Reply to Giovanni Levi’s Contribution on David Bidussa (ed.), “Ebraismo”

June 28, 2010

It is not a common thing to react to a review; the reviewer of a book (of a film, of a play) has generally the first and last word in the media in which he expresses his opinion, otherwise there would not be an end to the debate. But, at the same time, the first duty of a reviewer is to inform and only after to judge: the reader (the listener or the spectator) will obviously have the final word. I think that, in respect to some aspects of his review to the volume Ebraismo – edited by David Bidussa for the series Le religioni e il mondo moderno –, Giovanni Levi failed to accomplish this fundamental duty.

This is particularly true, it seems to me, in his general presentation to the volume and in the observations to my contribution to it, the chapter “L’Italia e la via ebraica alla modernità” (Italy and the Jewish way to modernity). I am grateful to the editors of Quest for having offered me the possibility of expressing myself and I will try to bring a useful contribution, adding some elements of reflections. After a general introduction, Levi begins his review by emphasizing what the volume is missing: by rendering an image of Judaism essentially in its relationship with religion, the book does not take into account, he argues, the main feature of modern Judaism, that is to have accepted “the break caused by secularization, which resulted in the separation from faith and religious practices”. In doing so, Judaism has tried to build a Jewish identity “even without faith in God”. I am not the editor, though I had the pleasure to co-operate with David Bidussa in the conception of the general plan of the volume; but it seems to me that all the articles, especially those discussing the pre-modern era, deal exactly with this: with the slow, complex, sometimes imperceptible process that leads to the situation described by Levi in a rather schematic way. In Italy during the 16th and 17th century, in Amsterdam and in Berlin during the following periods, then in Eastern Europe and even within the Hasidic movement, a new culture is shaped, in which the relationship with the ritual practices and with the religious belief are changing (in different ways and with different results, of course; every change is not necessarily a step towards what is generally called “modernity”, as Anna Foa writes in the other review of the book).

This new culture will remain for a long time a religious one; maybe, one should pay more attention to this fact instead of insisting upon secularization as an arrival point, thus projecting a present identity onto the past. This implies that one should try to understand what kind of religiosity the Jews experienced during the early modern period and beyond; or, to put it in less neutral terms, what kind of relationship they had with God. This leads me to the topic of my contribution.

The Italian Jewish society, I tried to demonstrate, was a religious one; and to us, secularized Europeans, it is particularly precious to apprehend what constitutes a new phenomenon of the end of the 16th century: the testimony of those Jews who wrote in Italian, on religious matters, addressing to a non-Jewish (meaning Christian) audience,. This is important because it can give us a key to understanding their attitude toward God in a language and with concepts more easily comprehensible to us, “secularized” people of the 21th century and, most of us, both non-Jews and Jews, not understanding Hebrew. This obviously does not mean, as Giovanni Levi argues –  attributing this idea to me and disagreeing with it –, that “adaptation to the dominant catholic culture represents modernity”; quite on the contrary the Christian and the Jews transform their relationship to God during the early modern period and this transformation implies a certain number of common goals, for instance the fight against materialists and atheists. Because they found a common ground with the Christians, the Jews felt free to express their particular form of religiosity, phrased in a common language – which is our present language – but showing some kind of difference. This difference is a sort of “Judaism reduced to its essence”, in that it is the product both of a particular religious attitude (different from the one of the majority) and of the effort of universalizing it in the language, the terms and the concepts understandable by the “other”. This new openness to the dialogue is, it seems to me, a form of modernity, more nuanced, interesting and maybe more authentic than the secularization described by Giovanni Levi and not enough present – according to him – in this book.

It is a pity that Levi did not take the time to describe the contents of my contribution and limited himself to three or four critical remarks, that are in my opinion the product of a series of strange misreading. I will therefore try, very briefly, to correct the inexactitudes of the reviewer.

I do not start “the way to Jewish modernity” with Amsterdam and Spinoza, another affirmation Levi disagrees with. I actually argue that the historians generally do make this affirmation, whereas I suggest that  Italy “created the intellectual models developed later in Germany and Eastern Europe”. In this context, as writes Levi, Azariya De Rossi with his new humanistic scholarship is an illustrious representative of this early modernity. But I formulate exactly the same judgment in my article, Levi does not need to remind it to me in a polemical way.

As for the judgment concerning the Kabbala, it is not a matter of Levi’s misreading but of different historical evaluations. The controversy on the diffusion of the Jewish esotericism is not new, as it probably goes back to the end of the sixteenth century, when the teachings of Moses Cordovero and then those of Yitzhaq Luria began to spread, encountering a relative resistance, especially in Italy. The polemic was harsher in the 19th century (the representative of the “Science of Judaism” often disliked the Kabbalah, considering it a form of theoretical obscurantism and practical superstition) and is still alive, even if it is wrapped in the more polite form of scholar expression.

Levi seems to suggest that the esoteric doctrine was a factor of modernization, in that it contributed to the dismantlement of the scholastic Aristotelianism and proposes a form of Neo-platonism. He forgets that the neo-platonic period of the Kabbalah was very short (the end of the 15th century and the very beginning of the following century), and was subsequently replaced in Jewish culture by doctrines and practices that one could hardly define as “modern”. It is enough to open the main Kabbalistic books (those written by Azaryia of Fano or Moshe Zacuto, to mention only most prestigious Italian authors), that circulated between 1590 and 1750 in order to realize that they express a Jewish ‘particularism’ based on  the idea of an exclusive revelation of the divine secrets reserved to the Jews. Their style is therefore strongly assertive, because revelation does not tolerate any human argumentation, typical of the imperfect, philosophical method. As for the scientific horizon, it is completely ignored.

One could hardly see this phenomenon as “modern”. But at the same time we notice that a sort of pseudo-science makes its way, especially during a later period. I tried to show that great kabbalists such as Moshe Hayim Luzzatto and Yosef Ergas (first half of the 18th century) felt the need to cope with the sciences and philosophies of their time, in a word with modern, post-Cartesian rationalism, that fascinated their coreligionists sometimes more than their own “revealed science” (i.e. Kabbalah) They therefore accepted to express the esoteric doctrines in the form of dialogues with a skeptical interlocutor, or expounding them in a clear, systematic way, more palatable to the new age.

I dared to call this phenomenon “modern”, even if its modernity applies more to the form than to the actual content. As for the meaning of the term “modernity”, I defined it in the first paragraph of my contribution solely in an operational way, that is, in the aspects that concerned our issue. I will not repeat here what I have already written on this matter. I just hope that not only my article but this entire volume will be read in a more accurate way and considered for what it is: a contribution to an important issue that deserves further analysis: probably the first one written in Italian to present a broad vision of it.