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Preaching in the Venetian Ghetto: The Sermons of Leon Modena
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The personality of the Venetian Rabbi Leon (Judah Aryeh) Modena (1571–1648) has intrigued scholars both past and present.[1] Widely divergent evaluations have been proffered of the man and his work. His Weltanschauung has been variously described as medieval, Renaissance, and baroque;[2] he has been called a hypocrite and a precursor of the reformers,[3] while in the most recent assessment, an impassioned plea has been made to appreciate Modena as a genuine defender of rabbinic tradition and an accomplished scholar in a wide range of subjects including the Christian Scriptures and Italian literature.[4]

That scholars of repute have reached diametrically opposed conclusions as to the historical period reflected in Modena’s writings seems to indicate that these categories are too vague to be useful and do not enhance the reader’s understanding of the subject. The purpose of this chapter is to discuss and analyze Modena’s mode of preaching. Rather than apply such designations as medieval or baroque to his sermons, I shall demonstrate how a Jew living in the ghetto in Counter-Reformation Italy was able to structure his sermons according to Christian specifications while their content remained predominantly Jewish in theme and source.

Modena’s sermons won him paeans of praise from Jews and Christians. He himself, in his own inimitable fashion, unabashedly acknowledged that he was deserving of such a reputation. As he writes in his Autobiography, “And even though for more than twenty years I have…preached in three or four places each Sabbath, this holy community has not grown tired of me, nor had its fill of my sermons. . . .”[5] Modena may have perfected the art of pulpit oratory; the task of the scholar, however, is to evaluate the sermons in their literary form. This task has been undertaken by a variety of scholars. That same diversity of approach which marks scholarly treatment of Modena’s entire literary legacy to which I alluded above is also conspicuous in the different studies of his homiletical productions. In 1950, Ellis Rivkin wrote an article briefly describing the subject of Modena’s sermons, pointing to their specifically Jewish resonances and the stimulating approach of the author to familiar theological issues.[6] According to Rivkin, Modena attached central importance to the form of the sermon which was “an end in itself.” In other words, Modena was a “Jewish preacher of the Baroque.” A more detailed investigation was provided in 1972 by Israel Rosenzweig in his book entitled A Jewish Thinker at the End of the Renaissance.[7] Rosenzweig attempted to analyze Modena’s sermons in their historical context. He argued that Modena was grappling with the reality of his time while seemingly addressing himself to traditional theological themes such as exile, covenant, repentance, and redemption. Rosenzweig found allusions to Christian (and particularly Protestant) doctrine[8] and detected in Modena’s treatment of penitents reference to conversos who had reverted to Judaism.[9] The oft-mooted view of Modena’s hypocrisy and his criticism of rabbinic Judaism is perhaps reflected in Rosenzweig’s opinion that Modena often veiled his true opinion by means of ambiguous imagery and phraseology. Modena raised intractable problems regarding the death of the righteous or the prolongation of the exile, but by means of consummate homiletical skills he erased the sting from these distressing subjects.

Title page from Leon Modena’s Midbar Yehudah (Venice, 1602). Courtesy of the Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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Among his various discussions of Jewish sermons, Joseph Dan also touched on the subject of Modena’s rhetorical work.[10] Dan suggested that some of Modena’s sermons were written with other preachers in mind. In other words, those sermons in which Modena appeared not to be expressing his own view on the subject under discussion and which were composed with a clear schematic structure were intended as model sermons that could be used by other preachers for specific festivals or occasions.

As may be seen from these brief summaries, interpretation of Modena’s sermons, whether in regard to their structure or historical significance, is still at a preliminary stage. The documentation and analysis that is provided in the ensuing pages should facilitate a more precise reading of Modena’s sermons.

“For of the three elements in speech-making—speaker, subject, and person addressed—it is the last one, the hearer, that determines the speech’s end and object.”[11] This recommendation of Aristotle was one which Modena certainly endorsed. On several occasions, he stressed the importance of adapting the sermon to the intellectual capabilities of the audience. At the same time, he was conscious of the difficulties attendant upon satisfying all his listeners.[12] The greater part of Modena’s preaching career was spent in Venice, where Ashkenazi, Italian, Sephardi (both Levantine and Ponentine) Jews lived in close proximity to each other, while maintaining their separate rites and praying in separate synagogues.[13] Over the course of the years, Modena addressed all sectors of the Venetian community and was the main preacher in the Great Ashkenazi syngagoue and in the academy of Kalonymus Belgrado.[14] Such was his reputation that “many esteemed friars, priests and noblemen” also came to listen to his sermons.[15] Modena’s powers of communication and sensitivity to his audience are perhaps best illustrated by his introduction to the sermon which he delivered in the Sephardi synagogue on the Sabbath preceding the wedding day of his friend Abraham Lombroso.[16] Modena prefaces his sermon with the statement that every action must match the subject, time, and place. Implicit in these words is the message that as an outsider, an Italian Jew, he was to deliver a sermon which would suit the Sephardi context into which he had entered. The Scriptural pericope for that Sabbath was the story of Noah. Having described the Jewish people in exile in Noachian terms—they are enclosed in the ark of the exile and are tossed over the waters until the final exodus—Modena states: “for various reasons, your holy community bears more affinity to Noah than any other sector of the Jewish people.” Modena does not go on to enlarge on the “various reasons.” What he seems to be insinuating is that the Sephardim, who had suffered from the inquisition and had been exiled from place to place, are like Noah, righteous survivors, on whose merit the world depends. By means of such an introduction, Modena simultaneously communicated his sympathy for the community he was addressing and engaged their attention.

Modena bequeathed only a small sample of his sermons to posterity. Of the four hundred sermons he claimed to have delivered, only twenty-one were brought to print.[17] On the basis of Hebrew outline notes, Modena reconstructed some of the sermons he had delivered in Italian in the first ten years of his preaching career (1593–1602), and working under pressure, submitted them in a Hebrew version to the printer over the course of six weeks. The work was published in Venice in 1602.[18] He entitled the collection Midbar Yehudah (The Wilderness of Judah) or Mi-Debar Yehudah (From the Words of Judah) “because these are the words which I spoke in the congregations and because I am living today scorched in the wilderness, bereft of all goodness, waiting for God to bestow His favour on me, and also because I know that most of it is dry and waste like a wilderness. . . .”[19] In fact, the introduction to the collection reveals that apart from financial considerations, a neurotic obsession with his posterity, and jealousy of other preachers, combined with an assurance about his own skills as a preacher, prompted Modena to the publication of the Midbar Yehudah.[20]

To the great benefit of the scholar, Modena has left fairly full descriptions of his method and aims in composing sermons and of his own conception of the role of the preacher. This invaluable information may be extracted from his introduction to the Midbar Yehudah, from the first sermon in the collection, and from various letters and autobiographical remarks dispersed among his other works. In the light of this evidence, and following the classical rhetorical triad of ordo (arrangement), facundia (style) and res (subject-matter), we shall analyze Modena’s sermons in regard to structure, style, and subject-matter (including sources) and then, using one sermon as a test-case, examine how the theoretical principles become transposed into the final product.

The clearest statement regarding the structure of the sermons is to be found in a letter which Modena wrote to his teacher Samuel Archivolti.[21] He claims:

The sermons blaze a truly new path, for I have made them a blending of the Christian sermon and the traditional Jewish homily. After the verse from the Torah [nose] and the rabbinic statement [ma’amar] comes a brief introduction which they [i.e. the Christians] call prologhino. Then comes the first part of the sermon and then the second part, followed by an explanation of the nose and ma’amar. At the end there is a recapitulation of the entire sermon called epilogo[22] and finally, a petitionary prayer in the accustomed manner. This is the structure of every sermon. There is no section without some biblical verse or rabbinic statement and the sermon is developed by means of suitable connections based on the rules of oratory and retorica.

In this letter, Modena describes himself as an innovator and claims that his originality consists in his blending of Christian and Jewish modes of composition. As has been demonstrated by Marc Saperstein in his recent book on preaching, certain norms and conventions governing the structure of Jewish sermons were introduced from the second half of the fifteenth century onwards.[23] In particular, the use of the Scriptural verse (nose) and the rabbinic text (ma’amar) at the beginning of the sermon became a standard way of beginning a sermon. An introduction to the sermon which contained justification of the sermon was sometimes employed. As regards the development of the sermon, Saperstein points to two different forms: the homiletical model, which usually lacked structural unity; and the derush, where the sermon was constructed around one specific conceptual problem and which would also contain exegesis of various Scriptural and rabbinic passages. It does seem, however, that there were no set conventions for the actual development of the theme. At first glance, Modena’s sermons would seem to belong to the second category of derush. Nevertheless, his reference to the structure of Christian sermons, which is made explicit by his use of the terms prologhino and epilogo, clearly indicates that apart from the use of the nose and ma’amar, the main structure of his sermons followed a convention used by Christian preachers. Modena laid great importance on the art of communication, and a clear structure facilitated communication. In the absence of specific Jewish guidelines, he chose to compose his sermons on Christian models. Fortunately, it is possible to identify the specific model he followed and, as will be shown, it constitutes a significant source for understanding not only the structure of Modena’s sermons, but also his role as preacher at the end of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth century.

An inventory of the goods and Hebrew and vernacular books of which Modena was in possession was drawn up after his death in 1648.[24] The name Panigarola and a work Modo di compor prediche (How to Compose Sermons) figure under the list of vernacular books.[25] Francesco Panigarola (1548–1594) was the Bishop of Asti, and a prolific writer, poet, and popular preacher. Panigarola was a respected member of the Catholic establishment and a staunch defender of Tridentine doctrine. While there were numerous Christian preachers and theorists of preaching in Modena’s time, Francesco Panigarola was reputed to be a “Demosthenes Christianus,” one of the most distinguished and popular preachers of the sixteenth century, whose style has been characterized as anticipating baroque mannerism.[26] It may be more than coincidental that similar stories are told about Panigarola and Modena in regard to early manifestations of preaching talent. It is told that the young Panigarola was able to repeat by heart a sermon he had heard with such grace and facility that his teacher Cornelio Musso predicted that he would become a famous preacher.[27] Similarly, Modena narrates in his Autobiography that when he was nine years old his teacher Hezekiah Finzi predicted that “this boy will become a preacher to the Jews for from his manner it is clear that he will be fruitful in preaching.”[28] Panigarola’s sermons were translated from Italian into Latin and French and were reprinted several times.[29] He published an annotated edition of the classical rhetorical work On style, attributed to Demetrius of Phalerum, in which he incorporated a discourse on ecclesiastical preaching and its relation to classical oratory.[30] This subject had become a crucial issue once the Council of Trent had set down official guidelines on preaching. Preachers like Panigarola trained in both the “secular” and “sacred” were concerned to construct a theory of preaching which did justice to both camps.[31] Panigarola’s small work on preaching that was in Modena’s library also contained a short tract on the art of memory.[32] (It is interesting to note that Modena was also to write a tract on memory, the Leb ha-Aryeh, in 1611.) That Modena read the books in his library, and Panigarola’s works in particular, is confirmed by a close examination of Panigarola’s tract on how to compose a sermon. In fact, Modena’s use of one word, prologhino, lends even more support to such a claim, for according to Battaglia, Panigarola’s works constitute the first attestation of this word.[33]

Panigarola’s tract was intended for use by Franciscan novices. Nevertheless, its general guidelines could certainly be adapted to religious sermons of any description. Modena, as will be shown, almost invariably constructed his sermons along the lines set down by Panigarola. The amalgamation of Jewish and Christian forms provided Modena with a perfect medium for composing sermons that, despite their rhetorical ornamentation and exegetical meanderings, preserved a clear structural and conceptual unity.

The stylistic features of Modena’s sermons were conceived in relation to his perception of the role of the preacher. In the prologhino to the first sermon in the Midbar Yehudah, Modena describes the unenviable task of the preacher who must cater to the differing intellectual expectations of his audience.[34] He writes:

If he [the preacher] soars like an eagle and speaks of the great and profound mysteries of wisdom, his proud speach will not sit well with the badgers who are weak in the deeper meaning of the Torah…for they will not know what he is talking about. But if he should speak at a low level, simply and plainly, the learned will turn their backs on him and say, “What does he think he is teaching us?” If he speaks softly and fails to reach the very pinnacle of rhetoric and eloquence, they grow tired of hearing him.…Thus whoever preaches in public is looking for trouble, kindling contention.[35]

Modena therefore sought to find a compromise between the highly polished and mannered style of the Mantuan Rabbi Judah Moscato, which he claims was very unpopular, and the simpler language of the majority of Levantine and Ashkenazi Rabbis.[36] Modena thus describes three “genera dicendi” that in classical terms would correspond to the genus sublime, the genus mediocre and the genus humile.[37] Modena’s invective against current modes of preaching reaches rhetorical extremes in his highly mannered introduction to the Midbar Yehudah.[38] He pours scorn on overly ambitious preachers who are insensitive to the niceties of Talmudic discussion, but use “Aristotle and company” as a means to gain a reputation. They propagate useless ideas which encourage others to entertain misguided views about rabbinic tradition. Preachers of this kind, he alleges, have caused the current widespread disaffection with sermons and preachers. The effective preacher must possess two skills: the ability to conceptualize (ḥokhmat ha-iyyun) and the homiletical art (ḥokhmat ha-derush).[39] (By ḥokhmat ha-iyyun, Modena appears to refer to lucid interpretation of any kind.)[40] Preachers should emulate the example of the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud (and also some of the more recent preachers) who had a fine grasp of complex issues, but were models of clarity when they expounded in public.

Modena may have been encouraging emulation of the rabbis when he selected the art of wisdom and the art of eloquence as the two-fold banner of the effective preacher. But he was also consciously or not expressing the humanist ideal which set the highest store by the combination of wisdom and eloquence. His formulation may also reflect a trend in Jewish preaching of the late sixteenth-century in Italy detected by Bonfil, in which the overtly philosophical sermon was replaced by a more eclectic sermon in which allegorical and kabbalistic interpretation of the aggadot untrammelled by technical vocabulary was employed in order to deepen the religious consciousness of the public.[41]

Modena stressed that the purpose of his sermons was to instill in his listeners the fear of God, instruct them in ethics and beliefs, and offer explanations of the precepts of the Torah. He suggested that “valuable, useful, and pleasurable” (tob, mo’il, areb) would be appropriate designations of some of his sermons. The selection of these three adjectives is significant. In his tract on preaching, Panigarola discusses the three classical genres of oratory—the deliberative, judicial, and demonstrative (epideictic)—and adds a fourth genre, the didactic. He argues that depending on the nature of the sermon, any one or a mixture of these categories may be implemented. Recently O’Malley has argued that during the Renaissance, the epideictic genre was adopted by orators at the Papal court.[42] The medieval thematic sermon had emphasized teaching; now the demonstrative oration sought to inspire love and fear of God and to move and delight the listener. O’Malley also discussed Melanchthon’s treatise on preaching which influenced both Catholic and Protestant theorists of preaching.[43] Melanchthon introduced the didactic genre (genus didascalicum) used in dialectic and applied it to rhetoric. Melancthon formulated three other genres of rhetoric: the didascalicum, which teaches true doctrine, the epitrepticum, which exhorts to faith, and the paraneticum, which exhorts to good morals. While it is difficult to classify Modena’s sermons dogmatically into any one of the genres described above, it does seem that his use of the three adjectives, “valuable, useful, and entertaining,” and his express aim to teach fear of God and ethical qualities and to explain the reasons for the precepts of the Torah, combines some of the features of the epideictic genre with that of Melanchthon’s categories. Moreover, Modena expressly states that his purpose is neither to castigate nor to set himself apart from his audience. While such a statement is clearly a tactical ploy to win the confidence of his audience, it also suggests the purpose of epideictic oratory, which seeks to impress ideas on the audience without explicit intention to teach or to spur to action.

From classical times, theorists of rhetoric compared oratory to the visual arts, and saw a relation between epideictic oratory and painting and sculpture.[44] It was commonplace for Renaissance orators to compare themselves to painters. This commonplace appears in the first sermon of the Midbar Yehudah, albeit with an original twist. Modena quotes a famous passage from tractate Berakhot (10a) in the Babylonian Talmud:

Come and see how different is the capacity of human beings from that of the Holy One Blessed be He. A human being has the capacity to draw a figure on a wall, but he is unable to invest it with breath and spirit, bowels and intestines. But the Holy One Blessed be He shapes one form within another and invests it with breath and spirit, bowels and intestines. That is what Hannah meant when she said, “There is none as holy as the Lord, neither is there a rock [ẓur] like our God” [1 Sam. 2:2]. There is no painter [ẓayar] like our God.

Modena’s interpretation of this aggadah follows the pattern he uses throughout his sermons. Its logical consistency is examined and questioned. Superficial problems are raised and then rejected on the basis of a more probing examination of the underlying message of the text. Modena wonders why the author of the aggadah used the strange analogy of the wall-artist. He suggests that the choice was dictated by the author’s wish to convey both the art of the painter and that of the sculptor. In particular, he questions the validity of the final statement in which, by means of a play on the words “rock” and “painter,” God is described as the ideal painter.[45] At first glance, the aggadah would appear to be referring to God’s unique powers as creator. He argues that the comparison between God and human beings only becomes valid if the analogy is indeed being drawn between the artistic faculties of God and those of humans. He thus argues that the intention of the aggadah is to stress the fallible qualities of human artists who are not even able to imitate nature, in this case, the human body, with any degree of verisimilitude. Having interpreted the aggadah as an illustration of God’s mastery of the plastic arts, Modena then draws an analogy between the painter and the writer, and the sculptor and the preacher. The painter and the writer can erase any defect in their painting or writing. The sculptor, on the other hand, cannot undo any blemish which appears once the stone has been chiseled. Similarly, the speaker cannot bite back the words once he has uttered them. Only God has perfect control over the stone and the pen. With the rabbinic text as his basic proof text, Modena appears to have adopted the Renaissance idea of the preacher as artist, and given it a novel application. The work of the preacher consists in imitatio dei. By means of a disingenuous method of preempting any criticism of his shortcomings as preacher, Modena expresses the vulnerability of the preacher who takes on the awesome task of imitatio dei, but can never ensure the perfection of his art.

Modena contrasted his style with that of one of the most distinguished preachers of his generation, Judah Moscato. One of the notable features of Moscato’s sermons is his extensive citation of non-Jewish sources; the paucity of references to non-Jewish authors is one of the most distinctive features of Modena’s sermons. The difference between the two preachers in this regard is particularly noteworthy given that Modena published his sermons only fourteen years after Moscato’s sermons appeared in print. It was not for lack of familiarity with secular sources that Modena eschewed non-Jewish references in his sermons. His other works bear evidence of his wide knowledge of Christian texts. On the few occasions that he does cite a non-Jewish author or a story he has read in a secular source, he usually does not give the name of the author, even when it is clearly a well-known writer such as Aristotle or Livy. It would seem that Modena’s highly developed sensitivity to the preacher’s task dictated his use of sources. One of the techniques of humanist rhetoricians was to avoid citations of classical sources in extenso. This was regarded as one of the characteristics of a refined and polished style. Naturally, the non-Jewish references did not have the same value for Modena as did the classical sources for the humanists. Nevertheless, a similar concern for the elegance of the sermon prompted Modena to avoid explicit allusions to extraneous works. The main body of his sermons was concerned with interpretation of the rabbinic aggadot and midrashim. Modena ensured that the references to non-Jewish texts should not interrupt the flow of the argument and intrude on the audience’s attention. The interpretation offered here does not necessarily discount the validity of the idea expressed by Moshe Idel that by Modena’s time, “Renaissance Jewish syncretism had ended its full turn: in lieu of numerous citations from alien sources in support of the Torah, there is a return to the Bible itself…a fideistic attitude becomes more and more evident.”[46] It would seem to me, however, that it was the particular context of the pulpit which determined the manifestation of a “fideistic approach,” if indeed that is the appropriate way to designate Modena’s sermons. It cannot be overlooked that two years before his publication of the Midbar Yehudah, Modena printed his Hebrew translation and adaptation (Ẓemaḥ Ẓaddik) of the Italian medieval moralistic treatise Fiore di virtù. This alien text was replete with references to pagan sages and Christian saints. Although he modified, truncated, and replaced the Christian sayings with rabbinic stories, Modena apparently regarded the work as suitable material with which to edify the Hebrew-reading public. Indeed, some of the anonymous stories with which Modena entertains his readers in his sermons are taken from the Fiore di virtù.[47]

As I have said, Modena’s sermons are built on interpretations of midrashim and aggadot of the Talmud.[48] He never cites legal texts, although, as I will demonstrate, a halakhic dimension is sometimes implicit in his discussion. By the end of the sixteenth century, the major classical midrashim were available in print. Modena tended to comment on the most famous talmudic aggadot and midrashim from the collections of the Midrash Rabba and Yalkut Shimoni. He also gave extensive interpretations of Scriptural passages, particularly of the Psalms and Proverbs, following the order of the verses. This was a mnemonic device widely used by both Jews and Christians. It is interesting to note that Panigarola recommends that the preacher should have in his possession a good biblical concordance and make thorough use of the indices when preparing his sermon. Modena often interspersed his sermons with lexical comments on biblical words and expressions and some passages are patently constructed on the basis of consultation of concordances. He also occasionally ended his sermons in a symbolic manner on the basis of the notes in the Masorah Magna, which gives detailed information as to the occurrence of words and letters in biblical texts.

Modena is economical in his citation of post-Talmudic sources. It is thus striking that the few medieval Jewish sources that he does quote are mostly derived from kabbalistic sources and in particular, the Zohar. In later life, Modena was to acquire a reputation as a virulent anti-kabbalist and in a famous responsum (circa 1625) to the question whether it is permitted to teach kabbalah in public, Modena attempted to disclaim real knowledge of this esoteric body of literature.[49] He implied that his kabbalistic allusions were simply concessions to the expectations of some of his listeners.[50] In a pioneering article focusing on the Ari Nohem, Modena’s critique of kabbalah, Moshe Idel has traced the cultural context in which Modena developed his antikabbalistic bias and also the specific elements in kabbalah which Modena challenged.[51] Idel demonstrated that Modena’s views were partly fashioned by his awareness that Christian theologians used the kabbalah to strengthen their own doctrine. In addition, they were influenced by his involvement in the current debates regarding the validity of rabbinic tradition and thus he drew a distinct line between rabbinic tradition, that is, the Oral Law, and any other phenomenon including kabbalah. What emerges from Idel’s discussion is that Modena was not averse to kabbalah per se, but rather to its misappropriation by others. It thus becomes clear that the citation of kabbalistic texts in his youthful Midbar Yehudah in contrast to his attack on kabbalah in his maturity is not an indication that Modena radically changed his view on the subject, nor that he was posing as a partisan of kabbalah. Rather, and this is substantiated by an examination of the mode in which he cites the kabbalistic texts, Modena used kabbalistic interpretation where it fitted into his own scheme of thinking. The kabbalistic allusions had no more or less authority than his other references to medieval texts even if he added the epithet “holy” when he referred to Simeon bar Yoḥai, the ascribed author of the Zohar.

The twenty-one sermons of the Midbar Yehudah, written for different occasions and different audiences, were uniform in style and structure, but varied in subject matter. Nevertheless, as Rosenzweig demonstrated in his book on Modena, certain themes recur in various forms throughout the sermons. Prominence is given to questions of exile and redemption,[52] the covenant between God and Israel, repentance and the immortality of the soul. Adam’s sin is a pet subject and one to which he returned in many of his subsequent publications.[53] Since a comprehensive treatment of the sermons is beyond the scope of this chapter, I have selected one sermon for detailed analysis.

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