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Rabbi Eliyahu Benamozegh: Israel and Humanity

Friday, October 24 2008

Many Jews in our day, like many of our brethren of other tribes, are seeking
to mend the fractures that divide us from ourselves and from others, and to
find ways to heal the wounds that afflict us only six decades after the
Holocaust and the rebirth of Israel. Amid these efforts, an idealistic,
scholarly nineteenth-century rabbi from Livorno seems,
to some, to provide a beacon of hope and humanity.

Elijah ben Abraham Benamozegh (1822-1900) was highly respected in his day as
one of Italy's
most eminent Jewish scholars. (See Encyclopaedia Judaica, s.v.
"Benamozegh"; Elijah Benamozegh,
Israel and
Humanity, trans. and ed. Maxwell Luria,
New York
: Paulist, 1995, xi-xvii, 1-29,
31-38, 378-402. I have drawn in several instances from material in the
Translator's Introduction to this volume.) He served for half a century as
rabbi of the important Jewish community of Livorno
(Leghorn), where the Piazza
Benamozegh now commemorates his name and distinction. R. Benamozegh was (and
remains) celebrated as
Italy's most
articulate proponent of Kabbalah, at a time when Jewish mysticism was widely
disdained. In Gershom Scholem's opinion, he and Franz Molitor were "the
only two scholars of the age to approach the Kabbalah out of a fundamental
sympathy and even affinity for its teachings."
(Gershom Scholem, Kabbalah , Jerusalem,
1974, 202. Cited by Moshe Idel
in his Appendix to Israel
and Humanity, 397.) Later, owing
significantly to the effective advocacy of his student
and posthumous editor Aime Palliere, it was Benamozegh's persistent
support of the Noahide idea and its implications for the
spiritual life of all people that brought him most attention, and has
encouraged the translation and republication of his works. (See Israel
and Humanity, 18-21 et passim.) Most recently, however, it is the scope of his human
sympathy and religious tolerance --- the
seemingly effortless way in which Kabbalah's cosmic universality and Noahism's religious universality are
somehow linked up in him alongside a scrupulous Orthodox rabbinism --- that have attracted
particular attention, and identified him not only as a rare
Orthodox rabbi --- "the Plato of Italian Judaism," as he was sometimes called
(see Palliere in Israel and Humanity, 31), and "incontestably in the
great line of the Sages of Israel" (Emile Touati, quoted by Luria in
Israel and Humanity, 8) --- but as a timely and useful thinker as well.

A brief glance at the Internet reveals how widely R. Benamozegh's ideas are
being discussed, in Noahide and Christian as well as in Jewish circles, and how
much research is currently being devoted to him. In recent decades, the book of
his that has received most attention, Israel et l'Humanite (Israel and
Humanity), has been published in Hebrew (1967), Italian (1990), and English
(1995) translations (see Luria in Israel and Humanity, xii), and has made a
deep impression on the contemporary Noahide movement. His other major work in
French, La Morale Juive et la Morale Chretienne (Jewish and Christian Ethics),
whose English translation had been published as early as 1873 but
had long since gone out of print, was reissued in
Jerusalem in 2000.Scholarly papers
on R. Benamozegh are appearing, especially in
Italy and
France. (One
of the most important recent essays in English is Moshe Idel's "Kabbalah
in Elijah Benamozegh's Thought," which appears as an Appendix in
Israel and
Humanity, 378-402.) Alessandro Guetta's study Philosophie et Cabale dans la
Pensee d'Elie Benamozegh (Padua, 1993), has recently been translated by Helena
Kahan as Philosophy and Kabbalah: Elijah Benamozegh and the Reconciliation of
Western Thought and Jewish Esotericism, and is scheduled for publication in
October 2008 by the State University of New York Press in Albany.

Some current rabbinical literature, too, discloses
an awareness of R. Benamozegh. One must note in this
connection Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz's remarkable paper, "Peace Without Conciliation: The
Irrelevance of 'Toleration' in Judaism" (Common Knowledge , 2005: 11:41-47).
Steinsaltz here affirms his opinion, perhaps without parallel in Orthodox
rabbinical writings, that the Noahide criterion of monotheism -- the first
of the seven universal mitzvot -- is satisfied not only by Islam (an embarras
de richesses) but by modern Christianity as well: "By the standards
of the Noahide laws, the doctrine of the Trinity is not an idolatrous belief
to which Judaism can express an objection." And even, mirabile dictu,
by contemporary Buddhism and Hinduism. To be sure, Steinsaltz hedges
his revolutionary assertion with a discouraging title and subtitle, and
with significant qualifications, especially with respect to what he sees
as the difference between "Noahide monotheism" and "Jewish
monotheism". But no matter -- the Noahide cat is out of the bag, and this article has ---
properly and expectably --- attracted a good deal of attention.

Steinsaltz's reference to R.
Benamozegh comes in his last paragraph: ¿Even
Elijah Benamozegh, who was perhaps the rabbinic figure most open toward, most appreciative of, Christianity and Islam, viewed the relation between Judaism and those other religions in hierarchical terms.¿ His acknowledgement here of R. Benamozegh's exceptional appreciation of other religions, even while his Torah
perspective unsurprisingly obliges him to perceive these religions as
imperfect, is, I think, symptomatic of the current perception
of him.

More debatable, perhaps, is Rabbi Steinsaltz's attempt to invoke R. Benamozegh to support his contention that even an authentically realized Noahism must remain "hierarchically" inferior to Judaism. His discussion of the relation between the two is not altogether clear,
but he seems to diminish what he calls "the Noahide model" in
a way that would be alien to R. Benamozegh --- I shall discuss this
matter presently -- though perhaps congenial to a more conventional rabbinical

He concludes his article with that most familiar of
rabbinical strategies for explaining or excusing Jewish concessions, the "shalom
bayit" formula: "Basically, [Noahism] does not
require most religions to give up, or modify the meaning of,
such words as 'true' and 'truth'. It provides
a basis for conversation among religions without the expectation of
compromise. . . . The Noahide approach, in other words,
is a formula for no more than peace."

The decisive difference between Rabbis Benamozegh and Steinsaltz on this
matter evoked a paper by Alick Isaacs, "Benamozegh's Tone: A Response to
Rabbi Steinsaltz" (Common Knowledge, 2005: 11:48-55). Isaacs expresses
gratitude for the distinguished
Jerusalem rabbi's
"extraordinary if not absolutely exceptional" assessment of
contemporary religions as "adequately monotheist, adequately
non-idolatrous, and at least adequately ethical to qualify as compliant with
the Noahide laws." But he points out that Rabbi "Benamozegh went well
beyond the uninterested recognition that Rabbi Steinsaltz recommends. What is
most exceptional, and, for us today exemplary, is Benamozegh's tone."


In point of fact, even Benamozegh's undoubtedly "hierarchical"
conception of the relation between Judaism and the other nineteenth-century
religions is informed by the "tone" to which Isaacs refers: its
expressions are affection, respect, regard, even embrace, at least when he
speaks of those gentile religions which he believes to be nearest to the
fulfillment of Noahism, and to which he therefore feels most akin: Islam and
(especially) Christianity. "And now we turn to the followers of the two
great messian- isms, Christian and Moslem. It is to Christians in particular
that we wish to address a frank and respectful word, and God knows that it is
with fear in our heart lest our advances be taken for hypocrisy. No! No
impartial and reasonable man can fail to recognize and appreciate, as is
appropriate, the exalted worth of these two great religions, more especially of
Christianity. There is no Jew worthy of the name who does not rejoice in the
great transformation wrought by them in a world formerly defiled. . . .As for
ourself, we have never had the experience of hearing the Psalms of David on the
lips of a priest without feeling such sensations. The reading of certain
passages of the Gospels has never left us unresponsive. The simplicity,
grandeur, infinite tenderness, which these pages breathe out overwhelms us to
the depths of our soul. . . ."
(Israel and
Humanity, 50-51.)

In the same astonishing spirit is a remark by Aime Palliere, who knew Benamozegh well:

"In the last days of his life, Rabbi Benamozegh enjoyed a reclusive
retirement in a verdant quarter of
Leghorn. When, each morning at
dawn, bound in tefillin and wrapped in his ample tallit, he said his prayers,
the sound of the bells in a nearby church reached him with a melodious
sweetness which gave all of nature a religious voice, and it seemed that as he
heard this call of Catholic bells, the great thinker prayed with a more intense
fervor. . . . [Benamozegh] felt in spiritual communion not only with all his
Jewish brethren in all countries, worshiping at the same hour, but also with
all believers, spread all over the surface of the earth, who, in choosing the
first hours of the day for prayer, showed themselves without knowing it to be
faithful disciples of the ancient masters of Israel."
(Israel and
Humanity, 36.)


R. Benamozegh's impressive, indeed startling, tolerance and his altogether
universal perspective seem in a sense to reflect the ancient Jewish culture of
Italy into which he was born and in which he lived his long life. The famous
Latin motto "Nihil humanum me alienum puto" --- "Nothing human
is unimportant to me" --- could have been his own. (The saying is
ascribed to Terence.) His family were from
Morocco, and
included distinguished rabbis as well as prosperous merchants.
Livorno, where he was born, was the youngest of the
major centers of Jewish life in
Italy, as well
as one of the most creative, dating only from the sixteenth century. (By
contrast, the Jewish settlement in
Rome is of great antiquity, long
antedating the Christian presence there.)

Livorno in
Benamozegh's time was one of the most tolerant places in this relatively
tolerant country. It never had a closed ghetto, and by 1800 its population of
5,000 Jews constituted an eighth of its population. Its magnificent synagogue
was admired for its beauty throughout Europe, and until
its destruction by the Germans, was thought to rival the great synagogue of
Amsterdam. (See Luria in Israel and
Humanity, 2; David Ruderman, "At the Intersection of Cultures: The
Historical Legacy of Italian Jewry," in Gardens and Ghettos, ed. Vivian B.
Mann, Berkeley, 1989, 1-23.) This
is where R. Benamozegh lived and ministered. One may suppose that the
comparatively liberal spirit of the place, together with the millennial
acculturation of the Italian Jews, helped him avoid the hostilities as well as
the vulnerabilities that afflicted men of comparable rabbinical culture in less
favored lands. But, of course, we must not imagine that the genial Italian
environment could by itself account for R. Benamozegh's liberal spirit. That
was undoubtedly his own.
Italy and
Livorno provided the soil in which that spirit could
grow and flourish.

As a boy, we are told, R. Benamozegh was an exceptionally brilliant student
of Torah. He was instructed by his uncle, Rabbi Yehudah Coriat, who initiated
him into Kabbalah. But he had also a keen interest in secular studies, which he
seems to have nourished by self-study -- there is no record of his having
attended a university. "His exceptional intelligence," suggests
Palliere, "compensated for the lack of any precise method in his
self-instruction." (Palliere in
Israel and
Humanity, 31.) His precocity is attested by his having, at the age of sixteen
or seventeen, contributed a preface in Hebrew to Rabbi Coriat's Ma'or
Va-Shemesh (Livorno, 1839), a collection of kabbalistic treatises (Palliere in
Israel and Humanity, 31-32).

He was eventually to compose his own works in
three languages, chiefly in Italian but also in Hebrew and French. Moshe Idel
has described him as "a very erudite and prolific writer, whose domains of
creativity were broad and multifaceted. . . .He was well acquainted with many
of the available texts of antiquity, in their Greek or Latin originals and also
in translation, and his writings constitute a sui generis type of erudition in
Judaism, not only in the nineteenth century." (Idel in
Israel and
Humanity, 379.)

His bibliography is extensive, but according to Palliere,
writing in 1914, there remained at that time even more works still in
manuscript than had been published. (Palliere in
Israel and
Humanity, 32.) His principal publications include biblical commentaries (most
importantly 'Em La-Mikra, 1862, a five-volume commentary on the Torah);
polemical works on the authenticity and importance of Kabbalah ('Eimat Mafgi
'a, 1855, and Ta'am Le-Shad, 1863); comparative ethics (La Morale Juive et La
Morale Chretienne, 1867); and historiography (Storia degli Esseni, 1865), among
many others. Of a projected work in theology (Teologia Dogmatica e Apologetica)
one volume only was published (Dio, 1877) as well as excerpts from other
portions of his manuscript, in 1904. Among his unpublished works is a study on
the origins of Christian dogma, which the French scholar Josue Jehouda regarded
as "of exceptional importance." (Luria in
Israel and
Humanity, 8-9, and 333, n. 10.)

This partial survey of his writings reveals
abundantly both R.Benamozegh's very wide range of scholarly interest, and his
willingness to treat what might seem improbable subjects for a rabbi of
Livorno, despite the special features of Italian-Jewish culture to which I have
already referred. Indeed, his importance in the Italian rabbinate
notwithstanding, his writings were not always welcomed by less unconventional
colleagues. Rabbi Benamozegh's Torah commentary 'Em La-Mikra was in fact
condemned for heterodoxy by the Orthodox rabbinical establishment of Jerusalem
and Damascus, though defended by the author at once in a public letter
addressed to these rabbis. (Palliere in
Israel and
Humanity, 334-335, n. 5.) His situation recalls that of a comparably
unconventional, mystically oriented successor two generations later, Rabbi
Abraham Isaac Kook. Such exceptionally independent rabbis and thinkers seem all
too likely sooner or later to agitate their less daring contemporaries.


Israel et l'Humanite (1914), R. Benamozegh's posthumous
summa of Jewish thought, is undoubtedly his book
which speaks most directly to our own time, and is the principal source of his
current, and apparently growing, reputation. It has a curious history. Its editor
Palliere, who was in a position to know, tells us that R. Benamozegh worked on it for
many years and left, when he died, some 1900 "large pages of compact
writing, without paragraphing, editing, or division of any kind."
(Palliere in Israel
and Humanity, 37.) Yet a very important part of the work,
its Introduction, had been published as early as 1885, well before the author's death in
1900, and sets out concisely the plan as well as the theme of the entire
work as it ultimately appeared: " We propose, then, to seek out
the universal character of Judaism, in both the speculative and practical domains. Our scheme calls
for three principal divisions: God, Man, and Law." (Israel
and Humanity, 59.)

The title of this 1885 Introduction is equally revealing of R. Benamozegh's perspective: "Israel
and Humanity; Proof of the Cosmopolitanism in Judaism's Principles, Laws, Worship,
Vocation, History, and Ideals." (Israel et l'Humanite;
Demonstration du Cosmopolitanisme dans les Dogmes, les Lois, le Culte, la
Vocation, l'Histoire, et l'Ideal de l'Hebraisme. Introduction, Leghorn,
1885.) In his epithets
"universal" and "cosmopolitan," R. Benamozegh adumbrates the central theme of the book.
Judaism (or Hebraism, as he usually prefers to call it) often seems
parochial and self-absorbed, and has been so perceived by others, but this is altogether misleading: "[Its particularism] has always deceived, and still
deceives, so many persons of good faith, to the point that they are
able to see in the religion of Israel only a purely national cult.
But they can easily turn from their error if they will accept our invitation to inquire, with us, whether Judaism does not possess the elements of a universal religion. They will then
recognize that it indeed contains at its heart, as the flower conceals the fruit, the religion intended for the entire human race, of which the
Mosaic law, which seems on the surface so incompatible with that high destiny, is but the husk or outer cover. It is for the
preservation and establishment of this universal religion that Judaism has endured, that it has struggled and suffered. It is with and through this
universal religion that Judaism is destined to triumph." (Israel
and Humanity, 44.)

The same
idea appears near the end of the book, embodying a corollary metaphor: Israel
serves a "priestly" function for "lay" Humanity: "Judaism is really two doctrines in one. There
are two laws, two codes of discipline -- in a word, two forms of
religion: the lay law, summarized in the seven precepts of the sons of Noah,
and the Mosaic or priestly law, whose code is the Torah.
The first was destined for all the human race, the second for Israel
alone. . . . It is one Eternal Law, apprehended from
two perspectives." "Priestly" Israel
is regarded as fulfilling its mission, as justifying its very existence, by serving the spiritual needs of "lay"
Humanity, even as its prototypes, the Kohanim, were essentially exalted
functionaries, but functionaries nevertheless, who existed to serve their people. "Such is the Jewish conception of the world.
In heaven a single God, father of all men alike;
on earth a family of peoples, among whom Israel is the
"first-born", charged with teaching and administering the true religion
of mankind, of which he is priest. This "true
religion" is the Law of Noah: It is the one which the human race will embrace in
the days of the Messiah, and which Israel's
mission is to preserve and propagate meanwhile." (Israel
and Humanity, 53-54.)

This "priestly" function explains the elaborate cultic
obligations of Mosaism: "But as the priestly people,
dedicated to the purely religious life, Israel has special
duties, peculiar obligations, which are like a kind of monastic
law, an ecclesiastical constitution which is Israel's alone by
reason of its high duties." (Israel
and Humanity, 54.)". " We shall show
that in Judaism, universality as ends and particularism as means
have always coexisted, and that particularist Judaism has the very special
function of serving as trustee and voice for the universal
Judaism." (Israel
and Humanity, 58.) This service is, perhaps, Israel's
raison d'etre: "Far from feeling obliged to convert non-Jews to his practices, [Israel]
confines himself to preaching to them that universal religion whose
establishment on earth was, in a sense, the purpose of his own existence."
and Humanity, 327.) Rabbi Benamozegh rejects
categorically the notion that Israel enjoys any intrinsic superiority over the rest of Humanity.
"The image of divinity on earth, the partner of the Creative Spirit, is not the Jew:
it is man." (Israel
and Humanity, 325.)


This passionate
perception of the unity (which implies the essential equality) of all mankind, including Israel, is
at the heart of R. Benamozegh's vision. To articulate this vision in traditional Jewish terms, he
moved the Noahide doctrine of Israel's
relation with Humanity from the margin of Jewish thought to the center. What had been a self-flattering
and, in practice, largely conceptual obligation for Jews became, in his powerful conception, the
reason for Jewish existence. What had been a God-given but, in practice, largely
theoretical obligation for ancient "heathens" became an urgent
desideratum for modern "Gentiles".

Rabbi Benamozegh
was certainly cognizant that his grand vision was far from universally understood (let alone embraced) by the
Jews of his day, or perhaps of any other. He puts the matter with delicacy: "No doubt, the entire multitude of Israel
were not able to grasp with equal understanding these truths which,
even in our own day, remain inaccessible to so many.
In the comprehension of every religion, there is a natural gradation, corresponding
to the intellectual and spiritual development of the
believers. This must be particularly true with respect to Judaism, whose
doctrines rise infinitely above the plane of mere intellect. . .
.It is enough for the eternal honor of Judaism that this ideal, incomparably
superior to all that surrounded it, had been preserved
at its heart, and that the voice of its Prophets and sages
did not stop proclaiming it, despite all hostile
circumstances." (Israel
and Humanity, 325.)

Plato, too, acknowledged that
his vision of the just city was an ideal that never was and might well never be. If Rabbi Elijah
Benamozegh, the "Plato of Italian Judaism", affirmed his ideal
of the way that Israel and Humanity should relate to one another on an equally
visionary level, the ideal is not less valuable for that reason. His influence
today upon persons of both kinds would seem to justify the vision.