Juda Liw Ben Bekalela

(Jehuda Loew(e)/Liwa ben Becalel) (ca. 1520-1609)
Ben Bekalela is also known as Der Hohe Rabbi Loew, as well as by the acronym Maharal. He was a learned rabbi, mystic and philosopher. He spent most of his life in Prague, though he also had links with Poland, where he had studied in a Talmudic academy. For twenty years, he was a rabbi in Nikolsburg (Mikulov, Moravia), eventually becoming the chief rabbi of Moravia. He moved to Prague, where he founded his own Talmudic academy, a yeshiva. He directed the school for over eleven years. Beginning in 1584, he was a rabbi in Poznan, and returned to Prague four years later, only to move back to Poznan, where he became chief rabbi of that city, and then all of Wielkopolska. The last eleven years of his life were spent in Prague as that city's chief rabbi.

He was known for his unusual dynamism, demonstrated for example by his implementation of a broad range of organizational reforms in all Jewish groups he happened to lead. He founded many Jewish associations that served as focal points for the entire community. He understood a rabbi's role in educational and spiritual terms, and strove to emphasize the aspects of his activities as rabbi that were positive for the community, while moving away from excessive political involvement and purely representational functions.

He supported Jewish education and urged that curricula reflect the age of the pupils. Not only would an ambitious program exceeding the intellectual abilities of the children not be mastered, it might also discourage interest in studying the Torah. Referring to the wisdom of earlier rabbis, and as an enlightened pedagogue, Ben Bekalela recommended that boys begin studying the Bible at the age of five, the Mishna at ten, and the Talmud at fifteen. This educational system returned the Mishna to its proper place in the curriculum. Juda Liw put great emphasis on the study of the Hebrew language and its grammar.

In Talmudic studies, he was opposed to the dominant form of argumentation, pilpul, favoring more literal interpretations. The fact that he was himself a highly regarded mathematician did not, however, influence his attitude toward introducing the secular subjects into Jewish education - something he strictly opposed.

Juda Liw based his views on Jewish thought, particularly on its mysticism. He believed that the only advantage of philosophy is that it can confirm what Jews have known for a long time already thinks to their texts. In his writing, Juda Liw concentrated on oppositions, such as God and the earth, male and female. He believed the Torah to be a mediator between God and man; as a consequence of this, he was convinced of the need for each Jew to study the Torah, to follow its commandments in his or her life, and in this way contribute to the final redemption of the world. According to Liw, the role of Jews in this final redemption is fundamental, and the return of the Jews to their homeland is a basic condition for the final salvation of the human race.

In Jewish and Czech legends, Liw is known as the creator of golem. The old Talmudic literature used the term "golem" to describe a figure made of clay, which was miraculously brought to life by the magic use of the secret name of God. The most famous legend tells the tale of the Prague rabbi Juda Liw (Judah Loewe), who tried to defend his community from false accusations of ritual murder. When the situation became critical, the rabbi asked God for help, and was told to create a golem.

With his pupils, he made a giant, dressed him in the garb of a shamash (an assistant in the synagogue) and told him to defend the Prague Jews. When a non-Jewish butcher tried to throw the corpse of a child who had been killed onto the grounds of the Jewish quarter so the Jews could later be accused of ritual murder, the golem caught him red-handed and took him by force to the magistrate, where the culprit was punished. Other stories about the golem's later fate are numerous, and the legend served as inspiration for many literary works, plays and films.

Juda Liw probably became the hero of this legend thanks to his mysticism, but it should be recalled that he was also the author of many texts about religious law, ethics and homiletics. (asw)

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