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Italian Kabbalists and Anti-Kabbalists: Rabbi Leone Da Modena

Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh (Leon) of Modena (1571-1648) was one of the most colorful Jewish rabbis and scholars of the 17th century. He was born in Venice to a notable French family that had migrated to Italy after the expulsion of the Jews from France. He was master of many trades: preacher, teacher of Jews (many of the great Italian rabbis of the subsequent generation were his students) and Christians, reader of prayers, interpreter, writer, proofreader, bookseller, broker, merchant, rabbi, musician, matchmaker and manufacturer of amulets. Rabbi Da Modena was a fascinating and highly colorful figure, one of the few early rabbis who wrote an autobiography (and a fascinating one at that, extremely unusually candid [at least for a rabbi] and often highly emotional, which I urge everyone to read, particularly the annotated English translation by Mark R. Cohen). One of Rabbi Da Modena’s most explosive works was his attack on the Kabbalah, entitled “Ari Nohem.” This work was not published during his lifetime for reasons that scholars can only conjecture at. In the book he attempted to demonstrate that the Zohar was not an ancient but rather a modern composition. He also became a prominent voice of Judaism among Christian clergy and scholars via a work he penned describing the religious customs of the synagogue, called “Riti Ebraici” (published in 1637). This book became immensely popular and was translated into various languages.

Dr. Yaakob Dwek of Princeton wrote a fascinating account of the controversies that surrounded Rabbi Da Modena in his “The Scandal of Kabbalah.” I offer some excerpts that succinctly sum up some of the most germane material:

“Leon Modena’s world was inundated with Kabbalah. His greatest student, Joseph Hamiz (to whom he dedicated his blistering work on Kabbalah), his beloved son-in-law Jacob Levi, his cousin, the Kabbalist Aaron Berakhia of Modena, and his aged mentor, the Kabbalist Menahem Azariah da Fano, were all passionate devotees. With his Venetian colleagues and with his foreign visitors, with his rivals and inside his own family, Modena encountered Kabbalah at every turn. Whether reading in the cacophony of his overcrowded home or celebrating a circumcision, Modena confronted Kabbalah as a vital force in Jewish life. At the age of 68, plagued by a range of illnesses and beset by mounting debt, stricken by grief and estranged from his loved ones, Modena penned his indictment of Venetian Jewish culture. Written in elegant Hebrew, Modena’s ‘Ari Nohem’ heaved with emotion as deep as it was self-consciously restrained. Modena criticized Kabalah to diminish its status, not to destroy it.”

Dweck abundantly points out that Rabbi Da Modena was frustrated with how Lurianic Kabbalah seemed to overtake so many other Jewish disciplines and become the mainstay of Jewish life. He also seemingly could not grasp the novelty of Kabbalah.

Dwek cites Da Modena, stating the following:

“But each and every time I took within my hands a given volume from the books of Kabbalah and I attempted to study it deeply, with knowledge and discernment, I was not satisfied; and although lofty mountains towered above me (Gen. 7:19), they were closed to me and I could not enter inside; I would close the book and turn to books of Torah and the commandments. But as I grew older, and this happened to me countless number of times, my thoughts brought me to the point where I considered and reflected THAT NOT ONLY WAS THIS NEITHER WISDOM NOR TRADITION NOR TRUE KNOWLEDGE, RATHER IT IS (CLOSE TO BEING [these words were added by Da Modena’s grandson Isaco Levi in order to soften the harsh tone]) A STONE OF STUMBLING AND A ROCK OF OBSTRUCTION (Isa. 8:14).”

He also stuck a decidedly sarcastic tone to platitudes like that of Hakham Isaac de Lattes’ approbation to the first edition of the Mantua Zohar (1558):

“The printing of the Zohar will hasten the advent of the Messiah.”

Modena said this in response:

“But we have seen that it is approximately 250 years since the revelation of the Zohar in writing and the Messiah has not come. And it is some 70 years since it has been printed and the Messiah has not come, and the land still lacks understanding!” (cited in Dweck).

To be continued…

By Joel S. Davidi Weisberger

Joel S. Davidi Weisberger runs “Jewish History Channel,” a grassroots organization dedicated to the dissemination of Jewish history and culture. He resides with his wife and son in Fair Lawn and would love to hear from you (no, really) at [email protected].

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