Italian Jewish culture was unique for its openness to the broader society and its distinctly Italian character. They lived with a deep integration into Italian life including both low and high cultures. Prof. Cecil Roth termed it assimilation, and most will call it acculturation. The historian David Malkiel captured the hybridity well in academic language when he described Italian Jewish life as “heterocultural, exemplifying the dialectical character of the Jewish -Christian cultural encounter, in which the Jews assiduously cultivated their own tradition as they intensively and fruitfully engaged the culture of the surrounding majority.” This openness led Rabbi Abraham Berliner to teach a course at Hildesheimer’s Berlin Rabbinical Seminary on Italian Jewry as a role model for modern observant Jews.
One of the 19th centuries shining stars of this approach was Rabbi Elia Benamozegh of Livorno (1823-1900) whose many writings show a different form of Jewish modernity than that of the German Enlightenment. Benamozegh was an Italian Sephardic Orthodox rabbi, highly respected in his day as one of Italy’s most eminent Jewish scholars. He served for half a century as rabbi of the important Jewish community of Livorno. Rabbi Dr. Jose Faur wanted to claim Benamozegh as a paradigm the Italian Sephardic approach of a Sephardi modernity, an alternate modernity consisting of a rabbinic humanism combining Judaism with the best of culture. But, as Berliner noted Benamozegh was born under an unlucky star, having less success than he deserved.
To help the reputation of Benamozegh, we have a new book by Clémence Boulouque Another Modernity: Elia Benamozegh’s Jewish Universalism (Stanford University Press, 2020). Boulouque is the Carl and Bernice Witten Assistant Professor in Jewish and Israel studies at Columbia University. More interesting, is that she had a first career as a journalist, literary critique and TV producer in France. Hence, her course listings include religion and film as well as religion and the arts. Boulouque is a graduate of the Institute of Political Sciences in Paris, she holds a B.A. in art history and a post M.A. degree in comparative literature, and she was a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University in the master’s program of the School of International Affairs with a concentration on the Middle East. She received her PhD in Jewish Studies and History from New York University in 2014.
Another Modernity is a rich study of the life and thought of Elia Benamozegh, specifically focusing on situating Benamozegh as a modern and specifically as an alternate approach to modernity than the Ashkenazi paths of Germany or Russia. Much of the trajectory and organization of the book is from her comparison and contrast of Benamozegh to others as a means of showing this alternate modernity. Part of the point is to show that a Moroccan born Kabbalist has what to say to European modernists. Boulouque situates Benamozegh in the modernism of the port Jews of Livorno, hence it is not just any Sephardic modernist or any Italian Jew but a specific kind, a port Jew who lived in a more open and flexible way than Jews in Italian ghettos.
Benamozegh was a publisher, communal rabbi, seminary professor, and author of many works including a commentary on targum, two defenses of kabbalah, a commentary of Psalms, more than one introduction to Judaism, a presentation and defense of the oral law, and a presentation of the metaphysics of Judaism. These works are more traditional, less universal, and tend to attract the attention of Israeli scholars who want to downplay his universalism. Benamozaeh presented Judaism as the religion of the future, a polyphonic capacious Judaism, which he calls Hebraism, that includes the full range of Jewish works including kabbalah.
His Hebrew work that attracts the most attention is his Em la-Mikra commentary on the Pentateuch,. The former was a unique commentary incorporating the archeology, comparative religion, study of mythology, and philology of the early 19th century. Nevertheless, this unique work has yet to be fully studied for its exegesis. No other rabbinic work has turned to comparative religion, rather than history. Benamozegh see parallels between the Biblical stories and the narratives of other religions. For example, in his commentary on Genesis 23:6 he compares Joseph to the Egyptian God Serapis
What people usually do discuss is that this work was banned by the Iraqi rabbinate who could not accept his modernism. Yaron Harel, a historian of Iraqi and Syrian Jewry, has shown that the Aleppo rabbis banned it because of the worries about rise of Reforming tendencies in those countries. (It is an urban legend that Sephardic Jews did not have reforming movements.) He also wrote Ya’aneh be-Esh a rejection of the practice of Italian Jews cremation (see here where this blog discussed it.)
Benamozegh is most famous in the wider world for his French works placing him in the orbit of French Jewish thought, (which we discussed here in an interview with Sarah Hammerschlag). His two most famous French works, His comparison of Jewish and Christian morals, “Morale Juive et Morale Chrétienne.
And his “Israël et l’Humanité” (Israel and Humanity), discussion of universal religion and the roles of and relationships between Judaism, Christianity, 1914 (posthumous, edited by Aimé Pallière [fr]). The work is constructed of selections from a 1900 manuscript. Various claims are made about the relationship of the manuscript and the published edited book. But it is in many ways the first modern Jewish theology of other religions. For Benamozegh, polytheism, Christianity, and religion in general all hold sparks of the divine, which the other traditions fail to interpret properly. For Benamozegh, divine attributes transcend a given religion, so that the same attribute can be identified with pagan gods or with YHWH, the Jewish god. On the other hand, God is so great that Jew and polytheist perceives a different attribute of God; each religion or people perceives their own attributes pointing to the one God. Benamozegh imbibed heavily from Vico and the post-Schelling idealism of von Hartmann, Vincenzo Gioberti, and even Feuerbach.
Benamozegh remade Christianity to have an obscured Jewish heart, rather than the German Ashkenazim such as Geiger who had polemic against Christianity. He finds a place for world religions in God’s plan and places Judaism at the top of the religions the same way that the Neo-Hindu modernist Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan finds a place for all religions but place Advanta Vedanta Hinduism as the highest form of religion.
Clémence Boulouque’s book is a fine book returning Benamozegh to a place of honor in Jewish modernity and even to French Jewish modernity. From the interview one can see Bouluque’s depth and wide ranging knowledge of European culture. The book deserves a place next to Allesandro Guetta’s Philosophy and Kabbalah: Elijah Benamozegh and the Reconciliation of Western Thought and Esotericism (SUNY, 2009). However, we still lack a comprehensive volume that brings together the full range of Benamozegh’s life and thought.
- How does Benamozegh fit with your own Moroccan background or personal connection to an Italian-French-Morrocan Sephardi Jewry.
I first came across the work of Benamozegh after 9/11 as I was exploring the works of thinkers who strove to offer narratives of religious coexistence in times of crisis or divisiveness. Even if one may argue that his endeavors are an instance of noble failure, I still feel drawn to such efforts and to the lessons we can learn from them. I also soon realized that I had a personal connection to this Italian thinker of Moroccan descent: I was born in France but spent a significant amount of time in Italy as a child and it felt like my second country. On my father’s side, our family roots are in Morocco as well as Algeria and Turkey if we go further back in time. So, I do feel a sort of bond with Benamozegh, the languages he wrote in and the worlds he lived in.
2) How is Benamozegh a different form of modernity or as your title says Another Modernity?
Benamozegh’s understanding of, and agenda for, modernity, is idiosyncratic. It was dictated by a sense of urgency and a call for religious unity: in his view, both secularism and reactionary impulses within religious institutions were perilous for society as a whole.
While the most trodden path for thinkers of the Jewish enlightenment or advocates of Jewish assimilation was to prove the worthiness of Judaism through its rationalism, Benamozegh rejected the binaries of religion vs reason which he saw as insufficient categories and a key reason for the religious and political crisis of the Western world. In order to go beyond the dichotomies, Benamozegh sought to apply kabbalistic concepts, derived from the tradition but refashioned in a a modernist discourse, to contemporary debates about religion in his time. He turned these concepts such as the coincidence of opposites, into a stock of tools relevant to religious coexistence. By the same token, he emphasized the Jewish capacity to solve the quandaries of his time – and of humankind – by highlighting its humanitarian nature and its universalism through particularism, in a paradoxical synthesis that foreshadows Levinas philosophy.
Benamozegh’s analysis of the concept of modernity intuited – and rejected – what has become the classical framework by which tradition and modernity are distinct categories. Indeed, Benamozegh claimed that the harmonious dialogue between faith and science originated from within tradition understood as the locus of progressive revelation –a concept central in Kabbalah and from which progress could derive.
Jurgen Habermas in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity offers a relevant frame of analysis for his work when he discusses the imperative for modernity to find normativity, i.e. the standards by which one evaluates permissible and desirable behaviors, within itself lest individuals will experience alienation; in fact Benamozegh framed religion as a place where normativity, is both internal (when it resembles natural law, and thus derived from one’s reason or mind),and external (determined by divine revelation)– something he found in Kabbalah and in the Noahide laws.
Finally, in his work as a publisher of Hebrew books, mostly geared toward the Middle-East and North Africa, Benamozegh promoted a vision of Oriental Judaism that decentered an Aufklärung/Europe-centered narrative of modernity, and certainly contributes to what Shmuel Eisenstadt called “multiple modernities”
All of his propositions and his self-assertive tone make Benamozegh the advocate of a multi-facetted modernity that was unique in his time and is still relevant today in times of renewed clash between science and faith, and divisive identity politics where particularistic agendas lead to divisiveness and seem to undermine the very possibility of unity or coexistence.
3) What was his Moroccan-Sephardi-Italian education? Did not Jose Faur come to similar conclusions about Benamozegh in his articles?
The importance of Benamozegh’s Italian (more specifically Livornese) and Moroccan roots and education, his intellectual and religious genealogies, cannot be overstated. The rabbi was born in the Tuscan port city of Livorno, Italy, to parents of Moroccan descent.
In many ways, Benamozegh is emblematic of the figure of the Port Jew proposed by David Sorkin and expanded by Lois Dubin; his openness toward other religions arguably stems from his Livornese Jewish milieu: it did shape Benamozegh’s understanding of unity through diversity. The tight commercial networks that connected Livorno and Morocco were paralleled by a circulation of knowledge and rabbinical personnel – of which Benamozegh’s uncle, the Kabbalist Yehuda Coriat – active in Gibraltar, Mogador and Livorno, serves as a perfect example.
Having lost his father at a young age, Benamozegh was raised by Coriat who took over the boy’s religious education in which Kabbalah, and the Zohar especially played a central role, as it did in traditional Moroccan households.
Aware of the discredit of Kabbalah in Western Europe, Benamozegh never ceased to defend it, calling it “our theosophy,” thus insisting on the scientific approach of the divine and not on magic or contemplative practices. He also rejected the notion of an antinomian nature of Kabbalah which he saw as a corruption of its true nature, for which he blamed the Hasidim, and pitted obscurantist practices in Eastern Europe against an Oriental Jewish Enlightenment. This is the sort of openness that he promoted in his activity as a printer where he strove to counter the discourse of contempt toward the Orient in his time.
Benamozegh stands for what the late Jose Faur described as a religious humanism,” in Sephardic thought, noting the influence of the 18th century Italian philosopher Vico on Benamozegh and other Sephardim. Vico’s emphasis on the need to understand religion neither as eternal truth nor in a literalist manner as very conservative communities would admonish, while resisting their wholesale rejection because of their irrationalism as the enlightenment would have it, struck a chord with these thinkers. Like Vico, whom he references, Benamozegh envisioned religious texts as instances of humanity’s confronting nature, creation, and the sublime- and as stages of what he called progressive revelation.
In addition to Vico’s influence, the role of his Italian identity is also noteworthy – he came of age at the time of the Risorgimento, and he saw the Italian struggle for independence as a way for Jews to show their Italian patriotism. During these years, he gave impassionate speeches where he articulated his key axiom: the more Jewish, the more Italian, and vice versa – the more national, the more universal, which he foreshadows his later credo whereby the more particular, the more universal a religion can be . Yet, the Risorgimento also tells a story of shattered hopes for a more tolerant religion, which Benamozegh experienced first-hand in the Peninsula when the Papacy took an aggressive reactionary turn against which the rabbi fought throughout his life.
Benamozegh stood at many crossroads and this multi-layered Sephardi Italian identity deeply shaped his worldview.
4) What does he mean by the Hebraism?
Hebraism captures Benamozegh’s expansive understanding of Judaism in which both the Talmud and Kabbalah had a central role to play, alongside midrash, philosophy and poetry. The term could be a faulty translation of the Italian word for Judaism, “Ebraismo,” but when Benamozegh wrote in French, his use of Hébraïsme was deliberate. This is no accident that he turned to this expression which, alongside other alternative terms for Judaism such as “Israélitisme,” took hold in the 19th century in order to emphasize the moral aspect of Judaism, especially in its prophetic and ethical message, and to break away from a conception of Judaism that was viewed as narrowly legalistic or ethnocentric. His purpose in using the term was certainly to highlight the worthiness of Judaism.
But the term had an additional distinct resonance for Benamozegh who was versed in Christian theology: it is reminiscent of the fourth century Christian polemicist, Eusebius, who in his Evangelical Preparation called “Hebraism” the universal, acceptable, non-nationalistic aspect of Judaism. Evidently, the purpose of Eusebius was not to defend the Jews but to show that the Greeks had stolen from Hebraism aspects that could be universal and that these aspects were a preparation for the truth of the Christian scriptures—all of which the Jews, paradoxically and ironically, refused to acknowledge. This claim of Eusebius is crucial because this is exactly the point that Benamozegh wants to emphasize to his interlocutors: the religious core constituted by Judaism, which was picked up by later religions and somehow distorted along the way by Christianity. Religious differences come from a misrepresentation that needs to be addressed and this is this core that humanity should return to – or at least be aware of. Benamozegh’s use of Hebraism showcased a typical strategy of his: he reappropriating Christian terms or concepts and using them in a Jewish key.
5) What is the importance of the layers of human voices that make traditional Judaism more universal than Reform Judaism?
Benamozegh repeatedly emphasized the importance of deliberation within the Talmudic tradition and he even saw these deliberations as foreshadowing Kant’s concept of practical reason – which is one of the tenets of universalism. Because the Reform movement severed ties with the Talmud, it divested itself of the layers of tradition, and of richness of minority opinions that were kept for the benefit of future generations. Benamozegh also compared Reform Judaism to Karaism – the Jewish movement that originated in Baghdad in the eight century, grounded its observance in the Pentateuch alone, in a stern way – and he claimed that such a movement could only lack unity and carry the danger of individualism since true pluralism could only be found in the polyphony of deliberation.
Additionally, in his Kabbalistic references, Benamozegh rekindled the notion of encrypted layers of meaning so central to medieval Jewish thought and used it in a modernist key by addressing multiple readerships- Jews and non-Jews- on their own terms: he thus turned his own writings into a multilingual, multilayered, polyphonic body of work.
6) How does he make the Noahite laws into a universal religion?
The Noahide laws – the seven edicts that bear on all of humankind and offer salvation for all – play a major role in Benamozegh’s system; he viewed them as evidence of Judaism’s true universalism : “If Judaism had been only a purely national religion, it could not have given birth to two religions with truly universal aspirations,” he wrote. This universalism is superior to that of Christianity’s whose salvation is predicated on the acceptance of the messiahship of Jesus.
Unlike Mendelssohn who identified the Noahide laws as natural law, Benamozegh insisted on the fact that they should be accepted as an aspect of the monotheistic revelation. Noahism is thus a continuum between reason and revelation, autonomy and heteronomy, it quietly offers a middle way and caters to the need for metaphysics that, Benamozegh claimed, constitutes a defining feature of humanity and should not be taken away by modernity. Thus spreading the teachings of the Noahide laws in an effort to foster religious unity across nations was paramount to him.
Benamozegh set out to demonstrate that God’s law ought to be immutable and to establish that the Mosaic laws did not supersede Noahism, the previous code, but complemented it- and Christianity, as an expression of Noahism, should be returned to his root in order to enable religious coexistence.
Another crucial aspect is that the Noahide laws made Judaism immune to one of his key criticisms of Christianity which led to the theology of supersession—the Christian theological concept according to which Jesus’ New Covenant superseded the old one, meant exclusively for the Jews. The Jewish-non-Jewish binary was thus softened: there were two modalities of a covenant – a covenantal pluralism.
7) According to Benamozegh, how do Judaism and Christianity compare?
According to Benamozegh, it is Judaism and not Christianity that should be understood as being the true universal religion and the seed for that religious unit because it contains the seeds of all other religions. A metaphor of choice is that of the sun and the rays which Rosenzweig also used.
While he never ceased to acknowledge the beauty and the role of Christianity, the tone of some of his writings could be occasionally scathing. For instance, in Jewish and Christian Ethics, he lamented that Christianity prided itself on its ethical teachings when they derived them from Judaism, and rhetorical questions such as “Is there no exaggeration in the praise Christianity lavishes upon itself?” abound. Additionally, Benamozegh endeavored to demonstrate the Jewish origin of the Christian dogma and more specifically the Kabbalistic origins of Christianity – he viewed the trinity as a misunderstanding of Kabbalistic concepts wrongfully disseminated by apostles who were not ready nor sophisticated enough to be initiated in the mysteries of Kabbalah.
In order for Christianity to reform itself, in a move urgently needed for the future of religion in general, it needed to return to its Noahic origins and acknowledge its deep connection to Judaism so that Christianity could properly embrace modernity, as deployed and defined anew by Benamozegh, instead of becoming a reactionary force likely to further alienate believers from religion and would result in deepening the social and moral crisis of his time.
8) What role does his thought play in that of Orthodox right-wing Zionists? Why do they say Pallière was not faithful to Benamozegh’s work?
Benamozegh was eager to rewrite the narrative of inclusion and exclusion in Judaism and Christianity from an Orthodox perspective and the laws were a perfect tool, but in doing so, he turned a blind eye to the limitations of the Noahide laws, – and this is one of the key criticisms of scholars who shows how this renewed articulation of Jewish difference of the Noahide laws is pivotal in contemporary movements such as Lubavitch, but remains highly problematic. The inclusivity arguably hierarchical nature may indeed bespeak minimal universalism.
As Benamozegh hoped, Kabbalah has indeed become an instrument of political engagement—albeit sometimes at odds with what Benamozegh seemingly envisioned: its radical use among fringe groups of the settler movements in the West Bank testifies to limits or ambiguities in the inclusive interpretation of an ethnocentric tradition. The figure of Adam that he used in order to demonstrate the common origin of humanity appeared in Lurianic kabbalah and has been used by rightwing thinkers according to whom Adam does not stand for humankind but for Israel only – an aspect that Benamozegh silenced but that fueled the notion that his was in reality a sort of qualified universalism: the same system of ontological differences based on Kabbalah is present in Rav Kook’s complex universalistic worldview, which have inspired Israel’s religious far right.
Ethnocentric tensions also remain since it is incumbent on Israel to carry out this universalist mission, especially in messianic times. Some of his texts display a strong messianism in which the messianic times will usher in an era in which differences are subsumed into a return to unity and the original Jewish faith. So isn’t it misleading to talk about Benamozegh’s universalism?
This is what suggest the critiques leveled at Aimé Pallière who edited Benamozegh’s Israel and Humanity. Pallière, his Christian disciple (who wanted to convert but was dissuaded by Benamozegh who asked him to be an advocate of Noahism instead), was asked by Benamozegh’s son to take care of this edition, and he frequently consulted with a Livornese rabbi. The magnum opus, which appeared posthumously, based on a manuscript written directly in French has generated heated controversies over the Rabbi’s authentic legacy. Scholars have disagreed about the content of this 1900-page work, claiming it had been rewritten by Pallière who fabricated a universalism that was absent from the original – and that response also raises the question of how a non-Jew could be familiar with the Jewish tradition, and especially its esoteric/secret aspects. I do believe that Benamozegh’s universalism is not a construct and that its tensions are part of his theological and philosophical construct – a dynamism born out of frictions and the coincidence of opposites.
9) What is his idea of universal psyche? How does Kabbalah and myth fit in?
Benamozegh’s efforts to draw on nascent theories of the unconscious, which he also defined as a “confused perception of the wider field of shared consciousness,” were part of his broader undertaking: showing that “Hebraism,” to use his category, had anticipated scientific discoveries, and notably the science of the mind. In 1877, he closed his 250-page Theology (Teologia) with a credo where he affirmed that the unconscious predated its emergence in the 19th century: “I believe that man does not have conscience of himself, that it is more than what he knows to be, and thus I believe that the philosophy of the unconscious which makes speak of itself so much, not only with Hartmann but before, has a lot of truth to it in that sense.” In 1897, three years before his death, Benamozegh wrote in a small volume entitled Dio (God): “I have long been at work on perfecting my theory of concentric consciousnesses that culminate in God, the consciousness of consciousnesses as the first protological principle of the universe, in the place of intelligence, will, etc… Now that the Unconscious is playing an increasingly important role, we may allow that it is the sense or the awareness of the greater field of shared consciousness; it has at least been proved that we do not have total consciousness of ourselves and that our consciousness has no insurmountable boundaries.”
Kabbalah mirrored the quandaries of the modern mind: just like the unconscious, it allowed for contradictory truths which Lacan defined as a key feature of the unconscious, and which explains his attraction for Benamozegh’s work. Additionally, Benamozegh highlighted the power of myth in Kabbalah with its figures such as Adam. These archetypes will later influence Jungian psychology, which Benamozegh foreshadowed by insisting on myth as a universal expression of the human psyche and as a language shared by humanity. Yet a significant distinction remains. In Benamozegh’s construct, the study of psyche and the unconscious are not the ultimate goal: they are primarily worth studying because they constitute a tool to explore the revelation of God himself in and as the human mind.
10) How does he allow foreign religious elements to play a role in Judaism?
Benamozegh argued that, in Kabbalah, the Jewish tradition had a hermeneutical device perfectly suited for bringing the different faiths together – for understanding otherness in general. He called it was a “connecting shape” (“forme mitoyenne”), which also meant the possibility for proximity but involved a risk of friction: “There can be no hostility where there is no contact.” Kabbalah, he claimed, had fallen in disfavor among Jews precisely due to its proximity with Christianity.
The central concept in Benamozegh’s theology of otherness is berur, choice, separation and elevation. In Luria’s cosmology, the world is the result of God’s contraction, his light pours into vessels which cracked as a result of its intensity and the sparks are trapped in the world. It is incumbent on human beings to reunite them with God and to elevate them, as part of the tikkun (reparation). Benamozegh transposed the concept from transcendent to immanent categories, and cosmological to intellectual categories, whereby berur becomes an act of discernment. In his understanding, one has to extract truth and merits from all traditions – just as God shaped his creation and this world from previous ones. As a result, religious pluralism is a form of imitatio dei, the highest ethical call for humans.
It is worth noting that this old kabbalistic motif, as it appears in sixteenth-century Lurianic sources, is arguably ethnocentric– as it is meant to shed the impurity of the non-Jews – and yet, Benamozegh reframed the concept so that it constitutes the locus of interfaith encounters and a cosmogonic basis for the Maimonidean ideal of accepting the truth from any source.
It is through the coincidence of opposites and the variations on the notion of elevation (illuy and berur) and clarification that Benamozegh was able to provide a new framework, serving as a hyphen between faiths and as a path defying the traditional divide between secular and sacred worldviews. The Kabbalistic concept of coincidence of opposites which first appeared in the 13th century writings of Azriel of Gerona posits that, because the source of all things is one and divine, opposites should be emphasized and elevated and no one is better equipped for this task than the Kabbalists.
11) What is his idea of poligonismo? How does it relate to the religious unity of mankind?
Probably borrowing from the Italian Catholic thinker Gioberti who exerted a great influence over him, Benamozegh used this rare term “polygonism” (which doesn’t even have an entry in the dictionary!) to describe the multiple pathways of the divine plan toward unity. “Alongside polyglottism, which deals with the extrinsic shape, we will place polygonism too, which regards, so to speak, the intrinsic form, the religious idea, whether it addresses one intelligence or the other, in order to make itself accessible.”
The term means that only God is complete and humanity can only have access to fragments of truth, and in multiple languages. Benamozegh often described the importance of multilingualism as a part of revelation – in seventy languages and seventy nations of the globe – so that each could be addressed in their own terms, according to their own capacity. Indeed, in his view, each language is a repository of culture (and here Benamozegh is indebted to Vico’s philosophy) and each worldview is couched in a specific language, which acquires a metaphysical nature. Polyglottism and polygonism are fragments of truths and a reflection of the multiple ways to access God.
12) How does he find polytheism as serving God?
Benamozegh claimed that “The notion of false gods is not the language of the Bible.” and pushed against such a translation, asserting that the accurate rendition would be “unworthy of worship” and not “false, based on his reading of the book of Hosea 1:9. And even such deities provide an opportunity to refine people’s religion and make it worthy of worship as it leads to a greater understanding of the divine.
An interesting way to drive this point home is the unexpected treatment of Egypt. Traditionally, Egypt is the evil place of the “mixed multitude,” the “erev rav” (see Exodus 12:38) that left with the Hebrews, was the cause for worshipping the golden calf, and whose influence was cited by the rabbis at every negative juncture of Jewish history. Yet, Benamozegh claims: It is just a mistaken understanding of the role played by the parts in the whole: “Kabbalism regards the long sojourn of the Hebrews in Egypt as a way used by the Divine Providence to restore to the religion of Israel- to incorporate in it through a selective process – all that was good and true in Egyptian religion.” Here, a pivotal concept is the “iron crucible,” an alchemical metaphor for the sojourn in Egypt, where identities mixed and where the Jewish religion was refined through its contact with paganism, and is thus viewed as positive theological experiment.
13) What is his concept of a relational dependence of other religions with Judaism?
Benamozegh articulated a notion of interdependence that should replace tolerance and he uses a few operative concepts in order to promote his views and compares religions to a family or an organism. For instance, if religions are equated with the children in a family, Judaism would thus be the priestly religion because it is the oldest monotheism and traditionally the eldest child in a family was dedicated to priesthood: he thus equates Judaism with priesthood (thus also tacitly drawing on the theological notion of a nation of priests, found priestly mission to the nations) but he hasten to add: “ what greater absurdity by the way than priests without laity?”. He couched these views on interdependence in a scientific language and described society as a large organism: mutually interdependent parts that maintain various vital processes. He took that organic metaphor to describe “humanity or the world of nations,” or “the civil world of the nations”= whereby every nation has a role, with Israel – the eldest – being the priestly one, in a well-known trope of mission to the world. One can grasp one of the tensions in Benamozegh’s system here; even if this construct conveys a sense of hierarchy it also expresses a singular born out of a plural, a universalism born out of differences and an interdependence, which is more lasting than toleration.
Benamozegh’s contribution is to demonstrate in Judaism the relation between particularism and universalism- “a particularism that conditions universality,” in the words Levinas’ who articulated the same thought in his essay “A religion for adults.” Although Levinas would have likely objected to the metaphors of organs and body parts since these seem very functionalist and have articulated this interconnection based on the responsibility toward the other, irreducible to rationality or vitalism (which ewere especially fraught references in the wake of Nazism), but what Benamozegh sought to convey, steeped as he was in a language of positivism, was that the interconnectedness, and the indispensable nature of all nations and facets of humanity.
14) What were the biggest insights from looking at the full manuscript of Benamozegh, which removed passages taught the most?
Until now, however, no close reading and comparison of Benamozegh’s manuscript to the one published by Pallière in 1914 had been done. Such a comparison constitutes a critical part of my book as I gained access to the 1900-page text, certainly not the first draft but an intermediary stage, which resides in the archive of the Jewish community in Livorno.
The close reading and the analysis of the text has enabled me to shed new light on Benamozegh’s thought and probe the deep influence of the Christian thinker Gioberti. While his ideas, and his faulty French based on Italian , the urge to compress many ideas into one sentence, the subsequent run-on sentences, called for extensive edits, Pallière did not “Christianize” the texts. Many of the mentions of Jewish universalism were actually present early on in Benamozegh’s earlier work, and especially in his 1885 introduction to this opus magnum in which he claimed that the notion of common humanity made Judaism all the more relevant for his time because it never ceased to talk to “humanity about humanity.”
15) Why was his Biblical commentary put in Herem?
Benamozegh’s five volumes commentary came out between 1862 and 1865: it included non-Jewish material as well thinkers such as Spinoza and Voltaire and comparisons between Greek and rabbinical sources.
A few years later, the Aleppo rabbis put the book in herem, thus condemning it to be banned and burned. The rationale for this very rare act of censorship was twofold – first, Benamozegh’s claim that the use of external (non-Jewish) texts could advance knowledge of the Torah and second, that comparisons between the Torah and pagan mythologies – and Christian scriptures – were acceptable.
The measure appears all the harsher given that the commentary accompanied the text of the Torah itself, and thus burning the book meant burning the sacred text, which is proscribed unless the commentary is written by a heretic (See Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah)
Yaron Harel has shed light on this internal dynamic in the Aleppo community that led to this episode: in spite of Benamzoegh’s reputation for orthodoxy, the rabbis felt compelled to reject his “Westernized” treatment of the Bible to better combat a budding reform community in their midst. Following this humiliating episode Benamozegh wrote a long defense in the newspaper Ha Levanon where he claimed to be only following in the Jewish tradition but – except for a long responsum on cremation (which he opposed because it is against Orthodox Judaism but nevertheless stressed that, should this act be performed, it was a duty to bury the ashes)- he never wrote in Hebrew again, and turned to Italian and French in an effort to expand his readership and offer a vibrant defense of Judaism geared toward Jewish and non-Jewish audiences alike.