Kabbalah in Italy, 1280-1510

Kabbalah in Italy, 1280-1510: A Survey

MOSHE IDEL
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 480
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1npjh5
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    Kabbalah in Italy, 1280-1510
    Book Description:

    This sweeping survey of the history of Kabbalah in Italy represents a major contribution from one of the world's foremost Kabbalah scholars. The first to focus attention on a specific center of Kabbalah, Moshe Idel charts the ways that Kabbalistic thought and literature developed in Italy and how its unique geographical situation facilitated the arrival of both Spanish and Byzantine Kabbalah.

    Idel analyzes the work of three major Kabbalists-Abraham Abulafia, Menahem Recanati, and Yohanan Alemanno-who represent diverse schools of thought: the ecstatic, the theosophical-theurgical, and the astromagical. Directing special attention to the interactions and tensions among these forms of Jewish Kabbalah and the nascent Christian Kabbalah, Idel brings to light the rich history of Kabbalah in Italy and the powerful influence of this important center on the emergence of Christian Kabbalah and European occultism in general.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15587-7
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. PREFACE
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-18)

    This book is the first comprehensive effort to survey the main stages of the development of Kabbalah in Italy, from its inception in the last decades of the thirteenth century until approximately 1510. My main focus is the works written in the Italian peninsula that both their authors and others conceived as being Kabbalah. Since an overall definition of Kabbalah—as of Italy in the Middle Ages—is filled with problems, like any attempt to define vast corpora such as philosophy, science, poetry, or magic, I prefer to use these two criteria of internal and external perception to delimit the...

  5. 1 KABBALAH: Introductory Remarks
    (pp. 19-29)

    One of the most interesting features of Jewish culture is the continuous oscillation between two attitudes toward the majority cultures in which they exist: the particularist and the universalist. In their efforts to cultivate and preserve their own rituals and traditions, individual Jewish communities have at times flourished, suffered, and eventually perished in cultural ambiances very different from those of the centers where these particularist attitudes were initially articulated. Particularism is marked by adherence to Jewish rituals and the Hebrew language, universalism by the adoption of cultural attitudes and practices prevailing in the larger, non-Jewish cultures in which Jews have...

  6. 2 ABRAHAM ABULAFIA AND ECSTATIC KABBALAH
    (pp. 30-39)

    Abraham Abulafia (1240–c. 1292) is the founder of the ecstatic trend of Kabbalah.¹ Born in Saragossa, in Aragon, he was educated by his father, Shmuel, in Tudela until the latter’s death in 1258. In 1260 he left Catalonia for the land of Israel in search of the mythical river Sambatyon. In the mid-1260s he was in Capua studying Jewish philosophy, especially theGuide of the Perplexedof Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides). At the end of the 1260s he arrived in Barcelona, and in 1270 he began to study Kabbalah there, perhaps as the result of a revelation.² From...

  7. 3 ABRAHAM ABULAFIA’S ACTIVITY IN ITALY
    (pp. 40-51)

    Rome played a very important role in the political and spiritual life of the Jews. The city symbolized both the evil Roman Empire, which destroyed the Jewish Second Temple, and the headquarters of the religion that later persecuted Jews more than any other—Christianity. This doubly negative heritage notwithstanding, in the medieval period Rome remained one of the main centers of power, regulating aspects of life in countries where many Jews were living. However, in the thirteenth century Rome was not only a symbol of past destruction and of present persecutions but also a center of Jewish spiritual creativity. In...

  8. 4 ECSTATIC KABBALAH AS AN EXPERIENTIAL LORE
    (pp. 52-63)

    The nature of Kabbalah is a matter of dispute among scholars. Focusing their attention on theosophical-theurgical Kabbalah, a preeminently Spanish type of Kabbalah, some modern scholars have pointed out the “casuistical” nature of Kabbalah as a whole.¹ Part of this evaluation has to do with the marginalization of Abulafia’s Kabbalah in the scholarship after the mid-1950s, despite Gershom Scholem’s characterization of ecstatic Kabbalah as a major trend.² This marginalization is part of a larger phenomenon that can be described as a more theological approach to Kabbalah, which was conceived of more as a speculative system than as a full-fledged form...

  9. 5 ABRAHAM ABULAFIA’S HERMENEUTICS
    (pp. 64-76)

    One of Abulafia’s most original contributions to Jewish mysticism was his innovative and complex hermeneutical system. In Spain his contemporaries were greatly interested in establishing the details of exegetical techniques for decoding the Bible, and it was during this time that the fourfold scheme known asPardesemerged. Whereas in the Song of Songspardesmeans “orchard,” here it was used as an acronym to refer to four senses of the Hebrew Bible:Peshat(plain sense),Remez(allegorical sense),Derash(homiletic sense), andSod(secret sense).¹ This hermeneutical system, unlike Abulafia’s more complex one, became widespread in Kabbalah. But different...

  10. 6 ESCHATOLOGICAL THEMES AND DIVINE NAMES IN ABULAFIA’S KABBALAH
    (pp. 77-88)

    Redeemers tend to possess confidence in being already redeemed themselves. Redemption of the many is the application of their own redemption, as anticipated by the chosen one. This was the case with Abraham Abulafia. The formulator of a kabbalistic system focused on manipulations of language and divine names believed that redemption consisted in the application of the linguistic techniques on a much broader scale. The new age—historical or psychological—was to be ushered in, according to Abulafia’s view of eschatology, by a change of names, both divine and human. The theme of the divine name as pivotal for the...

  11. 7 ABRAHAM ABULAFIA AND R. MENAHEM BEN BENJAMIN: Thirteenth-Century Kabbalistic and Ashkenazi Manuscripts in Italy
    (pp. 89-105)

    We have examined Abraham Abulafia’s public and literary activities in Italy, which established ecstatic Kabbalah as one of the leading schools of Jewish thought in the Apennine peninsula and in Sicily for some centuries. However, there is one more aspect of Abulafia’s activity that had repercussions for the history of Kabbalah in the peninsula. In my opinion, he not only composed the first kabbalistic writings in Italy, he also brought there kabbalistic material derived from other schools flourishing in Spain. We have autobiographical testimony about this material. In hisSefer ’Otzar ‘Eden Ganuz, Abulafia writes: “When I was thirty-one, in...

  12. 8 R. MENAHEM BEN BENJAMIN RECANATI
    (pp. 106-116)

    Abraham Abulafia, a Spanish figure who flourished in Italy, was the founder of ecstatic Kabbalah. R. Menahem ben Benjamin Recanati was the first Italian Kabbalist to adopt an important version of another type of Kabbalah, the theosophical-theurgical one. In doing so he accepted a theological view that differed dramatically from Abulafia’s, one that assumed the existence of a transcendental divine layer, designated as‘Illat ha-‘Illot, Causa Causarum, and a system of ten divine powers named sefirot. We shall have much more to say about the details of this theosophical system in the next chapter. Here, however, we should explore the...

  13. 9 MENAHEM RECANATI AS A THEOSOPHICAL-THEURGICAL KABBALIST
    (pp. 117-127)

    The theosophical-theurgical model was the dominant form of Kabbalah in Spain from the time of its emergence under the impact of Provençal traditions brought there by R. Yitzhaq Sagi Nahor during the early thirteenth century.¹ However, I have no doubt, as we shall see below, that the actual sources of theurgy and theosophy are much earlier, occurring not only in Provençal and Ashkenazi sources but in rabbinic ones as well. Nevertheless, we should not necessarily assume that theurgy and theosophy always occur together in these earlier sources. In some cases it is possible to find theosophical discussions without theurgical implication,...

  14. 10 MENAHEM RECANATI’S HERMENEUTICS
    (pp. 128-138)

    The generation of Jewish scholars before Recanati contributed greatly to kabbalistic hermeneutics, as was mentioned in chapter 5. Both the ecstatic Kabbalists, such as Abulafia and Yitzhaq of Acre, and the theosophical-theurgical ones, such as the Castilian Kabbalists, formulated systematic techniques of exegesis. However, Recanati, who was acquainted with many of these treatments, does not quote them at all. Though composing a book that invited, in principle, some elaborations on exegesis, in his main work, theCommentary on the Torah, the Italian Kabbalist does not indulge in theoretical speculations, describing precisely how secrets were extracted from the scriptures. In this...

  15. 11 ECSTATIC KABBALAH FROM THE FOURTEENTH THROUGH MID-FIFTEENTH CENTURIES
    (pp. 139-153)

    The kabbalistic writings of Abraham Abulafia and Menahem Recanati did not simply survive in manuscripts, copied in a servile manner in the following generations. In fact they excited interest in the various forms of Jewish mystical lore among later generations of Kabbalists in several centers of Jewish culture, especially in Italy and the Byzantine Empire, though almost not at all in the Iberian peninsula. These two corpora were continued while also appropriating other forms of speculative literatures, kabbalistic or philosophical. Thus, although there was no pure school of either Abulafia or Recanati that continued their teachings in their pristine form,...

  16. 12 THE KABBALISTIC-PHILOSOPHICAL-MAGICAL EXCHANGES IN ITALY
    (pp. 154-163)

    Italy is one of the sites where the tensions between Kabbalah and another form of Jewish thought, philosophy, are visible quite early. It is also one of the places where the syntheses between the two are numerous and conspicuous. The chief reason for these phenomena is the geographical location of Italy, between Western Jewish communities in North Africa, Spain, France, and Germany, and the Eastern communities, mainly in Babylonia, Egypt, and Palestine. The Italian peninsula was a place where many trajectories intersected, as indeed was Sicily. So, for example, Italian and Ashkenazi traditions mention the arrival in Italy of Abu...

  17. 13 PRISCA THEOLOGIA: R. Isaac Abravanel, Leone Ebreo, and R. Elijah Hayyim of Genazzano
    (pp. 164-176)

    Just as the emergence of critiques of Kabbalah in Italy reflected the influence of Italian humanism, with its more critical approach to texts, so we may assume that the Italian Renaissance affected the attitude to Kabbalah among some Jews. And indeed, as we saw in the previous chapter, the emergence of Christian Kabbalah, with its missionary goals, prompted a more negative attitude toward Jewish Kabbalah among several Jewish authors.

    One topic central to the understanding of Kabbalah in this period, which preoccupied many Renaissance scholars, was the concept ofprisca theologia, the belief in the existence of an “ancient theology”...

  18. 14 R. YOHANAN BEN YITZHAQ ALEMANNO
    (pp. 177-191)

    Northern Italy had a significant Ashkenazi population at least from the late thirteenth century. One of the most important Jewish intellectuals in the period under discussion, Yohanan Alemanno, was born in Mantua in 1435 or 1436, the son of a certain R. Yitzhaq, who apparently made his living selling manuscripts.¹ Yohanan’s grandfather R. Elijah was a physician; he had either been born in Germany or his family had come from there, and he lived for a while in France and then in Aragon, where Yitzhaq presumably married a Spanish woman. The entire family accompanied Elijah to the Vatican, where the...

  19. 15 JEWISH MYSTICAL THOUGHT IN LORENZO IL MAGNIFICO’S FLORENCE
    (pp. 192-201)

    Many of the important cultural centers and developments in medieval and premodern times were shaped by political and social rulers who were concerned about intellectual and spiritual matters. Without the considerable material investments of Frederick II in Naples and Alfonso Sabio in Toledo¹ in the thirteenth century, Robert of Anjou in Naples in the fourteenth century, Cosimo and Lorenzo de’ Medici in Florence in the fifteenth century, and Rudolf II in Prague in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, European culture would be much poorer. One of the main consequences of this intellectual court culture was that the elite...

  20. 16 OTHER MYSTICAL AND MAGICAL LITERATURES IN RENAISSANCE FLORENCE
    (pp. 202-211)

    Although all three main kabbalistic models, the ecstatic, the theosophical-theurgical, and the magical, were well represented in kabbalistic literatures available in Florence at the end of the fifteenth century, the spectrum of Jewish texts dealing with mystical topics was much more variegated. In addition to these literatures, there were extensive writings concerned with two other forms of spirituality. Their impact may have been less profound than that exercised by kabbalistic literature, but nevertheless they should not be ignored.

    The earliest form of Jewish mystical literature, the so-called Heikhalot literature stemming from late antiquity, had been preserved mostly by the Ashkenazi...

  21. 17 SPANISH KABBALISTS IN ITALY AFTER THE EXPULSION
    (pp. 212-218)

    Spanish Kabbalah arrived in Italy in two major waves: the first, at the end of the thirteenth century, influenced the writings of Abraham Abulafia and Menahem Recanati, as we saw in chapters 7 and 8. The first Spanish arrivals shaped their kabbalistic sources in very significant ways, sometimes in response to the Italian predisposition to a more speculative approach. In contrast, the second major wave brought individuals who had been strongly shaped in a different intellectual environment, with different kabbalistic texts and religious proclivities, and who adapted themselves to only a marginal extent to the Italian ambiance. Indeed, they rather...

  22. 18 TWO DIVERGING TYPES OF KABBALAH IN LATE-FIFTEENTH-CENTURY ITALY
    (pp. 219-226)

    Much of the discussion so far is based upon the assumption that there was a significant difference between the various kabbalistic trends that developed in Spain and the history of Kabbalah in Italy. In the latter case, different organizations of ideas, themes, and models that originated on the Iberian peninsula were transported to Italy and transformed there. Some of these kabbalistic themes and models had been marginalized in Spain but flowered in Italy. As we have seen, for example, ecstatic Kabbalah as formulated by Abulafia and the predominantly theosophical-theurgical Spanish Kabbalah were dramatically diverging trends that came to be regarded...

  23. 19 JEWISH KABBALAH IN CHRISTIAN GARB
    (pp. 227-235)

    The historical beginnings of both Jewish and Christian Kabbalah remain matters of debate among scholars.¹ Precisely when a certain phenomenon is regarded as coming into being depends on the presence of the conceptual minimum required to define it. The dominant scholarly definition of Kabbalah regards its crucial component as a concern with the ten divine powers, the ten sefirot. In line with this view, Jewish Kabbalah emerged in Languedoc in the last decades of the twelfth century, and Christian Kabbalah in the final decades of the thirteenth. But if we turn to another way of defining Kabbalah, found already in...

  24. 20 ANTHROPOIDS FROM THE MIDDLE AGES TO RENAISSANCE ITALY
    (pp. 236-268)

    In this chapter and the next I deal with two different forms of the artificial anthropoids discussed in medieval and Renaissance literature. This topic is crucial for an understanding of Jewish esotericism in general, as well as its metamorphoses in Jewish folklore and literature both inside and outside Judaism. As Yehuda Liebes put it, this topic is the acme of kabbalistic literature.¹ Its presence in Italian Jewish and Christian authors and its transformations in the different models of Kabbalah (the magical, the ecstatic, and the theosophical-theurgical) illustrate the vitality of the topic of artificial anthropoids in Italy and the methodological...

  25. 21 ASTROMAGICAL PNEUMATIC ANTHROPOIDS FROM MEDIEVAL SPAIN TO RENAISSANCE ITALY
    (pp. 269-286)

    As we have seen, magic was part of many forms of Judaism for centuries despite attempts to attenuate it, especially in the philosophically oriented circle leaning to Maimonides’ thought. Jewish magic in the first stages of Jewish mysticism, the Heikhalot literature and its reverberations, including its repercussions in southern Italy from the tenth to twelfth centuries, and in Ashkenazi esoteric literatures emphasized mainly the linguistic aspects of magic, namely letters, names, seals, prayers, and incantations. These strategies were conceived of as extensions of the divine creative speech and of the divine names. Other forms of magic, which were based upon...

  26. 22 THE TRAJECTORY OF EASTERN KABBALAH AND ITS REVERBERATIONS IN ITALY
    (pp. 287-292)

    So far we have looked at material that arrived in Italy from the West: Spain, Provence, the rest of France, and different parts of Germany. Great parts of the structure of this esoteric knowledge were indebted to Greek, Hellenistic, and Jewish material that had arrived in those places still earlier from the Near East. However, there was also another trajectory of knowledge to Italy in this period, originating with Jews active in areas to the east. The main area pertinent to our discussion is Crete, where a Jewish community had flourished since the fourteenth century, and which maintained strong relations...

  27. CONCLUDING REMARKS
    (pp. 293-314)

    “Kabbalah in Italy” and “Italian Kabbalah” are, to be sure, merely umbrella terms, neither more coherent nor less precarious than designations such as Spanish, Byzantine, North African, and Safedian Kabbalah. The diversity of their contents notwithstanding, the use of such terms may serve both important historical and phenomenological aims. First and foremost, it is an efficient way of demarcating the specific books and schools that developed in a certain area from the huge kabbalistic literatures and of dealing only with those that did interact with their specific surrounding more than other works written elsewhere. Equally important, the awareness that a...

  28. APPENDIX 1 The Angel Named Righteous: From R. ’Amittai of Oria to Erfurt and Rome
    (pp. 315-323)
  29. APPENDIX 2 The Infant Experiment: On the Search for the First Language in Italy
    (pp. 324-339)
  30. APPENDIX 3 R. Yohanan Alemanno’s Study Program
    (pp. 340-343)
  31. APPENDIX 4 Magic Temples and Cities in the Middle Ages and Renaissance: Mas‘udi, Ibn Zarza, Alemanno
    (pp. 344-348)
  32. NOTES
    (pp. 349-466)
  33. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 467-476)
  34. INDEX OF MANUSCRIPTS
    (pp. 477-479)
  35. INDEX OF TITLES
    (pp. 480-485)
  36. INDEX OF NAMES
    (pp. 486-494)