The Scandal of Kabbalah: Leon Modena, Jewish Mysticism, Early Modern Venice- Yaacob Dweck

There is a new book on the critique of Kabbalah by Leon Modena situating the work in its 17th century context.
Yaacob Dweck, The Scandal of Kabbalah:Leon Modena, Jewish Mysticism, Early Modern Venice (Princeton University Press, 2011)

From the Blurb

The Scandal of Kabbalah is the first book about the origins of a culture war that began in early modern Europe and continues to this day: the debate between kabbalists and their critics on the nature of Judaism and the meaning of religious tradition.

Drawing on a range of previously unexamined sources, this book tells the story of the first criticism of Kabbalah, Ari Nohem, written by Leon Modena in Venice in 1639. In this scathing indictment of Venetian Jews who had embraced Kabbalah as an authentic form of ancient esotericism, Modena proved the recent origins of Kabbalah and sought to convince his readers to return to the spiritualized rationalism of Maimonides.

Dweck situates Modena in the 17th century world in which Kabbalah was the all encompassing focus of traditional culture and how Modena was part of a bigger trend of subjecting classics to historical scrutiny. Dweck points out how int he 17th cnetury both manuscripts and books were in play. Dweck notes that Scholem viewed himself as the first critical human sit toward kabbalah and did not discuss his antecedents in figures such as Modena. Personally, I am interested in the last chapter on the reception of the work in the 19th century.

From The Introduction

Leon Modena’s world was inundated with Kabbalah. his greatest student, Joseph hamiz, his beloved son-in-law, Jacob levi, his cousin, Aaron Berekhya of Modena, and his aged mentor, Menahem azariah da fano, were all passionate devotees. with his Venetian colleagues and with foreign visi¬tors, with his rivals and inside his own family, Modena encountered Kab¬balah 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.

Modena criticized Kabbalah to diminish its status, not to destroy it. he paid kabbalists the devastating compliment of taking their arguments seriously and refuting them one by one. To the claim that Kabbalah represented an ancient esoteric tradition dating back to Moses at Sinai, Modena responded with a systematic analy¬sis of the historical origins of kabbalistic texts. he sought to distinguish between Kabbalah and the oral Torah, a concept that he maintained did have its origins in revelation. Kabbalah and its core documents, he demon¬strated, had emerged only in the late Middle ages.

Kabbalists maintained that belief in the sefirot constituted a crucial element of Jewish faith and branded as heretics anyone who denied their centrality to Judaism. Modena repudiated this claim and leveled a severe countercharge of his own: after an examination of the sefirot as a concept, he concluded that it pointed to a plurality within God similar to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

But Ari Nohem was hardly a detached quest for truth. Much as it was a counterhistory, it was also a countertheology. Modena explicitly addressed his epistolary treatise to his student hamiz, a kabbalist and philosopher who had studied medicine at the university of Padua and had been Mode¬na’s disciple for many years.36 he attempted to persuade hamiz, whom he loved like a son, to abandon his assiduous devotion to Kabbalah and to return to the Guide of the Perplexed.

I seek to answer a basic question in the study of early modern Jewish history: what did it mean to oppose Kabbalah in the very period when it had come to dominate Jewish life?

This book challenges this scholarly emphasis on rupture as characteris¬tic of the turn toward the modern. Several of the elements that ostensibly constitute modern Judaism are clearly present in Modena’s treatment of Kabbalah in the early seventeenth century: a critical attitude toward sacred texts and their origins, a skepticism about received wisdom and doctrine, and an acute awareness of the difference between the Jewish past and the Jewish present.

In highlighting these factors, i do not wish to argue that modern Juda¬ism originated in the ghetto of Venice or to cast Modena as the first mod¬ern Jew.
Ari Nohem offers a telling and dis¬tinctly Jewish example of the marriage between textual criticism and reli¬gious dissent that characterized so much of european intellectual life in the early seventeenth century. whether or not one relies on a historical model of crisis for this period, european intellectuals in the decades before and after Modena wrote Ari Nohem subjected almost all certitudes—religious, theological, scientific—to sustained skepticism.47 The products of their thought were electrifying. By the time Modena composed Ari Nohem, his slightly elder contemporary isaac Casaubon (1559–1614) had demolished the antiquity of much of renaissance ancient theology. Casaubon proved that the Sibylline oracles and the hermetic corpus were late antique forg¬eries rather than works contemporary to the Bible.48 Modena’s Ari Nohem did much the same for the core texts of Kabbalah, the Jewish component of ancient theology. when viewed cumulatively, Casaubon’s and Modena’s work stripped many of the core texts that had constituted ancient theol¬ogy in the renaissance of their pretensions to antiquity.

Building upon these arguments, i reposition the history of Ari Nohem at the juncture between print and manuscript. The story of Modena’s book— both its composition and its later circulation—offers a vivid example of the persistence of manuscript production well into the age of print.

While Modena was keenly aware of the power of the printed word, many of his own writings, particularly his polemical works, circulated in manu¬script throughout the early modern period. This phenomenon was hardly unique to Modena and constitutes a principal feature of written culture in early modern Venice.56 for a number of reasons—fear of censorship, threat of persecution, desire to maintain proximity to a reader—an author might articulate a given argument in manuscript rather than in print. Modena understood print as a public medium that he could not completely control; he wanted to proclaim his arguments, but not too loudly.
Building upon these arguments, i reposition the history of Ari Nohem at the juncture between print and manuscript. The story of Modena’s book— both its composition and its later circulation—offers a vivid example of the persistence of manuscript production well into the age of print.

For all the lurid details it offers about Modena’s gambling habits, dysfunctional marriage, and failing health, Hayyei Yehudah offers little if any insight into his thought.

Modena’s criticism and its subsequent history constituted some of the very ruins evoked by Scholem at the outset of Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, ruins that Scholem himself recovered with such magnificent and ruthless efficiency in the construction of his own narrative. Ari Nohem and its history were profoundly inconvenient to the integrity of Scholem’s story. it undercut two of the central and contradictory claims upon which he built his scholarly edifice: the marginality of Kabbalah and its ostensible neglect as the subject of critical inquiry. Scholem was of two minds about the place of Kabbalah within Judaism: at times he insisted upon Kabbalah as a vibrant but subterranean force within Jewish history; at other times he insisted on its absolute centrality. But he was piercingly clear about its neglect as an academic subject before he wrote his doctoral dissertation on Sefer ha-Bahir.

I wish to be clear about what i am not doing: Modena was not Scholem in Baroque Venice. in one of his late pieces, Scholem perceptively pointed to Reuchlin as his intellectual ancestor.80 Scholem may not have been a kabbalist, as he repeatedly insisted, but like Reuchlin before him he was clearly sympathetic to Kabbalah. for all his insight, Modena lacked such sympathy.

Chapter 7, by contrast, reconstructs the competing efforts of a group of scholars in the early nineteenth century, including isaac reggio, Solomon rosenthal, and Julius fürst, to print the first edition of Ari Nohem. it turns to the mixed reception given to the work by two nineteenth-century kabbalists, elijah Benamozegh and isaac haver wildmann. Read the Rest of the Introduction Here.

One response to “The Scandal of Kabbalah: Leon Modena, Jewish Mysticism, Early Modern Venice- Yaacob Dweck

  1. “Kabbalists maintained that belief in the sefirot constituted a crucial element of Jewish faith and branded as heretics anyone who denied their centrality to Judaism. Modena repudiated this claim and leveled a severe countercharge of his own: after an examination of the sefirot as a concept, he concluded that it pointed to a plurality within God similar to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.”

    This criticism was, of course, noted (sympathetically) centuries earlier by Rivash (#157).

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