One of the great challenges of Jewish cultural history is to properly understand the transmission and transformation of the medieval Jewish heritage in the Renaissance period. Renaissance thought was a highly eclectic and artificial configuration of disparate religious and philosophic traditions of the ancient and medieval past, brought together under a single intellectual roof conceived to be a universal and ancient theology called prisca theologia. The latter did not constitute a single overarching theory of knowledge like the great medieval summae, but rather a simultaneous disclosure of a vast variety of systems juxtaposed each against the other in order to determine a hidden affinity among them all. Within this new synthesis, the kabbalah was assigned an honorific place by both Christian and Jewish intellectuals.
Important treatises on the kabbalah were brought to Italy in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries by Spanish Jewish intellectuals who were heirs to a tradition of collecting and elaborating upon a body of ancient mystical lore that can be traced back to at least the thirteenth century. Despite the great attraction this material held for both Christians and Jews, few could understand its content accurately. This was so not only because of the highly symbolic language of much of this literature, but because it was composed in an entirely different spiritual ambiance, as part of the activity of small groups who employed idiosyncratic terminology in order to convey traditions they had received, innovations they had innovated, or experiences they had experienced. The well-known episode of the sixteenth-century Safed kabbalist, Isaac Luria, who spent entire days trying to fathom the meaning of certain passages of the classic book of the Zohar, well illustrates this fact, one still not fully appreciated even by modern scholarship.
Title page from Judah Moscato’s Sefer Nefuẓot Yehudah (Venice, 1589). Courtesy of the Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
The problem of understanding the Spanish kabbalistic corpus was even greater in Italy. The new students of the kabbalah in Italy in the early 1480s had to overcome the reticence, sometimes even the hostility, of an earlier generation of Italian Jews who had focused primarily on medieval forms of Jewish philosophy. This younger generation of men like Yohanan Alemanno, David Messer Leon, or Abraham de Balmes, also had to study the complex kabbalistic writings without any authoritative guidance or any institutionalized curriculum, as had been the case in Spain. In addition, they faced an even greater “handicap.” These new kabbalists had been exposed, to a certain degree, to both medieval philosophy and humanistic culture prior to their encounter with kabbalistic literature. This training could, and, in fact, did affect their reading of religious sources that derived from so different a manner of thinking. Understandably, they experienced considerable difficulties in reading Zoharic passages, and they felt more comfortable with philosophical expositions of the kabbalah.
When Judah Ḥayyat, a conservative Spanish kabbalist, arrived in Mantua about 1495, he was appalled by the kind of books students of the kabbalah were studying. He compiled the first index of texts he thought should be prohibited, and in its place, proposed his own preferred list. He was particularly incensed by the novel speculative interpretations of the kabbalah that had taken root on Italian soil where individuals studied on their own, without the support and anchor of kabbalistic conventicles, as had been the case previously in Spain and later in Safed. Ḥayyat’s negative reaction was the result of this complex encounter between two different cultures: that of the more open environment of Italian Jews with that of the more particularistic and conservative tendencies of Spanish kabbalists.
Assuming Ḥayyat’s testimony to be reliable in characterizing the state of kabbalistic studies in Mantua in the 1490s, and I see no reason to doubt it, does it suggest a pattern or tradition of study found particularly in Mantua well into the next century, including the period in which Judah Moscato [c. 1530–c. 1593], the subject of our study, lived? A rapid survey of several Mantuan authors and their sixteenth-century writings illustrates the formidable problem of arriving at any simple conclusions.
In the middle of the sixteenth century, the Mantuan kabbalist, Berakhiel Kafmann (b. 1485), attempted to harmonize kabbalah and philosophy as did some of his older contemporaries, by labeling kabbalah an “inner philosophy.” Despite this general approach in his only extant book, the Lev Adam, however, he suprisingly neglected to mention any precursors in Mantua, including the most illustrious Mantuan student of the kabbalah, Yohanan Alemanno.
But neither is there any mention of Kafmann’s work in Nefuẓot Yehudah, the collection of sermons of Judah Moscato. Moscato nevertheless copied lengthy quotations from him and even praised him extensively in his later commentary on Yehudah Halevi’s Kuzari. At about the same time, the Sefer Mekor Ḥayyim, the super-commentary of the fourteenth-century Castilian Jewish thinker, Samuel ibn Zarza, on Abraham ibn Ezra’s biblical commentary, was printed in Mantua in 1559. Despite its strong speculative concerns, and despite Moscato’s keen interest in ibn Ezra, I could find no trace of this work in Moscato’s writing.
Other examples are forthcoming to illustrate the problem of facilely characterizing the intellectual ambiance of sixteenth-century Mantua. In 1558, the Ma’arekhet ha-Elohut, a systematic and speculative exposition of some trends in thirteenth-century Kabbalah, was published in Mantua. In the fourteenth century, it had been interpreted in a relatively Aristotelian manner by the Italian kabbalist, Reuven Ẓarfati. At the end of the fifteenth century in Mantua, Judah Ḥayyat criticized this commentary and composed his own, entitled Minḥat Yehudah, based almost exclusively on pure kabbalistic sources, the Zohar and the Tikkunei Zohar. We might assume that Ḥayyat’s act was an expression of his allegiance to the antiphilosophical trend of Spanish kabbalah, but such an assumption is too simplistic. Despite his sharp denunciation of Ẓarfati’s commentary, Ḥayyat was actually influenced by it and even quoted it extensively. When the 1558 edition of the Ma’arekhet ha-Elohut appeared, the publishers decided to include larger sections of Ẓarfati’s commentary, notwithstanding the explicit statement of one of them, Emanuel Benvienito, that he opposed Ẓarfati’s philosophical orientation in interpreting kabbalah. In the end, however, only the most “pernicious” passages of Ẓarfati’s text were purged and the rest was printed with Benvienito’s apparent approval. And precisely in the same period, Judah Moscato saw fit to quote Ḥayyat’s antiphilosophical commentary in his own work on the Kuzari, although the thrust of the commentary with its heavy emphasis on Zoharic theosophy and theurgy is not reflected at all in Moscato’s thinking.
These examples amply illustate the danger of extrapolating from the intellectual ambiance of a specific locale a particular and consistent intellectual direction of an individual writing there. In our specific case, it would be hazardous to characterize the nature of Moscato’s thinking solely on the basis of several contemporaneous works printed in his city, including the much disputed printing of the Zohar. Indeed, as we shall soon see below, restricting Moscato’s intellectual horizons to these Jewish writings alone might even distort a proper account of his intellectual posture.
In lieu of reducing Moscato’s thought to the sum total of ideas and books in a certain place and time, let us widen our investigation to consider the larger social background of two public controversies that took place in Mantua in the decade preceding his death and in the decade following it. The first controversy, in which Moscato was moderately involved, arose from the publication of Azariah de’ Rossi’s historiographical work, the Me’or Einayim. The author’s employment of critical methods in determining matters of Jewish chronology, a rather skeptical approach regarding the veracity of rabbinic legends, and an exhaustive use of non-Jewish sources provoked a critical reaction from several conservative rabbis in northern Italy. The second controversy took place around 1597 regarding the sermons of the young rabbi David Del Bene. He was accused of introducing mythological motifs (in fact, the only specific example adduced by his accusators was a reference to Santa Diana), and of interpreting the Jewish tradition in an allegorical manner. Though Moscato had died five years earlier, David Del Bene’s son, Yehudah Assael Del Bene, mentioned Moscato’s name as the source of inspiration for David’s fine rhetoric, insinuating that David’s indiscretions were somehow attributable to Moscato.
In both cases, the authors were criticized but not excommunicated. Azariah continued to hold his views; Del Bene implicitly recanted, restrained himself from interpreting the Jewish tradition in the manner of his earlier years, and was eventually nominated to become a communal rabbi. Second, both controversies took place in the same place and roughly in the same time period, indicating a wider issue than the mere idiosyncratic opinions of two Mantuan Jewish authors. The few extant documents of the Del Bene affair indicate that the preacher attracted large audiences, and his more conservative critics were obliged to listen indignantly, but silently, to his preaching. Further, as Robert Bonfil has suggested, the rabbinic manifesto which attempted to restrict the circulation of de’ Rossi’s provocative book met with limited support; the most important rabbinic authorities preferred a more moderate and quiet response. Consequently, although both controversies were provoked by relatively extreme opinions, they seem to have been tolerated by the majority of the community, since only a minority openly opposed them.
In light of these two events, it is easier to understand the penetration of Renaissance motifs into Moscato’s sermons. In comparison to his two contemporaries, he appears to have responded more moderately to Renaissance influences, retaining a strong sense of Jewish identity without becoming “out of fashion.” At the same time, the stimulus of Renaissance culture surely helped to shape his “selective will” in passing over recently published Hebrew books printed in Mantua in favor of motifs and ideas taken directly from his Christian environment. Common to the two controversies and to Moscato’s enterprise in particular is an effort to make sense of the Jewish past, as Robert Bonfil has formulated it, either through a new historical interpretation, in the case of de’ Rossi, or by a “modern” figurative recasting of rabbinic aggadah, as in the case of Moscato and Del Bene. Accordingly, we should conclude that the appropriate context of Judah Moscato’s thinking should be located not merely in the library of available Hebrew books in Mantua in his time but also, and, in my opinion, more importantly, in the dynamic interaction between ideas and their social settings, something which is less easily reconstructed and even less definitively demonstrated.