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Humanism and the Rabbinic Tradition in Italy and Beyond

28Nov(Nov 28)5:00 pm02Dec(Dec 2)7:00 pmHumanism and the Rabbinic Tradition in Italy and Beyond(November 28) 5:00 pm - (December 2) 7:00 pm(GMT+00:00) Italian Jewish Studies SeminarItalian Jewish Studies Seminar

Event Details


Alessandro Guetta, Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales, Paris


Arthur Kiron, University of Pennsylvania


Fabrizio Lelli, University of Lecce


Vadim Putzu, Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati


Evelyn Cohen, Jewish Theological Seminary


Joanna Weinberg, James Mew lecturer in Rabbinical Hebrew, University of Oxford and Catherine Lewis fellow in Rabbinics, Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies


Francesco Spagnolo, University of California, Santa Cruz.

Respondent: David Ruderman, Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, University of Pennsylvania, Co-organized by the Jewish Music Forum/American Society for Jewish Music.


Sabato Morais

The Italian-born Sabato Morais was the principal founder of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), established in New York City in 1886. It has often been claimed that the reorganized Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTSA), established in 1902 and headed by Solomon Schechter, was an organic intellectual and institutional continuation of the original JTS.  However, these claims have not taken into account the Sephardic and Italian rabbinic humanist traditions which Morais articulated as the intellectual and educational core of the original Seminary.  I will argue that Morais’ outlook and the “Sephardic”  Seminary he founded are distinct from if not altogether discontinuous with the modern JTSA and the positive-historical intellectual roots of the Conservative movement of Judaism.

Morais’ Seminary ultimately was not merely a response to American conditions or a transplanting of the Breslau  Juedisch-Theologisches Seminar after which it was named.  Morais’s Seminary was one among many efforts by him throughout his nearly half-century ministry in Philadelphia to preserve and promote Sephardic and Italian Jewish traditions, beliefs and practices as a basis for Jewish religious Americanization.

Arthur Kiron is Curator of Judaica Collections at the University of Pennsylvania Library and Adjunct Assistant Professor of History in Penn’s History Department.  Kiron received his Ph.D. from Columbia University and his dissertation, “Golden Ages, Promised Lands: The Victorian Rabbinic Humanism of Sabato Morais” was nominated for the Salo Baron dissertation prize.  Kiron specializes in Atlantic Jewish history and the history of  the Jewish book. Among his recent publications related to his lecture today are: “Varieties of Haskalah: Sabato Morais’ Program of Sephardic Rabbinic Humanism in Victorian America,” in Reconfiguring Jewish Culture from Al-Andalus to the Haskalah, eds. Adam Sutcliffe and Ross Brann (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), pp. 121-45; and “Livornese Traces in American Jewish History: Sabato Morais and Elijah Benamozegh,” in: Atti del Convegno Internazionale di Studi nel Centenario della morte di Elia Benamozegh (Milan: De Pas Editrice, 2002). Kiron currently serves on the International Academic Advisory Board for Sephardic Studies based in Livorno (Italy), the Advisory Board of the Philadelphia Jewish Archives Center, the Academic Advisory Board of the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and the editorial board of the Association of Jewish Libraries.

Elie Benamozegh

“The name Amozegh, a Judeo-Berber coinage, would appear to derive from the Hebrew root MZG (mixing, tempering) and the Berber word Amazig, which the Berbers use to refer to themselves, would also seem to come from the same root. In this instance the ethnic Amazig would have submitted to the mixing of diverse populations that occurred at a given moment to produce the Berber grouping […]. In conclusion, the word Amazig, preceded by the Hebrew filiation indicator ben, could be translated as “Berber’s son.”

Alessandro Guetta’s presentation on Elié Benamozegh will focus on the topic of Reason and Kabbalah. Investigating the philosophical and rationalistic “translation” made by Benamozegh of many kabbalistic notions. In this aspect of Benamozegh’s work, Dr. Guetta sees the continuity of the Italian Kabbalistic tradition as embodied by thinkers of the like of Yosef Ergas and Moshe Hayim Luzzatto.

“This small man with the unkepmt air and the faraway expression was the preacher at the synagogue and teacher of theology at the city’s rabbinical college. He was also a publisher of Hebrew books and, above all, a prolific and original writer. The work that flowed from his pen in three languages – Hebrew, Italian and French – was copious and varied. He was known far beyond the confines of the city or even of Italy itself, by Jews and non-Jews, but this fame also brought with it ironical and virulent criticism or – more painful by far – arrogance or marked indifference. Samuel David Luzzatto, the great master of nineteenth-century Italian Judaism, treated him with an irony that was almost offensive; his pupil David Castelli, once appointed to a chair in Hebrew literature, spared no expense in attacking a method he considered lacking in any scientific basis. The Italian philosophical community was generally unresponsive and for reasons which were quite the opposite, Jerusalem’s very orthodox rabbis forbade the reading of one of his most important works.

Yet, he was revered by his disciple and his fame was great. He was held in high esteem by Ernest Renan, Adolphe Franck and Giuseppe Mazzini: he has been referred to as “the Plato of Italian Jewry ” and an Italian paper recently described him as an unbridled intelligence forced to limp along in what constituted philosophical circles in Italy at that time. His intellectual approach was too distinctive to be accepted unreservedly: his work combined elements of an ancient tradition which bore the print of the oral with the philological and philosophical consciousness of the nineteenth century.  The work of this largely self-taught scholar descended from Moroccan rabbis and born into Risorgimento Italy was destined for honorable marginality, at least during his lifetime. Indeed, did he not complain, with an ironic paraphrase of a Talmudic dictum, that his place was nowhere, that he felt as though suspended in mid-air?”

Alessandro Guetta is a professor of Jewish civilization at the Institut des Langues et Civilisations Orientales in Paris. He studied philosophy at the University of Pisa and obtained his doctoral degree from the École Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris with a dissertation on Elijajh Benamozegh and his specialization at the École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales with a thesis on Jewish literature and intellectual history between the Middle Age and the Modern Era. Prof. Guetta’s vast array of publications span from Medieval to contemporary intellectual history and literary practice. His works on Eliah Benamozegh and the kabbalistic tradition in Italy include: Philosophie et cabbale. Essai sur la pensée d’Elie Benamozegh. L’Harmattan, Paris, 1998; Per Benamozegh. Édition des Actes du Colloge International sur l’oeuvre d’Élie, Benamozegh, Thàlassa De Pas, Milan, 2001; “The last debate on Kabbalah in Italian Judaism: I.S. Reggio, S.D. Luzzatto, E. Benamozegh;” in B.D. Cooperman & Barbara Garvin (éd.); – “Cabbale et culture italienne à l’époque baroque,” in Judaïsme et mystique, Lausanne 2005. In the year 2000 he organized the international conference on Eliah Benamozegh in Livorno. Prof. Guetta published extensively on Leone da Modena, Moses da Rieti and Avraham Portaleone. His work in the filed of Hebrew poetry and literature is reflected in many articles among which are Maïmonide et Yéhoudah haLévy, des théories de la Révélation aux théories littéraires, University of Bratislava and

“La poésie hébraique italienne. Mille ans de création littéraire,” in European Association for Jewish Studies Newsletter, 9, spring-summer 2001. Prof. Guetta’s translations of contemporary Hebrew literature he has published novels and poetry by Avraham B. Yehoshua, Yehoshua Kenaz, Yoel Hoffmann, Yitzhaq Laor, David Grossman, and Amos Oz.

Shabbetai Donnolo

Between the 9th and 10th centuries, Byzantine Apulia was a major center for the re-elaboration and transmission of Jewish cultural traditions from Palestine and Babylon to Europe and Northern Africa. Even though the impact of this center on Jewish Medieval culture has begun to be recognized, the figure of Rav Shabbetay Donnolo still stands isolated. His reliance on Greek science and his close relationship to the Christians stand in marked contrast to Donnolo’s Jewish contemporaries’ steady commitment to preserve “ancient traditions”. Donnolo’s understanding of the wisdom found in the Ma’aseh Merkavah and in the Ma’aseh Be’reshit reflects this integrated view of the Jewish tradition. While Donnolo’s approach to the mystical practice tends to be much more speculative than that of other mystical masters, his notion of Chokmah is an organic and all-encompassing form of knowledge. The topics of gnosis, anthropomorphism, and the purpose of knowledge will concur in this presentation to articulate the peculiar features of Donnolo’s idea of wisdom, which stands between mysticism and science.

Born in Torino, Italy, Vadim Putzu received his degree in philosophy from the University of Turin with a dissertation on  Shabbetay Donnolo’s commentary on the Sefer Yetzirah and the Sefer Chakhmonì.  This work was published under the title Shabbetai Donnolo: un Sapiente Ebreo nella Puglia Bizantina Altomedievale (Edizioni Messaggi, Cassano delle Murge, 2004). Dr. Puztu continued his studies in cultural sciences at the Scuola Internazionale di Alti Studi Scienze della Cultura – Fondazione Collegio San Carlo, Modena and in comparative history of religions at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, where he completed his course with a dissertation on mystical techniques and altered states of consciousness in ecstatic Kabbalah. He is working toward his Ph.D. in Jewish thought at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion of Cincinnati. Dr. Putzu is a member of the Italian Association for Jewish Studies.

Women and Books in Renaissance Italy

Fifteenth-century Italy was one of the foremost centers of production of illuminated Hebrew manuscripts.  The images of women that appear in these luxurious volumes will be considered in order to demonstrate the roles played by women in Jewish society and religious life.  Emphasis will be placed on handwritten books created specifically for women, an area rarely treated in art-historical literature.  In these works the benedictions formulated for recitation by women, as well as the illustrations fashioned for female owners will be analyzed.

Evelyn M. Cohen is an expert in Italian Renaissance art and illuminated Hebrew manuscripts. She is currently an adjunct fellow at the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and supervises the library interns in the graduate program for Jewish Art and Visual Culture at The Jewish Theological Seminary, where formerly she was Curator of Jewish Art. She has lectured widely in Hungary, Italy, The Netherlands, Israel, and throughout the United States on various aspects of Jewish art, and has served on the faculty of Columbia University and Yeshiva University. Her numerous publications include The Rothschild Mahzor, for which she received the National Jewish Book Award.

Azariah de’ Rossi

The purpose of this presentation is to discuss whether the term ‘humanist’ is an appropriate designation for the great polymathic sixteenth-century scholar Azariah de’ Rossi whose magnum opus, Me’or Enayim (The Light of the Eyes,) (Mantua 1573-5) was a landmark in Jewish historiography. The 16th century’s Buonaiuto de’ Rossi, or Azariah min ha-Adomin, was a native of Mantua who lived most of his life in Ferrara at the time of the establishment of ghettos and burning of Torah scrolls.

Joanna Weinberg is the author of the annotated translation of de’ Rossi’s pioneering Hebrew book. First printed in Mantua in 1573, The Light of the Eyes established the foundations of critical Jewish historiography.

The book contains innovative studies on a wide range of subjects, including chronology, the origins of the Septuagint, the antiquity of the Hebrew language, and the nature of biblical poetry. De’ Rossi lends unprecedented attention to the evidence of Josephus while his critique of Philo of Alexandria was the first attempt to assess the Jewish status of this Hellenistic philosopher. The hallmark of his work is the presentation of arguments drawn from an impressive array of diverse sources ranging from the texts of rabbinic tradition to Augustine and to Pico della Mirandola. His critical approach to rabbinic texts and his demonstration that the Jewish creation-era calendar was a late, post-Talmudic invention generated controversy that at one time led to a ban on the book. Familiar with the works of contemporary Catholics and Protestants, de’ Rossi was also a mediator between Jewish and Christian scholarship, clarifying problems posed by Jewish tradition in relation to non-Jewish evidence, while signaling the importance of Jewish sources for the topics discussed by his non-Jewish neighbors.

Dr. Joanna Weinberg is the James Mew lecturer in rabbinical Hebrew at the University of Oxford and Catherine Lewis fellow in Rabbinics at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. She taught courses on Rabbinic and Medieval Hebrew texts, Maimonides, the Midrash, and Medieval Jewish history and thought. Her recent publications include: “Invention and Convention: Jewish and Christian critique of the Jewish fixed calendar,” in: Jewish History, 14, 3, 2000. “The Light of the Eyes of Azariah de’ Rossi.” An English translation with introduction and notes. Yale Judaica series volume XXXI, Yale University Press, May 2001. “Leon Modena and the Fiore di Virtù,” in Italia (Conference supplement Series 1), 2003. Azariah de’Rossi’s Observations on the Syriac New Testament. London, The Warburg Institute 2005. (Italian text and English translation with critical apparatus and notes). “The Beautiful Soul: Azariah de’ Rossi’s Search for Truth” in Cultural Intermediaries. Jewish Intellectuals in Early Modern Italy, ed. D. Ruderman and G. Veltri, Philadelphia, 2004.

Yochannan Alemanno 

This presentation will discuss Alemanno’s biography  in its relation to fifteenth-century social history in Italy and his works within the context of the Jewish and Christian scholarly circles of his time. Alemanno’s use of Arabic, Hebrew, Latin, and Italian sources will be explored in connection to his search of intellectual strategies that could mediate humanistic and traditional Jewish thought and provide a synthesis that  would serve as a platform for the renaissance of the “Jewish Nation.”

The seminar will analyze the complex and fascinating context in which Alemanno lived and in which Jewish and non-Jewish philosophers co-existed and shared knowledge: Jewish society in fifteenth-century Italy with its Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and Italian components; Italian Humanism vis-à-vis Medieval thought; Italian Jewish scholarship vis-à-vis Renaissance culture; the relation between patrons and scholars, Jewish and Christian, in early Renaissance Italy; the sustainability of the historiographical notion of “Italian Hebrew Humanism.”

Through the investigation of Alemanno’s biblical commentaries, encyclopaedic works, as well as  kabbalistic and philosophical writings, the seminar will try to articulate some of the notions at the root of Alemanno’s thought: the creation of a comprehensive interpretative system of Jewish and non-Jewish philosophical traditions which would both reframe the Medieval rationalistic Hebrew and Arabic sources within the Scholastic context and the Italian kabbalistic categories in terms of contemporary Neoplatonic and Hermetic thought.

Fabrizio Lelli studied Semitic Philology at the University of Florence and became a fellow at Hebrew University. He obtained his Ph.D. in Medieval Hebrew Philology from the University of Turin. In 1999 he was awarded a fellowship at the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at University of Pennsylvania. He currently teaches Hebrew language and literature at the University of Lecce. Dr. Lelli’s research centers on the philosophical and mystical literature of Jewish scholars working in Renaissance Italy. In this context, he has investigated the history of the transmission of Hermetic texts in medieval Jewish thought; the contacts between Jewish and Christian fifteenth-century biblical exegetes; the intellectual cooperation  between  Jewish and Christian Renaissance scholars interested in Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy, as well as in Kabbalah. He has published extensively on many facets of Yochanan Alemanno’s writings, his relations with Pico della Mirandola and with the Jewish and non-Jewish intellectual circles of  his time. Dr. Lelli participated in many international conferences including: The University of Florence, 1992, Jewish Culture in Florence at the Time of Lorenzo il Magnifico; London, The Warburg Institute, 1997 Jews and the Classical Tradition; Philadelphia, The Center for Advanced Judaic Studies and the University of Pennsylvania, 2000 Hebraica Veritas? Christian Hebraists, Jews, and The Study of Judaism in Early Modern Europe; London, The Institute of Jewish Studies, University College, 2003, Science in Medieval Jewish Thought; New York, Renaissance Society of America, Fiftieth Annual Meeting, 2004, Hebrew and Arabic Sources for Humanism.

From Rossi to Rossini

One and a half centuries of scholarship in Jewish music have witnessed a constantly renewed celebration of Salamone Rossi, the famed Jewish composer in the ghetto of Mantua who set Hebrew prayers to Renaissance vocal music.

The fascination with Rossi, and with the idea that it was possible for a Jew in Early Modern Europe to overcome the barriers of religious segregation through the saving power of art, has led to the overlooking of an important fact: Rossi’s music did not leave a single trace in Italy’s rich Jewish musical traditions.

The Jewish music of Italy is multifaceted, as documented in hundreds of field recordings made in the 1950’s by Italian-Israeli researcher Leo Levi, and in thousands of synagogue compositions commissioned from the early 19th century through the beginning of the 20th century by all the main communities scattered across the peninsula, Italian, Ashkenazi and Sephardic cultural identities mingled in the liturgy, creating a unique blend, strongly influenced by Italy’s non-Jewish musical culture.

Liturgical music is often revealing of social and cultural changes that go far beyond the walls of the synagogue.

The 19th century, a time in which Italian Jewish music was certainly more influenced by Rossini than Rossi, prompted a host of developments in the configuration of the ritual. Much was changed in the name of modernity and assimilation. However, the quest for a distinctly “Jewish” musical style, based upon an “Oriental” cultural agenda, stirred a wave of preservation of the old. Many musical materials, which predate the Emancipation and go back to the music of the Italian ghettos, were thus preserved side to side with the new operatic and Church-sounding repertoires. Considering the perhaps less glorious development of Italian Jewish music shortly before and after the Emancipation, may lead to a deeper understanding of the musical heritage developed since the Renaissance.

Francesco Spagnolo studied music at the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory and Philosophy at the University of Milan. He has been active as an academic in the fields of philosophy and musicology, as a host of cultural programs for RAI (Italian National Radio), and as a producer and performer of music and theater in Europe and the U.S. In 1997, he founded Yuval Italia, the Italian Center for the Study of Jewish Music. He is the author of several essays and one book (The Dance of the Chameleon: Quotation, Textual Strategies and Survival, Milan 1999), and the editor of the volume Aesthetics of Extreme Situations (Milan 2000) and of the Italian edition of Imre Toth’s Palimpsest (Bompiani, Milan 2003). In 2001, the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia (Rome) and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem jointly issued his groundbreaking audio anthology, Italian Jewish Musical Traditions. A Research Fellow of the Jewish Music Research Center (Jerusalem) and PhD candidate at the Hebrew University, he currently lives in San Francisco, working as the Music Curator of the Judah L. Magnes Museum (Berkeley) and teaching in the Music and Literature departments of the University of California at Santa Cruz.

David B. Ruderman is the Joseph Meyerhoff Professor of Modern Jewish History and Director of the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He was educated at the City College of New York, the Teacher’s Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and Columbia University. He received his rabbinical degree from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York in 197l, and his Ph.D. in Jewish History from the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. Prof. Ruderman is the author of The World of a Renaissance Jew: The Life and Thought of Abraham b. Mordecai Farissol (Cincinnati, Ohio, Hebrew Union College Press, 1981), for which he received the JWB National Book Award in Jewish History in 1982; Kabbalah, Magic, and Science: The Cultural Universe of a Sixteenth-Century Jewish Physician (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1988); and A Valley of Vision: The Heavenly Journey of Abraham Ben Hananiah Yagel (Philadelphia, Pa., University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990).  He is co-author, with William W. Hallo and Michael Stanislawski, of the two volume Heritage: Civilization and the Jews Study Guide and Source Reader (New York, Praeger, 1984). He has edited Essential Papers on Jewish Culture in Renaissance and Baroque Italy (New York, New York University Press, 1992), Preachers of the Italian Ghetto (Los Angeles and Berkeley, University of California Press, 1992), [with David Myers] The Jewish Past Revisited: Reflections on Modern Jewish Historians (New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1998), and most recently,  Cultural Intermediaries: Jewish Intellectuals in Early Modern Italy [with Giuseppe Veltri] (Philadelphia, Pa., University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004). He has also published Jewish Thought and Scientific Discovery in Early Modern Europe (New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1995; revised paperback, Detroit, 2001). His book Jewish Enlightenment in an English Key: Anglo-Jewry’s Construction of Modern Jewish Thought published by Princeton University Press in 2000 won the Koret Award for the best book in Jewish History in 2001. 

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