Bonfil’s bold interpretation of the cultural experience of the Italian ghetto might serve as a useful backdrop for discussing some of the major themes presented in the essays below. Whether or not the conclusions of each, written from the perspective of one individual preacher and his pulpit, fully conform to Bonfil’s synthesis, the latter at least offers us a theoretical framework in which to compare and assess the particular portraits sketched below, and to attempt to abstract from them some tentative conclusions about the Jewish preaching situation and its relationship to the larger cultural world from which it emerged.
Most of the questions posed by Marc Saperstein in his preliminary overview of Jewish preaching relate directly to the issues raised by Bonfil. He asks whether the study of sermons might shed some light on the vitality or impotency of philosophical modes of thought among Italian Jews, on the degree of popularization of the kabbalah, or on the influence of Christian or classical modes of thought. He is interested in exploring the relationship between the content and style of Jewish and Christian preaching, and between Jewish preaching in Italy and in other Jewish communities. His agenda for further research includes a more thorough study of the education of preachers, the politics of preaching, and the function of the preacher as a social critic and social observer.
Many, if not all, of these questions are addressed in the subsequent essays. We first turn to the portrait of Judah Moscato (Mantua, c. 1530–c. 1593) offered by Moshe Idel, since Moscato’s public career as preacher and rabbi preceded the other major figures included in this volume by several decades, certainly long before the official erection of the ghetto in Mantua in 1612, and even before the public atmosphere for Jews had severely worsened in this relatively tolerant center of Jewish life. No doubt Moscato’s extraordinary use of classical pagan and Christian sources and motifs in his sermons, utterly different from any other Jewish preacher whose sermons are known to us, including Figo, del Bene, or Modena, accounts for Idel’s understanding of the preacher’s achievement. Idel’s acknowledgment of the impact of Renaissance culture on Jewish intellectual life, particularly that part nourished by kabbalistic thought, helps to explain his distinctive approach to Moscato as well.
Idel begins his essay by surveying the history of the kabbalah on Italian soil with particular attention to Mantua. While pointing out the difficulty of establishing a consistent pattern of development within the cultural ambiance of Mantua during the sixteenth century, Idel defines two chief characteristics of the form this study took in this city and throughout Italy from the late fifteenth century through Moscato’s lifetime and even beyond. First, kabbalah was no longer studied within the framework of schools and teachers as had been the case in Spain, but rather autodidactically through books, especially after the first printing of the Zohar in 1558–1560. Second, it was usually interpreted figuratively by both Jews and Christians, as classical pagan literature was received and interpreted during the Renaissance. It was thus correlated within the context of prevailing philosophical and humanist concerns.
According to Idel, Moscato was deeply affected by the syncretistic culture of the Renaissance and he interpreted kabbalistic sources to conform to contemporary non-Jewish patterns. In fact, his published collection of sermons is so replete with diverse quotations from Jewish and non-Jewish literature and so theologically complex that it is hard to imagine that its contents bear much resemblance to oral sermons delivered before an ordinary congregation of worshipers. Accordingly, Idel rules out the possibility of understanding Moscato’s printed essays as actual sermons and considers them instead as “part of the literary legacy of Italian Jews,” a legacy appreciated only by those with specialized knowledge in Jewish and Renaissance culture. In other words, Moscato’s book of sermons offers no evidence of how he functioned as a preacher, as a mediator between high and low cultures, and it cannot be understood as a collection of real oral encounters in the same way as those of del Bene, Figo, or Modena.
Treating Moscato exclusively as an esoteric thinker, Idel provides two telling examples from his writing to illustrate how he attempted to discover a phenomenological affinity between Jewish and Hermetic sources, and how he even misinterpreted a kabbalistic source to conform to a view external to Judaism. Because of its “hermeneutical pliability,” as Idel calls it, the kabbalah was divorced from its organic relationship with Jewish observance, treated as another form of speculative philosophy, and subsequently became for Moscato and others “the main avenue of intellectual acculturation into the outside world.” The hold of general culture was so powerful over this Jewish thinker that the kabbalah was reduced by him to a mere intellectual tile in the complex mosaic of late Renaissance thought.
Given Moscato’s intellectual proclivities, Idel calls him a Renaissance, not a baroque, thinker, despite the fact that he lived in the second half of the sixteenth century. If there was any difference between his “Renaissance” style and that of a thinker like Yohanan Alemanno, the Jewish associate of Pico della Mirandola, who was active almost a century earlier, it was that by his day Moscato had become overwhelmed by the Renaissance. Unlike Alemanno, who had contributed independently to shaping Pico’s thought, Moscato was strictly a consumer, albeit an enthusiastically creative one. In his case, the gravitational center of his thinking had shifted so that the Renaissance and not Judaism became the standard for evaluating truth. His compulsion to harmonize Jewish revelation with other disparate sources was markedly different from the later efforts of del Bene and Figo to separate Judaism from alien philosophies, to demarcate the secular from the sacred, and subsequently, to reassert the uniqueness of the Jewish revelation.
Robert Bonfil’s contribution to this volume deals with the fascinating but generally neglected Judah del Bene, who flourished years after Moscato’s death (Ferrara, 1615?–1678). Bonfil undertakes the formidable task of comparing del Bene’s scholarly essays in his published book Kissot le-Veit David with a sampling of his sermons still in manuscript. In comparing the way a profound thinker might address a wider public audience as opposed to intellectuals alone, Bonfil proposes to underscore the mediating function of the preacher, one who undertakes a negotiation at once between elite and popular culture, between his own desires and those of his audience, between conservation and innovation, between his imagination and reality, and between the Jewish and the non-Jewish world.
Bonfil illustrates how the style of del Bene’s sermons skillfully obscures but nevertheless conveys the explicit messages of his scholarly tome. Although this preacher obstensibly stressed continuity and traditionalism, the discerning observer of his baroque use of metaphor might occasionally disclose a rupture or discontinuity with the past. Del Bene’s use of the metaphor of a snake in one of his sermons, conveying both the evil and the positive attribute of discretion, might suggest his sensitivity to linguistic polyvalence as well as some conceptual affinity to Christian symbolism. More significantly, his seemingly conventional assault on “Greek science” in his sermons should not be taken at face value as the dogmatic pronouncement of an archtraditionalist. When such utterances are examined in the light of his statements in Kissot le-Veit David, del Bene emerges not as an opponent of all rational pursuits but as a staunch anti-Aristotelian. Like his hero Socrates, he strove to liberate his community from its servitude to false gods, meaning for him Scholastic metaphysics. By differentiating the illicit and arrogant claims of philosophy from the hypothetical but useful insights of natural science, del Bene reconsidered the whole structure of knowledge, as Bonfil puts it, realigning “Greek science” with divine revelation rather than rejecting the former altogether. Although he might sound superficially like a medieval preacher, in Bonfil’s eyes he was manifestly modern. And by introducing the new through the mask of the old, he was functioning as a good preacher should, mediating between the one and the other. In adopting such a creative stance in his sermons, Bonfil further suggests, del Bene shared a common front with Jesuit clerics by defending traditional values while embracing the new opportunities offered by the sciences now deemed devoid of metaphysical certainty.
My essay on Azariah Figo (Pisa, Venice, 1579–1637) focuses on an epistemological realignment in the thought of this preacher which closely parallels that of Judah del Bene. I argue here and elsewhere that science was a crucial element in the ghetto ambiance. In an age of revolutionary advances in understanding the natural world, the ghetto walls could not and did not filter out the new scientific discourse just as they could not filter out so much else. When the gates of their locked neighborhood opened at the crack of dawn, young Jewish students were on their way to the great medical schools of Italy: Bologna, Ferrara, and especially Padua. For Jews, the medical schools were exciting intellectual centers offering them new vistas of knowledge, new languages, new associations, and, above all, new values. The communities which sent them to study were energized by their return. More than ever before, Jewish communities were led by men who could creatively fuse their medical and rabbinic expertise. Medicine had always been a venerated profession among Jews, but with greater exposure to a flood of printed scientific and medical texts in Hebrew and other languages as well as to the university classroom, Jews of the ghetto were even more sensitized to the importance of these subjects.
Although not known to be a doctor, Figo had more than a casual interest in medicine, as his sermons amply testify. Like his teacher Leon Modena, he seems to have had serious reservations about the kabbalah, for it played no apparent role in his homiletic presentation of Judaism. What is striking about his espousal of traditional values is his assumption that his listeners were enthusiastic about nature, and that their positive response should be fully tapped in teaching religious values. Precisely like del Bene, Figo was not an antirationalist but an anti-Aristotelian. From his perspective, physics was to be divorced from metaphysics, and subsequently Jews could comfortably dabble in the wonders of the natural world without feeling that such involvements threatened their allegiance to Judaism. The newly emerging alliance between religion and science in the mind of the rabbi meant that science dealt only with contingent facts while religion was empowered with the absolute authority to determine ultimate values.
Displaying the image of man as creator empowered to replicate nature, employing medical and natural analogies to preach ethics, and evoking the language of empiricism to underscore the veracity of the theophany at Sinai, Figo well grasped the mentality of his listeners and sought to translate his Jewish message into a language that they would fully understand and appreciate. In so doing, he revealed a remarkable kinship with those same Jesuit clerics, enthusiasts of science in their own right, who were proclaiming the majesty of God’s creation before their own congregations not far beyond the ghetto gates.
Having considered three preachers up to now, the reader will surely be struck by the apparent contrast between the profile of Moscato on the one hand and those of del Bene and Figo on the other. Perhaps one way of understanding the mind-set of Moscato in relation to that of his younger contemporaries is to view them as representing two chronological stages in the structural development of Jewish thought in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Still enamored of the web of Renaissance correlations and harmonies, to recall the language of Foucault’s well-known description of Renaissance thinking, Moscato had surely tread this path to its very limits. His was truly a revolt against the metaphysical certainty of the Aristotelian world view comparable to that of del Bene and Figo. He consistently sought meaning from a vast array of alternative sources: Plato, Pythagoras, other ancients, and even Church fathers. In so doing, he opened the flood gates to metaphysical uncertainty and lack of faith. Even the hallowed truths of Judaism were in doubt when juxtaposed with a bewildering assortment of other perceived truths and sources. Whether or not Moscato actually produced a single harmony in his own mind, it seems clear that such a message was unattainable to even the most persistent reader of his recondite prose. Such epistemological confusion could not easily be reduced to a mere sermon, to public teaching.
Del Bene’s and Figo’s negative or, at least, cool response to speculative kabbalah, their firm repudiation of the attempt to harmonize Judaism with alien thought, their separation of metaphysics from physics, and their desire to reclaim the priority and uniqueness of the Jewish faith surely represent a negative reaction to the kind of excesses associated with Moscato’s intellectual enterprise (Idel would label them “Counter-Renaissance” types, borrowing Hiram Haydn’s label). Theirs was a novel attempt to redefine the Jewish faith from the perspective of the post-Renaissance world they now inhabited. And having rescued their religious legacy from such subordination to Renaissance culture as that exemplified by Moscato, they were anxious to restate its message clearly and unambiguously to their constituents. They could become effective preachers in a way Moscato could never be.
And what of Leon Modena (Venice, 1571–1648), perhaps the most illustrious Jewish preacher of his generation? Joanna Weinberg’s essay returns us completely to the preaching situation, to the way Modena conceptualized the role of the preacher within Jewish society. Weinberg eschews the temptation to label Modena’s intellectual style—whether medieval, Renaissance, or baroque—and rather concentrates primarily on his homiletical art. Modena had actually defined his own style as a kind of compromise between the rhetorical extremes of Judah Moscato and the simpler language of Ashkenazic or Levantine rabbis, as Weinberg mentions. Even more telling is his “blending of the Christian sermon with the traditional Jewish homily,” a fusion he engendered according to the model of one of the best-known Christian preachers of the Counter-Reformation, Francesco Panigarola. Modena had acquired a copy of Panigarola’s manual for preachers and apparently absorbed many of its prescriptions, as his own sermons fully testify. Panigarola’s work attempted to define the relation of classical oratory and ecclesiastical preaching in mediating between the demands of the secular and the sacred. Modena saw himself in an analogous role within Jewish society. Like the Catholic preacher, he considered the sermon as epideictic oratory; he avoided excessive citations in favor of a refined and polished humanist style; and, as Weinberg’s close analysis of his tenth published sermon illustrates, he closely followed the structural guidelines of Panigarola in presenting traditional rabbinic texts to his Jewish congregation. As Weinberg concludes, the preacher of the Counter-Reformation saw his sermons as an effective means of expressing views of the Church establishment. While Modena’s function in the Jewish community was less formally defined, his preaching role bears a striking affinity to that of his Christian counterpart: “His consciousness of the responsibility of the preacher derived in no small measure from what he learned from his Christian neighbors.”
While Weinberg focuses more on Modena’s preaching style than on the substance of his thought, her conclusions suggest clear analogies with the aforementioned portraits of del Bene and Figo. Whether or not his thoughts betrayed a Renaissance or a post-Renaissance consciousness, his self-image as a preacher was surely shaped along the lines of the Catholic model of the Counter-Reformation era. Like the two other Jews, he was teaching Judaism in a manner not so different from that of the Jesuit preachers only a short canal ride from the Venetian ghetto.
It is interesting to recall in this context that in an earlier essay Moshe Idel labeled Modena “a Counter-Renaissance” figure because of his attempt to disassociate Jewish faith from the kind of Renaissance interpretations of the kabbalah so characteristic of Moscato’s thought. Could Modena’s attempt to distance himself from Moscato’s homiletical style be more broadly understood as a critique of the latter’s entire intellectual approach? Whatever the case, Modena adopted a fideistic position advocating a direct return to the sacred texts of Judaism; his critique of the kabbalah, which he defined as a Platonistic forgery, was “a natural consequence of this endeavor,” as Idel put it. Like del Bene and like Modena’s own student Figo, he approved of the divorce of Aristotelian metaphysics from Judaism, and like them, he openly encouraged the Jewish study of the physical world and medicine. Although Weinberg mentions and does not discount this interpretation, she prefers to focus here on Modena’s mode of preaching. One wonders, however, whether Modena’s preaching style might still be considered along with his ideals as a religious thinker and spokesman of Judaism. John O’Malley’s pioneering study of the sacred orators of the papal court during the Renaissance is suggestive in this regard. His work reveals how the medium of the sacred orators and the papal messages were organically linked. Similarly, Modena’s preaching style, which Weinberg has so ably identified, might be integrated successfully with the emerging intellectual agenda common to the other preachers of the ghetto we have previously considered; that is, their attempt to break with the past and to steer Jewish faith on a new course, restructuring the relationship between the sacred and profane in a manner not unlike that of their Catholic colleagues.
Elliott Horowitz’s treatment of Jewish funeral sermons breaks new ground in directions quite different from the other essays in this volume. His study of the eulogies penned by the rabbis Samuel Judah Katzenellenbogen (Padua, 1521–1597), Abraham of Sant’Angelo (Bologna, 1530?–1584?) and Isaac de Lattes (Mantua, Venice, etc., d. c. 1570) attempts to explain the origins of the phenomenon of Jewish funeral sermons in Italy. He also concerns himself with two other “dominant themes in Italian Jewish life”: the interaction between Ashkenazic, Sephardic, and native Italian Jewish religious traditions, on the one hand, and the debate over the proper use of the kabbalah in Jewish society, on the other. Horowitz tentatively argues that the eulogy emerged from a confluence of two primary forces: the limited and belated impact of “the humanist revolution in funerary oratory inaugurated by Pier Paolo Vergerio in 1393,” and the more substantial connection with Hispanic-Jewish traditions brought to Italy by Jewish immigrants from Provence or Spain. The eulogy became a common phenomenon in the Italian Jewish community by the late sixteenth century among all Jews, including the Ashkenazic, and many were frequently published in sermon collections.
From close readings of several sermons delivered by the three rabbis, Horowitz considers the place of the eulogy in the social organization of the death ritual, the particular circumstances in which the sermons were delivered, and how the preacher shaped his words of the dead to fit the needs of his living audience, hoping to ingratiate himself through his well-chosen phrases. Horowitz also shows how citations from kabbalistic literature, including the recently published Zohar, were increasingly introduced into the public eulogy. As he indicates, after the controversial publication of the latter work in 1558–1560, the kabbalah lost much of its esoterism so that even intellectually conservative preachers like Katzenellenbogen had little hesitation in employing its language in their public sermons.
Horowitz’s preliminary conclusions regarding a subject hardly studied at all are difficult to link with the previous essays. Horowitz does confirm the observations of Bonfil and Saperstein about the kabbalah gradually “conquering” the public sermon by the late sixteenth century. His concluding suggestion regarding the “mannerist” character of Modena’s eulogy of Katzenellenbogen, so different from Katzenellenbogen’s earlier one on Moses Isserles, might be meaningfully integrated with Weinberg’s portrait of Modena as well as the other portraits in this volume, and might even suggest the possibility of a real shift in the style and substance of Jewish eulogies by the end of the sixteenth century. The subject obviously requires more investigation. This is also the case regarding the question of the origin of the Jewish eulogy in Italy. Although Horowitz minimizes the impact of the humanist model, one might ask whether the frequent use of the eulogy by such Catholic clergy as the aforementioned Panigarola during the Counter-Reformation has any bearing on the development of its Italian-Jewish counterpart in the same era. It would be interesting to compare, for example, the structure of Panigarola’s eulogy for Carlo Borromeo, published in 1585 in Rome, with those discussed by Horowitz. To what extent do eulogies in the two faith communities “create” heroes, models of genuine Christian or Jewish living, and to what extent do these heroic images compare with each other? Funeral orations for popes and rabbis project ideal types to be appreciated and emulated by their listeners. A comparison of the two might reveal how the ideals of each community converge and diverge.
Finally, Horowitz mentions on several occasions that the eulogy was delivered within the setting of a Jewish pious confraternity. To what extent was this practice common within the Christian community? How important were the confraternities in promoting the laudatio funebris as a part of the ritual organization of death? Horowitz has shown elsewhere how Jewish confraternities assumed the prerogative of managing the rituals of dying and mourning in a fashion similar to the Christian associations. Could the diffusion of the eulogy be linked with this wider phenomenon? Horowitz’s initial exploration of the Jewish eulogy invites future researchers to examine these and other questions further.
Not only this last essay but, to a great extent, all the others included in this volume merely scratch the surface of a largely untapped field. They do, however, suggest some of the possibilities for using the sermon as a means of penetrating the larger social and cultural setting of any religious community in general, and specifically of Jewish life in the ghetto age. They attempt to explore the spiritual ideals and pedagogic goals of religious leaders aspiring to uplift and educate their constituencies through their homiletic skills and strategies. They illuminate from varying perspectives the transformation of Italian Jewish culture in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the adjustment of a beleaguered but proud minority to its ghetto segregation, the openness of Jews and their surprising appropriations of the regnant cultural tastes of the surrounding society, as well as the restructuring of thought processes, ritual practice, and social organization engendered by the new urban neighborhoods. Whether intended or not, the preachers of the Italian ghetto have left behind a richly textured panorama of some of the many faces of their dynamic and creative cultural universe. In the chapters that follow we hope to provide a partial but absorbing glimpse of that universe.