When a shul dates back to the thirteenth century, you have to take pains to preserve it. So you won’t find an active minyan in Prague’s Altneushul three times a day. Monday, Elul 18, was a special day, and there was heavy traffic. The shul was packed for mincha, on the occasion of the 400th yahrzeit of the Maharal, whose shul it was. I had the zechus of davening vor the amud, inches away from the Maharal’s seat. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
Earlier, we, the participants in a special Maharal conference, had said Tehilim at his kever, including as is customary the letters of his name. (It was almost as if we, who had all gained so much from him, were this one time in a position to do something for him.) After mincha, many of us sat in the ezras nashim and learned his Torah b’chavrusa, followed by a shiur in his machshava by R Neriah Gutel.
Extreme fatigue after a long journey to Prague from Los Angeles leaves me the strength for only a few observations.
The fairy-tale beauty of Prague, its cobblestoned streets running between elegantly and exquisitely facaded buildings, is hard to describe. Four hundred years ago, when Jews were despised and downtrodden even in the best of times (they were expelled or killed in the worst), walking through the streets must have been very different. Then, the magnificent churches, each one architecturally different from the next, did not strike Jews as impressive so much as triumphal. They were marks of the temporal victory of the Church, in sharp contrast to the abject conditions of the Jews who clearly must have been rejected by G-d for their sins. Everyone knew that – except us.
Relations today with the non-Jews of Prague are good. The Maharal is a household figure in the city, and numerous exhibits and events are taking place to mark this 400th anniversary. The mayor hosted a reception for the conference, and the Czech Republic bore some of the costs of the gathering. Jews and non-Jews mingled and spoke respectfully to each other. When the Maharal spoke – frequently – to a local Church figure (the Archbishop?), it was not out of mutual respect. The Jews were tolerated during the Rudolphine period, but they had to be careful of what they said. Everything about the relationship was skewed. It was clear that the Church, although troubled by the internecine difficulties of the Reformation, did not see itself –in its wider signification – as the younger brother of the Jews, but as their undisputed master.
One of the presenters at the conference was a local history professor, whose area of expertise is the Maharal’s period. I approached him after his lecture, and asked if he could tell me anything about the identity of the cleric who called upon the Maharal so frequently to engage in polemical discussion. Who was he? Which of those church buildings was his?
He shrugged his shoulders. “It is for Jewish scholars to know that. We don’t have any information at all.”
Four hundred years ago, the ascendancy of the Church and the defeat of the Jews was clear. Today, no one remembers the priest. The words of Maharal are devoured today more hungrily than in his lifetime, and the interest in them grows exponentially.
Such is the stuff of Jewish history.
Alas, there is an unhappy footnote to all of this. Maharal is still most famous for the legend of the Golem, the humanoid he supposedly created to help protect the Jews of Prague from the depredations of the blood libel. The Jews of Prague live unmolested today, and no one there believes the blood libel anymore. Ironically, however, the blood libel is embraced by more people today than it ever was in the times of the Maharal. In the last years, long television series in Egypt (shown as the suggested evening entertainment in those hours of relaxation after the daily fast in Ramadan) and Iran underscored the centrality of ritual murder in Jewish practice. Syria’s defense minister wrote his doctoral dissertation on it.
Today, the blood libel is alive and well, and one Golem could hardly protect a fraction of the Jewish people from fanatics ready to kill them.
Unless the next Golem is nuclear-equipped, he’s history.