The name is related to the Hebrew patriarch Judah or Yehuda , who is traditionally associated with a lion.
His birth year is uncertain, with different sources listing , , and His uncle Jacob was Reichsrabbiner "Rabbi of the Empire" of the Holy Roman Empire , and his brother Chaim of Friedberg, was a well known rabbinical scholar, as were his two other older brothers. Traditionally it is believed that the Maharal's family descended from the Babylonian exilarchs and were therefore also from the Davidic dynasty. He received his formal education in various yeshivas Talmudic schools. Despite the family's prominence, it is likely to have moved to Poland along with many other Jews to escape the increasingly intolerant attitude toward Jews of Germany during this period.
Educated in the strict Talmudism typical of rabbinical education in his day, Judah Loew later challenged the limits of this conservative tradition. He read the kabbalistic text of the Zohar and other esoteric books with enthusiasm.
He also studied the classical Jewish philosophical texts, such as the writings of Maimonides and Crescas, and was familiar with current secular subjects like physics and astronomy. An avid reader, his later writings refers to the findings of Copernicus and Martin Luther 's German translation of the Bible.
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Judah reportedly married his wife Pearl at the age of 32 after a long delay, due to financial troubles in her family. They would have six daughters and a son. Judah himself was independently wealthy, probably as a result of his father's successful business enterprises. Judah accepted a rabbinical position in as Landesrabbiner of Moravia at Mikulov Nikolsburg.
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This position, which he held until , involved directing Jewish community affairs as well as determining the schedule of Talmud studies in the communities in that province. He also revised the Jewish community statutes on the election and taxation process. While still in Moravia, Judah fought against slanderous allegations of illegitimacy that were spread in the community against certain families, which could ruin their ability to find a marriage partner for their children.
This issue also affected his own family. After leaving Moravia, probably due to anti-Jewish persecutions there, Loew was active in Prague, where he established a yeshiva and became known for his relatively broad approach to Talmudic studies and his corresponding criticism of the tedious scholastic attitudes of other rabbinical authorities.
He also ran afoul of powerful Jewish leaders who continued to deny the legitimacy of their fellow community members and even besmirched the good names of those who were already dead. The Maharal boldly denounced this phenomenon, going so far as to pronounce a sentence of excommunication on those guilty of slanderous rumor-mongering. The Maharal was passed over for election as the chief rabbi of Prague in in favor of his brother-in-law, Isaac Hayoth, who was of a more conservative bent in his philosophical attitude and less prone to criticize people in high places.
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Loew then gladly accepted the call of his native community, Posen, to serve as its rabbi. He moved back to Prague in , to replace the retired Isaac Hayoth.
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The conversation seems to have been related to the Kabbalah Jewish mysticism a subject which held much fascination for the emperor. In the same year, the Maharal moved back again to Posen, where he had been elected as chief rabbi of Poland. There, he composed Netivoth Olam and part of Derech Chaim.
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Toward the end of his life he moved back to Prague, where he died in He is buried there, and his tomb still an attraction for tourists. Although he was not an open proponent of the Kabbalah per se, the Maharal adopted some of its key doctrines, which he popularized in his many writings and speeches. For example, he denounced the morbid attitude toward sexuality which was prevalent in Christian society and also among many Jews.
For him, the male and female principles were manifestations of the image of God in humankind.
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Love between the sexes, he believed, was a glorious manifestation of the Divine, as well as being the foundation of the family and society. The Maharal also promoted the kabbalistic attitude that the physical world exists in parallel to the higher spiritual world, and that these two correspond to each other. He was not, however, a champion of the open study of Kabbalah , and none of his works are openly devoted to it.
Nevertheless, kabbalistic ideas permeate his writings in a rational and philosophic tone. His main kabbalistic influences appear to have been the Zohar and Sefer Yetzirah. The so-called Lurianic Kabbalah had not yet reached Europe in the Maharal's time. The Maharal was also entirely in favor of scientific research insofar as it did not contradict divine revelation.
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