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.