben Bezalel Lowe, magically made a mute clay being who alternately protected and rampaged through the Prague ghetto where Jews were required to live.
But ask Czech Jews about the golem and you most likely will be met with eye rolling and heavy sighs, especially if you’re asking about plans for the upcoming 400th anniversary of the passing of the Maharal.
“Everyone hates the golem,” said Peter Gyori, a Prague Jew. “[Rav] Loew was one of Europe’s most famous teachers and, sadly, people come here and ask about a creature he never made.”
Annoyance at the tale of the golem — unsubstantiated and attributed to the Maharal 200 years after his death — reflects the desire of Czech Jews to refocus attention away from the soulless automaton who has so captivated artists, mystics and even writers.
Instead, on the occasion of the 400th yahrtzeit, many in Prague hope outsiders will come to appreciate the man whom Professor Byron Sherwin, a scholar on Jewish philosophy and mysticism, calls “the greatest and most comprehensive Jewish thinker ever produced by Ashkenazic Jewry, and certainly one of the most prolific and influential.”
To celebrate the yahrtzeit, which falls on Sept. 7, the Prague Jewish community is hosting a conference of scholars on the Maharal, and the Jewish Museum will be putting on an exhibit at the Prague Castle on his life. The exhibition runs from Aug. 5 to Nov. 8.
The show, at Prague’s most popular tourist site, will examine the Maharal and his legacy. One part of the exhibit will trace the development of the Prague ghetto and the Jewish cemetery during his lifetime. An interactive installation, “Golem,” by the artist Petr Nikl, will be on view at the Jewish Museum’s Robert Guttmann Gallery from June 3 to Oct. 4.
Earlier this year, an institution dedicated to training rabbinical students in Loew’s teachings, the Maharal Institute, was opened by the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in Prague’s Jewish Quarter.
Born in the Polish city of Poznan circa 1517, the Maharal was a brilliant and unconventional scholar whose prolific writings on Jewish philosophy and Jewish mysticism are still studied today. He wrote some 27 seforim.
“The leitmotif of all his work was putting Jews in the center of world events, telling them that they have a place in God’s plan even if they are living in the ghetto,” said the Czech Republic’s chief rabbi, Karol Sidon. “He was great for Jewish self-confidence at a time that it was not easy to be Jew.”
A statue of the Maharal stands in front of Prague City Hall.
His kever is the main attraction of Prague’s Old Jewish Cemetery; U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama recently left a prayer note there.
The decision this summer to showcase an exhibit about a rabbi at what is arguably the Czech Republic’s most prominent symbol, the Prague Castle, is highly unusual.
One of the first stories connecting the Maharal to a golem appears in “Galerie der Sippurim,” an 1847 collection of Jewish tales published in Prague. In the book, the Maharal creates a clay servant using a piece of paper on which one of God’s names is written. The rabbi forgets to remove the paper on Shabbos, and the golem becomes violent until the Maharal removes it and the golem collapses into a clay heap. The Maharal puts the golem’s remains in the attic of the 10th-century Old-New Synagogue — where tourists are told he remains till today.
The story was adopted in 1909 by Poland’s Rabbi Yudl Rosenberg, who cited Jewish records that historians later learned did not exist. In Rabbi Rosenberg’s telling, the Maharal and the golem fight off accusations of blood libels — a dangerous problem for Jews in Eastern Europe during Rabbi Rosenberg’s time.
The word golem is used in the Mishnah to refer to an uncultivated person or lunk, and in the Talmud to refer to the shapeless mass from which Adam was created. The term is derived from the Hebrew word “gelem,” which means raw material.
Commenting on the Mishnah, the Maharal wrote that a golem is a human who has not obtained wisdom and is thus incomplete. The Maharal said speech is what makes man complete; hence his golem is mute.
The first creation of a golem-like figure in Jewish lore appears in the Talmud Sanhedrin. In the story, a third-century Babylonian rabbi creates a mute being whom another rabbi turns to dust.
Usually presented in Jewish literature as a harmless clay servant, by the 17th century the golem becomes a mission-driven creature who potentially is dangerous.
The first written record associated the Maharal with a golem comes in the mid-19th century.
Sherwin, director of doctoral studies at Chicago’s Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies, says the Maharal was identified as the golem’s creator because of his greatness, even though other rabbis of his era existed who actually were documented as trying to animate golems.
“Loew’s portrait in Czech and Jewish legends as a wonder worker made him a natural candidate for being linked with the legend of the golem,” Sherwin wrote in the catalog for the Prague Castle exhibition.
The Maharal became chief rabbi of Prague after he had served for 20 years as a chief rabbi of Moravia, now a region of the Czech Republic. He later became the chief rabbi of Poland before returning to Prague, where he died at around age 90.