Alchemy of the Word. Cabala of the Renaissance.
Renaissance is not the most suitable characterization of Jewish history in western and central Europe between 1350 and 1600. From the outbreak of the plague, in 1348, until ghettoization, beginning in 1555, European Jewish history was unusually catastrophic, even by its own lugubrious standards. In western and central Europe mass expulsions and conversions, migrations and persecutions obliterated old settlements: Jews were expelled permanently from England in 1290, from France in 1394, from Spain in 1492, from Portugal in 1497, from Provence in 1502, from southern Italy in 1541, and at some time from dozens of cities in central Europe. As a result, Europe west of the Rhine officially remained almost Judenrein until the French revolution. Displacement and resettlement were more characteristic of Jewish life during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries than the personal acquaintance of some Jewish and Christian scholars, by which earlier historiography characterized "the Jews in the Renaissance." Were there, then, any Jews "in the Renaissance"?
The frequent proximity of Jews to Renaissance activity is as obvious as their separation from it because of language, religion, and political and legal status. Translation was common in both directions, as Jews and Christians sought to learn what was concealed in the language of the other, but cultural contacts could reinforce separation. Jewish scholars left few traces on the humanist movement, for example, because they were not much interested in recovering Greek and Latin ancients, whom they considered to be pagan latecomers who had garbled the original Hebrew revelation. Similarly, Christians who agreed that humanity received its earliest revelation in Hebrew studied the language and established university departments of Judaica, in order not to be dependent on Jewish understanding of the texts and meanings of revelation. Christian Hebraists tended to emphasize the contrast between reliable texts and unreliable Jews. Power relations obviously also divided Christians from Jews: popes and Church councils redefined the boundaries between admissible and inadmissible Judaism, by imposing the ghetto and burning the Talmud at the same time as they were allowing the Zohar to be printed.
Jewish life in southern and central Europe between 1400 and 1600 is therefore only partly comprehensible through categories provided by the Renaissance. European Jewish history was not "in" the Renaissance, although individuals and groups of Jews often passed through. The connections between Renaissance studies and Jewish studies may, depending on the instance, be tangential, nonexistent, or essential. The books reviewed here offer a fair sample of what current scholarship in Jewish studies makes available from the time of the Renaissance. Half of these books investigate what European Christian writers from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century thought about Jews or wanted to know about them, and half what the Jews were doing at the time.
Aside from the King James Bible, the most prominent Renaissance work that stimulates discussion of Jews and Judaism is The Merchant of Venice. In Shylock and the Jewish Question, Martin Yaffe argues that Shakespeare tried to understand Jews and Judaism through sympathetic characterization. Yaffe analyzes Merchant less to understand what Shakespeare thought or said about Jews than to judge how he imagined a society that would admit Jews as citizens. His ultimate goal is "to rescue Shakespeare's play as a helpful guide for the self-understanding of the modern Jew." Through close, philosophical questioning of Merchant, he gracefully undertakes the task implied in the epigraph from C. L. Barber's Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: "But the more one is aware of what the plays whole design is expressing through Shylock, of the comedy's high seriousness in its concern for the grace of the community, the less one wants to lose the play Shakespeare wrote for one he merely suggested."
Yaffe begins by challenging "the widespread presumption that Shakespeare is [like Elizabethan audiences] . . . unfriendly to the Jews," which even Harold Bloom endorses when he remarks, "In this one play alone, Shakespeare was very much of his age, and not for all time." .After examining important critical judgments of Merchant to justify the effort, Yaffe compares Shylock with Marlowe's "Barabas the Jew," with Joabin in Bacons New Atlantis, and with Spinoza's Jewish individual in a commercial state in the Theological-Political Treatise.
Unlike Marlowe, Shakespeare does not make Shylock into a caricature of the hateful Jew, but imagines Judaism respectfully and distinguishes between Shylocks Jewishness and his individual obnoxiousness. Close comparison of Shylock with the Jews in the other works leads Yaffe to conclude that Shakespeare's conception of Jewishness in an early modern society was more tolerant and practicable than those of Marlowe, Bacon, and Spinoza. That conception comes from an ethical religiosity, implicit in the Bible and sketched in speeches of Portia and Lorenzo. that would harmoniously include all human beings in society - even Shylock in Venice. The trial scene gives Shylock the opportunity to rise above animals and "Turks" and behave in a way that would enable him to continue living in Venice, but he fails. Shakespeare's subtle and sympathetic understanding of the Jew nevertheless invites other Jewish persons to join society, as eighteenth-century English parliamentarians recognized in passing the Jew Bill.
The book exaggerates, I think, both Shakespeare's respect for Judaism and the harshness of Shylocks sentence of conversion. Much more concerned with character than with religious polemics, Shakespeare concentrates on Shylock's individual choices. Judaism is not condemned, even though it has not subdued Shylocks unsocial, vengeful inclinations, just as Christianity is not condemned for failing to train Venetians to behave ethically. Modern Jews in the audience may be satisfied to recognize that Shakespeare would have allowed Shylock to remain a Jew in Venice, if only he had been a good Jew. Such a Jew would neither have sought vengeance nor demanded a pound of flesh as bond, thereby violating a basic distinction of rabbinic law by turning a property case (din mamonot) into a capital case (din nefashot).
Yaffe thinks that the conversion of the Jewish sinner to Christianity is a harsh affront to Judaism. From both Christian and dramatic perspectives, however, the conversion appears to be a compassionate punishment, one that mercifully integrates into society a character who legitimately could have been expelled by execution. At the end of Merchant Shylock is part of society more than, for example, Malvolio at the end of Twelfth Night. The lucid and provocative argument of Shylock and the Jewish Question presents what may still be a version of the play that Shakespeare "merely suggested."
A rabbi in Venice, Leone Modena (1571-1648), evidently was the author of Kol Sakhal (The Voice of a Fool) which has been a controversial book since the beginning of modern Jewish historiography. Talya Fishman's Shaking the Pillars of Exile, an edition, translation, and analysis of The Voice of a Fool, thoroughly re-examines the evidence about this puzzling book and redefines its significance in terms made available by current revisionism in Jewish historiography.
The Voice of a Fool presents itself as having been written in Spain circa 1500, by an otherwise unknown Jew. Fishman establishes, as far as the evidence allows, that Modena wrote it, in 1623, as well as its refutation Sha'agat Aryei (The Lion's Roar). Still, as Fishman acknowledges, "Identification of the treatise's author ... only compounds the 'mystery of Kol Sakhal.'" Earlier scholars judged the book to have been either a joke or a way for Modena to express heretical opinions. Jewish neo-orthodox and Reform historians took it seriously and either deplored or celebrated it as a proto-Reform rebellion against Judaism. Fishman instead considers it to belong to a neglected pre-modern Jewish tradition of radical, but loyal, criticism. Modena clearly wanted to air his opinions about the historical development of rabbinic law, but not enough evidence is available to explain the effect he hoped to produce.
The three sections of The Voice of a Fool discuss objections to Judaism that were current among Karaites, Judaizing conversos or Christians. The first section expounds the rationally defensible doctrines of Judaism, such as the existence of God, creation, providence, revelation, immortality, and reward and punishment. The writer acknowledges that his faith may be in error, but he nevertheless is committed to these beliefs through a "fideist wager." The second section challenges the authority of rabbinic law and of many of its details. After situating rabbinic law as a mean between the extremes, Karaite strict construction of the written Torah and Christian deviation from it, the writer challenges the authority of the rabbis and the procedures by which they extended biblical law. The rabbis turned into permanent legal requirements, he says, acts that originally were voluntary gestures of piety. The steady, unsystematic accumulation of these laws became an irrational jumble, which lengthened the term of the Jews' exile and deterred the rest of humanity from joining them in God's service. The overgrowth of Jewish law, he continues, was pruned by the codes of the Mishnah (200 C. E.) and Maimonides' Mishneh Torah (twelfth century). In the third section he proposes another rationalized code of Jewish law, one more appropriate for the current condition of the Jews. Already the most thoroughly studied Jew of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Leone Modena now must be reconsidered in the light of this study, which persuasively explains the far-reaching implications of his book.
With the help of Jewish consultants, Christian Hebraists began translating Jewish books during the fifteenth century, and in the sixteenth Catholic and Protestant academic institutions came to require the study of Hebrew and Judaism. The work of Johannes Buxtorf the elder (1564-1629), a Protestant scholar, made academic Christian Hebraism into a self-sustaining discipline. A professor of Hebrew at the University of Basel from 1590 until his death, Buxtorf also worked in the city as a censor, editor, corrector, and merchant of Hebrew books. He labored methodically to raise Christian knowledge of Judaica from amateurish curiosity to levels of accuracy and completeness that were appropriate to an academic discipline. His books became the fundamental guides to Christian study of biblical and rabbinic Hebrew and of Jewish texts, Judaism, and Jews, until the nineteenth century. Stephen G. Burnett makes a surprisingly lively intellectual biography out of a life the landmarks of which were printings of grammars, dictionaries, and concordances.
Until now, scholarship about Buxtorf concentrated on his two books that were most important for theology, Juden Schul and Tiberias, and disregarded his extensive correspondence, his unpublished books, and his large collection of Hebrew and Yiddish books. Burnett integrates this neglected evidence with the rest of Buxtorf's scholarship to trace the course of each of his scholarly projects. He explains the practical and theological motives for undertaking each one, describes the way Buxtorf selected models for the structure of exposition and the range of evidence, and documents the reactions of contemporaries to what the book achieved.
Juden Schul (1606) was a 570-page description in German of Jewish behavior. Its massive documentation, mainly from Jewish sources, supported the theological contention that the Jews lived according to the Talmud and the rabbis, rather than by the words of biblical revelation. Burnett shows that Buxtorf's selection of evidence, a combination of ancient rabbinic texts with contemporaneous Jewish folk observance, gives a distorted impression of what is presented as an unchanging Jewish character. Although the account in Juden Schul of Jewish life and belief is unsympathetic to Jews, the book reassures its audience of Lutheran and Reformed clergymen that Jews are not a threat to Christians. The book became a precedent and source for later Christian descriptions of Jews and also provoked a reply from Leone Modena, Historia dei riti hebraici (1637). Buxtorf never completed two other polemical projects, Reasons Why Jews Have Always Hated and Despised Other Peoples (Aus was Ursachen...) and a translation of Raymond Martini's Pugio Fidei. Burnett suggests that Buxtorf put off these projects because he was reluctant to alienate his Jewish associates in the printing business.
Buxtorf published an astonishing number of reference books that were essential for the study of the Bible and its languages: grammars of Hebrew and Aramaic, three biblical dictionaries, two manuals for composing Hebrew letters, a key to Hebrew abbreviations, a large bibliographic guide to Jewish books and authors, a revised rabbinic Bible, and an essay on post-biblical Hebrew poetry. His prodigious work enabled Christian study of Judaica to observe the same stringent standards as humanists who studied classical antiquity. These books fulfilled one of the two great demands on Christian Hebraism at the end of the sixteenth century.
A major part of Buxtorf's teaching and writing was dedicated to fulfilling the second demand on Hebraism: formulation of Christian theology upon the basis of thorough understanding of the Hebrew language and the biblical text. The Protestant theological assumption that Jewish texts and traditions confirmed the divinity of the Bible motivated Buxtorf to revise the Bomberg rabbinic Bibles and to argue, in Tiberias, that the biblical vowel-signs were established as early as the time of Ezra. With admirable thoroughness and an equilibrium of sympathy and critical distance, Burnett traces Buxtorf's lifelong effort to understand the linguistic and theological barriers between Christianity and Judaism.
Jews in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries sometimes expressed awareness of intellectual and literary currents among their Italian contemporaries by translating particular works. They expressed their affinity more profoundly by adopting whole disciplines into Hebrew and producing in Hebrew literary works from distinctively Italian genres. The adoption and adaptation of Italian practices was neither subversive to Judaism nor merely marginal activity. It was commonly an effort by members of the rabbinic elite to appropriate and domesticate useful and prestigious activities for the Jewish community. Significant Hebrew writings that demonstrate both familiarity with Italian literature and Jewish independence are presented in Fabrizio Lelli's edition of a late fifteenth-century justification for Hebrew rhetoric and in Dvora Bregman's comprehensive edition of Renaissance and Baroque Hebrew sonnets.
Lelli presents a Hebrew edition and Italian translation of the justification of rhetoric that introduces The Immortal, a book by Yohanan Alemanno (1433/4-after 1505). Alemanno, who studied at Padua and became a physician in 1470, was a kabbalist and magician who, in Florence after 1488, tutored Giovanni Pico on Jewish learning. After surveying Alemanno's life and writings and the scholarship on him, Lelli describes The Immortal and thoroughly discusses the introductory section that he translates.
The introduction invokes the biblical prophetic books as authoritative precedents and models for rhetorical study and composition in Hebrew. During the fifteenth century, Latin arts of preaching, letter-writing and lecturing, and books of classical Latin rhetoric became known to Hebrew authors. Alemanno's introduction is one formulation from that time of the movement to absorb this rhetoric into Hebrew education. The Immortal is a long, encyclopedic work that was addressed to a Jewish audience that included both uneducated and scholarly Jews. To address a general audience, each chapter of The Immortal presents its message in two parallel passages, in different styles, which are assigned to separate speakers. The first speaker, the "Interpreter of Justice in his Language," addresses the unscholarly audience through rhetorical argumentation and the imagery, vocabulary and syntax of elevated biblical Hebrew poetry. The other, "The Speaker of Truth in his Heart," explains the same teachings to the educated audience in the quite different argumentation, vocabulary, and style of medieval Jewish philosophy. The coupling of popular and scholarly presentations produces an effect like that of poems from the time that were written to be accompanied by learned commentaries, such as Benivieni's canzone d'amore with Giovanni Pico's commentary. An appendix illustrates the rhetorical writing that the introduction justifies with a translation of the first chapter of The Immortal, and a second appendix excerpts from The Immortal a discussion of the value of poetry for educating the young. This manifesto for Hebrew rhetoric shows how a learned Jew like Alemanno perceived humanist rhetoric at the end of the fifteenth century. Lelli has put on record an important document of Hebrew literary practice from the time of the Renaissance.
Eminent rabbis mastered, in Hebrew, forms and themes of Renaissance and Baroque Italian literature, as is amply demonstrated in the 423 Hebrew sonnets in Dvora Bregman's anthology, A Bundle of Gold. (The title refers to the common Hebrew term for the sonnet, "song of gold," shir zahav, in which the letters of zahav, "gold," have the numerical value of 14, the number of lines in a sonnet.) The earliest preserved Hebrew sonnets, by Immanuel of Rome (d. 1328), established the patterns of rhyme, rhythm, structure, theme, and vocabulary that remained normative for Hebrew sonnets until the seventeenth century. Immanuel anticipated some of the sonnet forms that Petrarch later formulated for Italian poetry. No Hebrew sonnets survive from the time between Immanuel's death and the 1492 printing of his Mahbarot, which includes his sonnets. From then until 1700, such well-known figures as Azariah de' Rossi, Judah Moscato, Abraham Yagel, Leone Modena, and Jacob and Immanuel Frances wrote Hebrew sonnets. During the sixteenth century sonnets served as occasional verse on many themes - to mark the printing of a book, in celebration of a wedding, or as a memorial - but not to express erotic or spiritual love. In the seventeenth century, Hebrew love sonnets were composed, some in elaborately structured cycles, as in other literatures.
A Bundle of Gold makes available a comprehensive anthology of the genre that Bregman has pieced together from numerous scattered texts that have rarely been examined. For the convenience of readers, most of the poems and their elucidations fit neatly on a single page; scholars will find fuller details at the end of the book. This fastidious edition of sonnets by a hundred Hebrew poets should long remain a landmark in the study of pre-modern Hebrew literature. Those whose modern Hebrew is fluent will be able to enjoy the witty employment of Jewish learning in these sonnets, with the assistance of the modern scholarship that makes them available.
Translation, necessary to any cultural exchange between Jews and Christians, determined the fundamental character of Renaissance cabalism. All of the distinct traditions of Jewish Kabbalah that developed over several centuries in Spain, Provence, and Italy derived authority from the assumption that the Hebrew language of the Bible contained the unique, original power of divine revelation that was granted to the ancient Israelites. Renaissance Christian Cabala, in contrast, invoked the prestige of Jewish Kabbalah as an ancient esoteric discipline, but disconnected the translatable concepts, hermeneutic methods, and schemes of symbolic correspondence from their Hebrew associations. Cabala in Latin and the vernaculars applied these concepts and methods to quite different theological or magical purposes. The tiny difference of spelling between Hebrew "Kabbalah" and European "Cabala" indicates great differences between the texts and doctrines of the two traditions. Scholars' inattention to the spelling may at times indicate lack of awareness of the different phenomena behind them.
Translation also has important effects on the modern study of Cabala and Kabbalah. Moshe Idel has cautioned scholars against reliance on accessible modern research, instead of original sources: "Some . . . have tended to the notion that [Gershom Scholem's] views on Kabbalah are tantamount to the Kabbalah itself. . . . there is a widespread failure to distinguish between the authentic material and the opinions of scholars on the content of this material." (Kabbalah. New Perspectives, 17.) The caution applies in different ways to Giordano Bruno and the Kabbalah and to Alchemy of the Word, a survey of Renaissance Cabala.
In Giordano Bruno and the Kabbalah, de Leon-Jones demonstrates familiarity with current study of Cabala in English, French, and Italian. Her book challenges Frances Yates' influential characterization of Bruno, in Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, as a magus who subordinated Christian hermeticism and Cabala to "Egyptianism": "In his Cabala del Cavallo Pegaseo he appears to be totally rejecting Cabala for his purely Egyptian insights.., according to him, the Egyptians are not only earliest, but best, and the Jews and the Christians later and worse" (Yates, 257). Although Yates qualifies the statement, she repeatedly asserts that Cabala was less important to Bruno than various forms of Egyptianism.
While acknowledging that Yates provides a good introduction to Bruno's Cabala, de Leon-Jones contends, "What Yates fundamentally misses is that... Bruno uses the Kabbalah as a hermeneutic device to introduce and explicate his own theories. . . . Kabbalistic ideas are crucial for understanding how Bruno's hermeticism functions within his overall cosmological system. Bruno is not merely defining or presenting the Kabbalah: he is writing a Kabbalistic text." (20) The cabalists from whom Bruno learned, Pico, Reuchlin and Agrippa, did use Cabala mainly to support other, more fundamental beliefs, Christian or magical; Bruno, in contrast, tried to think cabalistically. This insight does not immediately solve problems, as a comment of Bruno's shows: "Here then is Cabala, theology and philosophy: I mean a Cabala of theological philosophy, a philosophy of Cabalistic theology, a theology of Cabalistic philosophy, such that I am uncertain whether you have these three either as an entirety, or in parts, or as nothing. . ." De Leon-Jones explains, "Bruno's prose renders his meaning incomprehensible if the parts are not taken within the context of the whole phrase. . . The three must be considered as a whole" (24).
To refute and replace the conclusions of Yates, de Leon-Jones undertakes exhaustive discussion of a sequence of Bruno's writings: Spaccio della bestia trionfante, La cabala del cavallo pegaseo, L'asino cillenico del nolano, and De gli eroici furori. The spirited commentary, supported by long citations in Italian and Latin, points out cabalistic antecedents and demonstrates Bruno's constant creation and elaboration of an ambitious, idiosyncratic Christian Cabala. It seems unnecessary, however, to trace details of Bruno's thought to Hebrew sources that he could not read. It is accomplishment enough to have shown that Bruno invented a coherent, if obscure, system of thinking that he called "Cabala." Others will have to judge how this study affects the overall understanding of Bruno.
Alchemy of the Word surveys "the Cabala of the Renaissance," characterized here as being divided into (1) "the Jewish stream," (2) Christian Cabala, and (3) a "demiurgic Neopagan Cabala," or hermeticism. The book offers a fluent, very personal survey of what a modern literary scholar finds significant in Renaissance Cabalism. The author discusses "the Jewish stream," mainly the Zohar, on the basis of Scholem's scholarship, as background to Christian Cabala and hermeticism. The discussion extends beyond Cabala in the Renaissance to analogous concepts and motifs in modern literature and scholarship. To provide an external standpoint from which to evaluate obscure statements in Cabala, the author often invokes modern writers, such as Benjamin and Derrida, Freud and Jung, Bruno Schulz and Kafka.
As the first of the four loosely connected chapters announces, "Thinking about the Cabala in general and The Zohar in particular for a theory-drenched modern is certainly an intellectually dizzying enterprise, full of traps, aporias, paradoxes and outright contradictions" (11). The second chapter, "The Secret of Agrippa," surveys concepts found in Christian Cabala from Pico through Agrippa. The third chapter offers an idiosyncratic, "critical" Bibliographia Kabbalistica of many other cabalistic books: "I've set up this chapter, generally, in descending order of how much I have to say about the listed items .... Often I use the title as a jumping-off place, following a trail of associations to relevant, sometimes much more recent places. So, for example, in 'Saint Teresa's Castles and Kafka's,' I leap from Garzoni's Universal Castle to Kafka's The Castle" (116). The fourth chapter surveys Cabala in England, through brief remarks about such figures as Spenser, Thomas Browne, Milton, Fludd, and Dee.
A survey of Christian Cabala that could supersede the books by Joseph L. Blau (1944) and Francois Secret (1964) is desirable, but Alchemy of the Word is not that book. Discussion of dozens of authors requires a great deal of connecting historical narrative, and in this narrative stream the short passages of explanation and evaluation rush past too rapidly. The book offers many provocative statements, many informative ones, and many that are avoidably erroneous or obscurely brief. To undertake such an ambitious task without access to Hebrew for primary sources and modern scholarship; to characterize Kabbalah by relying heavily on the old studies of A. E. Waite, Adolph Franck, and Blau; and to ignore such important recent scholarship as Pico della Mirandola's Encounter with Jewish Mysticism, is to attempt too much on an insufficient foundation. The learning, energy and wit that the book displays could have achieved more if directed towards a more modest goal.
In the fourteenth century, the Iberian peninsula held the largest Jewish population in the world, but repeated attacks and steady pressure on them after 1391 reduced their numbers until they catastrophically disappeared, through migration and mass apostasy, in 1492 and 1497. Crisis and Creativity in the Sephardic World, 1391-1648 is one of the best of the spate of volumes from conferences held in 1992 to observe the five hundred years since expulsion of the Jews from Spain. The fifteen essays in it represent a range of disciplines - social history, Hebrew literature, philosophy, Kabbalah, sociology, and art - and cover a wide geographical area: Navarre, Ferrara, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Smyrna, and Mallorca, as well as Spain and Portugal. Most articles are specialized studies that raise wider questions.
Several studies follow individual Jews through the archives. Benjamin R. Gampel traces the conversion, migration, and resettlement of several Jews in Castile, Aragon, and Navarre, in the years around 1492. Renata Segre compares the behavior and fortunes of two eminent families in mid-sixteenth-century Ferrara, the demonstratively Jewish Abravanels and the converso Mendes-de Luna-Benveniste-Nasi family: "the variety of names is evidence of their uncertain and ambivalent identity." Yosef Kaplan shows how seventeenth-century Sephardic communities in Hamburg and Amsterdam employed the same conceptions of "pureza de sangre" from which they had suffered in Portugal to justify strict separation from Ashkenazi Jews.
Philosophy and literary history are also represented. Seymour Feldman gracefully contrasts the attitudes of Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) towards Aristotelian and Platonic philosophy with those of his son, Judah (Leone Ebreo). Raymond P. Scheindlin asks why fifteenth-century secular Hebrew poetry in Saragossa disregarded developments that were prominent in vernacular and Latin literature. Moshe Idel traces post-expulsion encounters between several traditions of Spanish Kabbalah with Italian Kabbalah, and Hava Tirosh-Samuelson surveys post-expulsion philosophical discussions of the ultimate human happiness. Like the books that have been collectively reviewed here, Crisis and Creativity makes available diverse studies that touch on Jews at the time of the Renaissance, without trying to characterize "the Jews in the Renaissance."
BALTIMORE HEBREW UNIVERSITY