chapter  12
24 Pages

The counter political-theology of Maharal of Prague and the formation of modern orthodox Judaism


Loe Yehuda ben Bezalel, Maharal of Prague, is one of the most significant thinkers of modern Judaism, both because of his place and central location in early modern Jewish culture and because of his exceptional personality and thought which integrates many of the most important trends of his time.1

Maharal, who served on the seam line of Bohemia, Moravia and greater Poland, manifests and reflects major cultural trends of the largest and most dominant Jewish space of Central and Eastern Europe. In his writings Maharal deals intensively with the burning questions of modernity, such as nature, law and order, the collective, time, succession and change. His doctrine strives to afford a comprehensive and unprecedented answer to questions regarding the essence of the historic time, the exile and the Dispersion, the status of the Jewish constitution and the boundaries of the canon of homiletic commentaries. The relationship between the location of the Jews in the Christian world in early modern Europe and the changes that occurred in their consciousness is manifested in most aspects of his doctrine, as is the centrality of questions concerning the Jewish collectivity. Maharal instituted the image of the Jewish collective on the dialectic of

unity and dispersal: the ‘Israelite nation’ ( האומההישראלית ) bases itself, alongside other communities of this time, on the concept of unity; but the latter is actually expressed in its vital miraculous dispersal.2 On the background of the expulsion of the Jews in the early modern period, the dispersal of communities around Europe and the Ottoman empire, and the confessionalization of the European society, Maharal emphasizes the unity of the nation that is derived directly from the unity of God and of the law, and correlates with the transcendent divine potential and its durability above all imminent laws of nature. About 100 years of centralized political trends preceded Maharal’s percep-

tion of the Israelite nation, and its foundations of law and authority as laid forward by Maharal in his writings, mainly in Tiferet Yisrael, Nezach Yisrael and Be’er Hagola, published in Prague between 1598 and 1600. During this period the modern state began to establish itself in Western and Central

Europe with its central administration, the development of legal practice and the accompanying status of jurists. In Bohemia the centralist tendencies of the monarchy greatly intensified following the rise to power of the Catholic Hapsburg dynasty, and notably following events of the urban revolt in Prague in 1547, after which all the urban privileges were revoked.3 The Catholic and centralist trends of the government increased towards the end of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth century, with the strengthening of the ‘Spanish Party’ in Prague, and they were amongst the causes of the revolt of the Protestant estates and the start of the Thirty Years’ War. Maharal’s doctrine affords a unique method of confrontation with the rise