Maharal of Prague: Be’er Hagolah
By Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Reviewed by Elyakim Krumbein
Be’er HaGolah (henceforth: BH) occupies a unique position among the writings of the Maharal of Prague. As a rule, Maharal’s chosen genre is thematic. His major works systematically examine a topic, such as the Exodus, or exile and redemption. In contrast, BH’s content spans a broad range of subjects, and the work’s unity is not due to any ideational consistency but to its patently polemical framework.
Maharal here does battle with intellectual adversaries—unidentified, with the major exception of Azariah de Rossi—who critiqued various aspects of the Aggadic literature. His targeted audience is not the critics themselves, but the Jewish public at large given to their influence. The cosmopolitan atmosphere of Renaissance Prague, the revived interest in Aggadah (abetted by the spread of printed midrashim) and the exposure of the Jews to the by-now standard Christian barbs aimed at rabbinic literature all converged to spur Maharal’s profound, detailed and lengthy response. BH is structured around seven “wells,” each dealing with a particular type of assault on the Sages’ integrity.
Yet the work’s significance goes well beyond polemics. Aggadah is the cornerstone of all of Maharal’s output, and it is in BH that he directly addresses this literature as an object of study—its aims, function and method. In effect, the work presents us with a comprehensive picture of Maharal’s own methodology as a thinker and as an interpreter of the Sages. Thus, BH is best seen as an introduction or “manual” to Maharal’s other works.
In his English rendition of BH, Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein has succeeded in furthering the work’s accessibility and enhancing its value as an introduction to Maharal’s thought. His book is not a direct translation but a reformulation that adheres to the steps of Maharal’s own development while using terms that the modern mind will find meaningful. Maharal’s major ideas and methods are presented coherently and effectively, and some of the atmosphere of the original also filters through the English idiom.
It is important to read Rabbi Adlerstein’s prologue, where he spells out his approach. As an educator and expositor, he endeavors to explicate Maharal to the modern student. He also resists the urge to over-expound, in order to let Maharal speak for himself. All in all, he maintains a delicate balance, sometimes using a footnote as a way out of the dilemma. Rabbi Adlerstein’s volume can be studied on its own, but the author recommends using it as a companion to studying BH in the original. My own experience confirms the book’s great value when used in this way. In any event, this is a volume that will reward serious attention, as opposed to a casual read.
In contrast to the author’s commendable humility and sincere desire to encourage study of the Hebrew text, one must take exception to the dust jacket’s repeated claim of “complete fidelity” to the original. Such extravagance in effect makes the source-text superfluous in the eyes of the potential reader. The publishers ought to have exhibited more caution and accuracy on this point.
We turn to a somewhat more detailed consideration of BH—the original and its modern adaptation—in order to get a better idea of Maharal’s approach and of Rabbi Adlerstein’s achievement. Unfortunately, space limitations confine us to only a few remarks.1
Aggadah as an Independent System
Maharal is no apologist. This is true despite positions he voices that have a modern appeal, some of which appear in BH. For example, he articulates liberal opinions on tolerance and the open exchange of ideas between different faiths. One can easily imagine these pieces playing a role in the cultural discussions of the time. On the other hand, it is hard to see how some concepts of his, offered in rebuttal to attacks from without, could satisfy his sixteenth-century critics, not to mention modern-day liberals (for example, his insistence on the utter worthlessness of amei ha’aretz who divorce themselves from Torah and its adherents). He justifies the Sages’ extreme pronouncements on such a person, maintaining that his existence has value only in view of his potential to change his ways.
In the final analysis, he conceives Aggadah as reflecting a thought-system with its own frame of reference, inherently and distantly removed from all other branches of wisdom. Understanding it requires adjustment to and assimilation of its ground rules, appreciation of its aims and deep respect for its authors.
This is important when approaching BH in general. The outward visage of the book (and the publisher of the English volume plays this up as well) might impress one as a “defense” of maligned rabbinic Judaism, designed to equip one with “debating points.” Yet the whole internally coherent system is far more relevant to the rabbinic Jew himself than to presentations that might interest wider audiences. An outsider may be impressed, but only the motivated insider will summon the energy and the open-mindedness necessary to consider a way of thinking that is decidedly “different.” Once again, and despite appearances, we return to the realization that BH is best understood as an introduction to Maharal and to Aggadah, rather than as a polemic tract.
Non-literalism and its Implications
The most obvious element of Maharal’s doctrine on Aggadah is non-literalism. Taking the Sages’ statements at their superficial meaning is, in his eyes, an affront to their greatness, and in this he is in full agreement with Rambam. This view was contested by Rishonim in the past, and today one can still hear the opinion expressed by eminent rabbis that not believing the simple peshat of a fantastic Aggadah demonstrates lack of faith. In truth, a famous story recounted in Bava Batra (75a) appears to demand that the Sages’ statements be understood most literally, and this implication was indeed once drawn by the great Tosafist Rabbi Shimshon of Sens. Nevertheless, Maharal steadfastly insists that all Aggadah aims at a deeper truth. The passage from Bava Batra is cited in BH (p. 134) in a polemic context, but Maharal appears to ignore its literalist impact.
At the same time, Maharal demands utter seriousness when dealing with Aggadot. They are part of Torah. Nothing in them can be dismissed as hyperbole or mere rhetoric, even in the service of edification. Some of Maharal’s severe castigation of de Rossi revolves on this point.
To Maharal, a non-literalist approach means not only that one should understand Aggadot as allegories, but also that the thought of the Sages tends to profound principles and abstractions. The outward physical reality of the cosmos, as well as the metaphoric reality pictured in Aggadah, point to spirit and to ideas that are the true building blocks of Creation. The Leviathan in Chazal, for instance, is not a primordial serpent, but rather refers to an essential aspect of the cosmos—the potential of created reality to live up to the expectations of its Maker in the fullest possible way. Hence the Aggadah’s metaphoric image (based on Psalm 104) of the Holy One “toying with the Leviathan.” This way of looking at things derives mainly from kabbalah, which was without a doubt a seminal influence on Maharal’s work—though with some notable exceptions, he uses philosophic, non-kabbalistic formulations.
In this thought-system, the abstract, spiritual roots of reality have an important ramification. How does one explain events in the world? The traditional philosophical standpoint maintains that unfolding events can be of two kinds: devoid of meaning (chance occurrences or results of physical law), or acts of Providence that respond to man’s actions. The second option is the one that attaches spiritual significance to the event, seeing it as part of the ongoing dialogue between man and God. But Maharal’s understanding of the physical world as the expression of core ideals implies that occurrences can have another type of spiritual
To illustrate, Maharal tackles the Sages’ attribution of solar and lunar eclipses to various human misdemeanors and failings, despite their complete predictability based on millennia of observation. The Sages certainly knew that eclipses are foreknown and independent of man’s conduct, says Maharal. The iniquities they enumerated in this connection were meant as an indication of the inherent moral imperfection of the world and of humanity. It is only because the world is a place where, by nature, such things happen that God ordered the luminaries in a correspondingly flawed fashion—with eclipses occurring habitually. Maharal here postulates a moral significance of events that has nothing to do with free will, but proceeds from a kind of spiritual cosmic law. In this case he even notes that the reader may question his explanation, since it assumes that humanity’s iniquities are not a matter of free choice but a part of the nature of things. Maharal essentially shrugs off the question. An inexorable spiritual law, which explains perceived reality while superseding the notion of specific human choices evoking Providential response, is a ubiquitous feature of Maharal’s worldview.2
Making Maharal Accessible
I find it remarkable that Rabbi Adlerstein’s relatively restrained “alterations” suffice to make this text relevant and alive to the modern reader. Perhaps, as some have observed, there is something inherently modern in Maharal’s approach, or, to imagine what Rabbi Adlerstein would say, it addresses modern needs. Here we will briefly note some of the features of this edition that facilitate making the five-century leap between the Maharal and us.
For one thing, the difference between the English and the Hebrew text is more than linguistic. The original work is a literature of stylistic remoteness. Learning Maharal has the feel of walking up the slope of a mist-covered mountain. This is true even of his extant derashot, although to a lesser degree. Rabbi Adlerstein’s style is that of a teacher. The book speaks to the audience directly, and reverberates with the sensitivity of the live classroom.
Not all of BH is represented in the current version. Rabbi Adlerstein frankly admits that some passages were left out because he was unsure of their correct understanding. He also omits many discussions that the reader will find difficult to relate to, primarily those grounded in medieval science. In some cases of scientific obsolescence, he recasts the content in currently acceptable terms.
I have already referred to the author’s footnotes, which are invariably instructive and illuminating. The author also employs his erudition to refer us to parallel and related sources in Maharal and Jewish and general philosophy.
An important aspect of the author’s adaptive work is seen in the following example. Maharal says that Moshe Rabbeinu related to Klal Yisrael as tzurah (form) to chomer (substance). Rabbi Adlerstein serves the reader with a wonderful explanation of the meaning of the two concepts. A designer or planner contributes the form to a given project, whereas those who carry out his vision are people of “substance.” Hence Moshe, who gave Torah and its ideals to his people, imparted tzurah to chomer. In this and many other instances, Maharal’s abstractions take on meaning that otherwise would not be apparent to the student.
At the same time, we should be aware that an exposition like this is also an interpretation. As such, it is instructive to go back and compare this understanding to the source-text. Rabbi Adlerstein’s description emphasizes the functional: Moshe’s life-work gave Israel its form. Maharal himself speaks in terms that are more existential and essentialist: Moshe Rabbeinu was, in his very being, the “form” of Am Yisrael. Rabbi Adlerstein’s interpretation is not only legitimate, but also valuable for the meaning it infuses in the terminology. But the difference between source and rendition illustrates in another way that the source is irreplaceable.
In a similar vein, when his discussion touches on delicate or profound theological matters, Maharal, in BH and other works, is wont to voice reservation or apology. All of his views in these matters are based on the mystical literature, and he has ambivalent feelings about revealing too much. He also reminds the reader that he is by no means revealing all. All of this lends Maharal’s own writing an aura of awe and mystery, which—in this reader’s opinion—is by and large missing in the lucid, modern adaptation. The apologies are there in English, but the reader doesn’t really sense the need for them. This is clearly inevitable, and reminds us again of the price we must pay for disseminating works in translation. The price can be justified if we ultimately bring people to the source.
Rabbi Adlerstein’s efforts were obviously great, and we must thank him and ArtScroll for this important volume. It is to be hoped that many will avail themselves of this portal to one of Judaism’s great thinkers, whose relevance endures so vividly to our day.
Rabbi Elyakim Krumbein is a resident of Alon Shvut and is a member of the faculty of Yeshivat Har Etzion. He is the author of Musar for Moderns (Jersey City, New Jersey, 2005), an introductory volume to musar, and has written various articles on halachah and Jewish thought.
1. Examples given here of Maharal’s thought will be drawn from BH, unless otherwise indicated.
2. Another prominent example is the idea that the receiving of the Torah, described in Scripture as a willed choice of the Israelites, really did not depend on their agreement at all. All of Creation presupposed it, and the Jewish people could not have rejected Torah even if they wanted to. “Nature,” as it were, demanded it. Maharal returns to this particular assertion time and again, though not in BH.