Rav Yehudah Loew, the Maharal of Prague, is best known for something he never did, and hardly known for something he did. Everybody knows that the Maharal created the Golem, a Frankenstein-like creature that assisted the Jews of Prague in the late 16th century in various ways. The only problem is that it never happened. It was an old-wives’ tale propagated by a known Jewish plagiarizer and teller of tall tales named Yudl Rosenberg in the early 20th century. There is a long tradition of Golems in Jewish lore, and in Prague it goes back to at least the late 18th century. But there are no contemporary or near-contemporary accounts of a golem being made by the Maharal. He never wrote about it, and none of his close associates did either. It does make a great story, however.
What did the Maharal do? For starters, he was one of the handful of significant Jewish scholars to bridge the entire spectrum of Judaism - from Bible to Talmud to Midrash to philosophy to mysticism. His works are nothing less than voluminous. He wrote on every imaginable topic and he wrote deeply. His main goal seems to have been to transform the many concepts and statements of the Talmud and Midrash that appear puzzling and illogical, into gems of spiritual wisdom. When a contemporary Jewish scholar wants to find the inner meaning of such a passage, at some point in the process he or she will open up some work of the Maharal and discover whatever was being sought out. They may not agree with the Maharal’s take on whatever is being examined, but they will certainly find something fascinating.
Among his many works is a long treatise called Be’er Hagolah (Well of Redemption) which examines bizarre Talmudic statements and explains them in light of hidden spiritual concepts. Chapter six of the fourth section deals with a startling passage from the Talmud stating that God wears tefillin (the boxes Jews wear at prayer that contain small scrolls with specific Biblical verses). The Talmud even describes what is written on God’s tefillin – a Biblical verse that says, ‘And who is like you Israel, a single nation in the world?’ This one is about as strange as it gets. God wears tefillin? In classic Maharal style, he explains this as an example of God ‘wearing’ an aspect of His creation as a way of displaying his glory. Tefillin are themselves referred to as ‘glory’ in rabbinic literature, so it is only fitting that God’s tefillin should display glory.
But the Maharal goes further. Towards the end of this essay, he asks the big question – why did God create the universe? He rejects the standard answer of creating it to show off his greatness. He then rejects the Lurianic approach (he may have been unaware of Luria and his school) of creating it to bestow good onto creation. He ends up with something that resembles Maimonides’ answer in the Guide, that everything was created for itself. But he then puts a new spin on things:
'The world was created for itself. For even though it is the result and the result is not on the same level as the cause, nevertheless there is an additional benefit to the cause that stems from the result. Therefore, God wears tefillin which are a glory to the wearer, since God gains glory from the creation, which is something ‘other’ than God…This description (of God) differs (from the inherent qualities of God) in that it ascribes something to God from the aspect of the completeness of creation…'
What is this guy talking about? Just for the record, this is typical Maharal – pretty difficult to understand but giving over a sense that there’s something deep in the works that just has to be figured out. We also have to give him credit for tackling an extremely difficult passage in the Talmud in an ingenious manner. God wearing tefillin really means that some of God’s glory comes not from God but from creation. Tefillin are an adornment for those who wear them. Creation, correspondingly, is also an adornment for God. With this as a basis, the Maharal then goes into part two – the purpose of creation.
Anybody reading this has to wonder how on earth the Maharal journeyed from God wearing tefillin to the purpose of creation. But anybody wondering such a thing may not be all that familiar with the Maharal. He gets right into the nitty-gritty of everything. No matter how trivial something may seem at first glance, he will find a way to make it profound. God wears tefillin. Okay, so what? Well, that means that God has this tefillin-like thing which is something other than God, which is a source for God’s glory.
Other than God – what does that mean? It sounds like the philosophical picture of God, out beyond the confines of the universe, creating and managing the whole thing from a comfortable distance. Does the Maharal agree with this? It turns out (you’ll have to take our word on this one) that he does not. He is a firm believer in the mystical conception of God – that there is nothing other than God and everything else is simple a manifestation of God’s being made ‘real’. So what does it mean for something to be ‘other’ than God anyway?
This question, perhaps, gets us into the guts of the Maharal’s idea. Creation is ‘other’ than God. It is ‘outside’, in the sense that it is God transformed into what we call reality. That ‘other’ is a heavily veiled version of God, in which the godliness is almost undetectable. Nevertheless, it also contributes to God’s glory. The creation, that physical, material, 14 billion year-old wreck of the Big Bang, as apparently devoid of God as it is, still kicks in its share to God’s glory.
In fact, the Maharal’s conclusion, his answer to the big question, is that this is the purpose of creation. It was created for itself and not for any other reason. It wasn’t created so that we can see God’s greatness. Nor was it created so that God could display His perfection by bestowing good to another. It was created just the way it is because it also is an aspect of God.
What an amazing idea. A frog is not just a frog, as wonderful as frogs may be. A frog is a small piece of God’s glory. It puts an entirely different perspective on looking at frogs or flowers or anything else for that matter. Every single thing, every single person, every thought or idea – all of them are aspects of God’s glory. God’s glory is found throughout creation, there is no place or time devoid of it. Why did God create it all? So that each part, each little piece of the great pie, can have a share in this most wondrous purpose, the glory of God.
This line of thought is reflective of a trend that dominated the thought of Hasidut, the Jewish heir of Kabbala. Maharal has taken the mystical image of God full circle. This God, who certainly cannot be called ‘He’ or ‘She’ or even ‘It’, exists in every single thing.
This is one step away from the near-heretical belief known as pantheism. As we shall see, this belief was taken up by the modern rational heirs of the old philosophers. However, one could take a slightly different turn and end up not in the God-is-nature world of the pantheists, but in the God-is-within-nature world of the panentheists. Hasidut, by and large took this second route. Seen in this way, the Maharal was the theological heir and antecedent of two major streams of Jewish thought. He was a philosopher and a mystic. He combined these two opposing worldviews and penetrated into a world that may have been inaccessible to either one alone. God is God, but God needs creation to reveal God’s true glory. The universe and all it contains may not be God. But all of it, from the smallest particle to the vastness of space, is God’s precious adornment.
This one is pretty tough to get to the bottom of, let alone to get out of it something practical. But when really pondered, a new way of looking at life can be gleaned from this. We all too often overlook our own place in the great scheme of things. Almost invariably, we see ourselves as nothing more than the insignificant products of the evolution process that we have been trained to accept. That all may be true or it may turn out to be only one layer in the big picture. Regardless of how we arrived at our current state, we are still a piece of the great and wonderful event called creation. And creation, if one chooses to see it in this way, is God’s centerpiece. We are all a part of that centerpiece. Next time you feel that creeping feeling of worthlessness, remember who you truly are. You are front and center in God’s mind. You are God’s adornment.
It is worth mentioning that Maharal’s Talmudic quote included the idea that God’s tefillin had the verse, ‘And who is like you Israel, a single nation in the world?’ Israel, the Jewish people, has its own place in God’s great adornment. The Jews throughout history have certainly pulled more than their share of the weight of human progress. Jews have not been perfect, they have gone off course numerous times, but they have always maintained some element of uniqueness. This is something that every Jew should contemplate. Where do I, as a Jew fit into God’s great plan? What part can I play in that single nation? Am I pulling my weight in the unique Jewish place in that adornment? These are not easy questions to answer. Many Jews do not want to face them, preferring to fade into the anonymity of the human race, of godlessness, and of faceless technology. But there is no escaping the reality of being a Jew - neither its uniqueness nor its responsibility. God’s tefillin, according to this Talmudic passage, asks the Jews how they are so unique. Shouldn’t Jews be asking themselves the same question?
Maharal obviously saw something of great significance in the uniqueness of the Jewish people, something tied to the purpose of creation. Without getting immersed into the controversy, perhaps we can say that he considered that the Jews as a people have a special role to play in God’s great plan. Somehow, in some mysterious manner, the Jewish nation completes an aspect of God’s creation that would have been missing otherwise. It is entirely possible that no other people in the history of the world have managed to maintain a religious and historical identity for thousands of years as the Jews have done. It is also possible that the Jews, in persevering, have managed to create, transmit, and transform an essential message that is vital to our purpose in life. That message, Maharal might have said, was this very idea – that all of creation is God’s adornment.
Food for Thought
The main innovation in the Maharal’s approach is that the creation in some way completes God. From here on, the created world would take a more central role in Jewish theology, while God would either recede into the background or be revealed through the creation. Is there any way to reconcile this new understanding of God with the God of the Bible?
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