On my first visit to Prague some fifteen years ago, I was stunned to see a statue of the great sixteenth century Rabbi Loew, by the twentieth century Czech sculptor Ladislav Jan Šaloun. It stands at the side of the New Town Hall. He is depicted as an evil, looming, glowering wizard, like the evil Queen in “Snow White,” with “the hounds of hell” glaring from behind his cloak and the supine naked body of the church at his feet. There have been attempts to explain away the obvious, but it won’t wash.
Nothing could be more ridiculous and evil a portrayal of a gentle, saintly scholar as this offensive object. It epitomizes to me the continuing evil of antisemitism that portrays the Jew as a dangerous magician out to destroy the world and incidentally how art can be misused.
The old Jewish quarter in Prague was preserved by Nazi propaganda to portray us as primitive, medieval sorcerers. But the sad fact is that we ourselves handed them the means of regarding us this way. Almost three hundred years after Rabbi Loew’s death, Jewish “enlightened” writers created the myth of the Golem. There was not a hint at such a fantasy for hundreds of years after his death, let alone in his lifetime. They had an agenda; to depict the Jewish religion as a dated, medieval culture, dependent on ancient myths, superstition, and magic, a distortion of the Kabbalah, that they would now sweep away either through reform, assimilation and, when that did not work, through secular Zionism.
The idea that one can create life is indeed mentioned in Talmudic legend, with two rabbis producing a calf through incantations and enjoying a meal. It does not require Rambam to remind us that we should not always take Aggadah literally. This legend has, of course, no legal significance, although if it did it might be useful way of avoiding animal slaughter and current methods of meat rearing; cloning we call it nowadays!
But by publicizing and even glamorizing Golems, Dybbuks, evil spirits of the night, and mad kabbalists who could curse and perform miracles, these writers were able to make the association that played into the hands of our enemies and still does to this very day. It’s like depicting American culture through the prism of an era in which Americans murdered the so-called witches of Salem. But it also serves another purpose.
We are a culture that perpetuates the myth of Superman, Batman, Ironman, Captain Marvel, and all those comic book heroes, now Hollywood blockbusters, that tell us that some extremely powerful spirit can come to our rescue and remove evil and restore order. This is every child’s dream of overcoming adults, or every adult’s dream of overcoming whatever or whoever it is that either stands in his way, threatens him, or simply lives better than he does. It is dangerous because it is an excuse for inaction and fantasy. It is a justification for refusing to come to terms with a challenge because some sort of miraculous intervention will solve all our problems. It is like expecting the Messiah to com and sort out our personal problems.
The fact is that this has always been a very powerful strain in Judaism, as in all religions. They have all tried at some stage to suggest that they have all the answers to everything. They have told us that God intervenes to defeat evil and to support good. And when this has manifestly not happened on earth, they have told us that all will be put right in the Next World. As against this, the very same religions have added a rider that we must take responsibility for our actions and live with the consequences.
This internal conflict has always played out throughout our history. Do we seek our freedom from the Egyptians or stay slaves? Do we accept Greek authority or fight it? Do we challenge Rome or capitulate? Do we actively try to create a state of our own or wait for the Messiah? Do we withdraw settlements from Gaza or leave it to God? Do we seek a peace settlement with improbable partners or wait and hope for Divine Intervention? Do we insist on the ridiculous proposition that every Jew, regardless of his mental capacity, should sit and study Talmud for the whole of his life, or should some at least, train for a job to care for their families?
About the Author: Jeremy Rosen is an Orthodox rabbi, author, and lecturer, and the congregational rabbi of the Persian Jewish Center of New York. He is best known for advocating an approach to Jewish life that is open to the benefits of modernity and tolerant of individual variations while remaining committed to halacha (Jewish law). His articles and weekly column appear in publications in several countries, including the Jewish Telegraph and the London Jewish News, and he often comments on religious issues on the BBC.
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