Mystical Theology and Social Dissent: The Life and Works of Judah Loew of Prague 
by Byron Sherwin.
Associated University Presses, 253 pp., £12.50, August 1982, 0 8386 3028 6
Show More
Judaism on Trial: Jewish-Christian Disputations in the Middle Ages 
by Hyam Maccoby.
Associated University Presses, 245 pp., £15, August 1982, 0 8386 3053 7
Show More
Show More

A hoary Jewish joke tells of the Jew who is asked to write an essay on the elephant, and returns with a paper entitled ‘The Elephant and the Jewish Question’. The Jewish tendency to look at all experience through the highly selective prism of its effect on the Jewish predicament may sometimes be useful in certain political and social spheres, but in historical scholarship it can only lead to grotesque absurdities. Exclusive emphasis on the role of the Jews in, say, the Reformation puts one in mind of those photographs of great events with a circle around one of the minuscule heads. At the same time one has to remember that events which seem of crushing importance in Jewish history may make little impact on the larger historical stage. The assassination of the Zionist leader Haim Arlozoroff on a Tel Aviv beach in 1933 was by any European standards a peripheral event, and his murder had far fewer long-term effects even for Jews than, for example, the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand or of Henry IV of France. Jewish historians must always remind themselves that they are specialised workers in the larger historical field which is concerned with what is sometimes referred to as the ‘host community’.

The two books before us, recent publications of the Littman Library of Jewish Civilisation, are both concerned with the history of the Jews in Christian Europe. Byron Sherwin presents us with his view of the life and works of Judah Loew, chief rabbi of Prague in the early 17th century. Rabbi Loew’s name is most often associated with two bizarre events. The first is his meeting in February 1592 with that confused and determined mystic, the Emperor Rudolf II: a session which may have been arranged by Tycho Brahe the great astronomer, who seems to have been one of the rabbi’s companions. What was discussed at the imperial interview is not known: it was said that Rabbi Loew demonstrated the use of a magic lantern, but it is likely that the main topic of discussion was kabbala, the Jewish mystical tradition, already a subject of obsessive importance to the Emperor.

The second event which has kept Rabbi Loew a well-known figure in Jewish history is the creation of the golem, the Jewish artificial man, ancestor of the Frankenstein monster. The story was that Rabbi Loew created the golem out of dust and infused life into him by writing the sacred and secret name of God on a parchment which he placed in the golem’s mouth. During the week, the golem would perform numerous services for the rabbi, but on the Sabbath he would rest with all creatures according to the Biblical commandment. Every Friday evening, Rabbi Loew would remove the parchment from the golem’s mouth, and as the life seeped out of him, the golem would return to clay. One Sabbath the rabbi forgot to remove the name. His congregation had just finished reciting the 92nd Psalm in the Altneuschul in Prague when the golem went berserk, theatening to destroy the entire community. With superhuman skill and bravery, Rabbi Loew rushed at the golem and tore the parchment out of his mouth, whereupon the figure crumbled into dust. Rabbi Loew never again brought the golem back to life, but had his remains stashed in the attic of the Altneuschul. One of his successors was said to have ventured a look at the golem, and on his return downstairs ordered that it be forbidden for any mortal to enter that attic. The golem is said to lie there still.

The legend of the golem was in fact much older than Rabbi Loew of Prague, and in any case acquired a demonic character only in response to similar ideas in gentile circles – notably, the alchemical man, the homunculus of Paracelsus. It was especially associated with the famous Rabbi Elijah of Chelm in the later 16th century, and was transferred to Rabbi Loew only in the second half of the 18th century as part of an explanation for the special prayer practices of the Prague congregation. There was no connection between the legend of the golem and Judah Loew during the rabbi’s lifetime. In the original version of the story, Rabbi Elijah brought the golem to life by inscribing the Hebrew word for ‘truth’ (emet) on the golem’s forehead. By erasing the initial letter, the word would be transformed into ‘dead’ (met). The tale of the golem became one of the great myths of European Jewry and has been the subject of numerous literary works and philosophical investigations. Early Modern Jewry was keenly aware of the story’s theological implications: the descendants of Rabbi Elijah discussed in their responsa whether it was permissible to include a golem in a minyan, the Jewish prayer quorum (they decided it wasn’t).

Dr Sherwin’s aim is to reduce the magical side of Rabbi Loew’s reputation which sees him as a master of practical kabbala who could create a golem and tempt the Emperor with knowledge of the secrets of the universe. ‘The primary purpose’ of his study, Dr Sherwin writes, is ‘to demonstrate that Judah Loew deserves a niche, if not an essential place, in the history of Jewish mystical speculation.’ The major part of this book is devoted to an examination of Rabbi Loew’s theology, which Dr Sherwin claims (somewhat unfairly) has been ignored by Gershom Scholem and others because of a basic prejudice against Ostjuden. Indeed, Dr Sherwin makes the astonishing assertion that ‘Jewish life and thought in Central and Eastern Europe have been neglected by modern Jewish scholarship.’ But Scholem himself told us at length that Rabbi Loew, with Don Isaac Abravanel, was one of the two classical writers on messianism – he even regarded Loew as a forerunner of Hasidism.

Rabbi Loew’s perception of Scripture was in direct contradiction to his later image as a proto-modern. Loew argued that the Old Testament, and especially the Torah (the Pentateuch), served as the link between the divine and the human realms, and was itself the synthesis between the spiritual and the physical, between God and man. (Rabbi Loew tended to see things and to express himself in terms of a general theory of opposites.) Torah study and observance of its precepts, even those which were purely ceremonial, had, he said, a metaphysical influence, bringing man closer to communion with God.

Rabbi Loew’s attitude to the divine election of the Jews also comes in for special attention. He, too, thought it ‘odd of God, to choose the Jews’, arguing that the choice could not be rationally justified. This was election by grace, not by merit, and Christians were mistaken in their belief that God had deserted his people and that this was the cause of their dispersion and suffering. Rabbi Loew used the arresting comparison of a man who coerces a woman into marriage by raping her: he was forbidden by Jewish law to divorce her. So, too, was Israel deprived of any element of choice on Mount Sinai: they were compelled to accept the Torah or to die. The covenant between Israel and God was therefore eternal and unaffected by the present condition of the Jewish people. The Jewish dispersion itself, in his view, was a departure from the natural order of things, much in the way that miracles are a departure from the natural order as the upper world penetrates into ours. Just as natural phenomena eventually return to normal, so too would the Jewish people return to the Land of Israel.

Rabbi Loew’s views on ritual matters were similarly original. Generally speaking, despite his own numerous contacts with gentiles, he believed that any law which kept Jews and non-Jews apart was ultimately a good thing. For this reason, although he favoured the easing of certain restrictions in the dietary laws (arguing that the peacock was kosher), he fanatically opposed the drinking of wine produced by non-Jews, invoking the ancient Mishnaic prohibition against imbibing wine which might have been used by pagans in devotions to ‘strange gods’. Many strictly orthodox Jews even today apply this stricture to gentile wine, perhaps holding some secret suspicions regarding the prayers of French vintners. But in Rabbi Loew’s day the religious authorities made a distinction between ordinary wine (and bread) and that used for ritual purposes, permitting Jewish consumption of the former, especially in Moravia and in Poland near the Hungarian border where wine trading was becoming a common Jewish occupation. Rabbi Loew was in his time chief rabbi both of Moravia and of Poland, and his stiff opposition to gentile wine made him an unpopular figure in many commercial circles there. He insisted that wine, as a medium of social intercourse, might be the thin edge of the wedge which would cause the Jews to lose their status as a distinct people. Loew was also in favour of separate clothing and a separate language for Jews. In any case, he noted, we can never hope to discover God’s reasons for a particular commandment: the commandments are divine and true in themselves.

Some of Rabbi Loew’s theological views are strikingly reminiscent of similar ideas which were circulating among European gentiles at exactly the same time. Loew understood Creation as an act of estrangement which would come to an end in the messianic era. He followed the standard interpretation of the End of Days based on Daniel’s vision of the four beasts, said to represent four powers – in Loew’s view, Babylonia, Persia, Greece and Rome. Rome, by extension, included the Holy Roman Empire and Christendom itself. Rabbi Loew saw his generation as living at the end of the fourth kingdom, waiting impatiently for the onset of the Fifth Monarchy. But Loew’s vision of the End of Days was anything but apocalyptic: in true millenarian spirit, he argued that the coming of the messiah compelled urgent reform and the restoration of religious life in order to prepare the way for messianic redemption. The end was near, but there was still a good deal of time to execute much-needed reforms.

‘Contrary to popular belief,’ Dr Sherwin informs us, ‘mysticism and social action are more often partners than strangers ... Judah Loew’s programme for social reform, rooted in his mystical theology, provides a paradigm case of the interaction of mystical speculation and social action.’ This is certainly true, but we know a great deal today about Early Modern millenarianism, and we might have been told about possible connections between Rabbi Loew’s Jewish insights into the subject and the millenarian storm which was blowing across Europe. Rabbi Loew’s brand of millenarianism closely resembles views held by Christian groups (including England’s Fifth Monarchy Men) during the 17th century. Dr Sherwin reproaches another scholar, who ‘suggests that Loew was influenced by humanists and Protestant reformers in Prague, but adduces no evidence to support the claim’: there was more interaction between Christian and Jewish millenarians than Dr Sherwin suggests. We know from R.J.W. Evans’s excellent biography of Rudolf II how obsessed the Emperor was with kaballa and mysticism: one of his closest associates was Johann Pistorious, a leading Christian kabbalist. Rabbi Loew, in turn, paid great attention to recent scientific discoveries. He knew of Copernicus and thought that the discovery of a New World might presage the return of the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel. His views on educational reform also put one in mind of the later ideas of his fellow-countryman Jan Amos Comenius, himself a devotee of Christian kabbala. The discussion of Christian influence on the chief rabbi of Prague is the weakest element in Dr Sherwin’s otherwise illuminating book, but here, too, perhaps the fault lies rather more with inward-looking contemporary Jewish historiography than with any individual Jewish historian.

The numerous disputations between representatives of Judaism and Christianity were a much greater threat to Christian-Jewish relations in the Medieval and Early Modern period. Detailed records exist for only three of these disputations: Paris (1240), Barcelona (1263) and Tortosa (1413-14). The fact that such disputations were held at all shows that the position of the Jews was beginning to deteriorate, but some disputations were closer to genuine debates than others, which were often rigged to produce an anti-Jewish conclusion. Those three fascinating confrontations between Christians and Jews are brought to life in Judaism on Trial, Hyam Maccoby’s excellent edition of the main Jewish and Christian accounts.

The Paris Disputation of 1240 was initiated by a letter from Pope Gregory IX to all the kings of Christendom, calling upon them to suppress the Talmud, which (it was claimed) the Jews had set up as a rival authority to Scripture. As was usually the case, the instigator of this accusation was a converted Jew, Nicholas Donin. The only king who answered the Pope’s call was the pious Louis IX of France, later canonised, whose views on the Jewish question were thought to be admirably forthright: the best way to carry on a disputation with a Jew, he said, was to plunge a sword into him. Louis himself did not preside at the disputation, but turned the proceedings over to his mother, Queen Blanche of Castile.

The procedure was Inquisitorial: the Jewish protagonist, Rabbi Yehiel ben Joseph of Paris, was not allowed to meet Donin face to face, and the rabbi’s fellow defenders were not permitted to co-ordinate their replies. The Christians argued that the very existence of the Talmud was an affront and an attack on Scripture. They seemed to be willing to tolerate a Judaism fossilised in its pre-Christian stage, which could be seen as bearing eternal witness to the religion that Jesus came to replace and to supersede. Indeed, they seemed genuinely unaware that Judaism in its rabbinic form had moved on to the point where Talmudic Judaism was Judaism, and had been for the past thousand years. The Christians in Paris saw the Talmud as intrinsically heretical even in Jewish terms, and wanted to turn their Jews into Old Testament Hebrews so that their conversion could proceed according to the divine plan. But their own arguments could equally be turned against church doctrine and canon law.

Donin and the Christians also attacked what they regarded as imbecilities and obscenities in the Talmud, and especially all remarks that might be considered anti-Christian. The name ‘Jesus’ does in fact appear a number of times in the Talmud, not always in the most complimentary context: one Jesus is described as suffering in Hell by being immersed in boiling excrement. Rabbi Yehiel argued, somewhat unconvincingly, that ‘not every Louis born in France is the King of France.’ Rashi and other Biblical commentators regarded these passages as referring to Jesus of Nazareth, but it might be the case that the stories themselves are older than the Christian era and that a reference to ‘Jesus’ was added later. The Christians also brought up one rabbi’s plea to ‘Kill the best of the gentiles’ as well as the fable that Adam had sexual relations with all the animals before finding his true mate in Eve. They were incensed by the tall tale of a meeting of the rabbinical council in which God himself intervened but was ruled out of order, on the grounds that the Torah gave the council the right to determine religious matters by majority decision. Rabbi Yehiel and his colleagues pointed out (as Donin well knew) that these Talmudic fables had no legal status, and that even the last story is well within the Biblical tradition of human argument with God. Jewish protests were to no avail: the Talmud was burned in Paris in 1242, although the decision was subsequently reversed. Donin himself came into conflict with the church authorities when he joined the Franciscans, apparently over the issue of the authority of Scripture.

The disputation at Barcelona in 1263 was a much more formidable affair, more of a true debate than an inquisition. King James of Aragon convened the disputation and acted as its chairman. His aim was to win over the Jews, not to convict them: there were no threats of Talmud-burning. The meeting itself came at the end of three centuries which are often referred to as the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry, when Spain was far too worried about the Islamic threat to worry about the Jews, who were in any case an important element in their society. Although the Barcelona Disputation heralded a decline in the status of the Jews, the Dominicans moved against them with courtesy, and Nachmanides (the Ramban), the most eminent rabbi, was called upon to reply. The presence of Nachmanides in the Barcelona Disputation raised the debate to a new level, and makes the record of the disputation a document of the highest importance.

The main Christian protagonist, Pablo Christiani, also a converted Jew, centred the debate on the question of the messiah. ‘The Barcelona Disputation,’ Maccoby notes, ‘is probably best understood as the thrashing-out of the difference of status of the Messiah-idea in Christianity and Judaism.’ The Christians’ new tactic here was to prove the truth of Christianity from the Jewish writings themselves, including the Talmud, arguing that the Talmud contains material from the period before Judaism was contaminated by opposition to Christianity. But Nachmanides and Pablo Christiani were often talking at cross-purposes: the Christians at Barcelona never grasped the fact that for Jews what is important is what you do rather than what you believe. Even such a central question as the coming of the messiah was not included by Albo or Crescas among their essential principles of Judaism (although it had been by Maimonides). Nachmanides’s own account of the debate shows him as a ‘light unto the gentiles’, but it is substantially different from the official version prepared by the Dominicans and ratified by King James of Aragon. Dr Maccoby produces a number of arguments why we ought to accept the Jewish version of the debate, and this is the main text printed in the book. This view has not been universally accepted by other scholars, but Dr Maccoby replies that ‘here they have had some just things to say, but have also, in their search for painful objectivity, sometimes succumbed to the pleasures of masochism.’

The Tortosa Disputation of 1413-14, in comparison with the others, was an occasion of splendour and royal grandeur. The debate lasted 21 months (during which time the Jewish representatives were not permitted to return home) and the modern edition of the protocols kept by the Papal notary runs to over six hundred printed pages. The chairman was the Anti-Pope Benedict XIII; the Christian protagonist was a Jewish convert named Geronimo de Santa Fe. Unlike the Barcelona Disputation, this debate was characterised by harassment and deliberate falsification of texts. What was at stake was not the destruction of holy books, as it had been in Paris, but the lives of the Jews themselves. Only 22 years before, Spanish Jewry was racked by a massive pogrom, followed by persecutions and forced conversions which put many Jews within the purview of the inquisition: while it never had any authority over practising Jews, it could easily dispatch Christian heretics. Several times the Jews were accused of prevarication, and the Pope ordered that the entire disputation start again.

‘The disputation as a whole,’ laments Dr Maccoby, ‘was a painful and deplorable affair.’ The Jews were compelled by the end of the sessions to admit that they could not follow the Christian syllogistic style of reasoning. They said that they were unable to defend the Talmud because of their own ignorance but that no doubt more competent and learned rabbis would be able to do so. The chief Jewish spokesman in the early days of the debate converted to Christianity. Isaac Abravanel, one of the leaders of Spanish Jewry at the time of the expulsion three generations later, noted with disgust that the Jewish defence at Tortosa had been feeble. Certainly the Jews’ virtual admission of defeat sparked off a wave of anti-Jewish fervour. But the arrangement of the disputation was itself a symptom of the decline of Spanish Jewry, and perhaps the submissive attitude of the rabbis at Tortosa was all that could be expected. In Rabbi Loew’s day, the same issues would be discussed with far less precision, but by then the dawn of toleration and emancipation had already broken.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences