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Letters Between Samuel David Luzzatto and a Kabbalistic Rabbi

Part II

Last week, I began my summary of an article in Hakirah, volume 31 (2022) by Daniel Klein. The article is entitled: “Let Him Bray: The Stormy Correspondence Between Samuel David Luzzatto and Elia Benamozegh.”

As Klein wrote: “Nineteenth-century Italy produced two outstanding Jewish religious figures: Samuel David Luzzatto (‘Shadal,’ 1800-1865) and Rabbi Elia Benamozegh (1823-1900). Both were staunch defenders of Jewish tradition … (but) they took polar opposite positions with regard to the value of the mystical teachings of the Kabbalah. And when they proclaimed their truths to each other in a remarkable exchange of letters, sparks flew.”

Last week, I quoted from Shadal’s anti-mystical views. Now, I am giving Benamozegh his turn, quoting only from one of his letters (from 1863):

“1. You believe that the trills of the shofar were commanded by God to put into public notice — when no calendars were printed — at the beginning of the year. Permit a few questions that my meager intellect suggests …

2. How would the shofar have been more effective than a simple public announcement?

3. Why would practices — such as this one — have to be observed today; since — as you say — their purpose has ceased? Is it reasonable for people to be chained to inane practices, and — notwithstanding the bright light of civilization and a plethora of more befitting means — be petrified in antiquated and obsolete ways, that can have nothing more than a simply archeological value?

4. If they are practiced today for no other reason than to remind us of our political existence, I ask:

(1) What is the purpose, then, of all those rules, prescriptions, minute details that regulate the form, time, mode and instrumentation of those sounds?

(2) Are you not afraid that a rabbi, who has been indoctrinated in these principles of yours, and who does not believe it precisely necessary to perpetuate the remembrance of bygone times — this empty ceremonial — might put a stop to these practices … or at least suppress, with a coup d’état, all the dinim of the shofar and substitute some instrument, some sound, some form in its place?

(3) Furthermore, are you not afraid that some Italian or German reformer or deformer — starting out from your own premises — might say, ‘Better than this horn blaring, a fine and unctuous sermon speaks to the heart and mind,’ thus lending authorization to the German reform, which, it is well to remember, has been motivated by none other than this precise principle, that is — as you say — that this and so many other ceremonies have only a commemorative purpose?

(4) And if this is true, what idea do you have of a wise God, Who knows no better than to order this amorphous means of proclamation and then — with the progress of the times and human erudition in civil life — not only fails to sanction new and more fitting ideas by means of another revelation, but wishes His people to continue living in the temple of a semi-barbaric life of 40 centuries ago …

(5) Does national life consist of perpetuating antiquated customs? A nation that has no current life, and is reduced to feeding upon memories shows itself to be a nation no longer.

(6) To reduce the revealed precepts to mere national preservatives is to make them lose three quarters of their value …; it is to fuse religion — which can never die — with our nationality, which can …

I have been reading these days … your long and sensible reflections on Mendelsohn and his disciples. You investigate with great sorrow how it was that such a religious man was derived from a school of skeptics, rationalists and worse … The true reason was too close to you, for you to see it. Remember what I said to you in the pages above — that when it is established as a premise that in Mosaism, there is nothing but peshat — when one denies absolute reasons for the precepts, independent of times or places, the consequences — sooner or later — are inevitable. This is what Mendelsohn did, and even if he did so with not quite as much solemnity as you do, certainly his inclinations with respect to sod were not dissimilar to yours. See, now, the consequences… Those political, geographical, social and moral motives that the pashtanim assign to the precepts do not stand up to analysis, to criticism, to human needs, interests or passions. If one wants to preserve the mitzvot, they must be put on a higher plane in which these influences cannot make themselves heard, and this is the plane of the absolute. Otherwise, Mendelsohn and Luzzatto … will be pious, observant models of moral and religious virtue, but not be able to transmit these felicitous inclinations to those who succeed them.

They will sooner or later have disciples who will draw out the consequences of their premises, who will say, ‘If the purpose of the Sabbath is only rest and a reminder of the creation, would it not be all the same to celebrate it a day later? … If one eats matzah for no other reason than the memory of the blessed unleavened dough; can we not remember it equally well with a good sermon, without submitting our teeth and stomach to torture for seven days?’… I challenge a reasoning mind to stop the mouth of these terrible logicians and, nevertheless, to stay with the peshat exclusively. The example of Mendelsohn seems to be made especially for you. If you do not pay heed in time … you will be the Mendelsohn of our age in Italy and the rest of Europe. This is what you will be in delayed effect; just as you already are now in scholarship, fame and inclinations. You, who love Judaism, who I believe would give his life’s blood for it — why would you want to leave within your mind this fatal germ that will bring forth its bitter fruits; perhaps, when neither you nor I are in this world any longer to weep for it and remedy it? Do you want to see the advance signs now? Observe on whose side are the reformist aspirations, on your side or mine — that is to say, on the side of those who deny the Kabbalah like you, or of those who continue to accept it, relatively few to be sure (as you rejoice to say, with a joy that makes me shudder) … ”

——————

Here are some of Klein’s conclusions:

“ (Benamozegh) would have been pleasantly surprised … to learn that mysticism in general, and Kabbalah in particular, are currently enjoying both academic respect and broad popularity.”

Nevertheless, the debate continues with regard to the following questions that the Shadal-Benamozegh letters raise:

  • Can Orthodox Judaism survive without Kabbalah, or without some form of mysticism? Or, to the contrary, is it harmed more than helped by it?
  • Do we perform mitzvot (1) because of the unseen cosmic effects that such performance engenders on a higher plane, (2) to commemorate events in Jewish history, (3) to reinforce our feelings of peoplehood, (4) for social and moral benefits, (5) simply because God told us to or (6) more than one of the above?
  • Can Jews who passionately espouse different hashkafot — even within the Orthodox community — learn to agree to disagree? Co-exist? Love each other?”

All very thought provoking! Again, I thank Daniel Klein for translating and publishing all this.


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. Like myself, Daniel Klein is an attorney during the day. (He is a descendant of a different giant of the 19th century: Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch.)

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