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The Maharal of Prague: An Introduction

We might very well credit Rabbi Yehudah Liva, the legendary "Maharal of Prague," with being the first to "open the gate" and provide us with a truly penetrating look at the essence of the Sages' homiletical teachings on the Torah - the "Midrash."


Rabbi Eliyahu Brin

Cheshvan, 5761
2 min read
1. The Maharal's Unique Approach
2. The Maharal's Style
3. Understanding Essence
4. The Maharal and Rabbi Kook
5. Maharal's Works

The Maharal's Unique Approach
We might very well credit Rabbi Yehudah Liva, the legendary "Maharal of Prague," with being the first to "open the gate" and provide us with a truly penetrating look at the essence of the Sages' homiletical teachings on the Torah - the Midrash. It is not uncommon for the Midrash, in relating to a particular biblical personality or event, to add descriptive details which go beyond the letter of the written word. The Sages' purpose in doing this is not to add mere color or incidental information to the biblical story. They are, in fact, presenting the word of God in the most profound light possible so as to imbue the student with both analytic and spiritual capacity, and equip him with a faith-centered approach to Torah and the Jewish people. This, then, is the novelty and uniqueness of the Maharal. By studying his works we view the world of Midrash - the faith-world of the Sages - in a completely different manner.

There are those who learn the writings of the Maharal superficially, and hence come away with no more than an isolated elucidation of the text and some novel ideas. Such individuals remain unaware of the elaborate and all-encompassing religio-metaphysical system that this towering scholar in fact builds. The cause of this mistake is the fact that the Maharal arranges his ideas in stages. He addresses and clarifies the words of the Sages in a seemingly arbitrary manner. Yet behind this collage of isolated elucidations there rests a deeper organic arrangement. Each of these sources, with its respective commentary, plays a role in the creation of this special order.

The Maharal does not open the gate to an understanding of the Midrash alone; he unveils, to some degree, the world of Jewish mysticism. Jewish mysticism, or Kabbalah, became notably crystallized about one generation before the appearance of the Maharal, in the days of the saintly Ari (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria Ashkenazi) and his students. Kabbalah constitutes a world in itself with its own distinct style. It uses special terminology, a unique lexicon of mysticism built upon Divine emanations and manifestations, while leaving the inner ideas of Kabbalah concealed. Clearly, the Kabbalah does not aim at having things learned superficially. Despite its illusive style, the masters of the Kabbalah wanted students to understand its principles in an organic and ideal manner. Even in books on Jewish philosophy that were composed in order to make the Kabbalah understandable to the rational world, the reasoning of the mysticism remained, while the concepts of Kabbalah are brought in essence without complete inner explanation, rather like axioms. Take, for example, the systems of explanation which appear in the works of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lutzatto, the "Ramchal," and Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the "Baal HaTanya."

The Maharal, on the other hand, has as his point of departure human reason. He too touches upon esoteric concepts - he has even been deemed "above the Kabbalists" - but through his rationalist approach he succeeds in building an added a layer of faith, understanding, and life to Jewish scholarship.

The Maharal's Style
With the spread of the European Enlightenment in the Maharal's day, philosophical methodology succeeded in penetrating Judaism. This phenomenon made possible the application of a rational-abstract approach to questions dealing with the nature of the universe's composition and the meaning of life. The Maharal welcomed this development, considering it a hitherto undiscovered continent for human endeavor. Making use of the new instruments at his disposal, he set about elucidating the deep inner content of the Torah. Hence, an opening was formed which allowed for an idealistic-holistic approach to Torah understanding, such that even the inner depths of the Scriptures were made approachable through the application of analysis and reason. (Needless to say, human intellect and rationale elucidation are by nature considerably less applicable to the more mystical aspects of the Torah than they are in the clear-cut and definite arena of Jewish law. The Maharal himself bears this out when he uses expressions like "...and it is impossible to explain any further" i.e., despite all efforts to make them intelligible, these concepts do not lend themselves to full expression).

We find, then, that while outwardly the Maharal's works borrow terms from the world of philosophy, its actual content is profoundly spiritual. It follows, that attempts at likening the teachings of the Maharal to philosophy are misleading, for his system is not built upon of man-made axioms; we do not find the Maharal independently inventing concepts like "Knesset Yisrael" (Ecclesia Israel) or "Kedushat Eretz Yisrael" (the Sanctity of the Land of Israel). All of the fundamental ideas and principles which appear in the Maharal's writings are rooted in the Divine; they all appear in the teachings of the Sages. The Maharal was a maverick in the sense that he took upon himself the task of making the world of the Sages graspable to human reason.

Understanding Essence
On the one hand, the Maharal is classified as a mystic, while on the other he is credited with constructing a rational system of explanation. In this sense, he can be seen as having anticipated the appearance of Hassidic philosophy. For, by virtue of the Maharal it became possible to present the inner spirit of the Torah in such a way that it speak not only to unique and towering individuals, but to the hearts of the masses as well. In this manner an idealist-organic understanding of the Torah was opened before us. Put another way, the moment one understands that the various adages and stories of the Talmudic Sages contain essential, rather than fragmentary and detached meaning, one grasps the ultimate underlying principles and a coherent system reveals itself. For example, after one comprehends the essential nature of the Jewish people, the profoundness of many Midrashic teachings which subtly point to this nature become clearly understandable. Without a firm grasp of such ultimate underlying principles, this wisdom goes unnoticed among the multitude of other rabbinic teachings. Only through viewing things upon the backdrop of essential values and concepts is one able, based sometimes on one terse statement, to link up all of these details in a coherent manner.

The Maharal's method of treating the Midrash is similar to that generally employed in the field of Halakha (Jewish law). Though the early Talmudic commentators and codifiers - the Rishonim - occupied themselves chiefly with providing explanations to various isolated difficulties in the text of the Talmud, it is always possible to find in the words of one scholar or another a crucial statement which embodies the crux and essence of the topic at hand. Via the various solutions provided by a particular authority to disconnected and scattered difficulties in the Talmud, it is possible, if one only knows how, to come away with an inclusive picture - a picture which relates how that Rishon grasped the central idea of the specific subject. In this manner, the experienced student manages to sift out of the words of the Rishonim the essential underpinnings of the subject matter, even though they are not stated in an organized manner. This was the method of study adopted by the later codifiers - the Achronim - and it remains the accepted approach in Yeshivot (Talmudic academies) even in our times.

The Maharal also rises above and beyond the constricting realms of time, place, and circumstance in the words of the Sages, and, step by step, arranges the entire Torah into a corpus of basic principles, of all-embracing, intertwined, spiritual theorems. Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook zt"l would often draw our attention to the fact that the introduction to the book "Avnei Miluim" by Rabbi Aryeh Leib HaCohen Heller is "entirely Maharal." By this, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah meant that it is written in a distinctly "Maharalish" style, uniting and organizing seemingly unrelated details into one large intelligible picture. Rabbi Aryeh Leib Heller, a descendent of Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman Heller, was a profound thinker not only in the milieu of the more revealed aspects of the Torah, but was also at home in Torah's intimate inner chambers. He, like the Maharal, possessed an all-encompassing outlook.

We must remember, of course, not to blur things; the manner in which concepts are dealt with in the study of Jewish faith is different than in the realm of Jewish law. All the same, in each of these worlds one discovers general corollaries which can be traced back to even broader axioms. An awareness of this fact is especially important when dealing with Jewish faith which many mistakenly consider, for whatever reason, a product of human emotion that deserves little if any intellectual attention.

The Maharal and Rabbi Kook
This, then, constitutes a first important intersection of the teachings of the Maharal with those of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook, zt"l - both embrace a conceptual approach to the world of Midrash, and an appreciation of it as an all-embracing metaphysical system.

Another point at which these two minds meet is in their fundamental recognition of the organic oneness of the Jews and their Torah. The People of Israel, their Torah, and their Land, constitute the spiritual pillars upon which both the Maharal and Rabbi Kook's philosophies of Jewish faith rest. Torah is the life of the Jewish nation, as the blessing over the Torah attests: "Blessed are You…Who gave us the Torah of truth and implanted eternal life within us…" The Jews are not to be reckoned as a mass of distinct individuals, but as a collective body - a body possessing a life-goal that carries it far beyond the sum total of its separate individuals. This unique nation cannot be gauged according to the trivial yardstick of a particular period; it must be seen upon the backdrop of generations. True to this approach, the Maharal viewed the Hebrew patriarchs and matriarchs as the source of all future generations of the Jewish people, and considered the Exodus a crucially formative event in the making of the nation in a very far-reaching sense. Rabbi Kook's philosophy of Jewish faith, too, is built entirely upon an organic, "holistic" approach: Torah is no less than the heart and soul of the Jews, and constitutes the vital life force of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. And while it is undeniably true that the Land of Israel is given less attention in the works of the Maharal than the other two foundations - i.e., Torah and the Jewish people - it is possible to point to a number of cases in which the Maharal lays strong emphasis upon the essential value of the land: most notably in the opening of "Netzach Yisrael." There, he explains that the exile of the Jewish people from their land is an abnormal state, and, hence, only a temporary phenomenon.

In an even more pointed manner, the Maharal writes in the eighteenth chapter of his "Netiv HaAvodah" (regarding the law that "whoever fails to mention the covenant and the Torah in the 'Blessing of the Land' section of the Grace After Meals has not fulfilled his obligation") that a Jew is bound by both covenant (i.e., circumcision) and Torah, for after the Jews settled the Land of Israel they became both obligated in the covenant and worthy of the Torah which is the divine law of the Land.

This explanation makes it abundantly clear that the Jewish people merited the land of Israel because of a vital inner bond with the land, requiring life therein. It follows, then, that the Jews are called upon to rise to a new, more distinguished level of existence. This elevated existence, in turn, finds expression in the covenant – a covenant which changes the very body of the Jew and obligates him in the divine Torah. And all of this sprouts up in the land of Israel.

Elsewhere, the Maharal writes that Jewish interdependence and the attribute of the totality of People of Israel can find expression only in Israel, in the spirit of the verse, "And who is like Your nation - one people in the Land." Rabbi Kook expresses this same concept at length and with great clarity.
Some claim that the Maharal emphasizes the importance of the Land of Israel because, in his time, the Jewish presence in Israel was small and weak and in need of strengthening. It is not clear if this was in fact the case, for we know that of the Holy Ari was active in Israel one generation before the Maharal. In addition there was immigration to Israel from the Prague community itself in the generation following the Maharal. In order, then, to determine the accuracy of such a claim, it is necessary to prove that the settlement in Israel was notably riddled with difficulties in the Maharal's generation. At any rate, with Israel as with other matters, the Maharal concerns himself not with the practical aspect of things but with ideals and deep inner significance.

Basing himself upon Talmudic sources which present the Land of Israel as an entity possessing independent value, the Maharal, in "Netzach Yisrael," relates to the land's blessing as a lofty life characteristic. True, the essential and unbreakable bond which the Maharal reveals between the Jewish people and the Torah, and which is sometimes detectable in the words of the Sages, is lacking here. An all-encompassing understanding of the Torah is one which views it as a law of the nation. In the same respect, it is impossible to look at the Jewish people from its outer, physical side alone. The Jews must be seen as a nation with an enormous spiritual heritage - a heritage which can come to fruition, vibrancy, and true expression, only in the Land of Israel. This, though, is a concept which deserves separate treatment, and it is possible that the Maharal had planned on writing a book dealing with this subject, similar to "Netzach Yisrael" which deals with the Jewish people, and "Tiferet Yisrael" which deals with the Torah. And even if such a work was composed, it is possible that not all of the Maharal's books survived. At any rate, that the subject of the Land of Israel does not appear as an independent topic in the complete works of the Maharal presents no problem for us.

Together with his efforts to present things in their larger, more all-embracing context, the Maharal takes an almost "microscopic," word-by-word approach to elucidating Midrashic texts. In this respect, he mirrors the method of explanation found in the Halakhic writings of Rishonim like the Tosafists and the Rashba (Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Aderet) who, in their commentaries, stray as little as possible from the give and take of the Talmud and avert drawing up a comprehensive picture of their systems. The underlying rationale of such Rishonim is often decipherable only after deep analysis of their words, which are very similar in language and style of the Talmud itself. A similar reading-between-the-lines approach must also be taken with the Maharal. If, for example, we find the Maharal providing a string of solutions to a particular Midrashic difficulty, it is not because he simply possessed an abundance of ways to solve the problem; rather, he wants to gradually accustom our logic to a more all-inclusive explanation, and each additional solution serves this end. This is because it is difficult to present a comprehensive explanation in all of its depth and breadth in one step. Hence, in providing us with an organic, all-encompassing understanding of things, the Maharal himself is forced to operate within certain and boundaries.

In another sense the Maharal was "slave" to the theological and philosophical doctrines of his time. Let us once again make a distinction: It was not the Maharal's essential philosophy that was affected by such doctrines, Heaven forbid, but his point of departure and terminology. He chose this path because such ways of thinking were familiar to the people in his day and age. Because it is not so familiar to us, difficulty is bound to arise when studying the Maharal if one pays too close attention to his terminology. There exists a danger that the student will become caught up in the language of a particular isolated explanation and thus fail to comprehend the larger message being conveyed by the Maharal from behind this vernacular curtain. Faced with such a situation, it becomes possible to make use, albeit cautiously, of the rich corpus of Rabbi Kook's teachings at our disposal. If we find Rabbi Kook elaborating upon a particular fundamental concept given attention to by the Maharal, we may use the explanation of Rabbi Kook in order to make the Maharal that much more understandable to us. Such a path is similar in principal to that taken by one who turns to a later Halakhic authority like the "Ktzot" (Rabbi Aryeh Leib HaCohen Heller) in order to clarify the opinion of an earlier authority like the "Rashba".

In addition, when it comes to essential values, we find that the ideas of Rabbi Kook are almost always identical to those of the Maharal. Rabbi Kook is not in the habit of presenting his own novel groundbreaking ideas; rather, he brings the most basic concepts. He refrains from concocting intricate textual elucidations, preferring to explain the words of the Talmud on the most basic level possible. The unique thing about Rabbi Kook is his lack of commitment to the terminology of those who preceded him, a characteristic which is also attributable the Maharal. Hence, in Rabbi Kook's earlier writings, one find's expressions like, "according to such and such a principle, it is possible to provide the following explanation..." while in later works the explanations are more general, with little if any reference to earlier authorities. This is not because the Rabbi has divorced himself from his predecessors and prefers to contrive his own original concepts; to the contrary, he is giving voice to the true depths of the ideas of the Rishonim and teaching us that all of them, in fact, referred to the same basic principle.

Even if at first glance a number of Rishonim appear to disagree with one another on a particular point, a more comprehensive perspective will reveal that each scholar in fact addressed a separate aspect of the same general concept, and that all of them are associates in the same all-inclusive foundation. Such an approach can be discerned in the writings of Achronim when they show that various Rishonim agreed to the same fundamental Halakhic principle, even though they disagreed over its specific details. Faith-related matters of Judaism should be treated no differently. The Maharal deals in particulars as well. In one work he can be found explaining a particular detail in one manner - elsewhere, in a different manner. But this is only true on the level of particulars; when it comes to universals, the Maharal boasts an unshakable "unified field theory" of explanation and does not stoop to the level of providing questionable or far-fetched solutions to conflicting details. Things must be resolved in their wider sense, and not in their isolated, narrow sense.
Despite all of these comparisons to Rabbi Kook it must be made clear that the Maharal remains a book unto himself. We must not claim that he tried to emphasize things which he never said at all.

At the same time, the following must be taken into account: In Halakha, there is an undeniable difference between the "Torah of the Land of Israel" and the "Torah of the Diaspora." This difference finds expression in the deviating styles of the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds; The Babylonian Talmud sees things less clearly than the Jerusalem due to a lack of Jewish national unity - a healthy living body receiving the Torah - and an absence of prophecy. Despite this undesirable situation, in the Diaspora, the Halakhic aspects of the Torah merited expansion, branching out, and breaking down into various books and in numerous ways. The dimension of Jewish faith, on the other hand, became shriveled and watered down in the Exile. This made it very difficult to revitalize while still in the Exile. What's more, the Maharal wrote primarily for the people of his own generation. This is detectable from the type of ethics which he preaches in a number of his books dealing with the study of Torah in his period. The Maharal, then, did not write for exceptional individuals, but for the wider public. It follows that the Maharal's explanations had to be comprehensible to such a public – a public which was naturally limited in its intellectual capacity. It is safe to assume that things that could not be understood were not written. Therefore, it is possible to say that various approaches of explanation in Jewish though that appeared after the Maharal are in fact a kind of expansion upon the Maharal himself, and we are permitted to approach the Maharal as if we are dealing with portions out of the writings of Rabbi Kook.

Maharal's Works
The book "Netivot Olam" deals primarily with ethics. Even so, the Maharal's approach to ethics notably profound. For example, in the chapter dealing with the study of Torah, the Maharal opens with a definition of Torah. Following this, he explains how the Torah ought to be approached and studied, providing, finally, practical guidance and the proper manner of relating to the Torah.

Among the Maharal's other works, the most important are "Netzach Yisrael," "Tiferet Yisrael," and "Gevurot HaShem." The last of these three works deals with the exodus from Egypt, while each of the previous two deals with the subject of its title: "Netzach Yisrael" - with the Jewish people and their redemption; "Tiferet Yisrael" - with the Torah.

In a sense, "Netzach Yisrael" is the Maharal's opus magnum. This is because it succeeds, in a few short chapters, in paving the way to a clear understanding of the unique status of the Jewish people and their collective nature. In "Netzach Yisrael" the Maharal drive homes the point that because of their inherent chosen status, the Jewish people are forever advancing toward an inevitable redemption.

Yet, from another angle, "Tiferet Yisrael" is even more groundbreaking than "Netzach Yisrael." One might ask oneself, "What sort of earth-shattering ideas is it possible to express in a book dealing with the importance of the Torah? Everybody knows that the Torah is the embodiment of all that is holy, the heart and soul of Judaism, and the foundation of all." The Maharal comes along and informs us that what distinguishes the Torah is the fact that it is the very life of the Jewish people. Without grasping this fundamental fact it is impossible to truly understand the Torah. The entire Torah rests upon the chosen nature of the Jewish people and upon an organic understanding of the vitality of the Jewish nation. Therefore, in a sense, this book is the apex of the Maharal's works. This, despite the fact that the Midrashic passages dealt with in "Tiferet Yisrael" are among the most common and fundamental of all ethical and homiletic explanations in the Talmud connected to the issue of Torah study – for example, the Children of Israel's declaring that "We will do" before "We will listen" at Mount Sinai, and the differences between the first and second sets of tablets of the Ten Commandments. What is special here is the Maharal's method of explanation: how he manages to tie things in with the "chosen" aspect of the Jewish people, their unique quality, and their life content. In "Tiferet Yisrael" the Maharal's true genius is discernable - but not everybody who studies this work takes notice of it. Because the Maharal begins by quoting the words of the Talmud directly and often at great length, the student is likely to recall for himself these passages and not perceive the Maharal's organic-styled elucidations which come in their wake. This, in turn, results in a failure to grasp the crystallized faith system which the Maharal outlines in "Tiferet Yisrael." In a sense, this book is comprehensive: a kind of tractate on the Torah itself which one must plow and labor over until it has been learned well. It is not easy reading. Its concepts must be explored in their full depth, like studying the commentary of an Acharon on the Talmud. In addition, the student of Maharal must pay close attention to the gradual construction of layer upon layer which takes place with each new chapter.
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