The Maharal-Chabad Nexus

An Interview With Dr. Naftali Loewenthal


The Maharal-Chabad Nexus

Photo: Mordechai Lightstone

Old Jewish cemetery in Josefov, the former Jewish ghetto of Prague .

by Baila Olidort - London, England

September 7, 2009

Rabbi Yehuda Loew of Prague, widely known as the Maharal (1525-1609), was one of the most seminal thinkers of the post-medieval period. 

A leading Rabbi in Prague, then a center of Jewish life and Torah study, the Maharal was regarded as much for his broad scholarship in Jewish and secular disciplines, as for his activism on behalf of the Jewish community. 

Within the world of Jewish and Torah scholarship, he is known for his works on Jewish philosophy and Jewish mysticism and his supercommentary on Rashi's Torah commentary known as Gur Aryeh al HaTorah.

The Maharal lived in a transitional milieu, when, at the dawn of the Renaissance, a new scientific picture of the universe was emerging and Jewish life in Central and Western Europe was exposed to the changing culture. A conservative advocate of religious traditions, the Maharal sought to protect them against rationalistic misinterpretations which threatened at the time. At the same time he was well acquainted with contemporary Renaissance science, especially astronomy.

Though details of his personal life are sketchy, he is known to have been born around 1525 in the Polish town of Poznań to parents who originally came from Prague.

Between 1553 and 1573, Maharal was the Chief Rabbi of Moravia but gave up his position and moved to Prague to become a rector of the Klaus – a private rabbinic academy. He was active at this institution from 1573 to 1584 and again in 1588–1592. He held the post of Chief Rabbi of Poznań in 1584–1588 and again between 1592 and1595. In 1596, he became Chief Rabbi of Prague.  Rabi Judah Loew ben Bezalel passed away in 1609.

The Maharal had an influence on many streams of Jewish thought, including Chasidism, and especially on Chabad Chasidism. Indeed, the founder of Chabad, Reb Schneur Zalman of Liadi, was a direct descendant of the Maharal. 

In honor of 400 years since the Maharal’s passing on the 18th of Elul, corresponding this year to Monday, September 7 (an auspicious date on the Jewish calendar in general as it is the birthdate of the Baal Shem Tov and of the founder of the Chabad Chasidic movement), Baila Olidort, editor of lubavitch.com spoke with Dr. Naftali Loewenthal about the Maharal’s influence on Chabad Chasidic thought. 

Dr. Loewenthal, a Chasidic scholar and teacher, is the author of Communicating the Infinite, University of Chicago Press. Dr. Loewenthal lectures on Jewish Spirituality at University College London, part of London University, and directs the Chabad Research Unit in London.

Q: As a scholar who has written extensively on Chabad Chasidic thought, how do you define the connection between the Maharal’s thought and that of Chabad Chasidism?

A: The Maharal was in a sense the first Chasidic writer, because like the later Chasidim, he communicated ideas based on the Midrashic, Aggadic and Kabbalistic dimensions of Jewish thought, seeking through them to create an ethos and a mode of personal relationship with the Divine.  

The overt form of much of his writing is the exposition of Aggadic and Midrashic passages, without using Kabbalistic terminology. However, many of the ideas he communicates are based in Kabbalistic sources such as the Zohar and Sefer Yetzirah.  

Q: Why do you think he avoided use of Kabbalistic terms in his works explaining issues of Jewish thought and mysticism? 

A: The Maharal avoided mystical terminology because he wanted to create a popular form of literature which could be studied by everyone, not only kabbalists. In his time there was a barrier restricting the study of Kabbalah and the use of its terminology to a chosen few. 

Yet the inner message he is transmitting is based on Kabbalistic ideas. In Chasidism and particularly Chabad, that barrier reserving Kabbalistic terminology for a chosen few had been opened: partly because of the activity of the Arizal, Rabbi Isaac Luria, who said that now “it is permitted and a duty to reveal this wisdom,” the efforts to propagate the study of Kabbalah by R. Chaim Vital, and the revelation to the Baal Shem Tov in his famous “ascent of the soul” that spreading the fountains of Chassidism - which amounts to an aspect of what might be called “kabbalah” - is imperative in order to hasten the Messiah.

Hence I see the work of the Maharal, despite its avoidance of Kabbalistic terminology, as parallel to that of Raabi Shneur Zalman and Chabad. Both wanted to create a form of thinking and discussion - a universe of discourse - in which the spiritual is being communicated.  So for the most part, instead of employing kabbalistic terms such as the names of the Divine Sefirot (Emanations), he created a terminology of his own, which can be treated as a form of religious philosophy. 

Q: Was it a rational philosophy, as in the tradition of Maimonides? 

A: No. The Maharal strongly emphasized the limitations of Reason: Reason itself cannot guide a person. He insisted that a person cleaves to G-d at a level which is beyond Reason, as he writes at the beginning of the Introduction to Derech HaChaim. 

Further, the Maharal sought to create through his writings a universe of discourse exploring and transmitting the spirituality of Judaism in both personal and national terms. This dovetails with the literary endeavors of Chasidic figures like Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk and Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi and his successors.

Q: Is there any indication in Chasidic texts suggesting that Chabad directly traces its ideas to the Maharal? 

A: Rabbi Shneur Zalman wrote on the title page of Tanya that it is based on “books and on authors.” There is a Chabad tradition that the ‘books’ he refers to include those of his ancestor the Maharal, while the ‘authors’ include Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, who was an older colleague of Rabbi Shneur Zalman and in some ways was also his teacher.    

I find it interesting that this R. Menachem Mendel also leads us back to the Maharal as an influence on Rabbi Shneur Zalman.  Dr. Bezalel Safran has written an extensive discussion of the thought of the Maharal and compares it closely with the thought of R. Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk (in Betzalel Safran Hasidism, Continuity or Innovation? Harvard, 1988).  

One can suggest that elements of the Maharal’s perceptions of spirituality, reaching him both by the Maharal’s printed works and through their influence on his colleague Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk, were systematized in Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s Tanya.

Q: What are some examples of the direct influence of the Maharal in the substance of Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s teachings?

A: An important theme in Chasidic thought is what has been called Panentheism, the idea that “all is within G-d.” The theme of the second section of Tanya is that the first line of the Shema means not merely that there is One G-d, but that there is only G-d, because all is within G-d. 

The Maharal gives forceful expression to this concept in Gevurot Hashem (NY, 1969; Israel, 1980, p.181) where he states that belief in G-d means not only the belief that G-d controls existence and gave the Torah, but also that “G-d is everything and that there is nothing outside Him.” Merely to believe that G-d “exists,” says the Maharal, is not enough. One must believe that all is G-d and is within G-d, very close to Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s teaching. 

Another possible example is the Maharal’s use of the theme of Tzelem Elokim, the “Divine Image.”  In his writings this idea takes a number of different forms. According to Safran, these relate not only to the Divine indwelling in the individual but also to that in existence as a whole. 

I would suggest that the systematization in Tanya presenting the idea of the Divine Soul in the individual, and the Divine “Radiance which fills the worlds” in existence in general, while using themes from the Lurianic Kabbalah, are also consonant with the Maharal’s teachings and may even be inspired by them.

Q: What was the Maharal’s unique contribution to the virtues and ideals that the human being should aspire to in terms of his relationship with G-d, and how was this reflected in Chasidic thought?

A: One typical Chasidic focus is the concept of bitachon, a miraculous form of trust in G-d. We see this clearly in Maharal’s writings: “When something befalls a person that seems bad to him, he trusts in G-d, and G-d transforms it to good, because of his trust.” (Netivat Olam, Netiv Ahavat Hashem 1, p.43)

Another is the idea of seeking personal shiflut, lowness, bitul, self abnegation or ayin.  The more the person is “low,” the more he is “as nothing,” the more he receives life-force from the Divine (Derech HaChayim on Avot 1:12).  One should seek “to abnegate oneself until one does not exist” (Netiv HaAvodah, ch.10). These sound just like Chasidic formulations.

 Q: Can you give some examples where actual texts of the Maharal are used by the Chasidic Masters?

A: In Gur Aryeh, the Maharal’s supercommentary on Rashi on the Torah (which itself is a link in the chain leading to the studies on Rashi of his descendant, the Lubavitcher Rebbe), there is a discussion of Rashi’s comment that when Jacob met his long-lost son Joseph, he said the Shema.  The Maharal explains that despite the earthly joy of being reunited with his son, his mind was actually focused on the Divine. 

This was a favorite passage of the Maharal cited by Chasidic authors such as Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, the Sfas Emes and the Shem MiShmuel (R. Shmuel of Sochatchow). The Kotzker recommended study of the works of the Maharal  to his followers.

Various authors have pointed to themes such as devekut, the Tzaddik, and the idea of being “mekushar,” or bonded, to the Divine, in the Maharal’s writings, much as in the later movement of Chasidism. 

However, one must bear in mind that the Musar movement also was somewhat influenced by the Maharal, as were other streams of Jewish thought. 

 Q: Which of Maharal’s socio-ethical themes influenced Chasidut?

A: On a social front, the Maharal was critical of corrupt leadership, and also highly critical of the elitist educational system. In his time, scholars taught the sons of the rich for high fees. The Maharal wanted education to be available for the poor, which should be subsidized by the rich (see Netiv HaTorah ch.10). He established the Hevrah Mishnayot concept which was supported by his disciple the Tosefot Yom Tov and spread far and wide in Eastern Europe as a popular mode of adult education.

The Maharal also vigorously campaigned about certain laxities in Jewish law in his time, and the unfortunate then common practice of slander.

This can be seen as a precursor to the critical view in the early Chasidic writings of the elitist educational system in 18th century Poland, as well as the new piety introduced by early Chasidim as reflected in meticulous attention to details in the observance of mitzvoth.

Q:  Would you say that the Chabad outreach program as we know it today is in some way an expression of Maharal’s approach to education?

A: It is true that the Maharal was concerned that what he saw as a sound Jewish education should be made available through the broad strata of society, and rejected ivory tower elitism. He wanted Mishnah to be the main focus at earlier stages of study, rather than Talmud, and he recommended a more straightforward approach to Talmud study than was common in his time.   

There are some parallels here with contemporary outreach and adult education approaches which admittedly have been spearheaded by Chabad.  However, I think more close to the specific Chabad goal is the direct attempt to communicate spirituality through his voluminous writings, which were largely published in his lifetime.  

 Whether his commentary on Pirkei Avot (Derech HaChaim), on the Exodus (Gevurot Hashem), on themes in Midrash and Aggada (Netivot Olam, Commentary on the Aggada) or his other works, all seek to express the deep spirituality within Jewish teaching.  It is true that, unlike Chabad, for the most part he avoided kabbalistic vocabulary. But the inner spirituality that he sought to express was the same.   

As I elaborate in my book, Communicating the Infinite, Chabad saw its core mission as communicating spirituality to everyone. This was developed most radically in the dramatic outreach program of the Lubavitcher Rebbe that sought to bring Jewish education and Jewish spirituality to every Jew. The idea that a group of people should attend a Tanya class in a Chabad House somewhere can be seen as a latter-day extension of the spiritual goals of the Maharal.

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