Sunday, August 9, 2009

Fifteenth World Congress of Jewish Studies: Enlightenment and Mysticism in Early Modernity

Matt GoldishHakham David Nieto’s Failed Skepticism in his Argument from Acoustic Delusion

David Nieto 1654-1728 was born to a Sephardic family in Venice and trained both as a rabbi and as a physician. He went to London in 1701 to assume a rabbinic post there. Upon arriving, he found a lot of religious skepticism. This was a community of former conversos skeptical of the Talmudic tradition and of the Oral Law. Nieto wrote a book titled the Kuzari HaSheni to defend the Talmud. Nieto often referred to science. As David Ruderman discusses, in this he was a parallel to the Newtonian physico-theologians.

In the fourth dialogue of his Kuzari, Nieto discusses the issue of acoustic delusions. People can be tricked into thinking they hear heavenly voices. This is Neito’s explanation of the story in the Talmud of the ovens where a heavenly voice comes out to defend Rabbi Eliezer and the rabbis still go against him. This is why Rabbi Joshua was right to reject the heavenly voice. To accept it would open one up to tricks by those with greater knowledge of technology. Nieto brings down various stories of tubes use to amplify the voice; there is one for example about a lord who watches his servant with a telescope and calls out with a voice tube, scaring the servant nearly to death. Where did these tales come from? Nieto was almost certainly familiar with the German theologian Athanasius Kircher. This line of work is part of a larger body of works, which attempted to use the new science of sound to explain ancient texts. These texts are often viewed as an embarrassment by modernists. They are in many respects closer to the magic of Robert Fludd and John Dee than to the science of Newton.

Despite Neito’s university education his sources were thirty to sixty years out of date. Nieto was interested in science but he was dealing with issues of a generation ago. He was still going up against the likes of Uriel de Costa, who challenged the Talmud. His congregants were dealing with Spinozism and radical skepticism, which point blank denied scripture. He kept to the role of a learned cleric devoted to dealing with the breaches that he could deal with.

Why was the Haskalah a German phenomenon? Nieto with his congregation of former conversos had the opportunity to do what many of his contemporary Christian clerics were doing to create a conservative Enlightenment. Why did Nieto not have followers like Mendelssohn? Nieto was just not a big enough guy. He stops sort of the big argument. Maybe he was acting as a provocateur? If the head of the Beit Din of Venice (Leone Modena) could be suspected of writing Kol Shakol maybe Nieto as well. Neito, though, seems to have been a very conservative person. That being said, we do have him early in his career saying that God is nature and that nature was God.

Sharon Flatto – Ecstatic Encounters on the Danube: Enlightenment and Mysticism

The maskil Moshe Kunits (1774-1837) writes of a mystical encounter on the river Danube where God tells him to write the biography of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. This becomes the book Ben Yochi. This work was supposed to offer the reader a mystical experience. This is not as strange as it might seem as many maskilim espoused Kabbalistic ideas. Moshe Maimon and Moshe Landeau followed a similar line.

It has generally been claimed that the haskalah and Kabbalah had nothing to do with each other. Isaiah Tishby and Gershom Scholem argue for this. Shaul Magid, today, also claims this. As Boaz Hoss, though, argues, the early maskilim did not always reject Kabbalah. This is in keeping with the work of David Sorkin and Shmuel Feiner who argue that the haskalah was actually not that radical. We have a poem by maskil Moses Mendel eulogizing Rabbi Ezekiel Landau that is built around the names of the sephirot. Contrary to Alexander Altmann, who argued that Mendelssohn banished mysticism from Judaism. Mendelssohn goes with the Kabbalists over Maimonides in regards to the principles of faith. Solomon Maimon talks about preferring Cordovarian Kabbalah over Lurianic Kabblah.

Scholem believed that Kabbalah served as a means to argue for Halachic reform. Jacob Katz disagreed. This talk plays to both views. Many of these maskilim were still committed to normative Jewish practice, but they were also committed to challenging the status quo. Kabbalah served both sides of this agenda.

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