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.