Of Bishops and Golems

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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.

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7 Responses

  1. Michoel says:

    Interesting! I think the Aruch Hashulchan brings down that there is a “sakana” in saying Mizmor Shiur after the zman. I wonder if there is any connection.

  2. Lawrence M. Reisman says:

    Sometime between 1965 and 1967 (I don’t remember exactly), my father had to be in Prague for Yom Kippur and was at the Alteneu Shul for the tefillos. As he told us later, they had a pretty large minyan there at the time, even if it was a bit talkative.

  3. Bara Loewenthal says:

    I loved your article. I was born and raised in Prague. I live in the US now but Rabbi Efraim Sidon is my uncle. I always felt conflicted walking along the beatifull streets. I could appreciate the architecture and amazing beauty of the city and at the same time I could guess the pain and insecurity that these same street witnessed. Still I just wish you were able to be there when Kantor Feurlicht z”l was the kantor of the Altneu shul, you have never heard a more heartfelt and inspiring L’cha Dodi in your life. Kol Hakavod.
    Thanks

  4. mb says:

    Thanks, Nachum.
    I’m as bit suprised that the Golem story is as recent. Prague was rather an enlightened city, and would have thought this sort of legend preceded the Haskala.
    If anybody is going to find the Golem, I know Rabbi Adlerstein will!
    Next you are going to tell me there was no King Wenceslas!

  5. Nachum Lamm says:

    mb, that story is in fact the earliest about the Maharal’s golem, and dates only to the first half of the 19th Century- 1837, I think. (Let me stress that no one until then- over two hundred years after the Maharal died- had ever heard of such a thing.)

    The real reason it is repeated is because it was the minhag in Prague to have a Kabbalat Shabbat (a newfangled thing at the time) with an orchestra and organ, which couldn’t be done on Shabbat, of course.

  6. mb says:

    Don’t forget contemporary blood libels as suggested by Swedish ( IDF captured Palestinians for organs) and Dutch (swine flu a Jewish plot) journalists.

    Does the Altneushul have the custom of repeating the Shabbat Psalm on Friday night? Legend has it the Golem escaped during the recitation and the Maharal had to go capture it, thus the necessity to repeat the Psalm.

    [YA – Thanks! Forgetting about the Swedes and Dutch was a serious error of commission. Mizmor Shir: There is lots of material about the custom here. I got the brief version from R Kalcheim, who is a great resource about everything in Prague, and a hands-on competent Rov. Nachum Lamm provided elsewhere one of several accepted reasons. There was an early minhag, imported from Tzfas, of musicallly ushering in Shabbos. An actuall artifact of the group, extant today, proves it. They used instruments, including an organ. The latter was their undoing. In the pushback to reform, the organ became a symbol of the worst tendencies of the Enlightenment, and the practice was discontinued. The early Mizmor Shir – left over from the earlier days when the musical kabbalas Shabbos took place before the actual zman – stayed.

    Another reason offered is that Prague is a city of many takanos. Over twenty of them, dating to the time and authority of the Maharal, can be found on the back wall of the Altneushul. One of them was that all shuls in Prague accept Shabbos when the “main” shul did. Naturally, they wanted this to be as late as feasible; hence, a second, later Mizmor Shir]

  7. Moishe Weiss says:

    Don’t the legends give the name Thaddeus?

    [YA – What I was trying to do was attach the legend to verifiable reality.]