29 November 2018

Two rabbis in Venice:
2, Simeon Luzzatto

Simeon Luzzatto argued it was acceptable to travel by gondola on Shabbat (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Advent begins next Sunday [2 December 2018], but so too does the Jewish Festival of Hanukkah. Both are times to think of how the light of God is kept alive in the darkness of the world.

Today, as I think about these themes and finish working on my Sunday sermons, I find myself thinking again of the lives of two rabbis in Venice, both of whom I heard about when I visited Venice and the Ghetto earlier this month.

Simeon (Simcha) ben Isaac Luzzatto (1583-1663) and Leon of Modena (1571-1648) were contemporaries in Venice in the late 16th and 17th centuries.

Simeon (Simcha) Luzzatto (שמחה לוצאטו‎) was a prominent rabbi in the ghetto in Venice, where he shared the rabbinate with Leon de Modena, and their work prefigured the Enlightenment in Europe.

The Luzzatto family of Italian scholars can be traced to the late 15th century or earlier. According to family tradition, the family is descended from a German Jew from the province of Lausitz who migrated to Italy, where he was named after his native place (Lausatia, Lausiatus, Luzzatto). The German rite is said to have been observed in the family synagogue in Venice, the Scuola Luzzatto.

The earliest recorded member of the family is Abraham Luzzatto, who lived at Safed in the late 15th and early 16th century.

His great-great-grandson, Simeon Luzzatto, was born in Venice ca 1580-1583. He was educated by some of the outstanding rabbis of the day, as well as receiving a secular and classical education.

By the age of 20 or 22, many of his works were being published and discussed throughout the Jewish community, and was still a young man when he acquired renown as a rabbi and scholar.

He is styled rabbi at the head of a long responsum, Mish’an Mayim (1606), which he wrote in response to the miḳweh of Rovigo. This responsum shows him to have been an authority in rabbinics and is quoted by many rabbinical authorities.

He shared the rabbinate of Venice with Leon of Modena, who held him in great esteem, and together they wrote a work on the Karaites.

His Discorso circa il stato degli Hebrei et in particolar dimoranti nell’inclita città di Venetia (‘Discourse Concerning the Condition of the Jews, and in particular those living in the Fair City of Venice’), published in 1638, was written in Italian and addressed to the Doge and the leaders of the Venetian Republic.

His Discorso is a treatise on the position of the Jews, particularly those in Venice. It is an apology for the Jews in 18 arguments, each forming a chapter.

For instance, one chapter defends the Jews of Venice and their usefulness in commerce. Another explains the causes of decreases in certain state revenues and shows that encouraging the activities of the Jews would tend to increase those revenues. He points out that the Jews are especially fitted for commerce, that they loyally observe the laws of the state, and that the Venetian Republic reaped great advantages from its relations with them.

The chief merit of this book is its impartiality, for while Luzzatto depicts the better characteristics of the Jews he does not ignore their faults. He shows remarkable knowledge of the commerce of his time and of the political influences that affected it.

According to Luzzatto, the common people felt little antipathy toward the Jews, and depended on them to some extent for their living. He argued that the fanatical religious zealots were found among the patricians who, out of envy, advocated restrictions and even banishment.

The last three chapters include an examination of Hebrew literature and of the various classes of Jewish scholars, an account of the directions in which the Jews were permitted freedom, and of their sufferings, and a survey of the Jews in non-Italian countries.

This discourse was successful in convincing the Doge to rule against an edict to expel the Jewish population from Venice.

Another important work in Italian, Socrates, written in his youth, argues that human reason cannot attain its goals if unaided by divine revelation. This is written in the form of a Platonic dialogue and seeks to prove how useless human reason is without revelation.

In his Socrates, Luzzatto tries to prove the impotence of human reason when unaided by divine revelation. It is in the form of a parable, in which he puts his thoughts into the mouth of Socrates.

Reason, being imprisoned by Orthodox authority, appealed for liberation to the Academy of Delphi, which had been founded to rectify the errors of the human intellect. The academy granted her petition notwithstanding the remonstrance of Pythagoras and Aristotle, who argued that Reason, when free, would spread abroad most frightful errors. Liberated Reason caused great mischief, and the academicians did not know what to do, when Socrates advised combining Reason with Revelation.

Luzzatto dedicated this book to the Doge and Senate of Venice, and stated his ancestors had settled in Venice two centuries earlier. In this book, he also quotes an earlier work he had published, Trattato dell’ Opinioni e Dogmi degl’ Hebrei e dei Riti Loro Piu Principali.

From 1648, he headed the Venetian rabbinate of Venice.

Luzzatto was well acquainted with ancient literature and philosophy and with contemporary literature, and he is praised by Joseph Delmedigo as a distinguished mathematician.

Luzzatto was a thinker and a believer as well. He did not share Manasseh bin Israel’s dream that the lost 10 tribes still exist together in some part of the world.

He maintained that Daniel’s revelation refers not to a future Messiah, but to past historical events. This view of Luzzatto was either misunderstood or deliberately perverted by the convert Samuel Nahmias (Giulio Morosini), who, in his Via della Fide, makes Luzzatto say that Daniel’s revelation may perhaps point to Jesus as the Messiah.

Jacob Aboab asserts that he saw in Venice a collection of Luzzatto’s sermons, speeches and responsa, which included one that argued it was acceptable to travel by gondola on Shabbat.

Simeon (Simcha) ben Isaac Luzzatto died in Venice on 6 January 1663.

Synagogues surround the main square in the Ghetto in Venice … from 1648, Simeon Luzzatto headed the rabbinate of Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

This morning: Leon de Modena

Two rabbis in Venice:
1, Leon of Modena

Inside the Schola Spagnola or Sepahrdic synagogue in the Ghetto in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018; click on image for full-screen view)

Patrick Comerford

Advent begins next Sunday [2 December 2018], but so too does the Jewish Festival of Hanukkah. Both are times to think of how the light of God is kept alive in the darkness of the world.

Today, as I think about these themes and finish working on my Sunday sermons, I find myself thinking again of the lives of two rabbis in Venice, both of whom I heard about when I visited Venice and the Ghetto earlier this month.

Leon of Modena (1571-1648) and Simeon (Simcha) Luzzatto (1583-1663) were contemporaries in Venice in the late 16th and 17th centuries, and their work prefigured the Enlightenment in Europe.

Leon of Modena, or Leon Yehudah Aryeh Mi-Modena, or Leon Judah Aryeh of Modena, was a born in Venice on 23 April 1571 into a Sephardic family whose ancestors had migrated to Italy after an expulsion of Jews from Spain.

His parents were Isaac of Modena and Diana Rachel. His grandfather Mordecai, a distinguished physician and philanthropist, was made a Knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece raised by the Emperor Charles V.

His father ensured Leon had a complete education that included even singing and dancing. At the age of 12, he translated into Hebrew verse the first canto of Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso.

About a year and a half later, he wrote his dialogue against gambling, which saw 10 editions and was translated into Latin, French, German, and Judæo-German. Even at this early age he was not only well versed in Hebrew and rabbinical literature, but was conversant with the classics and had a knowledge of mathematics, philosophy and natural history.

This once precocious child grew up to be a respected rabbi in Venice. However, his reputation within traditional Judaism has suffered for many reasons, including his criticism of emerging sects within Judaism, his addiction to gambling, and his unstable personality.

Although he had fulminated against gambling in his youth, as an adult all his resources were swallowed up in gambling, reducing him to penury and accounting for his misfortunes in life.

Yet, as Heinrich Graetz points out: ‘He pursued all sorts of occupations to support himself … those of preacher, teacher of Jews and Christians, reader of prayers, interpreter, writer, proof-reader, bookseller, broker, merchant, rabbi, musician, matchmaker and manufacturer of amulets.’

In 1590, at the age of 19, after the death of his fiancée, his cousin Esther Simḥah, Modena married her sister Rachel. He wished to embark on a rabbinic career, so in 1592 he returned to Venice, but the Jewish lay leaders raised the age of ordination to 35 and then 40. Modena was forced to find his own opportunities to earn a living and for recognition until he was ordained in 1609.

His sermons in Italian in the synagogues in Venice attracted large numbers, including priests and members of the Venetian nobility. His success as an orator and a poet earned respect among Christian scholars, and gained him admission to the circles in Venetian life.

His pupils included Louis Eselin, a noble French courtier, the Archbishop of Lodève, John Plantanit, Jacob Gaffarelli and Giulio Morosini. Leon de Modena and his student Azaria Piccio later became intellectually close.

wo of his children died in infancy, and two of his adult children who died in his own lifetime: Mordecai, who was endowed with great ability, died at the age of 26 by inhaling fumes during alchemy experiments, while Zebulon was killed in a brawl. A third son Isaac led a dissolute life, emigrated to Brazil, and returned to Venice only after his father’s death.

Of his two daughters, one died in his lifetime, while the second was widowed and she and her family became dependent on Leon for support. His wife became insane in 1641 and remained so until she died.

Although he failed to rise to real distinction, Leon of Modena is best known as the interpreter of Judaism to the Christian world.

He has earned a place in Jewish learning in part for his criticism of the mystical approach to Judaism. One of his most effective works is his attack on the Kabbala, Ari Nohem, in which he tries to show that the ‘Bible of the Kabbalists,’ the Zohar, is a modern composition. He argued that the name Chachmas HaKabbalah, ‘The Wisdom of Kabbalah,’ is misleading, since it is neither ‘wisdom’ nor a Kabbalah or tradition going back to Moses, but a mere fabrication.

His autobiographical Chayye Yehuda (‘The Life of Judah’) is a candid and emotional work, and in it he admits to being a compulsive gambler. His Magen va-hereb (מגן וחרב ‘Shield and Sword’) is a polemical attack on Christian dogmas. In this work, he takes to task Christians for their interpretations of Hebrew scriptures and refutes Christian claims.

At the request of John Donne’s friend, Sir Henry Wotton, the English Ambassador to the Serene Republic, Leon wrote an account of Jewish customs and rituals, Historia de gli riti Hebraici (1637). Wooton’s secretary in Venice was William Bedell (1571-1642), later Bishop of Kilmore, and the original intention was to for present this book to King James I.

This was the first Jewish text addressed to non-Jewish readers since the days of Josephus and Philo. It was widely read by Christians and was translated into many languages, including French, Dutch, German, Latin and – paradoxically – even Hebrew.

A posthumous translation into English by Edmund Chilmead (1650) was published at a the time when the return of Jews to Britain was being debated, and Leon of Modena’s book did much to stimulate popular interest.

He served as cantor in a synagogue in Venice for more than 40 years. Earlier, he is believed to have introduced some sort of polyphony in the synagogue at Ferrara, and wrote two essays on music justifying polyphonic practice in services and celebrations.

His gambling led to a dispute with the leaders of the Jewish community in Venice. In 1631, they decided to excommunicate anyone who played cards or took part in games of hazard, within the period of six years. But Leon wrote a treatise in which he demonstrated that the leaders had acted against the Law, and the order for excommunication was revoked.

His wife Rachel died on 7 March 1648, and he died in Venice two weeks later on 24 March 1648.

Modena’s life is an example of the struggles of early, modern rabbinic authority. His candid and extensive writings provide details about the social and economic conditions of Jewish beliefs and daily life in 17th century Venice and Jewish-Christian relations.

When his writings were rediscovered in the 19th century, they were seen as attacks on traditional Judaism. The early proponents of Reform Judaism looked to him as a precursor, while those who wished to undermine Reform Judaism denigrated him a gambler, a heretic, a hypocrite, and a person filled with complexities and contradictions.

Some portray Modena as a Renaissance Jew or the ‘first modern rabbi.’ But, in fact, the Renaissance in Italy was ending by then and in much of his writings he defends traditional mediaeval rabbinic authority. Perhaps it may be more appropriate to see Modena as one of the last mediaeval rabbis and the period in which he lived as the beginning of modern Jewish thinking.

The Schola Grande Tedesca or great Ashkenazic synagogue in the Ghetto in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Next: Simeon (Simcha) Luzzatto (1583-1663)