A tentative response to the above question might be that the general culture in which Moscato lived was so powerful, and the intricacies of his Hebrew sources were so great, that we may suppose he inadvertently misinterpreted a Hebrew text in order to fit a pattern familiar to him from the study of non-Jewish thought. This answer, which, prima facie, seems to be rather implausible, is based on the assumption that there were few experts in the kabbalah in sixteenth-century Italy, and that they generally avoided the most formidable kabbalistic text, the book of the Zohar. This appears to be the reality from the end of the previous century well into the next century, even after the Zohar was published in 1558 both in Cremona and Mantua, since no Italian kabbalist in the sixteenth century ever wrote a commentary on the Zohar. In Safed, in contrast, such commentaries in the second half of the sixteenth century were most common. Even at the beginning of the seventeenth century, the mythological and symbolic aspects of the Zohar still remained elusive to most Italian students of kabbalah. Like the medievals who had struggled to understand the anthropomorphic expressions of the Bible and Midrash through the exegetical technique of figurative interpretation, they similarly labored to make sense of the kabbalah, which they viewed as an extension of Midrash.
Despite the impact of newly arrived Spanish kabbalists in Italy after 1492, both Jewish and Christian kabbalists continued to engage themselves in a certain type of mystical philosophy and hermeneutics rather than in a theurgical lore emphasizing the centrality of Jewish ritual activity. This dichotomy between the kabbalah in Italy and that of Safed seems to be generally reflected even in the writing of Mordecai Dato, Moscato’s friend who studied for several years in Safed with Moses Cordovero. And even after Moscato’s death, the dichotomy seems to have remained more or less evident. When Lurianic kabbalah reached Italy from Safed, it was absorbed and reinterpreted in accordance with the more speculative frame of mind of the Italian kabbalists.
This phenomenon, of course, is not entirely new. In thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Spain, several students of the kabbalah interpreted it philosophically. Their guiding principles, however, were mediated through Jewish philosophy, which had derived them, for the most part, from Arabic Aristotelian or Neoplatonic philosophies. It is only very rarely that we find a Spanish kabbalist who directly used Scholastic terminology to interpret Jewish mystical lore.
Not so in Italy, where the use of Scholastic concepts was not generally mediated by an already established Jewish form of Scholastic philosophy. Italian Jews, from the thirteenth century on, freely borrowed concepts and motifs from Christian theology and medieval Latin literature. By the sixteenth century, Italian kabbalists similarly borrowed from Christian theological sources. They, and those inclined to kabbalistic study like Moscato, functioned as did the medievals in freely appropriating non-Jewish thought into the study of Jewish texts. Moreover, in the Renaissance and post-Renaissance periods, the kabbalah, because of its theological and hermeneutical pliability, became the main avenue of intellectual acculturation into the outside world. Its affinities with Neoplatonism and Pythagoreanism facilitated a reciprocal interaction between Jewish and Christian ideas. Thus kabbalah in Italy simultaneously developed in two ways: it absorbed Neoplatonic and Hermetic elements related to its own concepts, and it either ignored, suppressed, or reinterpreted its more theurgical and theosophic elements by means of speculations recently imported from non-Jewish sources.
Our brief analysis of Moscato’s treatment of kabbalistic sources illustrates how Italian culture often shaped the way Jewish thinkers interpreted the kabbalah on its arrival from Spain or the Ottoman empire. Moscato’s appropriation of the pseudo-Hermetic definition of God and his adaptation of Jewish sources to it reflect a much wider phenomenon of assimilation reflected in this period in a wide variety of fields: science, historiography, literature, art, and music. Eschewing the theurgical views so characteristic of Spanish kabbalistic treatises, he concerned himself with speculative and ethical issues. Thus, when Samuel Judah Katzenellenbogen referred to Moscato’s achievement in a sermon of his own, he mentioned, in a veiled critique of Moscato himself, that people “spurn the substantial food that nourishes and strengthens, and hanker after the delicacies, the sweet tidbits that titilate the palate but leave the body unfed.” This more conservative rabbi of Padua and Venice clearly understood that his distinguished colleague had entangled himself in aesthetic and theological concerns at the expense of halakhic ones.
The main processes shaping Moscato’s attitude toward the Jewish tradition, as discussed here on a very small scale, parallel those involved in any kind of strong cultural hermeneutics. In his case, they include: (1) suppression of the theurgical approach of the Zoharic kabbalah; (2) emphasis upon speculative elements in Jewish literature more in consonance with Renaissance views; and (3) absorption of non-Jewish ideas which inform an already distorted presentation of Jewish texts. In principle, these were important contributions of the Christian Renaissance hermeneutic grille (to use Couliano’s phrase once again) in interpreting Hebrew texts and ideas.
The approach I am advocating does not fit the portrayal of the proud and contemptuous Moscato who looked down on the achievements of the Renaissance; nor does it confirm the marginality of Renaissance thought for Italian Jews. If there are instances where a superiority complex is expressed by Jews in this period, this “assertion of superiority can be a sign of weakness and decline,” as Robert Bonfil has felicitously formulated it.
Indeed, my examination of the reception of the kabbalah by Italian Jewish authors of the late sixteenth century confirms for me another of Bonfil’s conclusions regarding the shift of moods within Italian Jewish culture. A century earlier, during the Renaissance, Jews were more creative and culturally assertive; by Moscato’s day, their culture had become more derivative and dependent on the larger milieu than before. By the late sixteenth century, the Christian Renaissance had left its strong and pervasive imprint on its Jewish minority. The Jews participated in this cultural experience more by imitation than by creative assertion. With the arrival of Cordoverian and later Lurianic forms of kabbalah in Italy by the 1580s, new ideas circulated among some Jewish intellectual circles, infusing some vitality into a weakened and declining Jewish intelligentsia. Only then was kabbalah more widely recognized as a major religious force by a significant elite group among Italian Jews.
The intense study of kabbalah by both Jews and Christians in Italy, and the philosophical, mainly Neoplatonic, interpretation of this lore, a feature of the Renaissance period, provoked a reaction—a Jewish counter-Renaissance in the seventeenth century—whose major expression was a sharp critique of the kabbalah. A silent negative response to the mythological-kabbalistic-Hermetic amalgam of Moscato’s sermons, and perhaps to the Renaissance cultural tastes of Mantuan Jews in general, can be found in the sermons of Leon Modena, who, even in his youth, had retreated from the enthusiastic reception that kabbalah and Renaissance culture had been given in previous generations.