Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 4
31 January 2000

Rabbi Löw's grave in Prague B O O K   R E V I E W:
Nebýt Golema, Rabbi Löw, židovství a češství
[With or Without the Golem: Rabbi Löw, the Jewish Faith and Czech Identity]

Benjamin Kuras
ELK and Baronet, Prague, 1999. 232 pp.
ISBN 80-7214-257-7 (Czech)

Robert Řehák

Benjamin Kuras's work Nebýt Golema, Rabbi Löw, židovství a češství was published last year by Baronet and the European Literary Club (Evropský literární klub) in a very attractive edition; the text was prepared in an exemplary manner and includes useful indexes. The type-setting and design (with two illustrations and 232 pages) are so elegant that I would recommend the book enthusiastically to any author who cares about the quality publication of his work.

The contents of the twelve chapters of the work give the impression that they were written by someone who only recently became acquainted with the Jewish faith. It seems that Kuras included in the work everything that caught his attention during this process. The book is not about the Golem, as one might assume from the commercial trick in the title, but about Rabbi Löw, about Czech identity, as the subtitle suggests, and most of all, the book is about the author's reflections on the Judaism as such. If it were up to me, the book would be titled: "An Introduction to Judaism through the Eyes of Benjamin Kuras".

After a rather extensive introduction, in which he explains his motivations for writing the book (in the manner of Abraham before God, he counted eleven righteous Czechs), the author turns his attention to Rabbi Jehuda Löw ben Becalel (1525-1609), whom he describes as a "wise man, scholar, mystic, pedagogue, psychologist and dissident", "a giant of the Jewish, but also Czech, cultural and spiritual heritage" who has "something to communicate to Czechs and the Czech character in all eras - including our own era" (p. 13). I believe it was an important and correct decision to concentrate on this fascinating personality; the portrait of Löw, however, is marred by the author's manner of presentation and by the absence of any serious research into primary sources. These flaws are also manifest in the other themes treated in the work; the journalistic presentation of these themes may, however, appeal to some readers.

To create a context for understanding Löw's teachings, Kuras introduces the reader to the basic elements of Judaism. He provides an elementary clarification of concepts like the Sabbath, Jewish ethics, the duty to care for the poor and the helpless, and the Jewish legal system. He also provides celebratory lists of everything that Judaism has contributed to the world. While reading these lists of merits and statistics demonstrating the successes of Jewish individuals, I often had the feeling that the author's eyes were so fascinated by their subject that they were no longer capable of critical perception. The idealized picture lacks reflection on errors and shortcomings; furthermore, it presents very problematic information. For example, the author writes that 'the division of the church from the state' comes from the Judaism (p. 22), as if everything that a Jew did was not meant to consecrate the name of God - kidush ha-shem - and as if the reason that the Israeli state does not have a constitution is that Orthodox Jews believe that that constitution has to be the Torah. Also problematic is the comment that: "T. Cahill, writing in 1998, discovered the originality of the Jewish [...] 'Wheel of Life' which is constantly breaking, revolving and repeating" (p. 64). Here Kuras refers to a well-known phenomenon, about which Mircea Eliade had already written in 1947 in his study Le Mythe de l'eternal.

Kuras's text is written in a readable style spiced with jokes like the following: 'The meteorological news announces that in two days the world will be flooded. In a panic, the entire world crowds into temples, churches, mosques and synagogues and prays for salvation. A tottering old rabbi comes to one crowded synagogue and shouts at the top of his lungs: "You're wasting time praying? Are you meshuge? You've only got forty-five hours to learn how to live under water!"' (p. 32)

After a sketch of the Bohemian Lands in Löw's era at the end of the 16th century under the rule of the Emperor Rudolf, and a classification of Löw as belonging to the line of the 'dissidents' Hus, Chelčický, Comenius and Masaryk (sic), there follows an overview of the entire history of the Jewish nation in one chapter 'from Abraham to Einstein'. Four thousand years, seen from the perspective of education, are distilled into thirty-seven pages; it was education that helped this nation to survive and I too consider the emphasis on education to be one of the most important aspects of Judaism. It was Rabbi Löw whose "pedagogical vision constituted the foundation of the specifically Czech pedagogy, which a few decades later, thanks to Comenius, became the framework of success for the education of the Protestant West" (p. 95). Rabbi Löw's vision included: the use and development of originality, individuality, spontaneity; the conception of teaching as a joyful experience, without fear or punishment; the conception of the question as half the way to knowledge; the independent solution of problems; rewards for diligent study; the use of all the senses for learning; repetition and additional mnemonic aids, and so on.

In addition to Löw the pedagogue and 'psychologist', the reader is presented with Löw the teacher of ethics, who allegedly considered the most important virtues to be: truthfulness, reserve, reticence, seriousness, temperance, humility, patience, affluence, generosity and a good name. I am not sure that, "all the ethical rules which guided Christianity, Humanism, the Enlightenment and parliamentary democracy came from the Torah of Moses, the Prophets and the Talmud" (p. 123); however, I agree with Kuras's interpretation that, "The commandments and prohibitions of this system reined in human avarice and destructiveness; they limited and modified these qualities and thus protected humanity from its own destruction" (p. 138).

The analysis of Löw's "theory of the center" (emtza) leads the reader to suspect that things are more complex than they are described in Kuras's work. As someone who attended Joseph Dan and Moshe Idel's lectures at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem - both of whom pointed to the profound and fascinating sea of Kabbalistic teaching - it seems to me very sad to trot through a course on the Kabbalah with the reassurance, "don't bother your head about it, if it's not immediately clear" (p. 155). It's clear to the author, and therefore he is not ashamed to explain it to us in a few pages. This explanation may include a few errors (illustration no. 1 keter is erroneously translated as 'equilibrium' instead of 'crown', p. 152), but nonetheless is written by someone who understands that 'reception and receiving are the foundation of all Kabbalistic mysticism' and therefore he can give a sort of 'Speak English in Three Months', quick course on the Kabbalah.

The two concluding chapters touch on the question "Who is a Jew?" and the problem of anti-Semitism. It is a pity that the author does not offer his own answer to the question "Who is a Jew?", for example, a measure of solidarity with the Jewish nation, or the acceptance of its specific responsibility and mission. I consider it an unfair distortion to portray the postwar German political scene with nothing more than a few citations from anti-Semitic historians like Ernst Nolte; I believe that Germany has also gone through a fundamental process of reflection on its guilt for the deaths of the six million who must not be forgotten.

In the book Kuras demonstrates that he is a very good critic of Czechs and the Czech character: "Czechs like to see themselves as an educated nation. But Czech education lacks a sense of historical continuity and national historical mission; and it has a dangerously short memory. Because it is not clear about the meaning of its past, it lacks a conception of where it should be headed and why. Its falls easily into pettiness. For several generations now it has lacked ethical and spiritual content and has succumbed to a totalitarian and sycophantic thinking which did not stop with the fall of the totalitarian system." (p. 59). That is why I would expect him, in the last chapter, to call for a Czech examination of a similar dark past during and after the war, especially considering the menacing reality of the present day, when the Jews are no longer emigrating from this country, but the Roma are.

Robert Řehák, 27 January 2000

Buy this book from the Czech on-line bookstore Vltava.


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