Rabbi Loew, the Jewish hero of the Czechs

“Path of Life” is the name of a new exhibition by the Jewish Museum in Prague marking 400 years since the death of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, a 16th century scholar and teacher, the Chief Rabbi of Bohemia. Today, most Czechs remember him not only for being a wise man and a learned scholar, but primarily for being the legendary creator of the Golem, a mythical deed that earned him the status of a national hero.

The exhibition on Rabbi Loew, also known as the Maharal, on at Prague Castle, focuses on his life and work but it could not avoid the legends he is most remembered for. Dinah Spritzer is the Prague-based European correspondent for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. She explains how the name of Rabbi Loew, for most Czechs, became a household name.

“I think the Czechs I’ve spoken to know him mostly for two things – one, being in the 1951 Czech movie the Emperor’s Baker and the Baker’s Emperor, in which he actually is not present except for his picture. But that’s an adaptation of the Golem story. And the second way the Czechs are aware of the rabbi is of course how he is depicted by the Czech national revival writers, such as Josef Svátek and Alois Jirásek. Those are the Czech legends that describe the wonderworks of rabbi Loew that are still read today by every Czech schoolchild.”

“He is, one could say, a Czech national here. He is probably the only rabbi, and perhaps the only Jew, who is a national hero. Part of the identity story is that he came from one minority and helped another minority develop its emerging identity. That’s incredible.”

When it comes to legends, Rabbi Loew stands out among all the mythical and real Czech princes and kings, folk heroes and other characters that appear in the collection of Czech national legends by Alois Jirásek. First published in 1894, the book offers several stories related to the rabbi’s life and deeds, including one that is based on a real event. And it’s precisely this event which, as Dinah Spritzer believes, was behind all the legends that later appeared.

“The rabbi met with the Holy Roman, Emperor, Rudolf II. And I believe that it was that meeting, so incredibly rare in the 16th century, for a rabbi to be invited by a royal in Europe for an audience, that it transformed his image. That is the key.”

In the legend, it was the Emperor who visited the rabbi in his home inside the Prague Jewish ghetto. But Arno Pařík says there are in fact historical records of the meeting.

“This is the point where history and legends come together because we have a record about Rabbi Loew’s visit to the Emperor at the castle. We know about it from a local chronicle by David Gans, who was a Jewish historian and a pupil of Rabbi Loew. So on February 16, 1592, the Maharal visited Rudolf II at Prague Castle.”

Do we know how long the meeting lasted and what language they spoke?

“That’s very interesting. Rabbi Loew spoke German, and Yiddish, so they most probably talked in German. And for how long? The legend says that when they started talking, the Emperor was sitting behind a curtain, but later he came out and talked to the rabbi directly. But we don’t really know for how long – probably around an hour or so.”

The historical figure of Rabbi Loew is perhaps less mysterious, but not necessarily less interesting. Mr Pařík explains that his strict attitude on life in the Jewish community sometimes caused tensions.

“Rabbi Loew was an outstanding scholar. Everybody recognized it even in his time. But because he was also very strict and ethical, he also had problems with the rich people in his community. Before he came to Prague, he was the Chief Rabbi of Moravia for 20 years in Mikulov. We don’t know so much about his life there, but even in Mikulov, his position was difficult.”

The reason why the Jewish community in the south Moravian town of Mikulov did not particularly appreciate the strict views of Rabbi Loew had to do with the famous local wine. Local Jewish people made and sold wine, and also drank it, although much of it was not prepared according to the rules, and therefore was not kosher. But Dinah Spritzer says that there was a very good reason why he wanted to play by the rules.

“The Jews were very much discriminated against and treated as aliens and sometimes as an evil body by the Habsburg rulers. Because of that, the Jews had to adopt different ways of dealing with the situation. Knowing that, the rabbi had to be very careful. He also had ideas that the Jewish race was distinct, and one of his better known writings, when he was the head rabbi of Moravia, was that he was really ticked off when Moravian Jews were drinking non-kosher wine, and that they were drinking with Christians – something he was afraid would lead to assimilation.”

In the world of Jewish scholarship, Rabbi Loew is remembered for his teachings on a variety of subjects – from education to Zionism.

“Rabbi Loew wrote mostly about the importance of the Torah, and his work in that field is very much admired. He actually wanted to reform the way Talmud was taught. In his time, the reforms did not work, but eventually they succeeded. Perhaps one of his biggest influences is for religious Zionists. They believe that because he wrote so much about Jews being a distinct race and also that that it be not a natural state that Jews live outside Israel, he very much inspired that movement.”

Today, Prague has the Maharal Institute, a centre for rabbinical students to study rabbi Loew’s works. But it’s literally impossible to avoid the Golem whose pictures and figurines are sold all over the Jewish town. The Path of Life exhibition also shows the most significant interpretations of the Golem legend – illustrations of the famous novel The Golem by Gustav Meyrink, which was first published in Germany in 1915, several films including the 1951 the Emperor’s Baker and the Baker’s Emperor, and sculptures and other works of art. In fact, one of the posters of the exhibition uses a 1951 painting of the rabbi standing next to the Golem, which was used as prop in the famous Czech film. Using a picture of the rabbi with the Golem he was said to have created is, Dinah Spritzer says, a clever way of getting people to come and see the exhibit.

“As I understand it, it’s a paradox, because this is what the Maharal is best known for, and so they are clearly using that image to lure people in. In America, we say ‘bait and switch’. They think that they are going to see an exhibition on the Golem, but really it’s about the Maharal.”