Another Modernity: Elia Benamozegh’s Jewish Universalism

Another Modernity: Elia Benamozegh’s Jewish Universalism by Clémence Boulouque (Stanford University Press, 2020)

Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

This scholarly work offers a comprehensive study of Rabbi Eliyahu Benamozegh’s vision for modernity. His platform calls for a Universalist reading of Judaism, but instead of the rationalist framework upon which other forms of Jewish Universalism are built, Benamozegh championed a more conservative basis for that view, drawing heavily on the traditions of Kabbalah to justify his claims. The author of this book explores what factors influenced Benamozegh’s controversial ideas, and how his thoughts have, in turn, influenced others.

In 1823, Benamozegh was born to a Moroccan family in Livorno (Leghorn), Italy. Although he received a traditional rabbinic training and even studied Kabbalah under his uncle, he was better known as an auto-didactic who was learned in several disciplines. By profession, Benamozegh was a publisher, and true to his dedication to the written word, he wrote prolifically in Hebrew, Italian, and French. With the backdrop of the Risorgimento movement that sought to unify the various Italian states as one socio-cultural polity, Benamozegh thought about the big picture and ambitiously sought to construct a theosophy that would unite all of mankind.

In the spirit of his times, Benamozegh engaged with “modernity,” which he saw as a continuation of tradition, not as a total break from tradition. More specifically, Benamozegh saw how Christianity and Islam broadcasted messages that were not only relevant to members of those faiths, but to humanity as a whole. Yet, he felt that the universalist aspects of those religions are actually borrowed from their parent religion: Judaism. In particular, he viewed Kabbalah (which literally means “tradition”) as the appropriate vehicle for leading the way to uniting all of humanity. Thus, Benamozegh dedicated himself to finding those aspects of Judaism that speak to all of mankind and highlighting their importance.

One core principle of Benamozegh’s thought is the centrality of the Seven Noahide Laws, which are “a core set of tenets binding on all of humanity and akin to natural laws.” These laws would serve as the focal point of Benamozegh’s imagined universal religion for modernity. To sum up Benamozegh’s philosophy/theosophy, Boulouque writes: “Israel could provide both old and new foundations for the universalist religion because it contains its seeds. Judaism, thanks to the Noahide Laws, had the potential to birth the religion of the future.”

Yet, any discussion of the Noahide Laws inevitably leads to a discussion of Jewish particularism — the polar opposite of universalism — that focuses on the Jewish People’s role as the “chosen nation.” According to Jewish Tradition, while all gentiles are subject to the Seven Noahide Laws, the Jews are subject to a different set of laws, namely the 613 commandments of the Torah. This reality complicates any effort to argue for the universalist relevance of Judaism, as it gives one nation precedence over all the others. As a result of these ostensibly contradictory notions, one can detect a sort of tension in many of Benamozegh’s writings, and Boulouque devotes much space in her book to expanding on Benamozegh’s ways of alleviating this profound difficulty.

In a nutshell, Benamozegh’s approach to reconciling Jewish universalism with Jewish particularism postulates that the world is comprised of a “family of nation,” and just as each member of a family has different roles and responsibilities, so do the various nations of the world have different roles and responsibilities within the global community. However, unlike the other nations of the world, the Jews in particular were given extra responsibilities by Divine Revelation that demanded of them to preserve and disseminate the Seven Noahide Laws and the basics of Universal Monotheism. Boulouque shows how this seemingly modern idea is reflected in the Biblical promise to make the Jews “a kingdom of priests” (Ex. 19:6), which Rabbi Ovadia Sforno (a sixteenth century Italian commentator) explains as referring to the Jewish role in teaching monotheism to the nations.

Another major element of Benamozegh’s universalist writings is his focus on Adam, the first man. As the father of all of mankind, Adam was understood to represent a sort of genealogical reflection of the shared origins of all peoples. Even though Benamozegh recognizes that Jewish Tradition viewed Adam as a proto-Jew of sorts, he more broadly understood Adam as an archetypical follower of a more generic universal monotheism, of which Judaism is but one legitimate expression.

Indeed, the plurality of legitimate religious expressions is a mainstay of Benamozegh’s worldview that viewed the gods of the nations as incomplete parts of a greater truth. Through his Kabbalistic lens, those various foreign deities reflect perceived varying aspects of the One God himself, and thus contain parts of the truth, but not the whole truth. Thus, Benamozegh’s Judaism not only tolerates other religions, but even confers upon them ontological and meta-physical significance.

Benamozegh’s clearest and most complete treatment of these issues can be found in his work Israel and Humanity. Yet, a cloud of uncertainty casts its shadow over the provenance of that work, because this magnum opus remained a two-thousand page manuscript at the time of Benamozegh’s death in 1900. It was only edited and published in French fourteen years later by Benamozegh’s Christian disciple Aimé Pallèire. Some have claimed that Benamozegh’s more conciliatory and inclusive comments are actually subversive interpolations that Pallèire inserted into his mentor’s work, but that Benamozegh himself never meant to downplay the supremacy of the Jewish People and brandish a universalist world view. However, Boulouque’s major contribution to this discussion is a close reading of Benamozegh’s original manuscript (housed in the archives of the Jewish community in Livorno) that reveals that indeed the edition published by Pallèire matches Benamozegh’s writings. This detective work clears Pallèire’s name of any impropriety and demonstrates that the posthumous Israel and Humanity truly reflects Benamozegh’s positions and teachings. [That work was also translated into Hebrew by Dr. Shimon Marcus of Mossad HaRav Kook as Yisrael VeHaEnushot].

As Boulouque adeptly demonstrates, Benamozegh’s writings were always in conversation with the other worldviews floating around in his time—whether explicitly or implicitly. These competing weltanschauung include Maimonidean-style philosophy (associated with such figures as Moses Mendelssohn and Baruch Spinoza), Christianity, Reform Judaism, and nationalism. Benamozegh engaged with the leading figures of those theosophies, sometimes strategically citing them to bolster his own arguments and sometimes rejecting their ideas when they clashed with his own. Boulouque further shows how Benamozegh’s own legacy continued to influence a wide spectrum of Jewish thinkers from the Religious-Zionist Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook on the far right to the Marxist-Kabbalist Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag on the left, as well as Christian philo-Semites and American evangelists.

In short, Clémence Boulouque offers a wide-ranging reflection and analysis of one of the most important Jewish thinkers of his time. She solidly situates Benamozegh’s ideas and importance amongst the other thinkers of the last 200 years, all the while showing how the rabbi’s words themselves can be understood and appreciated in a plurality of different ways. This scholarly and nuanced investigation into the meaning of Benamozegh’s Jewish Universalism is truly a worthy contribution towards our understanding of Rabbi Eliyahu Benamozegh’s multifaceted and complex thought.

Talmud on the Mind: Exploring Chazal and Practical Psychology to Lead a Better Life

Talmud on the Mind: Exploring Chazal and Practical Psychology to Lead a Better Life (Maseches Berachos) by Rabbi Dr. Ethan Eisen (Kodesh Press, 2020)

Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

This extremely enjoyable book offers about fourteen short essays on various ideas related to psychology and psychobiology. The author uses the mention of some of these ideas in Maseches Berachos to further expand on them and present his own novel interpretations. Throughout the book, traditional Jewish sources and academic/popular medical sources are used side-by-side to present new ways of looking at the various topics discussed. The author compares and contrasts how these two different types of sources address each given issue, and uses data from one corpus to fill in lacuna in the others. At the close of each chapter, Rabbi Dr. Eisen offers practical “Lessons for Today” that bring home the point of that chapter and tie it in to something more useful.

In his opening chapter, Eisen talks about how the rabbis’ preferred antidote to the pox of procrastination echoes the famous words of Nike’s iconic slogan: “Just do it.” This simple, but effective advice encourages people to overcome their indolence and dithering, and puts an end to the use of delay tactics. Eisen further develops this idea by showing how the Halakhic principle of zerizim makdimim l’mitzvos preempts man’s dilly-dallying and allows a person the freedom to live a more productive and meaningful life. He also draws on various psychological studies to probe the cognitive and behavioral causes of procrastination.

In another chapter, Eisen discusses how consistent synagogue-attendance alleviates many of the problems associated with loneliness, and how studies even seem to support the Talmudic assertion that such regular attendance contributes to longevity. As Eisen so cleverly puts it, “80% of life is just showing up.”

One of the most creative and powerful essays that Eisen presents discusses the so-called “IKEA effect” which asserts that people value things according to the amount of effort that they put in to achieving or building that thing. Eisen uses this idea to explain why the Talmud assumes that Chana was so intent on Eli sparing the life of her son Shmuel, when she could have just as easily allowed Eli to put Shmuel to death and prayed for her to be granted another son.

This reviewer was particularly interested in Eisen’s chapter on colors. He asks the age-old question of how a person can ever be certain that what he sees is the same thing that someone else sees. Color obviously has various Halachic ramifications, and the question of how different people might perceive the same color has implications for psychology, social studies, and even linguistics. This chapter uses the disagreement amongst Halachic authorities over how to exactly define the color of techeiles as a sort of case study to make generalizations into the question of color. [One opinion that the author omitted is that of Rabbi Yair Chaim Bachrach (1639–1702) who characterized the color of techeiles as "purple."]

Another discussion related to psycholinguistics is the cultural phenomenon of giving people a few seconds to finalize their statements and decisions. For chess players, this leeway allows a person to retract his move until he lifts his fingers from the chess piece that he moved, and in Halacha, this leeway allows a person to delay the effects of his Halachic speech-acts until what we call toch k’dai dibbur (roughly, the amount of time it takes to greet another person) has passed. This leeway is not to be taken for granted in all cultures, yet Eisen shows how it has some basis in the neurosciences.

Eisen also offers a few discussions that aren’t quite related to psychology, per se, but do touch on issues related to the human body. For example, he offers a chapter that discusses the physiological effects of shame and humiliation, which lead to both blushing and the paling of one’s face. The rabbis, of course, refer to embarrassing another as “whitening the face of one’s fellow.” Another chapter explores King David’s sleeping habits and considers the effects of a midnight candle on a person’s circadian rhythm. While on the surface these types of discussions seem more related to physiology, their effects are also studied by research psychologists and applied by clinical psychologists.

What is arguably the most important chapter of this book is saved for last. In this last chapter, Eisen shows how the sensitivity to so-called microaggressions is not just a post-Modern oversensitivity, but has a basis in basic human decency. He demonstrates how the Torah and Talmud are sensitive to the plight of victims and the down-trodden, leading to the expectation that Jews be especially vigilant in avoiding even miniscule acts of aggression.

The matters discussed in this book are loosely arranged by their appearances in Maseches Berachos and this reviewer looks forward to seeing similar books by Rabbi Dr. Eisen on other parts of the Talmud. Rabbi Dr. Eisen is trained in both rabbinics and psychology, using his mastery of each to complement our knowledge of the other. With witty chapter titles and easy-to-read discussions, this book is truly delightful and informative.

Nahmanides: Law and Mysticism


Nahmanides: Law and Mysticism by Moshe Halbertal [Translated by Daniel Tabak] (Yale University Press, 2020)

Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

In this book, Israeli philosopher Moshe Halbertal presents us with an intellectual biography of the methodologies and ideas espoused by Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban), also known as Nachmanides. The first quarter of the book is devoted to explaining Nachmanides' halachic methodology, and how his approach differed from those of Provencal scholars in Southern France, the Tosafists in Northern France and Germany, and Maimonides in Andalusian Spain. The next half of the book comprises an exposition on Nachmanides’ Kabbalistic ideas and the implications of the positions he takes, while the final quarter of the book discusses Nachmanides’ view of the reasons behind the commandments.

In elaborating on Nachmanides’ halachic epistemology, Halbertal contrasts Nachmanides’ approach to “Torah from Sinai” with the very different approaches of Maimonides and the Geonim. Maimonides isolates a kernel of Sinaitic revelatory content, and understands the rest of the halachic corpus as the results of the rabbis’ creative process, as explicitly endorsed by the Bible. According to Maimonides, the notion of “dispute” (machloket) stems from different ways of inducing and deducing new conclusions from that core truth. On the other hand, the Geonim understand the true content of the Sinaitic Revelation to be somehow lost in transmission, such that "truth" is defined as that which matches the knowledge given by the Divine at Sinai. The body of halacha thus comprises of the results of the quest for rediscovering those lost truths and what they entailed; the Geonim accordingly understand that machloket comes from different ways of trying to restore the original Sinaitic truth.

Nachmanides rejects both of those positions. As Halbertal demonstrates, Nachmanides understands the Sinaitic Revelation in a broader sense to include all the possible options found within the corpus of rabbinic tradition, while maintaining that the Torah mandated that the majority of rabbis in each generation decide which viewpoints—out of a plurality of multiple legitimate viewpoints—to accept in practice and which, to reject. In Nachmanides’ view, machloket is built into the system of halacha, and does not derive from mistaken transmission or a subjective creative process. As opposed to Maimonides and the Geonim, Nachmanides would say that machloket is a feature, not a bug.

Throughout his halachic works, Nachmanides shows great reverence for the Geonim and, especially, for Alfasi. As a staunch conservative, Nachmanides generally strove to justify and preserve his predecessors’ rulings, even when he must resort to the innovative mental gymnastics typified by the Franco-German Tosafists in order to justify those positions. Nachmanides even penned works to defend Alfasi against the likes of the Baal HaMaor and the Raavad.

In explaining what drove Nachmanides to so strongly defend the Geonim and Alfasi’s rulings, Halbertal shows how Nachmanides used a sort of time-series analysis to introduce a distinction between Alfasi/Geonim, whom he branded Rishonim ("earlier sages"), versus Alfasi's students (like Ibn Migash) and grand-students (like Maimonides), whom he branded Acharonim ("latter-day sages"). Using such temporal distinctions to grade the authority of different halachic personalities remains an important tool in the halachic process to this very day.

Halbertal notes that some scholars argue that Nachmanides' role as a practical halachist informed his general worldview, and led him to take a more corporeal approach to Jewish eschatology. In other words, Nachmanides seems to give the human body special significance by explaining—contra Maimonides—that the Resurrection of the Dead will entail the soul returning to its body. The argument goes that Nachmanides' scholarship and prominence in the more "practical" realm of halacha led him to thinking that the physical body will retain its centrality even in the post-Messianic Era.

However, Halbertal explicitly disagrees with this approach, instead preferring to explain that Nachmanides' view of the significance of the human body stems from his Kabbalistic understanding of the human body and the human condition as reflecting as sort of Divine Drama played out in the cosmic cycles that we call history.

Interestingly, Halbertal makes a point of noting that Nachmanides sides with the Ashkenazic tradition of identifying “the final boss” to be vanquished in the End of Days as the Esau-Edomite-Roman-Christian axis. This contrasts with the view taken by Maimonides and Ibn Ezra that identifies the fourth beast in Daniel’s prophecy as representing the Ishmael-Islam typology.

In the Kabbalistic sections of this book, Halbertal dedicates much space to discussion of the perceived falling-out between the Sefirot of Tiferet and Shekhinah. As Halbertal understands Nachmanidean eschatology, the final reconciliation of those two conflicting elements within the so-called Godhead will only take place in the End of Days. He writes that “the pendulum of history swings from hardship to salvation and back in tandem with the complex movement between Shekhinah and Tiferet” (page 222).

In his commentary to the Pentateuch, Nachmanides famously writes that from God's perspective "hidden miracles" and "open miracles" are both equally miraculous, only that the former are less obvious to man because they are obscured by nature, while the latter are clearly supernatural phenomena. Halbertal tries to expand on this distinction by arguing that these two sorts of miracles are rooted in two different Sefirot (Kabbalistic mechanisms or modalities) by which God operates. After making this argument, he remarks: "Examining the miracles through a kabalistic lens, however, has afforded us the additional insight that the two kinds of miracle are profoundly and metaphysically distinct, and not only observationally so" (page 150).

That said, the heresy inherent in viewing miracles as the results of a cold, mechanical sefirotic process is that through such an understanding “God’s voluntary involvement dissipates” (page 156). In fact, this reviewer objects to the usage of the term “Godhead” which implies that God Himself is comprised of multiple, contradictory traits or attributes. Those contradictions only exist in man’s perception, but the metaphysical reality always remains that there is One God, always indivisible and unchanging (see Mal. 3:6). After all, Judaism is a monotheistic religion. What Halbertal fails to emphasize in these discussions is that it is precisely God who created the entire sefirotic structure and who continuously provides the energy that powers the chain-reactions therein. In order words, God’s will always remains the starting point from which everything percolates down into increasingly coarse/physical aspects; the Sefirot are simply the tools He created to channel His energies in certain ways.

Halbertal continues to clarify Nachmanides’ view of the special divine protection afforded to those righteous men who cleave unto God and to those who live in the Holy Land (which allows them to escape astrological fate and other natural mishaps) . He again explains those phenomena as results of an automatic process of connecting to one Sefirah to escape the effects of another, which harkens back to the Divine drama mentioned above. This essentially pagan understanding downplays the concept of Divine volition and reduces reward/punishment to pawns within a divine game playing out within the Godhead (see page 163–169). Halbertal again uses this model to argue that Nachmanides understands the various levels of prophecy to similarly be the “natural” results of the interplay between different parts of the Divine.

In explaining Nachmanides’ view of the reason(s) behind the commandments, Halbertal argues that there are two “unbridgeable” (page 284) layers of understanding. The exoteric approach presents the commandments as beneficial (in various palpable ways) to the individual and/or society at large, while the esoteric aspect presents the commandments as theurgic, or magical, ways of inducing God to reunite the various sefirot that are in conflict, and consequently shower His positive influence upon creation. This model deemphasizes the commandments as an expression of God’s will—a third factor which Nachmanides himself emphasizes when discussing the Tower of Babel and Golden Calf (which were theurgic in nature but contravened His will), as well as the Scapegoat (which was also theurgic, but reflected His divine will).

This book’s final chapter documents how and why Nachmanides took a middle-of-the-road approach concerning the controversy behind Kabbalah. Unlike the other pro-Maimonideans of his time, Nachmanides accepted and embraced Kabbalah; yet, on the other hand, unlike other contemporary Kabbalists (notably those operating in Gerona), Nachmanides did not agree that the esoteric teachings of Kabbalah ought to be open to the public. In striking a happy medium between these approaches, Nachmanides limited the esoteric content in his own works to a few score Kabbalist “allusions” in his commentary to the Pentateuch. This showed his allegiance to the Kabbalist tradition with which he is often associated, but still allowed him to retain that esoteric tradition as a “secret.”

Nachmanides's legacy continued in subsequent generations through the Catalonian School, typified by the output of his students and grand-students, most notably Rashba, Ran, Ritva, and Nimmukei Yosef. Those scholars are more well-known for their novellae on the Talmud and Alfasi, but were also accomplished exegetes of Kabbalah and philosophy as well.

In his concluding chapter, Halbertal summarizes the different schools of thought that flourished in the thirteenth century and how Nachmanides drew from all of them. Whereas Nachmanides’ staunch defense of Maimonides might peg Nachmanides as Andalusian, his acceptance of Kabbalah might associate him more with the Provencal school. Whereas Nachmanides’ halachic methodology more closely follows that of the Franco-German Tosafists, his actual rulings reflect the Spanish tradition. These various cosmopolitan influences on Nachmanides led to Halbertal’s final analysis in characterizing the great sage as “the first European Jew” (page 320).

While this reviewer quibbles over the finer details of how to understand certain Kabbalistic aspects in which Nachmanides engages, the author Moshe Halbertal clearly displays an intimate familiarity with all of Nachmanides’ written works, plus much of his students’ and grand-students’ as well. All in all, this book provides the reader with a much-needed framework for understanding the context of almost everything Nachmanides ever discusses. Kudos to the translator Daniel Tabak as well for providing us with an English rendition of Halbertal's work in such a way that coins new theosophical terminology that can be applied to the study of the Ramban and beyond.