Moscato’s sermons reveal his general knowledge of and attitude toward the kabbalah. He occasionally quoted kabbalistic passages, especially from the Zohar, which, as we have mentioned, was already in print. Yet these citations in themselves do not indicate that he was very interested in, or able to decode accurately the intricacies of, Zoharic mythical and symbolic thought. Rather he seems only superficially to have absorbed this mythological material in a manner reflecting more the spirit of Italian Jewish culture in the sixteenth century than that of its original authors. The parallel emergence of Greek mythology and Spanish kabbalistic mytho-theosophy constitutes a very significant development in the consciousness of Italian Jewry of Moscato’s era. Both literatures were subjected to the same strategy by Jewish readers: figurative interpretation. It started, mainly insofar as Greek astral mythology is concerned, with Leone Ebreo’s Dialoghi d’Amore, and it continued in more moderate forms throughout the next century, including instances in Moscato’s own writing. The figurative, allegorical interpretation of the kabbalah is found in the writing of Yohanan Alemanno at the end of the fifteenth century, and continues well into the seventeenth century. Moscato was one of the few Italian Jewish thinkers interested in both bodies of literature and he used both their mythologies in his own writing.
As an example, I would like to present Moscato’s treatment of the nature of God found in a lengthy sermon called The Divine Circle. There is no doubt that this is one of the most important sermons in the collection, not only because of its length and richness, but because its major theme reappears in another sermon and in his later work, the commentary on Judah Ha-Levi’s Kuzari. Because of the diversity of citations and the sermon’s length, we shall confine our analysis to a partial presentation of the main simile: the image of the center and the circle. We begin with Moscato’s presentation of the kabbalists’ view of the first sefirah:
See how the sages of truth [Ḥakhmei ha-Emet, namely the kabbalists] revealed to us the meaning of this circle. Sometimes they draw the sefirah of keter as an entity, surrounding and encompassing the other sefirot from without, but sometimes they [draw it] in the center as a point within a circle. And I found the following statement in the book Sha’arei Ẓedek [of Joseph Gikatilla, 1248–c. 1325]: “Keter encompasses all the sefirot and that is why it is called soḥeret, derived from the word seḥor seḥor [roundabout]. Malkhut is called dar [resides], since it serves as the residence of the Lord.”
According to Moscato, there are two different descriptions of the sefirah keter: it is sometimes symbolically referred to as a circle, while, at other times, as the point that is the circle’s center. Moscato was certainly accurate regarding the first description. The ten sefirot are often pictured as ten concentric circles, the first and most comprehensive being keter, the last and the center being malkhut. In rare instances does one find the inverse description: keter is at the center and malkhut is at the extremity. However, I am not acquainted with any kabbalist who describes the first sefirah as both the circle and the center. Later in the same sermon, Moscato interprets the relationship between the last sefirah, malkhut (also referred to as atarah, diadem), and “God,” apparently alluding to the sefirah tiferet, as that of the circle to its center. The author understood Israel’s encircling God by means of a diadem as hinting at the simile of the center and the circle.
The juxtaposition of two divergent views found in different sources is not unusual in kabbalistic literature, certainly not in the harmonizing atmosphere of the sixteenth century. Prima facie, here was merely another exercise in kabbalistic associative creativity. The primary incentive for such associations, however, was to establish a more systematic structure of kabbalistic theology by integrating two disparate positions, to reconstruct an alleged lost unity. Thus, for example, Moses Cordovero, Moscato’s earlier contemporary, proposed a synthesis of two earlier theories of the nature of the sefirot, one that maintained that they were part of the divine essence, and one that maintained that they were instruments or vessels of divine activity. Cordovero argued that two different types of sefirot existed, each closely related to the other.
In contrast, Moscato juxtaposed two different kabbalistic views in order to advocate a third, namely, that the same entity can be defined as being both the circle and the center. What is surprising is that Moscato overlooked a rather common kabbalistic representation of the relationship between one of the lower seven sefirot and the other six as that between the center of the circle and six extremities of the circle’s circumference. This view was widespread from the end of the thirteenth century, and it was reiterated by several older contemporaries of Moscato in Safed. Even a diagram of this representation can be found in print in one of the kabbalistic texts Moscato might have known: Elijah de Vidas’s Reshit Ḥokhmah. Moscato nevertheless apparently ignored what is, perhaps, the closest kabbalistic parallel to his definition of God.
Instead, Moscato found an illustration of his idea of the center and the circle in a different source:
And the letters of the Tetragrammaton hint at it: the yod represents a point as its shape is like a point, whereas the he and vav allude to a circle since they are circular numbers, as Abraham Ibn Ezra stated in his commentary on Exodus [32:1]. I shall also invoke the verse: “They shall praise Your name in a dance [maḥol]” [Psalm 149:3], this term being derived literally and semantically from the term ḥozer ḥalilah [literally, “turns around”].
The strongest and most authoritative name of God, the Tetragrammaton, is exploited to extrapolate the idea of center and point, again in a rather artificial way. The letter yod, because of its form, stands for the center, whereas the two other letters represent the circle, since their numerical equivalents, five and six, are circular numbers, namely, their square value ends with the same figure: twenty-five and thirty-six. Moscato puts together the shape of one letter with a certain numerical property of two others in order to confirm his view. However, the tendentious nature of this interpretation becomes obvious when we observe that the letter yod also stands for a circular number, ten, as Abraham ibn Ezra had pointed out. Moscato conveniently ignored this simple fact to illustrate his image of the center and the circle.
What was his reason for so artificial a reading? The answer lies in the definition of God mentioned in a source he immediately cites: “In Mercurio Trimegisto it is written that the Creator, blessed be He, is a perfect [or complete] circle, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”
After adducing this view of Hermes Trismegistus, Moscato exclaims: “See how wonderful is this matter that something that is neither a center nor a circumference is, at the same time, both a center and a circle.” Only at this point, and not earlier, following the quotations of ibn Ezra and the kabbalists, does Moscato express his strong emotion. Moscato was citing a well-known definition of God that recurs in Christian pseudo-Hermetic sources from the twelfth century on. To judge from his Italianate spelling of Hermes Trismegistus, it appears that Moscato quoted an Italian source. Whatever the source, we should point out that the same definition was adumbrated earlier in the same sermon:
The term makom is proper to Him, blessed be He, either under the aspect of point or under that of circle. Under the aspect of circle it is proper [to use the term makom] because of the resemblance to the supernal circumferent [sphere] which is the locus of everything that is placed within it. Under the aspect of point it is proper because of the resemblance to the center that is like the locus of the supernal sphere, which is not surrounded by anything outside it.
A preliminary observation is necessary regarding the terminology of this citation, as well as that of the pseudo-Hermetic passage. Moscato does not use the Hebrew equivalent for the Latin sphera that occurs in all Christian citations of the above definition. This is especially evident in the last quote, where the supernal sphere is mentioned explicitly, but only as part of a simile, while the author really had a circle in mind. This was done apparently in order to facilitate the interpretation of the aforementioned Hebrew texts that use the metaphors of circle and center, but not sphere. We might then assume that Moscato adapted the non-Jewish source to the Hebrew texts and created a new version of the pseudo-Hermetic definition of God. He resorted to the image of the circle rather than the sphere because the sefirot were depicted as circles and points.
Moscato similarly does not mention the idea of infinity as it relates to the sphere mentioned in the Christian texts, but substitutes the idea of perfection. This change might be explained by the fact that he related his analysis to the sefirot (that is, the finite aspect of the Divine known to human beings) and not to the ein-sof (the infinite aspect of the Divinity unknown to human beings). Why he ignores the concept of ein sof when referring to the concept of God’s infinity in the pseudo-Hermetic source is not clear.
We can approach Moscato’s passages simply as an interesting discussion, albeit ignored until now, of a well-known pseudo-Hermetic definition of God. Moscato’s integrative effort of combining these two kinds of sources was facilitated by their common origin in Neoplatonism, a medium whereby spiritual entities were interpreted through imagery derived from geometry. Such Plotinian images, ultimately stemming from Empedocles and Plato, underwent several transformations in the Middle Ages and influenced both the kabbalah and this pseudo-Hermetic source. Yet Moscato’s integration of the two definitions in two disparate theological corpora is unique. It provides a striking illustration of the significant contribution of Hebrew sources to the study of Western ideas, sources usually unexploited in most contemporary scholarship.
What is more pertinent for our discussion, however, is the fact that the concept Moscato chose to employ in his description of the first sefirah came directly from the pseudo-Hermetic source. Moscato’s reading of the kabbalistic source was not organic, based on the internal development of the text, nor originating from the privileged position of the Jewish tradition. Rather it was guided by the adoption of a view external to Judaism, a view considered important enough by Moscato to impose its meaning on certain rabbinic, philosophic, and kabbalistic passages. Was this done consciously? Did Moscato actually believe that the Jewish sources reflected the same view as that in the Hermetic definition? This is a crucial question, which is, at the same time, a very difficult one to answer. What seems to be strange in this case is Moscato’s utter failure to mention the idea frequently expressed elsewhere in his sermons that the Jewish sources inform the external ones. Perhaps he intentionally modified the Jewish texts to fit the non-Jewish one. But such a conclusion would appear unwarranted for an author who probably believed that all the Hebrew sources he marshalled for making his parallels surely fit his interpretation. Indeed, in the same sermon Moscato declares: “We shall be called the priests of the Lord by our attribution of the simile of the point and circle to the glory of the splendor of God, blessed be He.”
This identification of the believers in the pseudo-Hermetic definition of God with His priests surely illuminates the author’s sense of the Jewishness of the position he had presented. Why he believed as he did, however, is a question that transcends a strictly philological analysis of the text; it requires a wider examination of the larger context of Moscato’s cultural milieu.