Ramhal as expressing 18th century Enlightenment values

Yoni Garb has a article attempting to contextualize Ramhal in 18th century Italian Enlightenment and Garb wants to use the writings of his students such as Valle whose works were recently published. “R. Joseph Spinner, a senior kabbalist working at a Jerusalem yeshiva, has published twenty-five meticulous editions of Valle’s works.”
Garb focuses on the tikkunim with Valle commentary. He presents Ramhal’s prophetic vision that we need new tikkunim for our new era that focus on the shekhinah and the three lower worlds.

Garb culls out the use of the words effort, human work, politico as reflecting 18th century values. Valle comes across as strongly anti-Christian but fascinated with Christianity. [As a side point by the site owner, there is a Kabbalah Centre lecturer who presents Valle as teaching that Jesus brought Kabbalah for the gentiles!!!]

The article itself says it does not have the time to show the similarity to labor and power in 18th century thought, so I am left with a sense of “show me” with evidence and do not just tell to trust you. He uses some of the same data in another article to create an affinity to Vico. In addition, labor and work as performed by the magical powers of smoking a cigarette does not have enlightenment overtones of productivity. How the attendance at medical school by angelic mandate combines with magical practice is the Enlightenment concept of work needs to be culturally described as to where it fits into the eighteenth century, especially since Garb rejects considering Valle as counter-Enlightenment.

The Circle of Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto in Its Eighteenth-Century Context Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 44, no. 2 (2011) Pp. 189–202.

One of the goals of this essay is to deepen further our appreciation of the role of the circle, especially the part played by Luzzatto’s close associate, R. Moshe David Valle (1696–1777).Valle was the subject of some preliminary studies by Scholem’s student Isaiah Tishby, whose writings on Luzzatto and his circle recently have been issued in a revised English edition. However, Tishby’s work on Valle was limited by his exclusive focus on the issue of messianism (On Tishby’s approach see the prior posts.)

The other— admittedly more speculative, yet methodologically essential—is to consider the influence of general eighteenth-century culture, especially that of the Italian Enlightenment or Illuminismo, a term which parallels the Illuminatio mentioned explicitly and approvingly in Valle’s Italian book.10 I shall follow the latter course here by demonstrating the importance of two of the keywords of the century and of modernity in general—“labor” and “power”—in the writings of both Luzzatto and Valle.

In the space of one month in 1729, Luzzatto composed a work in Zoharic Aramaic that he described variously as “Seventy Rectifications” [Shiv‘im Tiqqunim] or “New Rectifications” [Tiqqunim Hadashim], comprising seventy alternative interpretations of the last verse of Deuteronomy (and thus of the Pentateuch). According to Luzzatto’s perception, this work was inspired, or even dictated, by the powers revealed to him following his famous formative mystical experience in 1727, including the spirits of Abraham, Moses, and Elijah.

The seventy tiqqunim are a central theme for the messianic project of Luzzatto’s circle. The fourteenth-century classic, Tiqqunei Ha-Zohar, whose style Luzzatto consciously imitated, offers seventy commentaries on the first verse of the Torah, while both Luzzatto and Valle, in a parallel work, commented on the last verse of the Torah: “And for all the great might and awesome power that Moses displayed before all Israel.” In the theurgical hermeneutics of the circle, the very act of commentary on a sacred text supports the rectification of the supernal worlds and the concomitant advancement of the messianic process. Thus, while the multiple medieval commentaries on the biblical verses emended the higher reaches of the divine world of emanation [’atzilut], those composed in the circle were intended to complete the process of rectification by building the lowest of the divine Sefirot or emanations, the attribute of kingdom (also known as the feminine Shekhina).

A second goal was to further draw down the influx of this attribute into the three lower, nondivine worlds of the Kabbalistic cosmos. This second goal reflects the general translation of the Kabbalistic myth into this-worldly terms, which are primarily political, as indicated by the focus on the attribute of kingdom. As Luzzatto put it in a letter to his erstwhile teacher, R. Isaiah Bassan, explaining the rationale of the composition of his second set of tiqqunim: “a great place was left to me [by the famous sixteenth-century master R. Yitzhaq Luria], the matter of the connection of the worlds and the way of the leadership [hanhaga], and its revelation from the [divine world of] emanation to the material worlds.”

As he radically states elsewhere, the merit of the forefathers no longer holds in the Exile, and thus they are “sleeping.” The new rectification shall be performed instead by the two Messiahs and by Moses,

Labor, then, is the path to redemption, and as we read in another of Valle’s biblical commentaries, the nature of redemption is a transformation of labor. His interpretation of the Exodus, as brought about through the power of Moses, is that the Jews became a nation through the transition from the “difficult and bitter” human labor to the “good and sweet” divine labor. This opposition of the human and the divine realms should be compared to a highly important passage in Valle’s commentary on Psalms, in which he contrasts the false counsels of human politics (using the Italian word politica) to the divine origin of the counsel of the Torah, as taken by David, the model king (and, like Moses, a personal model for Moshe David Valle). The preoccupation with the building of the Shekhina through the power and labor of the two Messiahs and Moses is indeed the identifying theme of Valle’s writing in the period of his work with Luzzatto’s circle, which ended with the latter’s 1735 departure from Italy in the wake of the controversy.

Valle ascribes the need for effort in study to the spiritual warfare against the “husk,” or evil power, of the biblical nation of Amalek, which was empowered by the “coming of the Christian [netzer]” (punning ‘amal [effort] and Amalek).

Valle clearly ascribes the need for extensive labor to his own period, or “later generations,” which for him are the “footsteps of the Messiah” alluded to in the Talmud. In one striking passage, he relates this development to the increase in tobacco smoking. Valle regarded smoking, at least for himself as arch-“sifter,”as a tool for empowerment in the labor of contemplation and warfare with the powers of evil, as well as for sifting sparks of holiness in a more literal sense.

One should note that this view of the commandments and their dependence on Adam’s sin has a slightly antinomian or Pauline flavor, which could possibly be ascribed to a perhaps unconscious Christian influence.

Although I cannot elaborate on this theme within the present study, the issues of labor and power are as closely related in the general thought of the period as they are in the discourse of Luzzatto’s circle. Here one may appeal to two central authorities on modern intellectual history: Peter Gay regards “power” as one of two words which sum up Enlightenment thought; while Michel Foucault, albeit discussing a later century, writes that the “binding of man to labor” should be rightly regarded as political, rather than merely economic—“a linkage brought about by power.” In the case of eighteenth-century Italy, one should note the centrality and interplay of these themes in the writings of Giambattista Vico, Luzzatto’s contemporary and the best-known early modern Italian political thinker.
(The similarities between Luzzatto and Vico are discussed in Jonathan Garb, “The Political Model in Modern Kabbalah: A Study of Ramhal and His Intellectual Surroundings,” Avi Be‘Ezri, ed. B. Brown, M. Lorberbaum, Y. Stern and A. Rosenak (Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center and Israel Democracy Institute, forthcoming) [Hebrew])

Based on an angelic revelation, he sanctioned his favored student R. Yekutiel Gordon’s pursuit of a medical degree at the University of Padua. Valle’s own medical degree earned him the appellation “the physician” in the correspondence of the circle, and medical and anatomical issues indeed feature prominently in the first volume of his compilations. As two leading writers on the Enlightenment, Foucault and Gay, claimed in very different ways, medicine can be seen as a model for Enlightenment philosophy.

Obviously, openness to the non-Jewish world, even at a time of relatively benevolent treatment, does not imply a positive attitude toward that world. One of Valle’s early works is an anti-Christian polemic in the vernacular; its explicit references to the Christian faith, as well as some of his stronger critiques, are rendered in Hebrew in order to bypass censorship. Alongside this critique, however, Valle’s writings display remarkable interest in the details of Christian practice. Italy, one may say, occupies a unique place in the cultural history of modern Kabbalah.

2 responses to “Ramhal as expressing 18th century Enlightenment values

  1. avraham rosenblum

    I am bothered by the fact that there does not seem to be much interface between the enlightenment thinkers and the kabalah.This bothers me because i feel that the arizal had great insight not just into the higher spiritual worlds but also into the human soul. I admit the application of the ari to the soul seem to be more of an emphasis of rebbi nachman but still i feel it is inherent in the ari.
    Yet Ari nor the gra nor rebbi nachman deal with the important issues of the enlightenment.
    First of all a lot of the force behind the enlightenment was Hobbes and the insight that the type of virtue of priest and princes was abject failure .
    The enlightenment was an attempt to create a new type of virtue–the industrious man who is selfish in an enlightened way (IE bourgeois).
    This paints a very shallow picture of a human being. So while i can see the importance of the dept of the kabala i am disappointed at the lack of dealing with the fact that medieval virtue was a failure.

    (edited by site owner)

    So Again why i see kabalah as the was out of this horrible mess we are in–i am bothered that there does not seem to be any interface between it and modern issues. Kabala’s values seem to be a straightforward reversion to the middle ages. That might be better than anything else out there but it still does not answer the problem that medieval values are medieval.
    Or put better our problem is we don’t have a thinker of the stature of the rambam.

  2. I am the lecturer who presented material on Valle. And yes, Valle says there were “repugnant lies” made up about the teachings of Jesus and that he came to bring the true Torah to the gentile world. That was his role. Valle refers to Zechariah ans the verse describing the Jewish man who the gentile nations hang onto by the shirt tails (tzit tzit).

    The Arizal says something profoundly similar: that the reason for the continued exile is that the gentile nations cannot extract themselves out of the klippah. Only the soul of Torah, the essence, the Zohar, the wisdom and energy of Kabbalah has that power and that is why the Israelites are sent out into the world. And if they fail, then there will be persecutions against them. Valle’s criticism of Christianity is nuanced, subtle and profound, as he explains how the Israelites were forced to endure exile among the idol worshipping nations as a result of the sin of the Golden Calf and destruction of the temples. Christianity, when taken literally, appears to be idol-worshipping. But through the lens of Kabbalah, it is Torah. This was God’s way of providing a lifeline, an umbilical cord back to the Torah for the pagans and Israelites who assimilated into this world, while they endured exile.

    Valle says we must correct the lies about Jesus’ teachings and the connection to Torah in order to bring about the redemption. He says Christians have it wrong and the Jews have it wrong. Only Kabbalah can explain the conflict and reveal the underlying unity.

    –billy phillips

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