I am the snake. I am the snake of reason.
The first example is taken from the sermon delivered during the time of the weekly reading of Va-yehi (Gen. 47:28–50:26). On that occasion Del Bene elaborated on the relationship established between Dan and the serpent in Jacob’s blessing to his sons (Gen. 49:16–17). He attempted to reconcile the basic ambivalence between the idea of the snake, considered almost universally in the Judeo-Christian tradition as a symbol of temptation and evil, with the presence of good beyond evil. On the surface, the dichotomy between good and evil appears to remain intact. Good is eschatologically projected into messianic times, while evil is located in actual reality. Superficially, everything apparently fits inherited medieval mythology; the structural antinomies are expected to be turned upside down only in messianic times. Yet, if we are allowed to draw conclusions from some vernacular insertions into Ha-Kohen’s Hebrew text, we might infer more: beyond the stereotypic messianic inversion of present antinomies, the keynote of that sermon is an amazing, indeed puzzling ambivalence, rich with insights. Ha-Kohen was in this case perfectly right in feeling himself incapable of reproducing the polyvalence of the lofty language used by the preacher. At the beginning of the sermon, Ha-Kohen presents the biblical figure “Dan is a serpent” (Gen. 49:17) accompanied by the vernacular giudizio e discrezione, that is “judgment and discretion.” It is as if the preacher quite clearly stated that if the idea of judgment is conveyed by the name of Dan (associated in Hebrew with the root din, meaning justice and related activities), then the serpent should also convey the idea of discretion, that mental attitude through which we express the correct judgments and proper distinctions that lead to behavior characterized by prudence and moderation. All this, the preacher hints, is also to be found in the Hebrew root naḥash, which conveys the meaning of divining, of knowing what is unknown to others, besides denoting the word “snake.”
It is difficult to decide whether Del Bene openly indicated to his audience the linguistic polyvalence inherent in the Hebrew words in his sermon or not. In order to do this, he might have had to presuppose in his audience a degree of Hebrew knowledge deeper than the one he sadly described in his learned book of essays. Yet the knowledge of Hebrew required to understand Del Bene’s statements was not, after all, so extensive. A rudimentary mastery of Hebrew might have been sufficient to capture the preacher’s basic message. It would be unwise to pronounce definitive judgment before we learn more about the cultural level of Ferrarese Jewry in Del Bene’s time. Unfortunately, notwithstanding its importance, the history of the Jews in Ferrara is still waiting for its historian. This caveat aside, we may assume that since ha-Kohen does not elaborate on this point, Del Bene most likely did not elucidate the polyvalence. Ha-Kohen was sufficiently capable of understanding such a linguistic excursus, if in fact Del Bene had offered it to his audience. We should, therefore, infer that he did not. If this was the case, at least on the linguistic level, the preacher’s mediation between learned and popular culture led to a sharp polarization between those opposites that the baroque sensibility of the educated would, on the contrary, have striven to efface. In other words, the gap between those whom we may label as the literate and the non-literate in the context of seventeenth-century Judeo-Italian society hardly allowed a quantitative gain in knowledge to be converted into a qualitative one. To put it very boldly: the literate thought and spoke one thing, the average audience heard and understood another. This was of course a side effect of the printing revolution and of the “sudden” expansion of reading horizons beyond the limitations of the Middle Ages.
Not only did the various nuances of his message not reach popular audiences, the message itself would thus eventually be transformed. The preacher might be tempted to exploit this situation deliberately in order to present more than one level of meaning. I would suggest that in Del Bene’s time, besides being an immanent trend in preaching, such a doubling of meaning was a compelling necessity. Metaphor might easily slip from the literary field into the social and political one. Change in major areas of traditional thinking was hesitantly taking root in the minds of the educated, including the preacher and the learned among his auditors. Yet such change could not at this stage be expressed overtly to a large audience, and especially not from the preacher’s pulpit. Perhaps the preacher himself might experience some difficulty in formulating his thoughts in a clear-cut manner. What would then prima facie appear to be the inability of the uneducated audience to understand the educated preacher might on further consideration emerge as, at least partly, the deliberate aim of the preacher. In other words, he might choose to be obscure before the uneducated in order to present metaphorically his complex, indeed ambivalent thoughts. In such a way the preacher might appear to advocate continuity when in fact he was hinting at rupture.
If we knew the sources of Del Bene’s ideas in general, we might be in a better position to understand this particular example of his exegesis. Unfortunately, at this stage of our knowledge, we cannot decide if it was only unconsciously that he linked the ophidian mantic with judicial discernment, or if he was actually adapting the biblical etymologies to some notion acquired by his reading of one of the books in which the educated of his age delighted. What we do know quite well however, is that, in Christian symbolism and iconography, while usually conveying the image of the demon, the snake may occasionally have had positive meanings, such as representing the Christ himself. In pictures and emblems of Del Bene’s period, the snake also signified the virtue of prudence.
In presenting the snake as a symbol of prudence and judgment, Del Bene was therefore using current Christian symbolism. His message was thus homologous to the one included in Kissot le-Veit David. In one of the essays included in that book, Del Bene commented upon the success of Christianity as an integral part of the providential design to defeat paganism and hasten the redemption. In his view propounded there, Christianity was an agent of civilization and progress, as indicated by the Christian acceptance of the Hebrew Bible. It is not surprising that, without of course explicitly mentioning Christianity from the synagogue pulpit, he assumed some kind of conceptual affinity between Judaism and Christianity. If so, in a very sophisticated way, perhaps in part even unconsciously, Del Bene was contributing from the pulpit to bringing Judaism and Christianity under the same conceptual roof. As I have argued elsewhere, he was by no means alone in pursuing that path.
The example of the snake imagery may perhaps be somewhat misleading. If Del Bene could have foreseen how some years later Shabbetai Ẓevi would exploit the symbol he was using, he would probably have refrained from using it in the manner he did! Yet this example may also be highly paradigmatic of the revolutionary potential of apparently conventional texts. In fact, both Del Bene and Shabbetai Ẓevi borrowed their messianic imagery from the relevant Zoharic text. Shabbetai Ẓevi’s story may, at least in retrospect, be an indirect confirmation that Del Bene’s conventional imagery might have carried some hidden revolutionary spark. But how can we be sure that this is not a farfetched construction superimposed upon a symbol which lends itself easily to every kind of contrasting idea, and that Del Bene delivered other problematic messages in the same way? My second example will, I hope, be more transparent.
But before proceeding, it may be useful to digress a bit to show how such examples of hidden meaning may be uncovered in the apparently endless repetition of well-known stereotypical messages. In Kissot le-Veit David Del Bene often exerts much effort to stress continuity where, in fact, a deeper analysis uncovers a rupture. Del Bene himself aptly, perhaps subtly, supplies his reader with sufficient means to uncover what we might be entitled to label as the author’s hidden intention—no matter how conscious or unconscious it is. Contrary to the medieval literary tradition of citing one’s sources very selectively, especially when authoritative support was thought to be necessary for the appropriate exposition of the author’s thesis, Del Bene’s practice was strikingly different. He was in fact among the first Jewish authors to supply full references to the sources of the ideas discussed in his essays. A careful reading of Kissot le-VeitDavid would apparently provide a rule: rupture is quite clearly detectable wherever the author displays a great effort to make his reader believe that he is in fact confronted with continuity. To this rule, one may add another one, in part, the inverse of the former: wherever the author displays a great effort to make his reader believe that he is confronted with absolute originality, we may expect to discover strong affinities with already existing trends. For instance, this was certainly the case regarding Del Bene’s literary approach and theory: when he claimed originality regarding his terribly obscure plays on words, he was in fact using, albeit pushing the device beyond any known limits, a well-tested medieval rhetorical device known at least from the Golden Age of Andalusian Jewry. And when he declared his intention to uncover the existing richness of the Hebrew language, in order to compete with Italian contemporary literary production, he was in fact declaring allegiance to a completely new system of linguistic reference.
That the ultimate product appears to us almost totally unreadable should not lead us to undermine the importance of this fact. It might also be formulated as a rule: digging into the inherited legacy of the past with the intention of uncovering its enormous richness, he was in fact departing from that legacy and discovering a new world. The phenomenon would thus be structurally homologous to all other departures and discoveries of the epoch: the departure from the old geographic system following the discovery of the New World, the departure from Ptolemaic astronomy and the option for the Copernican view of the world, and so on. If the degree of exertion displayed in establishing continuities provides us a means for identifying points of rupture in Del Bene’s thought, then we should carefully consider one of his major themes: the traditionally negative view of Judaism towards philosophy. A comparison of his message on this point in his sermons with that emerging from Kissot le-Veit David will reveal interesting differences relevant to our understanding of the mediating function of the preacher between elite and popular culture. Accordingly, I turn to my second example.