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The Maharal Gevurot Hashem

Author: Esther Ehrman, Tevet 5779/December 2018

A shiur I gave recently at one of the Etta Study groups on The Maharal, Gevurot Hashem (pp 136-143).

In his work, Gevurot HaShem, The Maharal, Yehuda Loew ben Bezalel, (1525-1609} discusses the Exodus as the formative event of the People of Israel. Having discussed the impact of Egypt on the materialistic outlook of the people of Israel, the role of Moses and the Haggada, the Maharal speaks of the crossing of the sea. He looks at the ‘Shirat haYam’, recognised as most significant, since there the people ‘believed in G-d and His servant, Moses’ (Gen.14,31). This, however, is not the Maharal’s topic here. His question is about who sings, who has priority and why.

While the Maharal writes as a philosopher, his thinking is often on Kabbalistic lines ( he is known as the creator of the Golem in Prague). In these pages, He illustrates his passionate conviction of the centrality of Israel in G-d’s world, the world of ‘the G-d of Israel’ by a very insistent defence of the merits of Israel as against the heavenly world of angels.

The Maharal focuses on the tension between angels and Israel. G-d allows Israel to sing first, because Israel is ‘my son’. Angels are G-d’s ‘servants’, they are, in tradition, jealous of man because they lack free will; they are messengers, who do G-d’s bidding . However, while they follow after Moses and the Israelite men, they are allowed precedence over the song of the women - the latter are dependent upon men. The argument moves back and forth: Angels live in the upper world, but G-d loves Israel more, writes the Maharal, quoting a passage of Gemara (Hullin 91,b) which makes this statement.

The rival merits of Israel and the angels are next discussed more specifically, for two reasons: 1.Angels sing only sporadically, once a day, once a week, a year, perhaps once ever. That is because angels each have a separate entity, they each have one mission - their mission is their ‘song’, so they sing only when they perform that mission; Israel can and do sing all the time. Next, the Maharal stresses that Israel mentions G-d after TWO words ‘shema Israel, H’ echad’, whereas the angels mention Him after THREE : ‘kadosh, kadosh, kadosh, H’ tzevaot’. This shows that Israel is closer to G-d than the angels. The latter are separate from each other and from G-d, although they inhabit the higher region of the world; the separateness is seen in the notion of Three - the three words: in the link between 1-2-3, 1 is not connected to 3. For Israel, 1 and 2 connect.

Moreover, although Israel is in the lower world, the word ‘shema’ implies receiving, Israel ‘receives’ directly from G-d. The two words represent two stages in their rising to the connection with G-d: 1, from their physical state; 2, to a spiritual state, where the receiving can take place.

The Maharal suggests a possible support for his views in the work of Rav Meir ibn Gabbai, a contemporary Kabbalist. Ibn Gabbai also speaks of the superiority of Israel over the angels, for three reasons: 1. G-d is the reason for their existence, they are not the reason for His.2. G-d gives them continuity, they do not give that to Him. 3. G-d is wholly separate from angels,angels are not separate from one another (seems to contradict earlier statement, but this is not, here, the view of the Maharal, but ibn Gabbai’s). 1 and 2 would seem to apply to Israel as well, but 3 does not, because of the direct connection of Israel, the ‘son’. Israel is unique, one; its separateness is being separate from all other nations; it is basic to G-d’s world.

Interestingly, the editor of this edition seems to distance himself from the Maharal’s ‘bias’ in favour of Israel and notes that Rav Chaim of Volozhin, on this subject, writes in a more even handed way about the merits of each side, the angels and Israel.