Isaiah Tishby. Messianic Mysticism: Moses Hayim Luzzatto and the Padua School.

Isaiah Tishby. Messianic Mysticism: Moses Hayim Luzzatto and the Padua School. Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2008. $69.50

These studies were written by Tishby in the 1970’s and 1980’s and they are only now available English. They portray the clean-shaven unmarried Luzzatto who wrote plays in Italian and Latin, and who gathered a group of University of Padua medical students around him for the purposes of creating a mystical circle. Tishby explores the messianism, the Sabbatianism, Luzzatto’s angelic maggid, his messiah ketubah, and the heresy accusations. These are studies on recently discovered manuscripts not final thoughts, many of these topics can use further elucidation after the thirty years.We now have many more works by Luzzatto. For example he shows us the reader that Luzzatto used his ruah hakodesh to write a new Zohar but Tishby does not explore the content of the work nor its relationship to the extensive writings of Valle. An intellectual biography of Luzzatto remains a desideratum.

Isaiah Tishby. Messianic Mysticism: Moses Hayim Luzzatto and the
Padua School. Reviewed by Hartley Lachter (Muhlenberg College)

Moses Hayim Luzzatto (1707-46) was undoubtedly one of the most important thinkers and fascinating personalities of
eighteenth-century Italian Jewry. The scion of an influential Jewish family in Padua, Luzzatto’s life and literary legacy project a
distinctly contradictory set of images. At once a poet, playwright, moralist, kabbalist, self-fashioned leader of a messianic group,
radical prophet, and exiled accused heretic, Luzzatto nonetheless came to be celebrated by Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, as well as
secular Jews of later generations

Many of the compositions by Luzzatto that Tishby addresses in this volume would be quite surprising to one familiar with Luzzatto’s more popular writing. Included here are a number of previously unknown works that Tishby discovered in MS
Oxford 2593, as well as poetry (reproduced in both Hebrew and English), and several prayers that Luzzatto composed for a variety of
occasions, including a confessional prayer that he wrote for his group of kabbalists in Padua. Tishby also gives attention to the
works of Moses David Valle (a significant member of Luzzato’s kabbalistic group), reproducing his mystical diary, rife with
messianic overtones, and he explores the question of the spread of Luzzatto’s works in Eastern Europe, and their influence on Hasidic
schools of thought.

One of the most striking compositions discussed in this collection of studies is the kabbalistic commentary that Luzzatto wrote to his own marriage contract when he married Zipporah, the daughter of Rabbi David Finzi of Mantua, in 1731. This remarkable text, as noted in Dan’s introduction, sheds important light on Luzzatto’s messianic posture. Luzzatto came to be regarded with suspicion when he began claiming as early as 1727 that he was receiving revelations of a maggid or heavenly voice, enabling him to compose prophetic pronouncements, and even a “new Zohar,” which it seems he shared with the group of kabbalists that he led in Padua. Added to this was the accusation leveled by Moses Hagiz before the rabbis of Venice that he intercepted a letter by a member of Luzzatto’s group containing evidence that Luzzatto was a follower of Shabbtai Zvi.

Luzzatto’s teacher and champion, Isaiah Bassan, convinced him that he could quell at least some of the controversy if he would agree to marry, since remaining single into one’s mid-twenties was itself understood to be unseemly. The discovery of Luzzatto’s kabbalistic commentary to his own marriage contract reveals that while his decision to marry was in part a concession intended to placate his critics, the marriage was also understood by Luzzatto as a union of divine dimensions, literally heralding the messianic era. Situating this document within the broader context of Luzzatto’s messianic doctrine, Tishby concludes that Luzzatto regarded himself as serving the role of Moses, whose task is to guide the actions of the Messiah son of Joseph and the Messiah son of David. Evidence indicates, according to Tishby, that Luzzatto understood Valle to be the Messiah son of David, while none other than Zvi was regarded as the Messiah son of Joseph. Another of Luzzatto’s group, Jekutiel of Vilna, was believed to serve as Seraiah of the tribe of Dan, the general of the forces of the messianic army. Luzzatto’s commentary to his marriage contract is reproduced in full English translation in the volume, along with Tishby’s illuminating notes. Taken together with Valle’s diary, these texts provide important source material for an under appreciated moment of messianic ferment.

We know that Luzzatto received an education in non-Jewish areas of knowledge, and he even defended his colleague Jekutiel from detractors who took issue with his study of “Gentile wisdom,” since he came to Padua originally to study medicine. How are we to understand these otherwise “worldly” men in their turn toward Jewish esoteric discourse as the source for all true knowledge?

As Luzzatto remarks in a text addressing Jeremiah 9:22, “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom,” found in MS Oxford 2593, “the whole science of truth [kabbalah] rests solely on this question, the question of the holiness of Israel: how the Holy One, blessed be He, adheres to them in His holiness and how Israel must adhere, through their desire and their worship, to His holiness, blessed be He; and how all the affairs of the world and of the all creation have rested upon this basis ever since they came into existence and [will do so] to all eternity” (p. 47).

There remains work to be done in better situating Luzzatto and his colleagues within the eighteenth-century Italian intellectual context.

As a companion, I recommend Rivka Schatz-Uffenheimer, “Moshe Hayim Luzzatto’s thought against the background of theodicy literature,” in Justice and Righteousness (1992) 173-199 where she contextualizes Ramhal in the post Lisbon eathquake concerns of Leibnitz and King.

This baroque world of science and kabbalah intertwined ended abruptly with the Enlightenment. From Rav Yosef Karo to Ramhal and from there to the Vilna Gaon, a proper Gadol could ascend to heaven, perform kavvanot, receive angelic visitors, and attempt to bring the messiah. Forty years after these writings Ramhal’s own cousin Shadal would not suffer to perform any of these kabbalistic rites or utter kabbalistic prayers. Enlightenment concern with sense data and manuscript work on texts had brought the baroque edifice down.

Ramhal played almost no part in Gershom Scholem’s writings since Luzzatto treated kabbalah as either scientific or as theological providence,not as symbolism

In the 21st century, these remain as vestiges for the psychologist to decipher what to tell the client. There is a local psychiatrist that wants to work with me on some schema for understanding the Orthodox kids who come in with angelic visitors, when are they potential gadolim (or at least mathematicians and chess masters) and when do they need medication? But the real question is can we accept the epistemic rupture that the early modern period represents and the fact that we exists in a alternate formulation of Judaism. The Vilna Gaon with his angelic visitors belonged to Luzzatto’s world, the world of tikkunim.

20 responses to “Isaiah Tishby. Messianic Mysticism: Moses Hayim Luzzatto and the Padua School.

  1. Would pre-enlightenment kabbalists have accepted reports by a “kid” that he had a maggid? Wasn’t it understood that these visitations and experiences, weather ecstatic, meditative, or visionary, had to be cultivated and presupposed having studied some existing corpus or under a master?

    • According to the Bassan letter the problem was that he had the wrong profile- unmarried, beardless, Italian playwright et al. There were many prophets, possessions, and maggidim in the early modern period- it does not seem that tutelage and linage was the issue. Goldish in both his book Sabbatian prophets and his conference volume has a lot of the material. From a regional perspective, Italy had a Catholic inflected acceptance of visions. The GRA is praised for having these talents as an adolescent. Linguistically, they used the same words to describe the false spirit resting on pagans. I am not sure if that answers your question. Food for thought.

  2. Eiver LaNahar

    I am surprised to hear that you believe the “world of tikkunim” ended with the GRA and his dor. All kabbalists that I know are involved with these concepts and avodahs, straight out of the same source material. Suggest you speak with a few more of them.

    You have mentioned Rav Itche Meyer Morgenstern (author of “Yam HaChokhmah”) on this blog, but you might want to speak with R. Yitzchok Ehrlanger in Yerushalayim (author of “Shiva Eynayim”) and R. Yechiel Bar-Lev (“Yedid Nefesh”) of Bnei Brak (I think that’s where he lives). Here in NY you might contact R. Mordechai Zilber of Stuchin (54th St in B Park) and R. Moshe Milstein in Flatbush. I don’t think they would be so quick on the draw diagnostically.

    • R. Yechiel Bar-Lev (“Yedid Nefesh”) has stayed in my house. He edited the Magid Mesharim specifically because the ideas did not make sense in his worldview and he does not practice any of it. He does not do tikkunim or magidim. He is a modernist follower of the Hazon Ish

      All kabbalists that I know are involved with these concepts and avodahs, straight out of the same source material

      I am not sure that once one is a 20th century self-defined Kabbalist, it is the same as it being the unreflected cosmology for everyone. In addition, there is a greater emphasis on common sense psychology and self, less on Kabblistic science. and the many souls. We may still use the word tikkun but its usage has generally changed. None of the names that you mentioned are engaged in aliyat neshamah to talk with tannaim and Biblical figures. But until the Gra and the Besht, ascents and ascent formula are common. It would be worth comparing how the Komarno re-frames an earlier ascent texts as visionary without the possibility of talking to Talmudic Rabbis.

      As per our email on non-duality, I would put Nefesh-Hayyim-Tanya- Rav Kenig into the next period. If you want to take one 20th century text then we can compare it to the Kabbalistic works of Ramhal.

  3. Baroque delineates certain styles in painting and music. It ended around the beginning of the 18th century. Are you suggesting that 18th century kabbalah has some features similar to Baroque art of the previous century and is different from earlier periods? The Enlightenment designates certain modern ideas and institutions, and was already going strong by the beginning of the 18th century. How do use this to explain the Vilna Gaon, who died in 1797, and his talmidim who were kabbalists in the old style well into the 19th century? I understand the Enlightenment proceeded at an uneven pace, but then your point is if the Gaon wrote a certain style of kabbalah he must be a pre-Enlightenment figure. I am not even sure all post Sabbatean kabbalists did not participate in the Age of Reason. RYEmden and Reb Yonason Eybeschutz lived in towns that were not at all backward. The Jewish women dressed in the 18th century style. Certainly Wolf Eybeschutz was a Jacobin kind of guy.

    Rachel Elior sees the common thread to be lingering elements of Sabbateanism. She sees the Ramchal, the chassidim and even the Frankists as participating in a common spirit of rebellion.

    Click to access adler.pdf

    The Liebes paper on talmidei hagaon can be found on his webpage.

  4. Eiver LaNahar


    I have never met R. Ehrlanger and R. Bar-Lev, although I have read some of their sefarim. Of the kabbalists I mentioned, to my knowledge only R. Bar-Lev is out of the Chareidi loop (although I’m sure he is an ehrlicher Yid). I believe the rest are all involved in more mystical forms of avodah, to one degree or another. Whether they will speak openly with you about these things is another question. In such circles, disclosures of such things as visions and altered states of consciousness might be construed as ga’avah. It might be worthwhile to ask our mutual friend the Taoist Kanoy from Williamsburg if he sees such a sea-change in the wake of early modernism as what you described.

  5. EJ-
    You have many issues compressed here. There is a style of Kabblaah from the late 16th century to the early 18th that, in Idel’s terms, turns from the universal of the renaissance to the particular of the Counter reformation. I call it baroque because of its ornamentation, avoidance of Occam’s razor, and multiplication of entities. A typical work is Rama of Fano’s Asaah Maamarot; the peak was the 1740 three volume Siddur Rashsah. In addition works from this era have baroque elements think about fortunate fall, mixtures of foolishness and rationality together, succubae, and identify the self with the pnuema. Sabbatian works of the 17th century answered certain Baroque questions. They also treat kabbalah as a hidden science.
    For your string of questions, we have to distinguish between accepting baroque Kabblaah, accepting Enlightenment ideas, and the impossibility of accepting Baroque Kabblah. The Gaon and his immediate followers accepted both Baroque Kabbalah AND enlightenment ideas. As did Mendelsohn followers likes Isaac of Satanov who sought to find brain surgery in the idrot. I have an article in the Bar-Ilan GRA conference volume on the students of the Gra and their movement from the Baroque to the use of Kant and the fighting of Reform. Yet, R. Israel Salanter and R Herschel Lewin were already in a world that could not accept the baroque anymore. In late eighteenth century Germany, all the names you mentioned lived in both the baroque Kabblah and the Enlightenment. But by the next generation, the cosmology of the Baroque was gone. Scholem showed that one could be a Jacobian and a Baroque Kabbalist, but a generation later even the creative kabbalists were modern.

    Liebes is certainly correct. The circle of the Gra readily and freely used Sabbatian works. They answered certain 17-18th century kabbalistic problems. On some level I am using the word baroque Kabblaah as a more expansive category than Sabbatianism.

    Eiver LaNahar,
    I am sure we will continue this discussion as I do other seforim. I learned R. Morgenstern’s kuntres on the history and essence of chassidus on Shavuos and have not had a chance to write it up. I will make a point of flagging things that I see as shifts. Want to work out your non-duality ideas here?

  6. Alan,

    Are their any articles/book in English that can give me the inside scoop on Komarno?

  7. No. Komarno desperately need an inheritor and redeemer.

  8. Eiver LaNahar


    Just got back from parts north. To continue where we left off, there is mention of an argument between Reb Nachman of Breslov and the Rav of Alisk (I think — didn’t look it up) about the appearance of the Malakh Metat in a vision. This took place at least a little later than the period of the Vilna Gaon. I also recall some visionary material in the writings of R. Yehudah Ftaya, maybe in Minchas Yehudah, maybe elsewhere.

    As for contemporary kabbalists, again, most people are squeamish about committing such things to writing. But I imagine that they still happen. (Not to me, though, for better or worse…)

    It would take some serious persuading for me to agree with the presumption that western secular historical categories like “baroque,” “modernist,” etc., transfer to the world of Jewish (or other) traditional enclaves. Academics might ponder the possible common ground or zeitgeist shared by the Baal Shem Tov and Swedenborg and contemporaneous Russian Orthodox visionaries, or the Maggid of Mezritch and Hakuin Zenji, or Reb Nachman and Beethoven and William Blake. But to suggest a causal relationship would be preposterous.

    On the other hand, the Zohar might supply us with a clue or two, if its premises are not upgefregt lechatchilah…

  9. Eiver LaNahar

    PS: I have three weeks to make a deadline on another writing project before I can even start taking notes about the duality-nonduality exploration. But maybe over the summer I’ll come up with something. Thanks!

  10. While I cannot agree with Eiver’s sharp formulation: “to suggest a causal relationship would be preposterous,” I do wonder whether we put too much emphasis on the differences between thinkers from different time periods (baroque, renaissance, counter reformation, etc.). While I do believe that there is probably some causal influence on Jewish thinkers, like any other, from Western thought, are these thinkers not at least as strongly influenced by the thought of their predecessors whose teachings they took very seriously. Although the differences are very important to highlight, I think most often there are more similarities between the thought of a 16th century Kabbalist and a late 18th century Kabbalist than there are differences.

    Another, unrelated, question. Dr. Brill, you wrote, “Ramhal played almost no part in Gershom Scholem’s writings since Luzzatto treated kabbalah as either scientific or as theological providence,not as symbolism.”

    I do not understand how this fits with the view of Ramchal as baroque, focused on angelic visitors and multiplying entities. I think I understand how neither the scientific/providence approach nor the baroque/angelic visitor approach are congruent with Scholem’s symbolic approach. But I do not understand how the scientific/providence approach and the baroque/angelic visitor approach fit with each other.
    I have been trying to make it through the Klach Pischei Chochmah over the last few weeks (I’ve tried and failed before), and I see the the theological providence approach much more evident than the baroque.

    • I dont think that element is baroque. The providence and theodicy elements are late17th and early 18th century. That’s why I recommended that Tishby be supplemented with the article by Rivka Shatz on providence literature of the era.

  11. I see that. What I mean to ask though is aren’t these to elements difficult to reconcile in the same thinker? In the Klach Ramchal seems to follow many discussions of adam kadmon, partsufim, olamos etc. with statements such as: really all of this is just to make it easier on the ear, we have no hasaga of any of this, and the point is that everything goes in a chain of atzilus in order to turn the ra into tov.
    Doesn’t this attitude stand in contradiction to having such literal interactions with multiple divine entities?

  12. RaMCHaL refers to the Kabbalah as a metaphor (mashal) — in fact, at the beginning of KLaCH Pischey Chokhmah, I believe — for which he has been taken to task by disciples of the RaSHaSH and others. Wouldn’t that indicate a “symbolic” approach, despite the abstract-rationalist character of his system that some scholars have deemed “scientific” (and, of course, we have some support from the term of the mekubalim themselves, “chokhmas ha-emes”)?

    I’m willing to be convinced otherwise, but for the time being, it seems to me that the arbitrary imposition of these categories is too often like fitting square pegs into round holes.

  13. “…really all of this is just to make it easier on the ear, we have no hasaga of any of this…”

    Isn’t this another case where we must apply Korzybski’s famous saying: “The map is not the territory”?

  14. I’m interested in the lineage of ‘lithuanian-style’ kabbalah that seems to base itself on the Ramhal and seemed to flourish in Israel in a circle that included (centered on?) Rabbi Chaim Friedlander. A kabbalah for those who are usually assumed to ignore kabbalah. Why particularly did the teaching of the Ramhal have this role? Is the key idea just that that the teaching/myth laid out by the Ari is a mashal and is meant to be decoded/translated into other terms?

    According to Tishby in this book, it seems fairly certain that Luzzatto and his circle were Sabbatean–if not believing Shabtai Tzvi himself messiah (designating him only Mashiah ben Yosef), then in adopting the religious system taught by Nathan of Gaza, with its unprecedented role for the person of the messiah in the process of the tikkun. Very hard to digest how someone so extremely on the dangerous fringe of the religion could be identical with the author of Messilat Yesharim.

    Reading about the Ketubah, I can’t help wondering about / being afraid for the fate of Luzzatto’s bride–what was she told? how did he relate to her on a human level?

  15. walter benjamin

    Most of what you have mentioned is true but a bit misconstrued. Whether or not he believed that SZ was the messiah is not clear however in his אגרות ,which contains much doctrinal material aside from correspondence, he mentions SZ as the aspect of of the messiah as a נפל or miscarriage in relation to the ‘messiahship’ of SZ.
    He definitely used the writings of Nathan of Gaza as mentioned in the אגרות even referring to a specific matter only found in Nathan’s writings and the Ramhal. Perhaps they had the same magid?
    It is know to me that there are several well know ‘qabbalists’ today in Jerusalem who study Nathan’s works but I am sure they would not want to be known.
    As you may be aware some years ago the מטפחת ספרים of the יעב’ץ was reprinted in a clear fashion and the book was ‘swiped’ from the shelves of bookstores at the behest of the בד’ץ because he took a critical stand against the Zohar so censorship is still in ‘style’.

  16. For these people who study Natan’s works, what is the attraction, what is so compelling about the teachings?

  17. walter benjamin

    Firstly, look and decide. Aside from that the aspect it was the closet chronologically to the Ari {70 yrs} in which a very interesting doctrinal aspect came out as opposed to the later commentaries i.e. the Rashash and the Ramchal who did use the writings of Nathan.
    The Ramchal says himself in the אגרות that Nathan received the ‘holy spirit’ during נפילת אפיים and would whisper one’s transgressions and rectifications in their ears. Following this phenomenon, as is known, many believed SZ to be the messiah and Nathan his prophet and sold their belongings to go to the holy land.
    But as mentioned firstly examine the writings for yourself and make your own decision.

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