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Preaching in the Venetian Ghetto: The Sermons of Leon Modena
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1. An overview of Modena’s life and work with full bibliography is given in Howard E. Adelman’s Success and Failure in the Seventeenth-Century Ghetto of Venice, The Life and Thought of Leon Modena 1571–1648, Ph.D. diss. Brandeis University, 1985. Mark Cohen’s translation and edition of Modena’s autobiography, The Autobiography of a Seventeenth-Century Venetian Rabbi: Leon Modena’s Life of Judah (Princeton, 1988), with introductory essays by Mark R. Cohen, Theodore K. Rabb, Howard E. Adelman, and Natalie Zemon Davis and historical notes by Howard E. Adelman and Benjamin Ravid, is also a mine of useful information. All references to the Autobiography will be to Cohen’s translation. [BACK]

2. See, for example, Cecil Roth, The Jews in the Renaissance (Philadelphia, 1959), who makes constant reference to Modena throughout the book as a typical Jewish representative of the Renaissance. See also Giuseppe Sermoneta’s analysis of Modena’s tract on memory, the Leb ha-Aryeh (The Heart of the Lion) (Venice, 1612), Italia Judaica (Rome, 1986), vol. 2, pp. 17–26, which stresses the essentially medieval orientation of the work and its author. In contrast, see Robert Bonfil, “Change in the Cultural Patterns of a Jewish Society in Crisis: Italian Jewry at the Close of the Sixteenth Century,” Jewish History 3, no. 2 (1988): 19–20, who argues that Modena’s use of magic and alchemy together with classical knowledge had a mediating function in its Jewish context. He further claimed that Modena’s translation of foreign works including the medieval moralistic tract Fiore di virtù was not indicative of medieval sensibilities, but rather indicative of a modern thrust in Jewish society to narrow the gap between Judaism and Christianity. [BACK]

3. See Howard E. Adelman, “Towards a New Assessment of Leon Modena,” The Autobiography, pp. 38–39. For a detailed account of Modena’s attitude to and defense of rabbinic tradition, see Ellis Rivkin, Leon Modena and the Kol Sakhal (Cincinnati, 1952), pp. 40–79. [BACK]

4. See Howard E. Adelman’s essay, “Towards a New Assessment of Leon Modena,” The Autobiography, pp. 38–49. [BACK]

5. The Autobiography, p. 95 (11a). [BACK]

6. Ellis Rivkin, “The Sermons of Leo da Modena,” Hebrew Union College Annual 23, no. 2 (1950–51): 295–317. [BACK]

7. Israel Rosenzweig, Hogeh Yehudi mi-Keẓ ha-Renesans: Yehudah Aryeh Modena ve-Sifro Midbar Yehudah (Tel Aviv, 1972). [BACK]

8. In chap. 7, in particular, Rosenzweig analyzes Modena’s concept of covenant in the background of Modena’s debates with Christians. The substantial evidence of Modena’s meeting with English Protestants postdates the publication of his collection of sermons. See C. Roth, “Leon da Modena and England,” Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England 11 (1924–1927): 206–207. However, it is certainly true that on occasion, Modena offers interpretations of Scriptural passages which are intended as refutations of well-known Christian views. See, for example, his interpretation of Is. 52: 13–14, “Indeed, My servant shall prosper, be exalted and raised to great heights. Just as the many were appalled at him . . .” (Midbar Yehudah, p. 34a), in which he stresses that although the expression “My servant” is in the singular, it refers to the people of Israel (and therefore not to Jesus) and he cites other passages which indicate that the use of the singular form in designating Israel is a convention of biblical language. [BACK]

9. Rosenzweig treats the subject in an appendix to his book (pp. 132–138). He cites, for example, Modena’s interpretation of the passage in the Babylonian Talmud (Menaḥot 53b) in which Abraham bemoans the fate of “my children” with God (Midbar Yehudah, p. 13a). In the course of his defense of the people, Abraham entreats God to remember the covenant of the circumcision to which God replies with a quotation from Jeremiah 11:15, “The hallowed flesh has passed from you.” Modena focuses on this reply and infers that the loss of the land of Israel is the result of the failure of the people as a whole to fulfill the commandment of circumcision. Rosenzweig suggests not implausibly that Modena pinpoints this element in the passage in order to make a veiled reference to those conversos who had chosen not to revert to Judaism. [BACK]

10. Joseph Dan, Hebrew Ethical and Homiletical Literature (The Middle Ages and Early Modern Period) [Hebrew] (Jerusalem, 1975), pp. 199–200. Dan analyzes one of Modena’s sermons for a Bar Mitzvah (Midbar Yehudah, pp. 94b–96a). He expresses the same view, but gives it a more general application in “The Aesthetic Elements in Hebrew Homiletical Literature” [Hebrew], Ha-Sifrut 111 (1971–72): 566. In his opening note to the sermon, Modena states that he is going to keep the sermon short “because the child is just a child.” As far as I can see, Dan’s thesis can only be applied to the two sermons in the collection which Modena wrote on behalf of the boys who were becoming Bar Mitzvah. [BACK]

11. Aristotle, Rhetoric, 1358;xa, 36–38. [BACK]

12. One might assume that he also adapted his sermon, which he would give in Italian, to the needs of the non-Jewish members of his audience. [BACK]

13. See Modena’s statement in his Zikne Yehudah, responsum 26, ed. Shlomo Simonsohn (Jerusalem, 1957), p. 43, “Here in Venice, although the main community consists of individual communities, when they come together, they follow the majority decision”; cf. Bonfil’s discussion of the pluralistic society of the Venetian ghetto in “Cultura e mistica a Venezia,” in Gli ebrei a Venezia secoli XIV–XVIII, ed. Gaetano Cozzi (Milan, 1987), pp. 469–506. [BACK]

14. For details of the chronology of Modena’s preaching activities, see The Autobiography, pp. 203–204. [BACK]

15. See The Autobiography, p. 96 and n. g, p. 204. [BACK]

16. Midbar Yehudah (Venice, 1602), p. 81a. [BACK]

17. In his Autobiography (p. 102) for the entry June–July 1602, he writes that after putting together the Midbar Yehudah, he still had four hundred sermons in his possession. [BACK]

18. See Midbar Yehudah, p. 4b; The Autobiography, pp. 101–102; and the letter to his teacher Samuel Archivolti in Iggerot R. Yehudah Aryeh Modena, ed. Yakob Boksenboim (Tel Aviv, 1984), letter 40, pp. 83–84, which is translated by Marc Saperstein in Jewish Preaching 1200–1800: An Anthology (New Haven, 1989), pp. 411–412. [BACK]

19. Midbar Yehudah, p. 7b. [BACK]

20. The opening lines of Modena’s introduction are difficult to translate, owing to the gushing stream of rhetoric which perhaps intentionally obfuscates the meaning. The gist of the first two paragraphs is that Modena’s need to publish stems from his anxiety that his name will be forgotten. Modena’s concern for posterity, which is given such exaggerated expression in his introduction, seems to me to be uncharacteristic of Jewish writers. According to Ephraim Shmueli, Between Faith and Heresy: An Essay on Leon da Modena and Uriel da Costa [Hebrew] (Tel Aviv, 1963), p. 13, Modena’s desire for posterity is due to his doubts about the afterlife. [BACK]

21. See n. 15. I have followed Saperstein’s translation, but made some changes where necessary. [BACK]

22. The reading here is unclear. Modena may be using the word epiloghino. [BACK]

23. See Saperstein, Jewish Preaching, pp. 63–79. [BACK]

24. The inventory is published by Clemente Ancona, “L’Inventario dei beni appartenenti a Leon da Modena,” Bollettino dell’istituto di storia della società e dello stato veneziano 4 (1962): 249–267. [BACK]

25. This is unquestionably a reference to Panigarola’s Modo di comporre una predica. Scholars have tended to disregard this reference to Panigarola, while usually noting that the inventory lists the sermons of Savonarola. One cannot detect any influence of Savonarola on Modena. [BACK]

26. A detailed discussion of the life and work of Panigarola with particular attention to his position as the major representative of sacred oratory in the Counter-Reformation is given by Frederico Barbieri, “La riforma dell’eloquenza sacra in Lombardia operata da S. C. Borromeo,” Archivio storico lombardo 15, no. 38 (1911): pp. 231–262. See also, Roberto Rusconi, Predicazione e vita religiosa nella società italiana (Turin, 1981). For a short analysis of Panigarola’s style, see Giovanni Pozzi, “Intorno alla predicazione del Panigarola,” Italia sacra: Problemi di vita religiosa in Italia nel Cinquecento. Atti del convegno di storia della chiesa in Italia, Bologna 1958 (Padua, 1960), pp. 315–322. [BACK]

27. See Biographie Universelle (Paris, Leipzig, 1932), s.v. Panigarola, vol. 32, pp. 70 col. a–71 col. a. [BACK]

28. The Autobiography, p. 86. [BACK]

29. There is no complete list of the many editions of his works. [BACK]

30. Il Predicatore overo parafrase commento e discorsi intorno al libro dell’elocutione di Demetrio Falereo (Venice, 1602). [BACK]

31. See Peter Bayley, French Pulpit Oratory 1598–1650 (Cambridge, 1980), p. 39. [BACK]

32. Modo di comporre una predica del Rev. Panigarola Vescovo di Asti con l’aggiunta di un trattato della memoria locale (Padua, 1599). The work was dedicated to Marco Cornaro, the bishop of Padua. I consulted this edition of the work. The first edition was printed in 1584 and there were several subsequent editions including translations into Latin and French. [BACK]

33. See Salvatore Battaglia, Grande dizionario della lingua italiana (Turin, 1988), s.v. prologhino, vol. 14, p. 580. [BACK]

34. Midbar Yehudah, pp. 5a–8a. This was the first sermon he preached in the Great Ashkenazi synagogue (see The Autobiography, p. 95). It was delivered in 1593. The entire introduction deals with the problems of effective preaching. Modena explains that he made the introduction longer that the other introductions in the collection because it was the first sermon. Modena seems to have conceived it as an excursus on the nature of preaching and the difficulties of the preaching profession, presumably to justify any shortcomings his critics might discover in his sermons. [BACK]

35. Midbar Yehudah, pp. 6b–7a. I have used Saperstein’s translation, Jewish Preaching, pp. 409–410. [BACK]

36. Modena makes these claims in his letter to Samuel Archivolti, p. 412. [BACK]

37. These Ciceronian genera dicendi were adapted by Augustine. In his De Doctrina Christiana, IV, 17, he recommends the moderate style, the genus temperatum, which is neither unornamented nor ornamented in an unbecoming way. Its object is to entertain the listeners while leading them to obedience. [BACK]

38. Midbar Yehudah, p. 3b. I have presented a synopsis of his main ideas. [BACK]

39. Modena was not the first Jewish preacher to stress the importance of the homiletical art for preaching. In the earliest known tract on Jewish preaching, the En ha-Kore, the fifteenth-century Spanish philosopher Joseph ibn Shem Tob states: “Thus the best of the arts for preaching is the art of rhetoric. The more the preacher masters this art, and the more at home he is in the techniques of speech and argumentation that will persuade the listeners to accept what he says, the greater will be his stature in the category of rhetoric.” Cited from Saperstein, Jewish Preaching, p. 300. [BACK]

40. Modena sometimes used allegorical and kabbalistic interpretation of the aggadot and midrashim in his sermons. In the introduction to his Responsa, the Zikne Yehudah, which is dated Venice 1630 (ed. Shlomo Simonsohn, Jerusalem, 1957), he first states that he was the best preacher that ever was “as is well known,” and then states that he had a fine grasp of legal matters and did not spurn “iyyun,” that is, he did not adopt casuistic interpretations. [BACK]

41. See Robert Bonfil, Rabbis and Jewish Communities in Renaissance Italy (Oxford, 1990 [translation from the Hebrew, Jerusalem, 1979]), pp. 298–316. [BACK]

42. John W. O’Malley, Praise and Blame in Renaissance Rome, Rhetoric and Reform in the Sacred Orators of the Papal Court c. 1450–1521 (Los Angeles, Berkeley, 1979). [BACK]

43. John W. O’Malley, “Sixteenth-Century Treatises on Preaching,” in Renaissance Eloquence (Los Angeles, Berkeley, 1983), pp. 238–252. [BACK]

44. See John M. McNanamon, Funeral Oratory and the Cultural Ideals of Italian Humanists (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1989), p. 31. [BACK]

45. Modena suggests another play on words for the conclusion of the passage. “There is no creator [yoẓer] like our God.” [BACK]

46. Moshe Idel, “Differing Conceptions of Kabbalah in the Early 17th Century,” Jewish Thought in the Seventeenth Century, ed. Isadore Twersky and Bernard Septimus (Cambridge, Mass., 1987), p. 174. [BACK]

47. See, for example, the story about the reaction of the philosophers to Alexander’s death recounted in the section entitled “Del vizio della tristizia e della morte di Alessandro” (Ẓemaḥ Ẓaddik, chap. 9), which Modena applies in his eulogy of Samuel Judah Katzenellenbogen (Midbar Yehudah, p. 69a). [BACK]

48. Of the twenty-one ma’amarim with which he begins his sermons, ten are taken from aggadot of the Talmud and eleven from midrashim. [BACK]

49. The Responsum is n. 55 of his collection of his Responsa entitled Zikne Yehudah (pp. 76–78). A partial translation of the letter is given in Saperstein, Jewish Preaching, pp. 406–408. Modena writes (Saperstein’s translation): “To my distress, the truth is that I do not know a single book from that discipline which today they call “Kabbalah” and “true wisdom.” Nevertheless, I was able to appear publicly in my sermons as if I too knew a little of it. This was like those preachers who need to preach about the talmudic tractate Erubin in order to placate the confused minds of their listerners.” [BACK]

50. Robert Bonfil, “Cultura e mistica,” pp. 492–493, states that Modena’s response should not be taken at face value. Modena had been conscious of the growing appeal of kabbalah and realized that he should be discrete in revealing his true opinions about kabbalah. [BACK]

51. See Idel, “Differing Conceptions.” [BACK]

52. In treating this theme, he often is implicitly referring to the realities of ghetto life. See his first sermon (Midbar Yehudah, p. 10a–b) where he discusses the three conditions which determine the greatness of a nation: numbers, the qualities of virtue and wisdom, and a good geographical position. With regard to the question of numbers, he asserts that when the Jews lived in the land of Israel they were numerous but appeared few in number, but now being in exile, “we are few, but appear many such that five Jews together make a greater impression than ten people of any other nation.” [BACK]

53. Modena often attacks the Christian notion of original sin, stressing that Adam bequeathed physical, but not spiritual sin to subsequent generations. This subject, which had been treated in previous centuries, acquired more urgent solution in light of the dogmatic rulings given at the Council of Trent. In his anti-Christian tract Magen ve-Ḥereb, ed. Shlomo Simonsohn (Jerusalem, 1960), p. 20, he even refers to Paolo Sarpi’s Istoria del Concilio Tridentino, lib. 2, chap. 4, ed. Renzo Pecchioli (Florence, 1965), vol. 1, p. 213. Sarpi lists the propositions discussed at the sessions of the Council, the second of which seemed to imply that Adam’s sin was not transmitted, but simply imitated by his descendants: “Che il peccatto d’Adamo si chiama originale perchè da lui deriva nella posterità, non per trasmissione, ma per imitazione.” The Council unanimously rejected the proposition as heretical. [BACK]

54. In chap. 2 of Modo di comporre una predica, Panigarola states that it does not matter whether the subject is put in the form of a proposition or a question since ultimately the question gets reduced to either a positive or negative proposition. [BACK]

55. The expression occurs in Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 10a: “Every man is considered a relation to himself and none can incriminate himself.” The choice of this opening phrase is revealing since there is a halakhic dimension to this sermon. [BACK]

56. Zohar, 1, 96b, ed. Reuben Margaliot (Jerusalem, 1940–1944). [BACK]

57. Nahmanides articulated the idea that “devekut” is an attainable ideal in the life of the individual. See Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York, 1961, 3d ed.), p. 233. See also, Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, bk. 3, chap. 51, where he states that the patriarchs attained this ideal in their lifetime. [BACK]

58. This saying occurs in many languages. It is found in Hebrew (e.g., in the Josippon); various versions are quoted in Erasmus’ Adagia; an Italian version of the proverb is “Mal commune mezzo gaudio.” Plantavit de la Pause, with whom Modena was in correspondence in later life, gives a Latin rendering in his Florilegium rabbinicum (Lodève, 1645), p. 322: “Afflictio multorum dimidiam consolationis.” [BACK]

59. See n. 51. For the purposes of the sermon, Modena does not adhere to his own Hebrew translation of the story in which he employed biblical phraseology and terminology. [BACK]

60. Ta’anit 24b: “R. Ḥanina ben Dosa was going on a journey…and it began to rain. He said: ‘Master of the Universe, the whole world is at ease, but R. Ḥanina is in distress.’ The rain stopped. When he reached home, he exclaimed: ‘Master of the Universe, the whole world is in distress and Ḥanina is at ease.’ The rain fell.” [BACK]

61. Shir Ha-Shirim Rabba 36:1. [BACK]

62. Bamidbar Rabba 1:3 (ad Num. 1:1). [BACK]

63. Ekhah Rabbati, proem XXIV. [BACK]

64. Ibid., ad Lam. 1:1. [BACK]

65. Ibid., proem IV. [BACK]

66. See n. 59. [BACK]

67. On the question of repentance, see Bereshit Rabba 22:16, ed. Theodor and Albeck (Jerusalem, 1965), in which Adam is confronted by Cain, who claims to have repented and to have had his punishment revoked, and cries out in amazement, “Such is the power of repentance and I did not know it.” [BACK]

68. In a parallel version in the Yalkut Shimoni, par. 827 (ad Deut. 4:30), the second opinion is reversed: “Any distress shared by Israel and the nations of the world is not real distress, but any distress confined to Israel is.” [BACK]

69. I am grateful to Rabbi James Ponet, who suggested to me the possibility of a halakhic dimension to Modena’s question. [BACK]

70. The predichetta should have “un poco d’introduttioncella in una sol clausula o due, la narratione dello stesso capo della prova e doppo lui, tutte quelle cose che lo amplificano e finalmente un picciolo epiloghetto al quale possa poi applicarsi l’introduttioncella dell’altra prova che seguita” (p. 56r). [BACK]

71. “Si come la ricercata non è parte del madrigale ma è solamente un preludio” (p. 43v). Panigarola recommends the use of analogies for the prologhino. On many occasions, Modena begins his sermons with analogies or images. [BACK]

72. “Questi Epiloghetti con le introduttioni seguenti vengano quasi ad essere gangheri sopra quali si volta l’oratione…che si faccia passare l’animo dell’ascoltante da una prova all’altra per ponto cosi coperto ch’egli non si avvegga pure d’haverlo passato” (p. 58r–v). [BACK]

73. Pp. 40v–41r. [BACK]

74. P. 41r. [BACK]

75. See Giovanni Pozzi, “Intorno alla predicazione,” p. 322. [BACK]

76. Modena’s style is not as ornate or as “baroque” as that of Panigarola, who is noted for his radical transformation of syntax and exaggerated use of synonyms. [BACK]

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Preaching in the Venetian Ghetto: The Sermons of Leon Modena
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