Rabbi Yehudah Yudel Rosenberg

My research focuses on the parallels between several authors of highly different backgrounds: Gustav Meyrink, an ex-banker and member of the Czech-German elite who was well-known for his scandalous life-style and his interest in mysticism; H. Leivick, a Jewish Bundist who was sentenced to force labor in Siberia and later emigrated to America; and Yudel Rosenberg, a Polish Hasidic Rabbi with an extensive literary and academic background who later emigrated to Canada. All were writing around the turn of the century, and all were writing about the golem. I think these men are inseparable from their works in many ways, thus I’m trying to keep them in mind when comparing their work.

Rabbi Yehudah Yudel Rosenberg was born in 1859 in Skaraschev, Poland. He was considered a prodigy of Talmudic scholarship by the age of 16 and went on to become a prominent scholar and translator of the Hasidic movement. He wrote extensively on the Talmud, Halakha, and Kabbala, and was the student of several well-known rabbis and zadeks. His scholarly publications are extensive and eclectic, including numerous commentaries, translations of Maimonides and other famous scholars, a handbook of Hasidic healing methods, essays on the use of electricity on the Sabbath, and an ambitious translation of the Zohar into Hebrew from Aramaic, among many other works. However, despite Rosenberg’s prestigious career as a rabbi and scholar of the Hasidic movement, a movement known for its conservative philosophy and resistance to modernity, Rosenberg himself was very torn on the issue of modernity, as many orthodox Jews of his generation were. He studied Russian and Russian literature, which was considered an unnecessary and unsavory pastime by many in the rabbinical community, but this gave him access to a far wider variety of literature than many of his peers had. One biographer, Ira Robinson, notes that “like other Orthodox observers of the current scene, Rosenberg believed that Orthodoxy was in crisis because the younger generation was falling pretty to the wiles of the secularists.” In the introduction to Rosenberg’s translation of the Zohar he writes,

We see, because of our many sins, that books of heresy are greatly multiplying in this era and they have many buyers. It is as if they [the heretical authors] are hunting for souls by the fact that they beautify their books with all sorts of beauty. Especially these books are written in a pure and simple language, while the holy books are left in a corner… (via Robinson, 5)

Robinson concludes that “what Rosenberg had realized was that the old style of writing was not working any more… Scoffers were making light of traditional tales and legends because they were not written down in histories in the modern style” (5). It was after this realization that Rosenberg began on a mission to reinvent traditional Jewish literary tradition. He would offer “newfangled stories purveying the traditional message, in opposition to the modernist Hebrew and Yiddish literature, which tended to deliver a message of the breakdown of Jewish tradition” (Robinson, 6). He would accomplish this through several key means: by taking an old Jewish tale, the golem; blending it with contemporary situations, the growing popularity of blood libel; writing in the style of modern literature; and by crediting it to a famous and mystical Jewish hero, the Maharal of Prague.

The book Rosenberg published in 1909, The Golem and the Wondrous Deeds of the Maharal of Prague, was incredibly successful, and helped redefine Hebrew and Yiddish literature. Yosef Dan, one of the eminent scholars of the Kabbala today, described it as the greatest contribution of Hebrew literature to world literature (via Robinson, 6). Wondrous Deeds emulates detective fiction foremost. It is formatted as a series of short, loosely related stories that center on the Maharal as he solves the many issues, big and small, plaguing the Prague Jewish community.