While few today believe that kabbalists ever had the power to create a golem—a humanoid fashioned from clay that would do the bidding of its maker—many are familiar with the story that the 16th-century talmudist Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel (a/k/a the Maharal) created a golem to defend the Jews of Prague against anti-Semitic attacks. The legend has even become popular in the modern-day Czech Republic. But, although the outlines of the legend can be traced to medieval Jewish works, and even to the Talmud itself, the association of the golem with Judah Loew seems to have originated in 1909 with the Polish-Canadian rabbi Yudel Rosenberg. Allan Nadler reviews a new study of this colorful figure:
Ira Robinson’s new biography paints a rich and extensively researched portrait of Yudel Rosenberg, the deeply learned but highly eccentric chief rabbi of Montreal, who moonlighted as a faith healer, magical-amulet salesman, oracle, halakhic innovator, ḥasidic storyteller, and the most aggressively enterprising kosher-chicken-slaughterhouse supervisor in Canadian Jewish history.
The magnitude of [Rosenberg’s book on the Golem’s] influence is such that the late scholar of both Kabbalah and modern Hebrew literature Joseph Dan deemed it “the most important 20th-century contribution of Hebrew literature to world literature.” Still, the work that has elicited the greatest interest among kabbalists and scholars of Jewish mysticism, from Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook to Gershom Scholem, was Rosenberg’s Hebrew translation of the Zohar [from its original Aramaic], featuring his deeply learned commentary, Sefer Zohar Torah. This commentary was intended to make the esoteric core text of Kabbalah accessible to the widest possible Jewish readership in anticipation of the messianic age, which Rosenberg predicted, with characteristic brashness, would occur one year after the appearance of its introductory volume.
Rosenberg’s revised translation also dared to include corrections to the Aramaic original based on a surprisingly modern text-critical, historical approach. . . . Rosenberg’s intrepid exercise in critical scholarship was however fatally undermined by the web of fabrications he wove regarding his source for Zohar Torah: [the] fictional Imperial Library of Metz. Rosenberg’s fabrications hardly ended there.
As it happens, Rosenberg’s own most famous descendant was his maternal grandson, the Montreal author Mordecai Richler.