Wednesday, September 3, 2008

De Rossi Really Was Like Slifkin

During the campaign against R. Natan Slifkin one of the claims made by his opponents was the they were following in the footsteps of the rabbis in the sixteenth century who opposed Azariah de Rossi and his book the Meor Enayim. There may be more truth to this than Slifkin’s opponents would like particularly if one accepts the account of the early stages of the campaign against de Rossi offered by Robert Bonfil in his essay, “Some Reflections on the Place of Azariah de Rossi’s Meor Enayim in the Cultural Milieu of Italian Renaissance Jewery (Jewish Thought in the Sixteenth Century ed. Bernard Dov Cooperman pg. 23-48). Interestingly enough Bonfil wrote this essay in the early 1980s, two decades before this whole controversy.

According to Bonfil’s reconstruction of the event:

De Rossi’s real problem began once R. Isaac Foa of Reggio read the book. The old rabbi, whose intellectual energies seem to have been devoted entirely to Talmudic studies interspersed with mystical speculation, appears to have been shocked at the nonchalance with which de Rossi dealt with certain Aggadot believed by kabbalists to have great theosophical implications. For the likes of R. Foa, this was unthinkable. He dispatched an alarmed letter to Venice, where his son-in-law, R. Menahem Azariah da Fano, had been residing for some months. The letter has not been preserved, so wed do not know exactly what alarmed R. R. Foa. We do know, however, that the letter left a deep impression upon R. Samuel Judah Katzenellenbogen. This scholar, though a competent Talmudist, does not seem to have been distinguished either by his intellectual sensitivity or by his realism, and was, moreover, rather young at the time. He acted impulsively, apparently before he had even had a chance to read the Meor Enayim. In a circular letter addressed to the Italian Jewish communities, he summarized the warnings of R. Foa and appended to it the text of a manifesto against the book that he proposed for signature. The letter itself has not been preserved, and therefore we do not know whether R. Katzenellenbogen was any more specific in it than in his manifesto, where his charge against the book was rather vague, to say the least: “And there were some chapters,” he wrote, “of that third section, called Days of the World, full of new issues never dreamed of by our fathers.”

R. Katzenellenbogen did not claim any position of leadership for himself in the crusade he called for. Perhaps he thought, or hoped, that “the very excellent scholars of each and every city” would agree to sign the manifesto, especially since it merely sought to require that every Jew who wanted to read or own the book “obtain written permission from the rabbis of his city." …

Nonetheless, R. Katzenellenbogen’s initiative seems to have come as a major surprise. Those who heeded his call and signed with him in Venice were no outstanding scholars. Most of them were leaders of the Levantine community, recently settled in Venice; some are unfamiliar to us, and may have also been so to their contemporaries. … (pg. 26-27)

Bonfil brings the example of R. Abraham Manahem Porto ha-Cohen.

R. Porto had not read the book, but testified rather that “through hearsay I heard of him [de Rossi] having treated lightly the words of the Sages.” He had moreover, heard from de Rossi himself about his dangerously novel chronological theory. … R. Porto delivered before his flock a standard sermon on the prohibition of reading sfarim hitzoniyim, warned them of the potential harmful consequences of a practical nature that could result from de Rossi’s chronological reckonings, posted the manifesto in the synagogue without signing it, and stood by for clarifications. (pg. 28)

R. Porto would latter retract his ban after de Rossi agreed to make some editorial changes to the book, which did not include his acceptance of standard chronology.

So de Rossi was the victim of a bunch of little known rabbis, who went after him without having bothered to read his book and the issue cascaded from there. Rather than demonstrate the cohesiveness of the sixteenth century rabbinate the de Rossi affair shows a rabbinate that was in disarray and easily manipulated to suit the purposes of those pulling the strings. Does this remind you of anything?


Ha-historion said...

Brilliant post.

I am actually currently reading Historical Consciousness and Religious Tradition in Azariah de'Rossi's Me'or 'Einayim by Lester A. Segal.

History indeed repeats itself.

Izgad said...

I’ll have to check it out. Part of my dissertation deals with the rise of historical consciousness among Jews (the debate between Yerushalmi and Funkenstein). I look at it through apocalypticism and the use of the Joachim of Fiore model of history to grant current events metaphysical significance on par with the Bible.

A few years ago I wrote a paper on Abarbanel’s attack on Josephus and David Gans’ attack on de Rossi for going against Seder Olam chronology.

S. said...

I doubt that the opponents would dislike the comparison, for they do not accept the premise that some sort of overreaction or illicit process was behind either campaign.