A Great Rabbi and His Surprising Interactions with Renaissance Humanists

On the final page of an autograph book (a bit like a modern-day yearbook) belonging to the Huguenot humanist Jacques Bongars is a note in Hebrew signed by Judah Seligmann Wahl of Venice and dated 1585. Seligmann—who identifies himself as a rabbinic judge in the city of Prague—states that he taught Hebrew to Bongars and another French Protestant and trained them in reading the Jewish Scriptures at the suggestion of Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague, better known as the Maharal. Joanna Weinberg considers what this document, and other evidence she has gathered about the Maharal and his interactions with Christians, suggest about his views of the non-Jewish world:

The Maharal was famous or notorious both for his uncompromising legal rulings . . . and for his promotion of an enlightened educational program that overturned traditional modes of study. . . . [H]is writings defy quick generalizations. A systematic theologian, the Maharal viewed the world both celestial and human through the prism of opposites that may complement or contradict one another. On the whole he used the classical rabbinic sources as the backdrop for his longwinded and inelegant but original discourses. Though he discouraged the study of humanist literature, he permitted the pursuit of scientific disciplines such as astronomy, which, [he believed, could] enrich understanding of Torah and aid the upstanding Jew in combating philosophical ideas inimical to Judaism.

Within [the Maharal’s theological] system there was a clear and distinct polarity between Jew and Gentile, who, according to the Maharal, reside on different levels of existence. . . . [Nonetheless, the historian] Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson . . . argued that the Maharal’s notion of the nation as a kind of natural organism suggests that he had somehow imbibed the arguments of [certain] Christian confessions and sects, particularly those of Bohemia and Moravia. . . .

Bartholomäus Scultetus, the mayor of the town of Görlitz, a renowned astronomer [and] cartographer, and a colleague of Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler . . . kept a diary. On March 6, 1585, he entered a rather surprising bit of information—that on his way from Prague to Poland the Maharal had met him in the Blue Lion Inn in Görlitz and proceeded to give him a lecture on the Jewish calendar, part of which Scultetus incorporated into [one of his works]. Apparently, the meeting went well, for in the entry for April 15, 1600—that is, fifteen years later—Scultetus jotted down casually: “This evening Rabbi Judah, the Loew, dropped by to see me.” . . .

[It seems, then, that] the Maharal’s theological ideology [about the innate difference between Jew and Gentile] remained purely theoretical in multinational Prague, where he not only prayed and served his community but strayed into the worlds of the other.

Read more at Tablet

More about: Christian Hebraists, History & Ideas, Maharal, Renaissance

Israel Has Survived Eight Years of Barack Obama’s False Friendship

Jan. 20 2017

In his speech justifying America’s decision to allow passage of the UN Security Council resolution declaring it a violation of international law for Jews to live in east Jerusalem, the West Bank, or the Golan Heights, Secretary of State John Kerry declared that “friends need to tell each other the hard truths.” John Podhoretz comments:

The decision in December by President Obama to abstain on the UN Security Council vote . . . marked the moment he crossed the finish line in the course he had charted from 2008 onward. The turn against Israel was complete. And, as he had when he began it, in farewell interview after farewell interview he characterized his assault on the legitimacy of the Jewish presence in the Holy Land as an act of tough love. . . .

Which raises the key question: why [only] abstain [from the resolution]? If “hard truths” define friendship, then by all means they should have made the truths as hard as possible. If Barack Obama and John Kerry truly believe the Jewish presence in east Jerusalem is illicit, then they should have voted for the resolution. Instead, they took the coward’s way out. They opened the vault to the criminals and placed the jewels in their hands while wearing white gloves so there would be no residual trace of their fingerprints. The abstention was in some weird sense the mark of their bad conscience. They wanted something to happen while maintaining some historical deniability about their involvement in it.

In the eight years of the Obama presidency, war broke out twice between the Palestinians and the Israelis and nearly broke out a third time. In each case, the issue was not the West Bank, or east Jerusalem, or anything near. . . . The idea that the settlements and the Jewish presence in East Jerusalem are the main barrier to peace between Israel and the Palestinians was proved to be a lie right before Obama’s eyes in 2009, and 2012, and 2014. And he didn’t care to see it, because he is blinded by an antipathy he wishes to ascribe to Israeli action when honesty would compel him to find it in his own misguided leftist ideology—or within his own soul.

Israel has survived the horrendous blessing of Barack Obama’s false friendship.

Read more at Commentary

More about: Barack Obama, Israel & Zionism, John Kerry, U.S. Foreign policy, US-Israel relations