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The Maharal of Prague and the Republic of Letters

Science and humanism—and Jews and Christians—collide in early modern Europe

Joanna Weinberg
December 30, 2016
Collage: Tablet Magazine
Collage: Tablet Magazine
Collage: Tablet Magazine
Collage: Tablet Magazine

“Truth will spring from a distant land”—these are the opening words, or rather the playful adaptation of Psalm 85:12 (11)—of an entry in Jacques Bongars’s Album amicorum. Written in Hebrew in a careful semi-cursive Ashkenazi hand, this homage to the great Huguenot scholar could well be judged to be the first entry in the book. For a Hebrew reader, opening the volume from the right, would find the Hebrew text on the first page of the album. The truth that springs from this exceptional document provides a salutary lesson for all scholars, challenging as it does our expectations that we have read well and have therefore constructed a correct version of the particular scholarly discipline we claim to control. For, as I hope to show, this Hebrew text necessarily questions conventional wisdom about two great figures of the late sixteenth century: the Christian diplomat and classical scholar Jacques Bongars (1554–1612) and Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, better known as the Maharal of Prague (ca. 1525–1609).

Jacques Bongars, a central figure in the republic of letters, was born in Orleans in 1554, studied law in Bourges with Cujas, and worked on the Scriptores Historiae Augustae and Eusebius in Rome. In 1581 Bongars published a much-admired edition of Justin’s third-century history of the Macedonian monarchy, the Epitome Pompeii Trogi, including the prologues and fragments of Trogus’s original text. Bongars visited the doyen of humanist philology Justus Lipsius in Leiden in 1584. On April 12, 1585, as attested at the beginning of his semi-official diary, he set out from Vienna to Constantinople.

According to the standard biographies, it has been impossible to establish where and how Bongars spent the time between his departure from Leiden and the commencement of his expedition from Vienna. What was known was that during an excursion through Transylvania and Wallachia, Bongars took time to transcribe Roman inscriptions; strangely, he made no reference to these antiquarian activities in his description of his travels through these territories. A portion of the inscriptions was later published in the appendix to his 1600 Rerum Hungaricarum scriptores, which was dedicated to his traveling companion, his “frater” Guillaume le Normant de Trougny.

It is more than likely, as Walther Ludwig has argued, that during Bongars’s travels from Vienna to Constantinople he was already in the service of the French king: his appointment as permanent conseiller du roi lasted nearly thirty years. After his return from Constantinople he lived in Germany, but was constantly on the move as he undertook missions for the king. Only after he resigned his ambassadorial post in 1610 did Bongars return fully to his scholarly pursuits. It was in 1611 that he produced his monumental compilation of French crusader chronicles from unpublished sources, the Gesta Dei per Francos, which was inspired not only by nationalist ideals and anti-papal zeal but also by antiquarian passion. He died in Paris, but according to Isaac Casaubon did not receive the funereal honors due to such a luminary.

The historical and intellectual biography of my other protagonist, Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the Maharal of Prague, is also difficult to reconstruct. This is due both to the lack of reliable documentary evidence and to the Maharal’s idiosyncratic and particularly abstract mode of writing, which has led to highly contradictory interpretations of his works. He was probably born in Poznań. Since official documentation is mostly lacking, Maharal’s biographers normally cite the testimony of his contemporary, the astronomer and chronicler David Gans, celebrated for his connections with Kepler and Brahe. Gans supplied the core information in his chronicle Tsemah David (Prague, 1592). Under the entry for 1592 he gives the following potted biography of the Maharal:

He [Maharal] was head of the yeshiva [rabbinic academy] and head of the rabbinical court of Moravia for about twenty years. He then came to the holy community of Prague in 1573, where he attracted many disciples, and founded a meeting place for sages, a house of study, known as the Kloyz, teaching for eleven years and later for another four years. On 4 Iyyar 5352 [April 16, 1592] he set off for the holy community of Poznań and there for the second time became head of the yeshiva and head of the rabbinical courts of all the Diaspora of Poland.

Other documents attest to the Maharal’s official position in Prostitz in 1587 and to his return to Prague after 1595. There he served as “the chief rabbi [obrigste raby] of all Jews in Prague”—and it was in Prague that he died in 1609.

The Maharal was famous or notorious both for his uncompromising legal rulings, such as prohibiting the use of gentile wine, and for his promotion of an enlightened educational program that overturned traditional modes of study. (His conservative attitudes and reforming tendencies often created tensions within the community, particularly between the religious elites and lay leadership.) As this paradox may suggest, Maharal’s 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 might somehow enrich understanding of Torah and aid the upstanding Jew in combatting philosophical ideas inimical to Judaism.

The Maharal created his sermons according to his own highly schematic structures. Within this system there was a clear and distinct polarity between Jew and gentile, who, according to the Maharal, reside on different levels of existence. Such conspicuous differentiation between Jew and gentile led Jacob Katz to argue that, despite the Maharal’s occasional reference to encounters with Christians, he developed this insistence on strict separation between Judaism and other religions in the midst of a Jewish community that was insulated from the vibrant gentile world in which he lived and prayed. This view was challenged by Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson in a series of pioneering articles in which he argued that the Maharal’s notion of nation as a kind of natural organism suggests that he had somehow imbibed the arguments of the Christian confessions and sects, particularly those of Bohemia and Moravia.

The Maharal pronounced on the intrinsic differences between Jew and gentile on innumerable occasions. A couple of passages should illustrate the powerful rhetoric he employed in order to convey his highly ideological theology. In his 1585 Novellae (Hiddushim), on the non-legal discussions and homilies and stories of the Talmud, the Maharal commented on a notable debate in the Babylonian Talmud dealing with the seven Noahide laws incumbent on all heathens (Sanhedrin 59a). In the course of the argument, a statement attributed to Rabbi Johanan is cited: “A gentile (or heathen) who studies Torah deserves death.” This pronouncement was then challenged, and seemingly contradicted, by Rabbi Meir, who states: “How do we know that an idolater who studies Torah is like a high priest? From the verse, ‘You shall therefore keep my statutes and my judgements which if man does he shall live by them’ (Lev. 18:5). Priests, Levites and Israelites are not mentioned, only ‘man’—hence you may deduce that even a heathen who studies the Torah is like a high priest.” What higher accolade could be accorded a gentile? Torah study elevates the heathen to the most sacred of roles. But another voice in the Talmudic text puts paid to the full significance of such a tolerant view: “The statement refers to the Noahides’ study of the seven laws that pertain to them.” In other words, gentiles are meritorious as long as they study the laws that apply to them.

In his elucidation of the passage, the Maharal reworded the last statement about the Noahides in his own inimitable style:

And the solution is that this statement refers to the seven commandments that a Noahide is duty bound to observe; in that regard he is considered like a high priest. But Torah is not appropriate for the gentile on account of the exalted levels of the Torah—he would be entering a level that is not meant for him and of which he is deprived—consequently he becomes deserving of death and non-existence.

Such a strongly worded statement may be further elucidated by consideration of another passage from the Maharal’s Tiferet Yisrael (Venice, 1599), a philosophy of Torah and its status in the world. In the penultimate chapter, the Maharal presents a disquisition on the Oral Torah. Following traditional notions, he argues that the Written Torah (the Pentateuch) cannot be understood without the Oral Torah (the authoritative traditions and exegetical interpretations embodied in the early rabbinic writings). The Oral Torah, therefore, constitutes the covenant between God and Israel. In the final lines of this plea on behalf of the eternal validity of the Oral Torah, the Maharal writes:

It is only by means of the Oral Torah that we understand the true meaning of the Torah; only then is a person connected to the Torah, while the Torah is the bond that joins the Holy One blessed be He to Israel. But without the Oral Torah a person is unable to be connected to the Torah, since the Torah is in a separate category and we can interpret it only by means of the Oral Torah. Thus it is that the Holy One, blessed be He, made a covenant with Torah which is a connecting link because every covenant binds two parties together… Therefore, even if the idolatrous nations of the world possessed the Written Torah we would not pronounce that the nations possessed a connection with Torah; for the only connection is through the Oral Torah and they do not possess Oral Torah, which is the unique possession of Israel. Thus Torah in general was bestowed on Israel alone—the idolaters therefore can possess neither Written nor Oral Torah.

The Maharal does not mince words: the true Torah belongs to Israel and to Israel alone.

The first (or last) page of Bongars’ Album amicorum, an entirely different kind of literary artifact, forces the reader to reevaluate the Maharal’s homiletic outpourings on this subject. It reads:

Truth will spring from a distant land. Let it be known how these two devout men, one called Don Giacomo [Jacques] and the other Don Guglielmo [Guillaume], came here to the holy community of Prague from France. They went to the Bet ha-Midrash [Academy] of the great eminent scholar [Gaon], our teacher, Rabbi Loew [Maharal]. Since they were going to stay here in Prague for several months it was their wish to learn the Holy Tongue. They asked the Gaon to provide them with an educated person who would speak to them in the vernacular. The Gaon therefore sent a message to me requesting that I should teach them [lit. study with them, “lamadeti imahem”] the modes of the holy tongue as the good Lord would inspire me. I should not refrain from giving them all possible help. Thus, since the Gaon had requested it and they, too, I learned with them until they knew how to read the Pentateuch, Prophets and Writings in the Holy Tongue. Verily, I discovered that they were intelligent men who were expert in all disciplines and languages. The time came for their departure. Because we had formed a great deep friendship, they asked me to inscribe my name as a memento in this book. Consequently, in view of the long-established friendship and since their request was both honorable and fitting I shall inscribe my name. And the name by which all people call me is Judah Seligmann Waal son to his father Jacob Bak of blessed memory, the judge in the holy community of Prague, dated Friday, 21 Adar Sheni 345 [March 12, 1585] here in Prague the capital. Ventura the Jew of Venice who is presently in Prague.

The truths that this letter reveals are indeed astonishing. Jacques Bongars and Guillaume le Normant de Trougny entered the Maharal’s Bet ha-Midrash (or Kloyz) and asked him to provide a Hebrew teacher, since they were intending to stay in Prague for a few months. The Maharal turned to a trusted member of the rabbinic elite, son of a judge of a rabbinical law court. Judah Seligmann, or Ventura, an Italian Jew, as the designation Waal (or Wohl) indicates, was a Venetian of the Bak family. The Maharal encouraged or insisted that Judah teach Hebrew to the two Christians. And he obediently took them through the Hebrew Bible and became impressed by their erudition and culture. The men struck up a close friendship, and before they took leave of each other, Bongars produced his Stammbuch and Ventura wrote an affectionate description of the course of their friendship on the first (or last) page of the book. The story of the intimate relationship that developed between these Christians and one Jew is documented in the album belonging to one of the two visitors to the Jewish academy, Jacques Bongars. (Judah Seligmann refers to both Bongars and de Trougny, but since the Stammbuch belonged to Bongars, the reconstruction of this remarkable story revolves around him.)

Who would have known that Bongars was immersed in study of the Holy Tongue in the gap months between leaving Lipsius in 1584 and beginning his journey to Constantinople in April 1585? It had not even been noted that Bongars was in Prague in 1585. But there are letters that further document his stay in Prague and provide information about his scholarly network. In a fawning letter of January 14, 1585, Andreas Dudith, the apostate Hungarian bishop then living in Breslau, wrote to Bongars in Prague. He wanted Bongars to come and stay with him in Breslau—he felt rather isolated in that Lutheran stronghold and kept inviting the good and the great to stay with him. But he also appears to have tried to convince Bongars of the high quality of Prague’s religious and learned residents, encouraging him to visit a fellow Huguenot, Guillaume d’Ancel. It was to d’Ancel that Bongars was later to dedicate his Rerum Hungaricarum scriptores. Dudith also insinuated that Bongars could do worse than frequent Jesuit company. He then poured praise on Bongars’ host for his erudition and wisdom, but strangely without referring to him by name.

On Jan. 1, 1585, Bongars had written from Prague to Nikolaus Rehdiger (or Rehdinger), another resident of Breslau. The letter yields precious information about Bongars’ plans for his journey to Constantinople. He spoke of the difficulties of the journey that lay ahead and listed various routes that he and his companions could take. Prague is compared unfavorably with Breslau, which he considers to be much more elegant. Bongars was also not impressed by the imperial court—“imperial only in name”—and observed that the people’s liberty was constantly endangered. More relevant for our discussion here is that it is in this letter that he revealed the name of the learned host to whom Dudith alludes, Thaddaeus Hagecius (Tadeáš Hájek), none other than Rudolph II’s personal physician and also an astronomer, a close colleague of Tycho Brahe and a powerful patronage broker.

Hagecius’ home was indeed an international meeting place. Bongars, and presumably also de Trougny, would have met Bernard Gilles Penot, who was working on an alchemical project in Hagecius’ home at the time. Testimony to their stay under the same roof is indicated by Penot’s praise of both travelers in his treatise Quaestio an magia sit licita. Bongars was not an alchemist himself, but he clearly moved in alchemical circles, and even expressed enjoyment in reading alchemical tracts. And at the end of the dedication to the appendix to his 1600 Rerum Hungaricarum scriptores, Bongars specifically referred to Le Normant’s expertise in alchemy, while subtly implying that alchemy was not a profession where he dared to tread unaided. Although he does not seem to have been involved in the furious debates about alchemy that shook the European scholarly establishment, it is telling that it is to Bongars that Andreas Libavius dedicated his monumental Commentarii alchymiae.

Bongars does not speak about his Hebrew lessons to his correspondents, nor does he mention Rabbi Judah in his letters. This reticence remains puzzling. But one scholar who belonged to Bongars’ tightly knit scholarly community mentions the Maharal on two separate occasions: Bartholomäus Scultetus, mayor of Görlitz, in Upper Lusatia, a renowned astronomer, cartographer, chronologer, and Paracelsian, and a colleague of Brahe and Kepler. In Jewish writings, it is the astronomer David Gans who pays memorable attention to Scultetus when in his chronicle he dubs him “the greatest living astrologer.”

Scultetus 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 his chronicle. 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 Jehuda, the Loew, dropped by to see me.” The entries in the album and diary testify that Maharal did not leave Prague for Poznań before 1585, as scholars relying on Gans’s vague description usually suggest. Instead, he spent time in the company of gentiles, apparently speaking about innocuous subjects such as astronomy, a subject that, as Adam Mosley has shown, drew together scholars from all over the learned diaspora. Indeed, in the previous year the Jesuit Antonio Possevino had met the Lutheran Scultetus in Görlitz and their conversation focused on the hot topic of the day, the Gregorian reform of the calendar.

Bongars stayed in the home of Thaddaeus Hagecius, where he got to know firsthand the ways of the court. And for three months he would wend his way to the Jewish quarter to study with Judah Seligmann. But why did he go to the Kloyz, when he could have easily joined one of the classes given by Joannes Fortius Hortensius, who not only taught Hebrew grammar but also used Jewish interpretations in his lectures on the Hebrew Bible at the Charles University? Was it because, like many other Christians, he thought that it was better to get his information from the horse’s mouth? A Jewish teacher would be able to convey traditions of learning that had withstood the test of time. But why, more generally, did he learn Hebrew? The contrast with Bongars’ correspondent and friend Isaac Casaubon is only too stark. As Anthony Grafton and I have tried to demonstrate, Casaubon’s Hebrew learning was an integral part of his scholarly persona, and is discernible throughout his intellectual legacy: in his manuscripts, in his annotated books, and in his own writings, whether editions of classical texts or in his monumental attack on Cesare Baronio. Bongars does not refer to Hebrew matters in any of his works nor, as far as I know, in any of his letters. But of course he was not able to lead the sedentary life of a scholar that Casaubon enjoyed. Until 1610—namely, two years before he died—Bongars was constantly on the move and involved in matters of state.

And yet there is evidence that Hebrew was not just a passing fad for Bongars, a way of whiling away the time in Prague before setting off to Constantinople. Vestiges of Bongars’ study of biblical Hebrew are clearly to be seen within the leaves of the magnificent library that he acquired and which is now housed in Bern. Bongars owned thirty-three Hebrew, Hebrew–Latin, Yiddish, or Hebrew–Italian works. Among these was a Hebrew Bible containing the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, printed by Robertus Stephanus in Paris in 1544. Bongars’ collection bears all the hallmarks of a so-called Christian Hebraist’s working library. It includes Jean Mercier’s useful textbooks: his Latin translations of the medieval Jewish commentaries, such as those of Abraham ibn Ezra and David Kimhi. These texts provided budding Christian Hebraists with the aids for study of these commentators, known for their more rationalistic and literal interpretations of the Bible. Bongars’ signature graces David ibn Yahya’s work on Hebrew prosody, a work that fascinated Hebraist scholars of this time and was used in their quest for understanding the nature of poetry. He also owned Johannes Drusius’ translation of the Proverbs of Ben Sira (Franeker, 1597), a crucial source for humanist collectors of Adagia. No less typical for such a library is Paulus Fagius’ collection of selected Hebrew prayers (Isny, 1542), a description of Jewish table liturgy recast in a Christian setting. Particularly intriguing is the copy of Me’on shualim (Habitation of wolves) by Moses of Rieti, which he possessed in its Italian translation, printed in Venice in the 1580s.

Bongars’ Hebrew ambitions were clearly on a lesser scale than those of Scaliger or even Casaubon, but impressive nonetheless. He annotated his copy of the bilingual Hebrew and Latin Josippon, the medieval Josephus, a work scanned by Jews and Christians alike for historical material about the second Temple period, whether they thought the work was authentic or not. From his few annotations it would appear that he was reading the facing Latin translation, a reprint of Sebastian Münster’s popular rendition of the text. Bongars the Christian philologist manifests himself in his marginal note on one passage, which describes the struggle for power between the Hasmonean brothers Hyrcanus and Aristobulus in whose time it is said “Jesus the Nazarene was apprehended.” Bongars jots down in the margin: “This is not Jesus the savior. Rather, it refers to Jesus the Nazarene who lived under the Maccabean dominion of the son of Simon the Maccabee. This was a hundred and ten years before Jesus the Nazarene who lived under the rule of Pontius Pilate and suffered in the time of Tiberius the Emperor.” Bongars had put his finger on a controversial historical record that the twelfth-century Jewish scholar Abraham ibn Daud had already called into question. Bongars also read through the abbreviated version of the book of commandments by Moses of Coucy (the Semag)—another Münster production in the same volume as the Josippon. Reading such a book, which was structured according to a traditional classification of the positive and negative commandments, Bongars would have gained an entry into the legal and theological world of traditional Judaism. Considering this evidence together with our album entry, we must necessarily conclude that Bongars’ Hebrew classes in the Maharal’s den were part of a larger intellectual or religious quest.

The Maharal’s discussion of Written and Oral Torah, mentioned above, occurs in the penultimate chapter of the Tiferet Yisrael. The penultimate chapter of this work has been analyzed in an illuminating manner by Ben-Sasson and bears summary here. The chapter begins with a discussion of the Karaites, the so-called Scriptualists or lectuarii, as Guillaume Postel called them, who challenged rabbanite hegemony. The Maharal insisted that the term should be regarded in positive terms, and like Scaliger he denied that the Sadducees of old should be identified with the Karaites. He then proceeded to record a discussion he had had with a gentile scholar who asked him the following question: “You Jews hold the view that since the gentiles do not agree about their religion, the religion itself can have little value. But have the Jews not had their disputes? Both Zadok and Boethus, who were leaders of large sects, denied the validity of the Oral Torah. Moreover, many of the laws of the Torah are subject to countless controversies in the Talmud.”

The Maharal’s long response goes to the heart of the exegetical matter and gives him the opportunity to reset his own ideological position in a larger framework. Thus he argues that literal exegesis—the Sadducean or Boethusian position—is undertaken only by idiots. The root and foundation of religion cannot be challenged, for it is in this sphere that its unity and essence is anchored. The disputed rulings that characterize rabbinic discourse should not be regarded as signs of weakness or defect, but rather the necessary consequence of discussion of the minutiae of the law. But the law itself, the Torah, remains immutable.

Sectarianism and Karaism were the talk of the town in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Comparisons were forged between Karaites and Huguenots, and different confessional groups became identified with one or another sect, be it Pharisee, Sadducee, or Karaite. The Maharal had not read the relevant writings of Scaliger or Drusius or Serrarius, in which these issues were bitterly debated. But, as Ben-Sasson has suggested, the Maharal may have heard about these discussions and here integrated them into his impassioned defense of the Oral Torah.

Was the gentile of his discourse a rhetorical ploy or did he actually meet and discuss these matters with a real gentile? In light of the evidence that I have put forward, it is not unlikely that such a conversation did actually take place, thus presenting concrete proof for the brilliant intuitions of Ben-Sasson and other scholars that the Maharal did have contact with the non-Jewish world. If the Maharal could regale Scultetus with the complicated details of the Jewish calendar, it is likewise plausible that he would have engaged in this kind of theological debate with another scholar from his circle. It has to have been a scholar who knew something about Jewish texts and who was interested and engaged in the theological issues of the day. It need not have been Bongars—but we cannot exclude the possibility.

Apparently, the Maharal’s theological ideology remained purely theoretical in multinational Prague, where he not only prayed and served his community but strayed into the worlds of the other. In light of the knowledge that we now possess, David Gans’s report in his chronicle Tsemah David that the great Gaon was called to an audience with Rudolph II is certainly not implausible. The Maharal who welcomed Bongars and Le Normant de Trougny into his domain and who positively assisted their initiation into Hebrew Scriptures does not sit easily with the Maharal who denied that gentiles could ever possess Torah. True, Judah Seligmann taught them Hebrew Bible—the forbidden domain of Oral Torah, as represented by Mishnah or Talmud, is not mentioned. But nevertheless the act of teaching Holy Writ to gentiles went strictly against the grain of the Maharal’s basic teachings. Is this simply a case of diplomatic compromise? As a leader of a community often subject to persecution, the Maharal may have been forced to set aside his theological principles. Faced with a request from scholars who had friends in high places, he may have thought it best to accommodate their wishes. But this interpretation is difficult to square with the Maharal’s multiple pronouncements on the necessary exclusion of all gentiles from the truly sacred and divine realm. Should we rather conclude that appearances are truly deceptive and that the Maharal’s writings do not portray the whole man, just as Bongars’ writings fail to tell us the whole story of his life and scholarly passion?

In a pioneering article, Anthony Grafton described the encounter between science and humanism in Rudolphine Prague as two worlds in collision. Here I have tried to show multiple worlds in collision, from Breslau to Prague, from Poznań to Görlitz to Prague and back. One entry in a Stammbuch opened up these multiple worlds and their complex interaction. It revealed an exquisite picture of friendship between a Jew and two Christians that flourished in the most improbable of places, the Maharal’s academy of higher Jewish learning. Such a story provides yet one more example of the various ways and means that Jews and Christians interacted in friendly rather than polemical modes in early modern Europe.

The words ascribed to Melanchthon are most certainly apposite in this context:

These little books certainly have their uses: above all they remind the owners of people and at the same time bring to mind the wise teaching which has been inscribed in them. And they serve as a reminder to younger students to be industrious in order that the professors may inscribe some kind and commendatory words on parting… At the same time the inscription itself teaches knowledge of the character of the contributor, and quite often significant passages from otherwise unknown and little-read authors are found in albums. Finally, they record biographical details that would otherwise be forgotten.

Adapted from Joanna Weinberg, “A Humanist in the Kloyz: New Perspectives on the Maharal of Prague and Jacques Bongars,” Journal of the History of Ideas 77:4 (October 2016), pp. 521-537. © 2016 Journal of the History of Ideas. All rights reserved. Republished by permission.

Joanna Weinberg is a reader in Hebrew and Jewish Studies at the University of Oxford and Catherine Lewis fellow in rabbinics at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies.