Elia Benamozegh’s Jewish Universalism
Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture
Published by: Stanford University Press
328 pages, 152.00 x 229.00 x 0.00 mm
- ISBN: 9781503612006
- Published: September 2020
Another Modernity is a rich study of the life and thought of Elia Benamozegh, a nineteenth-century rabbi and philosopher whose work profoundly influenced Christian-Jewish dialogue in twentieth-century Europe. Benamozegh, a Livornese rabbi of Moroccan descent, was a prolific writer and transnational thinker who corresponded widely with religious and intellectual figures in France, the Maghreb, and the Middle East. This idiosyncratic figure, who argued for the universalism of Judaism and for interreligious engagement, came to influence a spectrum of religious thinkers so varied that it includes proponents of the ecumenical Second Vatican Council, American evangelists, and right-wing Zionists in Israel.
What Benamozegh proposed was unprecedented: that the Jewish tradition presented a solution to the religious crisis of modernity. According to Benamozegh, the defining features of Judaism were universalism, a capacity to foster interreligious engagement, and the political power and mythical allure of its theosophical tradition, Kabbalah—all of which made the Jewish tradition uniquely equipped to assuage the post-Enlightenment tensions between religion and reason. In this book, Clémence Boulouque presents a wide-ranging and nuanced investigation of Benamozegh's published and unpublished work and his continuing legacy, considering his impact on Christian-Jewish dialogue as well as on far-right Christians and right-wing religious Zionists.
Chapter 1 explores how the fortunes of Livorno, Benamozegh's place of birth and of lifelong residence, where his parents had settled after leaving Morocco, shaped his understanding of diversity, his assertive engagement with the Christian world, and his feeling of alienation from a place once vibrant, but by his time relegated to the commercial and intellectual margins of Europe. His Moroccan background exemplifies the importance of commercial and rabbinic networks in the Mediterranean and accounts for his view of Kabbalah as an essential part of the Jewish tradition in an age when it had generally fallen out of favor among the enlightened figures of Judaism.
Chapter 2 delves into Benamozegh's coming of age under the Risorgimento and the way it exposed him to the thinking of its Christian thinkers and ideologues, such as Gioberti and Mazzini. It uncovers how some of his tropes regarding Israel as a nation, articulating patriotism with a universalist and divine mission, were drawn from these towering Italian figures. His redefinition of the interaction between Jews and the nation, and his opposition to the religious rejection of modernity, exemplified by the Pope, are all best understood against the backdrop of the Risorgimento, of which he was a witness and participant.
Chapter 3 examines how the utter disgrace of a rabbinic ban (herem) affected Benamozegh. In a very rare and harsh measure, his Hebrew biblical commentary was banned and burned in 1865 in Aleppo because it contained too many references to sources outside the Jewish tradition. The herem discouraged Benamozegh from any further major enterprise in Hebrew. However, he kept a presence, as a publisher, in the Mediterranean and his endeavors deserve significant attention: it was the largely Hebrew catalogue of his printing press, with a distribution and network of authors spanning the Maghreb and the Mashriq, that functioned as his commitment to an Oriental modernity.
Chapter 4 examines Benamozegh's turn to a French audience and the affinities of his themes with the main French thinkers of this era, such as Renan, Leroux, or Michelet. The right tone for persuading his readers and the question of the audience he targeted turned out to be stumbling blocks as he tried to refashion himself as an intellectual but, sometimes bombastically, strove to convince secular readers of the need to reassess the significance of religion in order to confront the challenges of modernity. After penning a scathing Jewish and Christian Ethics, his apology for the universal values of Judaism culminated in his posthumous crowning achievement, Israel and Humanity.
Chapter 5 is a study of the fate of Israel and Humanity, Benamozegh's posthumous manuscript, and the controversies that surround the editorial changes made by Benamozegh's Christian disciple, Aimé Pallière, who was entrusted with its publication by the Livornese rabbi's family and turned the 1,900-page manuscript into the 735-page first edition published in 1914. Yet no previous scholarship had ever compared Benamozegh's original manuscript to the one published by Pallière in 1914. This book fills this lacuna and provides further insights into the inner world of Benamozegh and his influences.
Chapter 6 situates Benamozegh in the debate about universalism in his time, and about the universalism of Judaism found in the works of Spinoza, Kant, and Mendelssohn. The claim of Jewish universalism, an index of Judaism's adequation with the modern world, must be measured against the competing claims of philosophy, Christianity, and Reform Judaism. Benamozegh also sought to establish the universalism of Judaism based on its antecedence in religious history, thus grounding himself in a sort of modern historicism that he resisted when it came to biblical criticism. He also strove to establish Judaism as a delicate articulation between reason and feelings, which rested on the nascent fields of psychology or anthropology and thus on a more scientific universalism.
Chapter 7 turns to Benamozegh's interpretation of the Noahide Laws, central to his system. Based on rational revelation but with edicts resembling natural law, they convey both internal and external normativity. This ancient legislation functions as a theological construct that sits well with one of modernity's features: the imperative of locating normativity within itself. Additionally, Benamozegh contended, the legislation shows that Judaism is not ethnocentric in nature and manifests its inclusivism. Yet, in his defense of Noahism as a solution for the crisis of Christianity, he turned a blind eye to the laws' arguably hierarchical nature which can be taken as indicating minimal universalism.
Chapter 8 examines the logic of Benamozegh's universalism through his treatment of the role of nations. As a witness and vocal supporter of the Italian Risorgimento and the advent of nation-states, Benamozegh had emphasized the political acumen of Judaism and its relevance to modern, nation-based societies. In his view, universalism could only be achieved through the particularism of nations—not in the abstract manner he believed had been promoted by Pauline Christianity, focused on individuals, which could not elicit any true religious belonging.
Chapter 9 demonstrates that the notion of Jewish universalism through particularism is one of Benamozegh's notable contributions, which he predicated on Noahism but also on the role of the nations in Judaism. The French philosopher Levinas is often credited with this concept, which he furthered when he posited a "universalist particularism," an inclusivism that has nevertheless lent itself to conflicting legacies. This chapter probes the tenets of Benamozegh's system and the turn to an ethnocentric reading of Jewish particularism by thinkers such as Léon Askénazi, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, and the religious-Zionist movement in contemporary Israel.
Chapter 10 describes how Benamozegh penned his defense of Kabbalah as a marker of modernity in a counterintuitive fashion: as both science and myth. First, he redefined Kabbalah as a form of knowledge: by calling it theosophy, and thus imbuing it with scientific overtones, he presented a version of Kabbalah compatible with reason—a far cry from what common enlightened views of it would have been. At the same time, by highlighting its mythical qualities as well, he also sought to show the need for human narratives that go beyond reason.
Chapter 11 is devoted to Benamozegh's presentation of Kabbalah as a vehicle for understanding and achieving religious unity and progress. His use of kabbalistic hermeneutics, predicated on the key concepts of coincidence of opposites, of berur (clarification) and of illuy (elevation), aimed (a) to suspend commonly held binaries such as science and faith, East and West, worldliness and transcendence, and (b) to prove Kabbalah's affinity with nineteenth-century conceptions of assimilation and of progress.
Chapter 12 examines Benamozegh's reading of Kabbalah as capable of underwriting a political project that involved the remaking of a secretive, esoteric tradition into a public, exoteric conversation. Benamozegh claimed Kabbalah as a centerpiece of Jewish thought that should help to revisit Western culture in order to reform its materialistic tendencies, thus pushing against the Orientalism tropes of his time. This stance foreshadows one of the turning points in the reception of Kabbalah in the twentieth century, exemplified by the works of such thinkers as Yehuda Ashlag, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, and Léon Askénazi, in which its themes and concepts can be used as a political discourse.
Chapter 13 examines Benamozegh's theoretical constructs, by which he tried to neutralize the notion of religious enmity—a category, he argued, that was created by Christianity and which was bound to foster ontological hostility. In his quest for religious coexistence, he emphasized the concept of interdependence and rejected that of tolerance, which he viewed as an insufficient proposition; it was but a variation on pragmatism or utilitarianism. The chapter also probes Benamozegh's Jewish theology of other religions, and its universalism predicated on the unifying quality of Judaism, against the typology of pluralism and inclusivism.
Chapter 14 focuses on the meaning and loci of religious encounters in the Bible and in the Jewish tradition, and analyzes the concept of "iron crucible," the metaphor Benamozegh used for the complexity of religious assimilation. This metaphor, which refers to the Israelites' sojourn in Egypt, designates a place where identities intermingled and where the Jewish religion was refined through its contact with paganism—but also where, paradoxically, this blending did not preclude a sense of hierarchy in this assimilation process. This concept is a crucial aspect of Benamozegh's system, whereby the greater the proximity, the greater the tension across religious traditions.
Chapter 15 details Benamozegh's worldview and the inextricable link between theology and the politics of identity underlying it. The Jewish theology of other religions that he proposed mostly reimagined a relationship with Christianity, one where the tradition of a minority, namely Judaism, could be used to overcome the flaws of the dominant culture. But its tone also raises questions regarding the nature and purpose of religious dialogue: self-reformation or reformation of other religions. Because of its confident (and at times triumphant) tone, it is also a statement about Jewish self-perception in modernity and corresponds to a more assertive turn in Jewish thought at the turn of the century.
Chapter 16 examines the theory and practices of interreligious rapprochement, encounters, and dialogue in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Retracing the stages of such endeavors prior to the Second World War helps refine the categories used to describe these modes of interaction and to consider how they have applied to intellectual efforts and social practices, including the Second Vatican Council in 1965, against the conceptual legacy of Benamozegh. Because Benamozegh's work aimed to bring about religious unity, and because he found a disciple in Aimé Pallière and a posthumous audience for his calls to promote coexistence, assessing the implementation of this prescriptive and convoluted thought is a necessary conclusion of this study.
"Another Modernity offers a brilliant portrait of Elia Benamozegh, a fascinating and largely hidden gem of modern Jewish thought. Clémence Boulouque deftly captures the Italian rabbi's singular approach to mysticism, universalism, and the role of Judaism in the modern world; she is the ideal scholar to bring Benamozegh out of an undeserved obscurity." ~Jessica Maya Marglin, University of Southern California
"Clémence Boulouque brilliantly succeeds in elucidating previously neglected aspects of the work of a rabbi and philosopher who lived at the crossroads of irreconcilable worlds, yet provided a broad and consistent version of Judaism that was at once traditional and modern. This intelligent, well-informed, well-written book is an important step towards comprehending the multi-faceted thought of Elia Benamozegh." ~Alessandro Guetta, INALCO, Paris