Maharal and religious coercion
Maharal’s thought contains a number of themes which can be regarded as his unique contribution to what might be termed Judaism’s battle for relevance in the modern world. Many of these themes were later taken up in Jewish orthodox thought in order to justify historical (i.e. rabbinical) Judaism and to demonstrate the formidable relevance of the Jewish tradition for the Jew in the modern world. It is no secret that the social and political developments, the scientiﬁc
progress and the resulting changes of scholarly and also popular beliefs and attitudes which started in the Renaissance and continued in the Era of Enlightenment presented in their radicality as well as in their scope a hitherto unprecedented intellectual challenge for all revealed religions. In terms of Ideengeschichte (history of ideas), it seems that a signiﬁcant
part of Maharal’s philosophical work can, indeed, be viewed as a laboratory of ideas, where new weapons responding to new challenges were tested, weapons which were later reused and even further developed by other Jewish thinkers. Maharal lived at the very beginning of what we term the Modern Era, which as stated presented and probably still presents a considerable challenge to Judaism. Although he died more than half a century before the ﬁrst radical formulation of this challenge as put forward by Spinoza and his followers,1 since the Renaissance period the signs were already on the wall, even in the Jewish world, and he seems to have sensed and in a certain way perhaps even anticipated the profound changes that modernity would bring about. These changes announced themselves quite clearly in the works of Maharal’s contemporary Azariah de’ Rossi against whom Maharal so vehemently polemicized.2 Maharal’s struggle against Azariah reﬂects his keen understanding of the challenges that the upcoming Modern Era and the empirical sciences coming in its wake present for religious tradition, in general, and for the Jewish religious tradition, in particular. This is the way I understand some of his central ideas, even those which are not formulated explicitly as direct answers to Azariah or other thinkers announcing modernity. Maharal’s thought, as a whole, seems to aim at providing a basis for the defence against precisely what within the next few generations would turn into a broad intellectual assault on the very core of revealed religion, in general, and of Judaism, in particular.