HOW DID A RELATIVELY little-known nineteenth-century Livornese rabbi who argued for the universalism of Judaism and for unity among religions come to influence theological and political agendas across a spectrum of religious thinkers so varied that it includes proponents of the ecumenical Second Vatican Council, American evangelists, and right-wing Zionists in Israel? What does it say about interfaith encounters that his efforts to work toward unity among monotheisms have fueled such irreconcilable stances? And how can an idiosyncratic figure who sought a means of overcoming religious divisions—one based on Judaism and, more specifically, on a Jewish theology of Christianity—illuminate broader problems of Jewish modernity? And be coopted by a postmodern thinker like psychiatrist Jacques Lacan? These are a few of the questions raised by the life, work, and legacy of Elia Benamozegh (1823–1900).
Benamozegh was born in Livorno, Italy, in 1823 to a family of Moroccan descent. A toddler when his father passed away, he was raised by his mother and his uncle, a renowned kabbalist. After a short stint as a merchant, he enrolled in the rabbinic seminary and was ordained in his late twenties. But it is his formative years, spent as an autodidact, that explain his remarkable intellectual voracity. Although he never left Livorno, Benamozegh corresponded with a number of religious or intellectual figures in France, the Maghreb, and the Middle East. In addition to his responsibilities as a rabbi and a teacher—and a self-described Orthodox one—he became a publisher, a prolific writer, and a transnational thinker who authored exegetical analyses, historical studies, and a variety of newspaper contributions in Hebrew, Italian, and French. Intellectually ambitious, he aimed to reconcile such fundamental binaries as East versus West, Christian humanism versus nineteenth-century concepts of progress, Jewish universalism versus singularity, mysticism versus reason, and humankind versus nations.
The rabbi influenced Christian-Jewish encounters in twentieth-century Europe through his magnum opus, Israël et l’humanité (translated as Israel and Humanity). The work was published posthumously in 1914, thanks to the efforts of his Christian disciple and former seminarian Aimé Pallière, who edited the work and sought to disseminate his mentor’s ideas. Nevertheless, as much as Benamozegh presented his study as the solution to religious quandaries, the book bequeathed a raft of irresolvable tensions owing largely to his use of conceptual tools such as the Noahide Laws (the seven edicts that offer salvation to non-Jews, according to the rabbinic tradition) and Kabbalah—usually defined as the mystical Jewish tradition—which have lent themselves to ethnocentrism as well as to the universalism he advocated.
His idiosyncrasy makes him unrepresentative yet illuminating, and the challenge is thus not only to make sense of Benamozegh’s complexities and contexts but also to reconstruct his views as a starting point for questioning established narratives.
Benamozegh stood at many crossroads; his life and writings can thus tell many stories. They help us map out intellectual networks in the Mediterranean and geographies of a Sephardic Enlightenment, upend Orientalism by reclaiming the term Oriental as a badge of honor, understand his publishing endeavors as a cultural and political intervention on behalf of his coreligionists in the Maghreb and Middle East, reassess the meaning of Italian humanism and Christian Hebraism from a Jewish standpoint, resuscitate Kabbalah both within and beyond Judaism, and grasp its contribution to the nascent field of the psychology of religion. Each of these threads constitutes a rich narrative, but the story to which the rabbi best contributes, it seems to me, pertains to the complexities of Jewish modernity.
What the rabbi proposed was unprecedented in his time and still relevant to our understanding of strategies by which religions adapt to modernity: (1) that the Jewish tradition had the capacity to solve contemporary quandaries, (2) that kabbalistic concepts enabled it to take part in a larger, transnational conversation about societal changes and progress, (3) that Jewish ideas constituted a stock of tools relevant to religious coexistence, and (4) that greater particularism made for greater universalism. Before him, the most trodden path for making a case for the legitimacy of Judaism had been to demonstrate its rationality. But Benamozegh sensed a modern, cross-denominational need both for reason and for a mythical realm that stood beyond reason—yet without advocating for the irrational or breaking the grand narrative of progress sustaining modernity; he contended that the Jewish tradition could satisfy human aspirations and not tear apart the fabric of society as a whole or of religious communities in particular. And he often invoked a distinct, “Oriental” modernity—independent of the European experience—in order to exemplify this method.
Most of the scholarship on Benamozegh pertains to his universalism, his efforts to foster a dialogue with non-Jews, and his reconciliation of philosophy and Kabbalah, but does not address the ways in which he engaged with modernity.1 My work builds on the only previous scholarly monograph, Alessandro Guetta’s Philosophy and Kabbalah: Elijah Benamozegh and the Reconciliation of Western Thought and Jewish Esotericism (2000).2 Guetta’s is a rich and detailed analysis of the philological and philosophical strategies used by Benamozegh to repudiate the long-standing opposition between the rational and esoteric aspects of Judaism.
This book takes a different approach by considering how the rabbi expands our understanding of religious modernity and by gauging the impact of his thought to this day. Its central contention is that Benamozegh’s use of Kabbalah in a public discourse, as a stock of political or intellectual references, and his insistence on the theological necessity of interreligious engagement from an assertive Jewish perspective constitute significant markers of a religious modernity that was routinely signaled by rationalism and universalism. This characterization of modern and modernity by Benamozegh is descriptive, and similar to Weberian categories; however, attending to his frustration with such binaries and to his general critique of modernity makes alternative modalities of the modern emerge: nondualistic, nonsecular, yet not a proponent of the Counter-Enlightenment,3 and vocally embracing the notion of progress as well as a political and social liberal agenda.
In teasing out the multiple facets of the concept, I will first focus on the uses of the term modernity that Benamozegh might have encountered and that defined the conversation during his lifetime. The French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821–67), often credited for coining the term in 1859, described modernity as “the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable”4 while calling on artists to extract the beauty it might contain. This characterization featured modernity as immediate and transient, even though Baudelaire called for finding a sense of the sublime in the mundane, thus elevating the finite into the infinite. Nevertheless, modernity is here essentially contingent, impermanent, and seems to preclude any sense of continuity. While Baudelaire should be credited for popularizing the notion, the word had in fact already appeared in the writings of a few of his contemporaries with a vaguer definition, if any. “Modernité,” the translation of Modernität in Heinrich Heine’s 1827 Reisebilder (Travel Pictures), published in French in 1856, captured a tension between the old and the new, most acutely felt by the nobility and the bourgeoisie, where “the cozy, narrow ways of the forefathers are supplanted by a wide-spreading, unpleasant modernity.” The text further lamented “the loss of national originalities that disappear in the uniformity of modern civilization.”5 Modernity came across as a disrupting and leveling force.
Other nuances can be found in the work of Theophile Gautier, who used modernity as a descriptor of English painting and asked: “Does the substantive [form of the word] even exist? The feeling that it expresses is so recent that it might not be featured in dictionaries yet.”6 He later used the term in his tribute to the work of his fellow novelist Honoré de Balzac, who is credited with ushering in realism in literature and whose novels exuded modernity as “something that owes nothing to the antiquity.”7 An ability to capture the spirit of the age and a self-generating capacity defined Gautier’s positive outlook on modernity.
Conversely, in his Memoirs from Beyond the Grave (Memoires d’outretombe), the Romantic writer François-René de Chateaubriand (1768–1848) evoked modernité to describe the triteness of his time compared to the dignified past, now out of reach, that alienates the individual.8 While Chateaubriand’s conservative doctrine would be at odds with Benamozegh’s attempt at reconciling the past and present, and while avant-garde aestheticism was far from Benamozegh’s taste, all of these authors assemble a picture of modernity as an antagonism between the old and the new, a case of disruption and impermanence, all of which Benamozegh was keen on remedying through a fresh understanding of religion, and religious unity, to prevent any possible alienation.
This sense of disruption, affecting the relation to religion, is what prompted Benamozegh to write Israël et Humanité (1885),9 a short book he envisioned as the introduction to the broader work that he never completed. In the unfinished manuscript of the latter, the rabbi sketched the conundrum of his time: “Once religion proper is dismissed for good, it cannot be long before metaphysics, too, is sent packing,” since the demise of religion would lead in turn to “the subversion of law, justice, moral beauty, virtue, freedom, heroism, and sacrifice, which are nothing but applied metaphysics.”10 Drawing on the nascent psychology of religions, he deemed such a societal model unfit to fulfill the metaphysical needs of the mind and contended that the devolution of society into self-interest and materialism would ultimately endanger freedom.11 He placed the onus on institutionalized religion for being unable or unwilling to address political and societal changes other than by rejecting them.
In his 1885 introduction, Benamozegh explained:
On the one hand, [you have] the Syllabus [of Errors],12 in which all the conquests of civilization are anathema; on the other, the unquenched thirst for religious beliefs, the madness of pride and egoism, the wanderings of reason with neither guide nor compass, the eternal trials and errors of a philosophy without principles, the absolute lack of any respected authority in matters of religion—and thus the individual who falls prey to himself, as though God had never revealed himself.13
A similar analysis opens Benamozegh’s posthumously published major work, Israel and Humanity:
This crisis is nothing other than the struggle between faith and reason, whether this latter, in trying to evaluate the world and society, finds itself at grips with traditional beliefs, or whether it undertakes to study the contradictory claims of various religions in the light of historical criticism, exegesis, and science—or, finally, whether, in penetrating to the core of each religion, it induces free scrutiny, and, unable to settle for the old formulas, drives the investigating mind to search for new ones that will allow it to become reconciled with faith.14
Having listed the various impasses confronting religions, Benamozegh introduced his solution with a preliminary, rhetorical question: “Have all religions, which free-thought today declares fallen, fully revealed their potentialities?”15 In his view, it was both the conservatism and the lack of assertiveness of religions in general and of Judaism in particular that were to blame for the dwindling relevance of faith across Europe.16 Benamozegh wrote against the backdrop of the so-called “modernist crisis” within Catholicism, a controversy that began in the 1890s in France, Italy, and England, and that reacted against the authoritarian leanings of the Papacy and sought to draw on the historical study of the Bible to reshape traditional Catholic dogma and teaching.17 The movement stood against the prevailing neo-scholasticism, which was predicted on an essentially static view of the world and opposed any evolution of the doctrine. Yet, faced with similar challenges regarding the compatibility between faith and science, instead of calling for a reform, Benamozegh called for a return to the Jewish tradition—a return, he argued, that would benefit Christianity, too.
In one of the paradoxes from which his reasoning often proceeded, Benamozegh laid out a novel scheme for reconciling reason and faith—science and religion—through a conscious return to tradition. Tradition had to be reclaimed. And, in order to do so, it had to be comprehended anew by reexamining all of its sources, including the marginalized ones. Benamozegh’s perspectives echo the way Gershom Scholem expressed the paradox of tradition and innovation implied in the term Kabbalah, which means “reception” in Hebrew and thus implies the transmission of a text and the participation of its readers in order for them to make sense of it in their own time.18 Some of Benamozegh’s interpretations, such as his vision of ancient Israel as a proto-pluralistic society, might have taken these innovations a little far, and seem at times designed to meet the expectations of an emerging liberal readership.19
Benamozegh’s choice of the word Hebraism to describe this arguably inclusive and expansive understanding of Judaism, which included both Talmud and Kabbalah, is central to his argument because he saw these as a repository for the textual polyphony, an aspect ignored by philosophy and Reform Judaism—which explained his hostility to the budding movement.
In renaming Judaism, as part of an effort to reshape its perception, the rabbi was not alone. Alternative designations for Judaism, such as Hebraism or Abrahamism, gained currency across Europe in the late nineteenth century, aiming to oppose a narrow Jewish legalism and a new focus on race—as in French scholar Ernest Renan’s critique of Semitism.20 In French, the term Israelite was also the word of choice in order to replace the term Jew (juif) and avoid a terminology loaded with centuries of prejudice.21 Benamozegh used Israelite in this sense, for instance in his preface to Zikhron Yerushalayim.22
Two of Benamozegh’s contemporaries, both of whom loom large in his thinking, also used the term Hebraism. Abraham Geiger (1810–74), a rabbi, scholar, and one of the founders of the Reform movement, used Hebraism when trying to convey Judaism’s openness to other religions, whereas it had previously been invoked with negative overtones.23 Samuel David Luzzatto, a more conservative scholar and exegete, and a towering figure of Italian Judaism, coined the term Abrahamism, using it to emphasize Jewish ethics. Benamozegh’s case is distinctive: what could have merely been a translation of ebraismo (Italian for “Judaism”) was designed to link it to the Church Father Eusebius and his Preparation for the Gospel. In that fourth-century apologetics, the term referred to the acceptable, universal part of Judaism, the one defined by the Decalogue, in opposition to the Judaism of the Talmudic period, which was defined more ethnically and narrowly.24 Being attuned to the patristics, and being in conversation with non-Jewish thinkers in general, were integral to Benamozegh’s efforts toward greater unity.
This is one of the instances in which Elia Benamozegh was both in conversation and in conflict with his interlocutors, in Italy and beyond—one instance among many when he was both untimely and of his time. Indeed, it was the articulation of the two that defined his vision of modernity.
1. Moshe Idel, “Kabbalah in Elia Benamozegh’s Thought,” in IH, 378–402; Richard Cohen, “The Universal in Jewish Particularism,” in Religious Experience and the End of Metaphysics, ed. Jeffrey Bloechl (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003), 135–52; Marc Gopin, “An Orthodox Embrace of Gentiles,” Modern Judaism 18, no. 2 (May 1998): 173–96. The studies that tangentially touch on the implications of modernity for Benamozegh deal with the rabbi’s relationship with science but do not engage the question of modernity itself. See José Faur, “The Hebrew Species Concept and the Origin of Evolution: R. Benamozegh’s Response to Darwin,” La Rassegna mensile di Israel 63 (1997): 43–66; Daniel Langton, “Elijah Benamozegh and Evolutionary Theory: A Nineteenth-Century Italian Kabbalist’s Panentheistic Response to Darwin,” European Journal of Jewish Studies 10, no. 2 (2016): 223–45.
2. Alessandro Guetta, Philosophy and Kabbalah: Elijah Benamozegh and the Reconciliation of Western Thought and Jewish Esotericism, trans. Helena Kahan (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2006), translated from the 2000 French edition. See also Alessandro Guetta, ed., Per Elia Benamozegh: Atto del convento di Livorno (Milan: Edizione Thalassa de Paz, 2001). For a less scholarly but insightful monograph, see Gabriella Mastri and Marco Morselli, Elia Benamozegh: Nostro contemporaneo (Turin: Marietti, 2017).
3. See Isaiah Berlin, “The Counter-Enlightenment,” in The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000), 243–66.
4. See “The Painter of Modern Life,” in Charles Baudelaire, Selected Writings on Art and Literature (New York: Penguin, 1995), 390.
5. In this convoluted passage, Heine describes the spirit of the time and its nostalgia: “This tone resonates in the heart of our nobility, that sees its castles and coat of arms fall; it vibrates in the heart of the bourgeois whose cozy, narrow ways of his forefathers are supplanted by a wide-spreading, unpleasant modernity.” Die Nordsee: Die Reisebilder von 1826 mit den beiden Gedichtzyklen (Tiel: Campagne, 1870), 61. Baudelaire probably knew of the text, prefaced by Théophile Gautier, his “friend and master” to whom he dedicated his Fleurs du mal in 1857.
6. Théophile Gautier, Les Beaux-Arts en Europe, 2 vols. (Paris: Michel Lévy, 1855), 1:19.
7. Théophile Gautier, introduction to Oeuvres complètes de H. de Balzac (Paris: A. Houssiaux, 1855), 6.
8. When describing his trip to Ulm, Chateaubriand lamented “the vulgarity, the modernity of the customs building and of the passport, juxtaposed with the storm, the Gothic gates, the sound of the horn and the noise of the torrent.” Mémoires d’outretombe (Paris: Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1976), vol. 2, book 37, chap. 6, 636.
9. The full title is Israël et Humanité: Démonstration du cosmopolitisme dans les dogmes, les lois, le culte, la vocation, l’histoire et l’idéal de l’Hébraïsme; Introduction (Livorno: Benamozegh, 1885). I shorten this reference hereinafter to Introduction.
10. IH, 42.
11. Teologia, 18. “For certain naturalists and physiologists (Linnaeus, Buffon and Quatrefages), religiosity is the characteristic of human nature and through it, alongside mortality, it distinguishes itself from all other animal species.”
12. Benamozegh is referring here to the Syllabus of Errors issued by Pius IX, which registered the errors of contemporary political thought and emphasized the duties of Roman Catholic rulers to shield the church from modernity in all its forms, including religious toleration. See chapter 1.
13. Introduction, 54.
14. IH, 40.
15. IH, 42.
16. Owen Chadwick, The Secularization of the European Mind (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
17. A classic reference to this specific crisis of modernity in Christianity is Émile Poulat, Histoire, dogme et critique dans la crise moderniste (Tournai: Casterman, 1976; new ed. Paris: Albin Michel, 1996). See also Pierre Colin, L’Audace et le soupçon: La crise du modernisme dans le catholicisme français (1893–1914) (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1997).
18. Gershom Scholem, “Revelation and Tradition as Religious Categories” and “The Crisis of Tradition in Jewish Messianism,” in The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality (New York: Schocken, 1971), 49–77 and 282–303; Scholem, “Tradition and Commentary as Religious Categories in Judaism,” Judaism 15, no. 1 (Winter 1966): 23–39. See also David Biale’s analysis in his Kabbalah and Counter-History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979).
19. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Canto Classics, 2012).
20. The word Hebraism was first noted in 1718 and disappeared in the 1930s. Benamozegh’s Hebraism, unlike Luzzatto’s Abrahamism, whose emphasis on ethics clashed with the aesthetics of Hellenism (which he called Atticism), is not in tension with other concepts, especially with regard to the Greek legacy to Europe. Indeed, Benamozegh rejected the binary opposition between ethics and aesthetics because it would defeat any attempt to prove Judaism’s universalism.
21. Phyllis Cohen-Albert, “Israelite and Jew: How Did Nineteenth-Century French Jews Understand Assimilation?” in Assimilation and Community: The Jews in Nineteenth-Century Europe, ed. Jonathan Frankel and Steven Zipperstein (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 88–109.
22. Elia Benamozegh, preface to Eliyahu Hazan, Zikhron Yerushalayim (Livorno: Benamozegh, 1874). The many occurrences of the word Israelite in his work in fact refer to the Israelites in the ancient Near East.
23. See Anders Gerdmar, Roots of Theological Anti-Semitism (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 77–94 and 121–32.
24. “This conception of Judaism may even be found among the Fathers of the Catholic Church. Eusebius, in his Preparation for the Gospel characterizes the Mosaic religion very judiciously, and asserts that it has authority only over Israel.” IH, 257.