We live in a global world and then some. The internet has multiplied our exposure to others exponentially. The need for an intellectual framework that can address the variety of lifestyles and thought that we are constantly bombarded with, without devolving to anarchy and fragmentation, is needed now more than ever.
And we can find this in the writings of 19 th century Rabbi Eliyahu Benamozegh, known as “the Plato of Italian Judaism.” Rabbi Benamozegh (1822 – 1900) was born in Fez, Morocco and became rabbi of Livorno, Italy. He studied the major religions, Kabbalah, the Greek philosophers, biblical criticism, Darwinism, and historians both ancient and contemporary, finding affinities among various systems of thought, all of which, he declared, ultimately arise from divine precepts.
His magnum opus, Israel and Humanity, is a treatise on the role of the Jewish people and its relations to the nations of the world. It was published posthumously by his disciple, Aime Palliere, whom he instructed in the seven laws of Noaḥ.
Palliere and others, including Guglielmo Lattes, in his Vita e opere di Elia Benamozegh, have credited the broadness of Rabbi Benamozegh’s education and his willingness to tackle such a wide variety of issues to his Sephardic roots. “It is certain that although he assimilated exceptionally well, all European culture, he always kept, either in his working methods, or in the turn of his mind, the
It is an approach worth getting to know.
Conciliation Among the Abrahamic Faiths
Palliere was considering conversion to Judaism. He sought out rabbi Benamozegh, who offered a novel concept – embrace the seven laws of Noaḥ, and help reintroduce Noaḥide teachings to the church. Benamozegh declared that centuries of strife could have been averted if the founders of Christianity had understood the necessary dichotomy of the Noaḥide covenant for the nations of the world and the Mosaic covenant for the Jewish people. He describes the crisis of the early church: “They initially hesitated for some time between the two extreme parties, that of imposing Mosaism on everyone and that of abolishing it even for Israel. But the first attempt was bound to fail, … Christians had no other alternative but to proclaim the abolition of Judaism and to erase it … from history to bring all men back to pure Noaḥism” (pg 590, chapter one of book three).
And it is this prime mistake of replacement theology that could be rectified by reintroducing the Seven Laws of Noaḥ for the nations of the world, while preserving the Mosaic covenant for the children of Israel. This dichotomy would heal the rift both between Christians and Jews, and between Muslims and Jews.
It is these seven laws that form the base of true religion and just society, they are:
1. Monotheism- Belief in One G-d
2. Respecting and revering the Almighty- Do not blaspheme
3. Protecting life- Do not kill
4. Protecting family- Morality
5. Protecting possessions- Do not steal
6. Protecting the natural world – Do not tear a limb from a living
animal. Prohibitions against grafting are allegorized to mean protecting cultures.
7. Social justice- the establishment of courts of law
The Talmud’s Universalism
On the very first page of Israel and Humanity, Rabbi Benamozegh begins with the unexpected – he makes a case for the universal teachings of the Talmud. One may expect such a work to begin with the obviously universal – say, the Bible, but the rabbi jumps in with a defense of Rabbinic Judaism:
“Was Rabbinic Judaism, like all other religions of antiquity, addressed only to the people who professed it, or,… did it embrace in its religious conception the whole human race?” Rabbi Benamozegh holds that Rabbinic Judaism embraces the most vigorous concepts of universalist thought and respect for human rights and is the lofty source of all true religion. Once people understand the ancient, universalist teachings of the Talmud, they will be doing a disservice to that message if they insist on declaring it to be particularistic to Judaism.
He offers proof for the necessity of oral tradition: “… the silence of the Bible (on a given subject) proves that there is in Judaism another source of doctrine than the Scriptures.” He goes on to cite the Talmud’s discussion of the the ger toshav, the ger hash’ạr, rights of non-Jews in the land of Israel regarding land ownership, and the various definitions of how a non-Jew can be regarded as a ger toshav; some held that it is enough to renounce idolatry to be considered ger toshav, some declared that one must actively embrace all Seven Noaḥide laws, and some rabbis held that the non-Jew must recognize the sovereignty of the Jewish commonwealth to be considered ger toshav.
That such discussions took place regarding the rights of the non-Jew in the land of Israel surely reflects the universalist nature of the Talmud.
With the Talmud back on the shelf of literature that is part of the general human condition, Benamozegh discusses the meaning of chosenness.
Israel: Mosaism, Humanity: Noaḥism – a Necessary Dichotomy
Benamozegh held that although Mosaic Law is exclusive to the children of Israel, God is not exclusive to Israel. Mosaic law makes the children of Israel a priest-people for gentiles, thus Mosaism is actually a conduit for universal religion.
In order to perform this unique role, Benamozegh strongly emphasizes the mandate of the Jewish people to maintain their uniqueness and separateness.
His belief in the uniqueness of the Jewish people did not cloud his love of humanity, quite the opposite, he held that the mandate to teach Noaḥism should in fact create positive feelings upon recognizing one’s duty to another. Both particularism and love of humanity are actually interconnected. The teacher does not merge with her pupils as she educates them. Such disrupted roles would hurt both sides: the teacher would no longer be able to instruct, and the pupil would lose out on the education he needs.
Rabbi Benamozegh’s signature metaphor describes the nations as craftspeople building a palace for the king. Each one believes his craft to be the most important, and takes pride in his unique talent. A sense of pride is necessary in skillfully honing one’s task. Indeed, the carpenters are the best at building the structure, the electricians are best at facilitating light and energy. Merging of talents would reduce the specialty and diversity needed to create the most perfect palace, and would be a loss to the entire project. The diet, clothing and training of each group must differ, yet their goal is all the same.
Just as those constructing the palace recognize the important roles of the other workers, we must appreciate other believers. He states that each nation has its unique gifts, and in order for Torah to rectify and uplift each nation, the Jewish people must remain separate. Indeed, the Hebrew term “holy” – kadosh – connotes separateness. Holiness cannot be maintained if identities merge.
Benamozegh emphasizes the particularism of Mosaism by noting the aspects of Judaism that are exclusive to history and to place – the Pesaḥ and Sukhot festivals involve events that are exclusive to the children of Israel, the calendar is entwined with the need for Pesaḥ to fall in the springtime in the land of Israel. He states, “This ethnic, local character of Mosaism and this almost complete absence of organized proselytism suffices to prove that the religion of Israel is not destined to become the universal religion.”
Thus, the seven laws of Noaḥ are the missing link in fostering conciliation between Abrahamic religions.
Kabbalah – a Branch of Thought, or a Synthesis of Many Systems of
Benamozegh made use of of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, which he regarded not as a branch of knowledge, but the result of all branches of knowledge. The study of Kabbalah forms habits of thought that actually welcome objection, he “found familiar territory everywhere” . Unthreatened by claims of philosophy, contemporary rationalism, or Christianity that would seem to contradict the claims of orthodox Judaism, he in fact found wonderful opportunities to explore these other realms of thought, bringing them back to their true intent through the rigors of Kabbalah.
Some examples include – polytheism in ancient religions was simply a language to describe different aspects of God, expressed mistakenly. The Greek concept of emanation, that the world always existed and never had a starting point, can likewise be put in its proper context with the use of Kabbalistic imagery without
contradicting the concept of creation from nothing, or yesh me’ayin.
Palliere decribes conferences held in the early 1900’s in Berlin whose theme was that Jewish civilization was a mere echo of the Assyro-Babylonian: “those who knew and had already accepted the doctrines of Eliyahu Benamozegh, did not experience any surprise, prepared as they were precisely for certain objections. They even discovered… new and powerful arguments to confirm their faith in the spirit which animates all the Hebrew tradition.” (From Aime Palliere’s introduction to Israel and Humanity.)
But was the revered Rabbi’s work congruent with that of other Sephardic Rabbi’s of note? According to a presentation that I was privileged to attend at Bar Ilan university of late, most definitely yes!
Ashkenazic communities tended to emphasize the philosophy of each sub community, whereas Sephardic rabbis emphasized halacha. Simply put, one world emphasized philosophy, the other, halacha.
Rabbi Benamozegh loved the works of Dante and was an Italian patriot, but he had much in common with other Sephardic Rabbis of note, including Rabbi Isaac Sherky, who wrote “מסורת בעידן המזרחי”.
Rabbi Sherky emphasized that all people are one family, and that the children of Israel are akin to the first born in relation to the nations. Love of family, community, nation and land among the children of Israel lead to loving all people. The Rabbi critiqued the Christian sects which jettisoned love of family, tribe, nation and land and held by only a spiritual community, divorced of bloodlines.
Rabbi Ben Zion Chai Uziel 1880-1950 wrote “הגיוני עוזיאל”, stating that the children of Israel are here to bring blessing to all the nations of the world.
Rabbi Moshe Kalpon HaCohen of Jerba 1874-1950, wrote “יד משה”, and supported Zionism only insofar as it would be part of the project of tikun olam – fixing the world. Rabbi Yehuda Alkalai 1798- 1878 was also noted as expressing ideas consistent with the approach of Rabbi Benamozegh.
The above noted universalism of the Sephardic rabbis supports Rabbi Benamozegh’s stance as being part of the Sephardic tradition.
Rabbi Benamozegh’s use of Kabbala caused controversy, as there were Sephardic Rabbis who opposed Kabala, just as there were Sephardic Rabbis who did not qualify any support for Zionism, but opposed it.
So Benamozegh was congruent with other prominent Sephardic rabbis who conditionally supported Zionism, as long as it helps rectify the world, and who were not opposed to Kabbala, in his universalism, but what marked him as unique among the other Sephardic Rabbis was that he used intellectual tools from 19th century European rationalism.
Rabbi Benamozegh’s tools were rationalist, that is, he delved into the paradigms of the enlightenment and grappled with them in order to put enlightenment thinking in its proper place and to explain Judaism in those terms. In this sense, he was congruent with thinkers such as Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, and thus reflected an Ashkenazic approach.
His philosophy was grounded in the house of learning – the בית מדרש – in authentic balance between the particularist and universalist divine commandments.
Benamozegh’s mode of thought was robust and able to withstand challenges that came in many forms. It is a source of pride that Moroccan Judaism produced a scholar who attained such profound breadth of knowledge without compromising his orthodoxy. This echoes the constant debate within our community: how much secular knowledge may we amass without compromising our personal or communal integrity? This debate never ends, and each sub-community in the orthodox world has different answers at different times.
Israel and Humanity was published once in 1914, then lapsed out of print until 1995, in which it was republished partially by Paulist press. Ben Abrahamson discovered the original manuscript that was published by Palliere and felt the need was urgent to print the tome in its entirety. It is now available to the public in both French
and English by AlSadiqin Press.
May this re-publication help realize the revered rabbi’s dream of the ideal, harmonious roles of Israel and Humanity.