How can we describe Moscato’s general cultural attitude? There are at least three possible responses: (1) he was still deeply influenced by medieval thought, though traces of Renaissance influence are also detectable in his writing, the view of Herbert Davidson; (2) he was fully aware of Renaissance culture, but, at the same time, remained a proud Jew deeply contemptuous of Christological interpretations, and was essentially unaffected by external influences in the shaping of his own views, the position of Joseph Dan; or (3) he was deeply affected by Renaissance culture and it left a noticeable imprint on the essential character of his thought. The first two responses were formulated primarily on the basis of an examination of the eighth sermon in Moscato’s collection. In what follows, I shall attempt to argue in favor of the third response, based on my own analysis of the same sermon as well as material found in sermon thirty-one. My main argument is that two different Hermetic views stemming from Renaissance sources informed the exegesis of the Jewish material in each of the two sermons. I would like to emphasize that these views are not only quoted, a fact that is undeniable in any case, but, I believe, they also constitute the hermeneutic grille for the speculative interpretations of these sermons.
The eighth sermon is the shortest and one of the most accessible of the entire collection. It is also the most frequently quoted in modern research. It deals with the origin of the garment of light, which, according to the Midrash, was used by God to wrap the world when he created it. Taking as his starting point the Midrashic text in Bereshit Rabbah, Moscato describes the nature of the first creature, then mentions the general affinity between the view of Plato and the ancient Jewish sages. He asks rhetorically if such an affinity can be found in this specific case. In response to his own question, he quotes an unnamed Platonic source that states that the first creature was designated as “His son, blessed be He.” How are we to understand this citation? For Joseph Dan, it represents “a clear and unequivocal” reference to Jesus Christ and indicates Moscato’s negative attitude toward Christological interpretations. Such a reading is questionable, however. Let us examine the source more closely. Moscato describes the first emanation as follows:
By the emanation of the aforementioned cause, God, blessed be He, not only created everything, but He also created them in the most perfect way possible. And it [the cause, this first emanation] is called, in the words of the Platonists and other ancient sages [by the name of]: “His son, blessed be He,” as the wise Yoan Pico Mirandolana testified in his small tract on celestial and divine love. And I was aroused by this to reflect that perhaps the sage among all men [Solomon] had intended this when he said: “Who has ascended heaven and come down…Who has established all the extremities of the earth? What is his name or his son’s name if you know it?” (Proverbs 30:4)
Moscato, following Pico, attributes the appellation of the first emanation as son to the ancient, implicitly pagan, philosophers. Since “Jesus” or “Christ” is not mentioned explicitly, nor is it implied, there is no reason to regard this appellation as Christological. This discussion is rather part of the well-known enterprise of Pico to discover correspondences between Christian and pagan theological views, without assuming the ancient pagans were Christians, even hidden ones. Who were these ancient pagans? Pico, in his Commento, mentions the names: “Mercurio Trimegisto e Zoroastre,” surely not Christians for either Pico or Moscato.
The Hebrew phrase “Beno Itbarakh” should be translated, as we do above, as “His son, Blessed be He,” where “He” stands for God, not the son. Pico translates this phrase simply as “figliuolo di Dio,” namely, the son of God. Interestingly enough, Pico is careful not to introduce a Christological understanding of this Hermetic or Zoroastrian “son.” In fact, he explicitly cautions that people should not confuse this son with the one designated by “our theologians” as the son of God. The Christian “son” shares the same essence as the father and is equal to him, but this “son” of the ancient philosophers, in contrast, is created and not equal to God. If Pico himself refrained from Christianizing the pagan notion, and had even cautioned against such an identification, Moscato would have had no religious inhibitions about using the term “son.” The intellectual context for this usage was aptly described by Harry A. Wolfson: “In the history of philosophy an immediate creation of God has been sometimes called a son of God. Thus Philo describes the intelligible world, which was an immediate creation of God and created by Him from eternity.”
In addition to this ancient usage, Wolfson also mentions that Leone Ebreo and Azariah de’ Rossi, contemporaries or near-contemporaries of Moscato, and even Spinoza, also used it in a similar fashion. Unfortunately, Wolfson missed the quotations of Pico and Moscato above, as well as an additional manuscript source worth citing in this context. Its importance is threefold: it supplies a medieval addition to Wolfson’s list, which could otherwise be interpreted as merely the influence of Philo on two Jewish thinkers who lived in the Renaissance period; it illustrates that this philosophical definition of “son” is not as unusual as we might imagine; and it helps clarify the passage from Moscato’s sermon, the subject of our inquiry. Rabbi Levi ben Abraham, a well-known and controversial figure of late thirteenth-century Provence, wrote the following in his Liviyat Ḥen:
“Tell me what is His name” [Proverbs 30:4] because granted that His essence is incomprehensible but to Him, [His] name is written in lieu of Himself. “What is the name of His son?” [30:4] hints at the separate intellect that acts in accordance to His command, who is Metatron, whose name is the name of his Master, and he [Metatron] also has difficulty in understanding His true essence [Amitato] and in conceptualizing it [Leẓayer mahuto]…the [separate] intelligences are called His son, because of their proximity to Him, and because He created them without any intermediary.
This medieval text clearly demonstrates how the separate intellect can be described as the son of God, as Pico and Moscato describe it, without any Christological connotation. Moreover, Moscato, unlike Pico, uses the same quotation from Proverbs found in Levi ben Abraham’s discussion. This may be a sheer coincidence since Liviyat Ḥen was not a well-known text. Whatever the case, Moscato might have learned of this usage from this or from another still unidentified source.
Before concluding our discussion of the “son” passage, let us consider Azariah de’ Rossi’s usage in his Me’or Einayim, a text, we will recall, written in Mantua several years before Moscato had reached his prime. The two certainly knew of each other; Moscato even quoted de’ Rossi, in his Kol Yehudah. De’ Rossi writes: “It is merely a manner of terminology whether it is called son or emanation or light or sefirah or idea as Plato cleverly puts it.”
Again in this instance, “son” has no Christological association but is merely one of those terms which describe the first entity. I am not sure that Philo was the origin of de’ Rossi’s view here, as Wolfson seems to imply. Despite de’ Rossi’s acquaintance with Philo, his reference to Plato and the term “idea” suggests that Pico might have been his direct source. Be that as it may, Moscato’s sermon, like de’ Rossi’s comment, far from being in conflict with Christianity, was in concert with a Neoplatonic Hermeticism currently in fashion during the Renaissance period. In demonstrating how the rabbinic usage of the term correlated with Hermetic and Neoplatonic concepts, Moscato was engaged in a positive rather than a negative polemical enterprise.
What then is the significance of Pico’s and subsequently Moscato’s special usage of the concept of son? Both authors contributed to the philosophical discussion of the idea of “son” not so much under the influence of Philo but under the influence of Renaissance Hermeticism, and both thinkers subscribed to the “extradeical” version of the Platonic ideas in their interpretations. While Pico consciously avoided identifying the philosophical notion of “son” with a theological one, Moscato was less reticent: he proposed the identification of “son” with the Torah itself. In this instance at least, Moscato, and not Pico, facilitated a rapprochement between ancient theology and his own religion.
In this context let me raise Davidson’s assumption that Moscato is merely a medieval thinker, despite his occasional Renaissance blandishments. Admittedly, quoting Pico does not certify Moscato as a Renaissance thinker. Pico himself quoted ancient and medieval opinions. To capture what is new in Pico, and consequently in Moscato, we need to consider more than their ideas; we must observe the peculiar manner or the structure in which these ideas were presented, or in the words of Cassirer, their dynamical interaction.
Pico was called the dux concordiae by Marsilio Ficino, an epithet that epitomizes his special approach. In the Commento passage, the search for concordance is obvious: Plato, Hermes Trismegistus, and Zoroaster were all unanimous in designating the first creature by the term “son.” This open or sometimes hidden affinity between the ancients underlies Pico’s philosophical enterprise as part of the general direction of the more comprehensive prisca theologia. The same search for correspondence informs Moscato’s approach. Neither Pico nor Moscato claimed historical filiation between the ancients and the truths of their own traditions. When Moscato indicated in his sermon that “the views of Plato are approaching the view of our sages,” he was not arguing, as he had done elsewhere, that Plato was actually influenced by priests or prophets. He was, instead, interested in discovering a phenomenological affinity between historically disparate religious and philosophical ideas. As such, Moscato’s approach here is different from the common assumption of medieval and Renaissance Jewish thought that Plato had actually adopted Jewish concepts. Moscato implicitly recognized an independent source of truth belonging to Plato and the ancient philosophers, and consequently chose to compare it with the Jewish one. If Plato was a mere “offspring” of rabbinic sapience, what would be the sense of such a comparison? From this perspective, Moscato comes closer to Pico than to any of his Jewish medieval and Renaissance predecessors. As he had done in another case where he rejected Aristotle’s alleged Jewish roots, he also did not insist here on the view that what is good must be Jewish.
Interestingly enough, Moscato refrains from adducing kabbalistic sources in this context, texts which were certainly available to him. In his Theses, Pico had mentioned that ḥokhmah, the second sefirah of the kabbalists, was identical with the Christian son. Either Moscato was unaware of this text or was reluctant to mention so blatant a Christological reading of a Jewish text.
I reiterate my original point. Given its complexity and the confusion it engenders even among modern scholars, I wonder whether such an exposition of the correspondence between the Jewish view of primordial light, the Torah’s light, and the Platonic and pagan views of the created son could actually have been presented within a synagogue sermon! On the contrary, Moscato would surely have avoided such an oral discussion. As he himself acknowledged elsewhere in a partially apologetic and revealing passage:
Let it not vex you because I draw upon extraneous sources. For to me, these foreign streams flow from our own Jewish wells. The nations of the earth derived their wisdom from the sages. If I often make use of information gathered from secular books, it is only because I know the true origin of that information. Besides, I know what to reject as well as what to accept.
In his discussion of the son, writing for a discerning audience of readers who could appreciate his perspective, he accordingly found no reason to exercise any censorship in quoting Pico’s provocative statement.