Judah Moscato’s two books have not attracted the attention of most scholars who deal with the history of the kabbalah. His book of sermons, the Nefuẓot Yehudah, has been treated mostly in the context of homiletical literature with little interest in the work’s actual ideas. Moscato’s commentary on the Kuzari, called the Kol Yehudah, has been virtually ignored. We shall be concerned here mostly with Moscato’s sermons, not for their literary achievement (an area outside my specific scholarly competence), but as a testimony to the author’s ideas and as reflections of the Jewish intellectual ambiance in Mantua during the second half of the sixteenth century. My neglect of the literary aspect of his writing does not indicate a lack of appreciation for its literary significance; Joseph Dan has convincingly shown that Moscato’s sermons were indeed masterpieces of Jewish homiletical creativity.
I am, however, skeptical about the possibility that these difficult texts were ever delivered as sermons in any synagogue, at least in the Hebrew form we possess. There is presently a scholarly dispute regarding the language that served Italian Jewish preachers in the sixteenth century. Robert Bonfil assumes that it was exclusively Italian, while Joseph Dan asserts that it was both Hebrew and Italian. Dan insists, however, in the particular case of Moscato, that his printed sermons were “undoubtedly” delivered in Hebrew. This assumption implies that in their present form, Moscato’s sermons closely approximate what he presented in the synagogue. According to Dan, the sermons themselves supply both direct and indirect indications of the fact that he spoke Hebrew.
It seems to me, however, that Dan neglected an important aspect of the sermons in reaching such a conclusion: the complex nature of their content. Should we assume that so many difficult and sometimes highly obscure passages (even difficult for Israeli graduate students in Jewish thought!) could possibly have been presented by a preacher orally to a largely unlearned audience? Could his congregation have understood what he was talking about? This may represent no great obstacle for one who assumes that the Lurianic kabbalah, a highly complex theosophy in its own right, became the accepted theology of Judaism shortly after Moscato’s death. But it appears more reasonable to assume that only a very few Jewish intellectuals were capable of grasping the presentation of so many diverse sources adduced and manipulated by Moscato in so sophisticated a manner, and even fewer could have followed an oral exposition of the same material as it has reached us in print.
Moscato’s sermons should accordingly be treated as part of the literary legacy of Italian Jewish culture, providing reliable evidence of intellectual developments not always fully documented in other sources. And being written documents prepared by the author for publication, they have a different objective, at least from the perspective of the social group to whom they were addressed, than sermons delivered in the synagogue.
Thus, for example, when Moscato quotes Pico della Mirandola’s commentary on Benivieni’s Songs of Love, regarding the son of God, we might properly assume that by the middle of the sixteenth century, some Jewish writers were more willing to cite medieval and Renaissance Christian authors than were their counterparts a century earlier, and even more so than were their counterparts of the Middle Ages. This is different, however, from concluding that it was plausible for a preacher to deliver such material from the pulpit of his synagogue! When David Del Bene introduced allegorical or figurative interpretations of Greek mythologies into his sermons some years later, a controversy immediately erupted, providing us a precious indication of the limits of Jewish tolerance during the sixteenth century. The more natural locus for close interaction between the two religions was in written and learned documents rather than in public forums. The fact that Moscato’s implicit comparison of an ontological interpretation of the divine son with the view of the ancient Jewish sages passed with little notice, while Del Bene’s innocent remarks exploded into a public debate, suggests the correctness of my assumption.