It is not exactly a coincidence that the Renaissance first occurred in Italy. Italy was, after all, the headquarters of the Roman Empire and the great classical civilization it left behind. It is commonly said that, in Rome, one ought to carry a shovel around with him, for artifacts—bowls, coins, pillars, pots—from the Empire are teeming under the ground like mushrooms, waiting eagerly to rise to the surface. Indeed, Rome is one of the few places in the world where you do not need to seek out monuments; instead, they come to you and get right up in your face. The Colosseum is not a pile of odd-shaped rocks but instead an intact stadium still capable of seating tens of thousands of people. The Roman Forum is not a few wayward, wobbling pillars but rather a treasure trove of arches, columns, statues, and temples. In the Forum, one can almost hear the sounds of ancient Roman citizens haggling over prices and of trumpets blaring as Emperor Domitian processed through the Arch of Titus. Admittedly, these are kempt tourist attractions; but, in fact, a five-minute stroll through just about anywhere in Rome, whether a touristy area or not, will bear similar witness to Rome’s glorious past.
While today we may stand starstruck before the specter of Julius Caesar roaming the Forum, it is important to remember that it was not always this way. The Roman Empire fell in 476 C.E. The Italian Renaissance did not begin, even by the most liberal estimates, until 1300, when Dante wrote the Inferno. This would mean that, for nearly one-thousand years, medieval Italians were strolling past the forums and arenas and theaters and statues of the Ancient Empire and viewing it with the indifference one shows to rubble. In short, it meant nothing to them, even though today we spend thousands of dollars to take a photo in front of Trajan’s Column. It meant nothing to them because, at the risk of gross oversimplification, the Middle Ages thrived on its renunciation of the classical past. The framework and ideology of classical Greece and Rome made Man the center of things. The classical world celebrated the beauty and near-divinity of the human, and this obsession can be found in the sculpture, literature, and architecture of the age. The Middle Ages, by contrast, emphasized the lowliness of the human before God. The human was the sinner, the decrepit, the insignificant—and medieval art reflects back this outlook equally. The Renaissance—which means rebirth—was a reawakening, eight-hundred-plus years later, of the spirit of Ancient Rome. Suddenly, Italians began to look around them and re-see the sculptures and arches which had been literally and figuratively accumulating nothing but dust for centuries.
The discovery—the Renaissance—became an obsession. The Italians realized that they had been sitting on one of the richest cultural heritages in human history without even knowing it. It was not just that the art and architecture changed. The entire mindset fundamentally altered. Italians rejected the piety and self-abasement of the Middle Ages and proudly proclaimed and embraced the potential and worthiness of the human. They spread this cultural revolution throughout Europe and, to this day, historians consider the Renaissance to be the beginning of the modern era, of which we are the late and latest subjects. The thinkers and creators of the Renaissance, moreover, believed that to resurrect the ancient world, it was not enough to merely speculate and conjecture as to what it might have been like. A rallying cry of the Renaissance and of Humanism was “back to the sources!” They opened up the epics of Homer and Virgil which had been closed for a thousand years and read them with fascination and careful attention. They excavated Roman ruins to gaze at them as the ancients would have. They gave paganism a second-look and shelved Thomas Aquinas in favor of Plato.
There was also a movement to ignite a Renaissance in Judaism. This was a movement led by Martin Buber which he de facto inaugurated with the publication of his 1901 essay “Jüdische Renaissance.” This text was directed to both ghettoized Jews and secularized Jews alike. It called upon the former to overcome the ghettoized Jewish culture they had been accustomed to. Upon the latter it insisted to cease viewing high finance as a new god. In his essay, Buber sums up ghettoized Jews with the epithet of Ghetto and secularized Jews with the moniker of Golus—a Yiddish variant of the Hebrew word Galut or “exile.” Buber writes: “It will be more difficult for the Jews than for any other nation to participate in this Renaissance. For Ghetto and Golus, it is not the outward but rather the inward enemies of these groups which bounds them with iron chains: Ghetto due to its spirit of enslavement … and Golus due to its slavery before unproductive finance and blind-eyed statelessness.”
Buber connects his Jewish Renaissance with the Italian Renaissance. He writes: “When one speaks of the Renaissance, one thinks, indeed, of the great period of the fifteenth-century. Yet one has long misunderstood this age: one has described it as a return to the thinking and speaking of the ancients, as a renewal of a classical manner of living. Yet, the Renaissance is not a return, it is rather a rebirth of all humanity.” Buber, then, envisions a glorious rebirth of the Jewish nation. His idea of rebirth is driven by what would later be called cultural Zionism. He wishes all Jews not just to move to the Holy Land but to live in accord with the nationalistic and agricultural ideals of the ancient Hebrews. He wishes Jews not just to set foot on Israeli soil but to live as one does who knows the soil is his own. For Buber, it is not just the politics of Jews which must become Zionistic but also the culture. Thus Buber writes: “The movement which will arise in our time will allow Jews again to feel that they are a living, breathing organism, to strive after the harmonious unfolding of their powers, to parade and sing and work with their entire soul.” Buber insists that the Jews will speak modern Hebrew—a paradigmatic example of how the ancient will be resurrected—reborn—as modern. Buber concludes with these words: “An inner struggle lies within us to overcome, before we might follow the path of other modern nations. We will need to throw off our illnesses and subdue our inhibitions, before we are ready for the rebirth of the Jewish people, which is just one wave amid the new Renaissance.”
In the final haftarah of the Torah, we read the first eighteen verses of the Book of Joshua. The story picks up exactly where it left off—Moses has died, and Joshua has taken over the command. Indeed, the Torah even states this transition explicitly in the first two verses: “And so it happened that, after the death of Moses … God spoke to Joshua, Moshe’s minister, saying: ‘Moses, my servant, has died, and now, therefore, arise, cross the Jordan, you, and all of this nation, into the land which I have given them.’” Yet, these are not the only words which God speaks to Joshua. Indeed, the first ten verses consist of God’s instructions, the subsequent eight—and beyond—come from Joshua. These first two verses are relatively straightforward. Others, however, are far more puzzling and mysterious. In verse four, God refers to what we call the Mediterranean Sea simply as the “Great Sea where the sun goes down.” In verse twelve, Joshua explains that two-and-a-half of the twelve tribes, the Reubenites and the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh, will live east of the Jordan.
The Torah is filled with such curiosities; indeed, arguably, the Torah is nothing but these curiosities, particularly when encountered by us moderns. While Buber may have advocated a Jewish Renaissance, he bases his conception of the future of Judaism less in the Torah itself than in the pseudo-Romantic nationalist movements of his day. He calls for a rebirth, and he correctly describes the Renaissance not just as a going-back but also as a resurrection. But he neglects to point out the emphasis in the Renaissance on returning to the sources and seeing with open eyes what the ancient world was really like.
With The Schrift, I have also been advocating a kind of Jewish Renaissance, but in a different vein than Buber. Judaism needs to be reawakened, as Buber correctly diagnosed. However, for the reawakening to occur, we need to do something which Buber does not mention in his essay. In short, we need to really be like Renaissance Italians. We need to open up those books which have been collecting dust for thousands of years—even though they have been under our noses—and read them again with fresh eyes. Today we are, unfortunately, like medieval Italians, strolling past the Coliseum and the Forum as though they were irrelevant piles of rubble—lost and forgotten worlds which ought to stay that way. We need to, instead, get curious about the many curiosities in the Torah. We need to remember what it is like to view the Mediterranean Sea simply as the Great Sea where the sun goes down and to understand the geology and agriculture of the land both west and east of the Jordan. That would be the kind of rebirth Michelangelo and Petrarch would have wanted. Yet, to be fair to Buber, he undoubtedly also wanted Jews to crack open the Torah again and feel as though they were stepping into a mysterious, undiscovered universe. To accomplish this dream, Buber translated the Torah into German—into a passionate, excited, jolting German. And he called his work Die Schrift.
In the year 2000, cultural historian Jacques Barzun published his swan song, an eight-hundred page book entitled, From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life. The “Dawn” part of the title is relatively straightforward; dawn refers to the Italian Renaissance, in which Europeans once again began to crave knowledge, to contemplate how their ancient past could inspire a better future, and to open themselves up to all that civilization and the arts had to offer them. And as an aside, even Nietzsche adulated the Renaissance, writing in Human, All-Too-Human, that “the Italian Renaissance contained within itself all of the positive forces to which we owe modern culture: namely, liberation of thought, disdain for authority, the triumph of education over the arrogance of lineage, enthusiasm for science and man’s scientific past, the unshackling of the individual, an ardor for veracity.” It is less clear, however, what Barzun meant by the disparaging term of “decadence.” Yet, some contemplation renders this answer obvious, too. Our age is everything which the Renaissance was not and which the Renaissance defined itself against. Today, we are contemptuous of the human, we have lost our inquisitiveness, and finally, we feel as though the ancients have nothing more to teach us. We are medieval again.
Nevertheless, Barzun concludes his book with the hopes that one day, even if not for another two-hundred years, the world will become Petrarchan once more. Instead of walking past the many nineteenth-century statues which line our parks and have grown covered with leaves and ivy, we will begin to ask questions. Who were these people? Why did a previous age decide to honor them with statues? What did their era have which ours disturbingly lacks?
Just as the Roman ruins were quite literally standing right before fifteenth-century Italians, what we need to access ancient wisdom is also right before our gaze. To meditate, we need not purchase an app or go to a yoga studio; we need only to sit and watch, as did Buddha. And to understand Judaism, classes and D’var Torahs and podcasts and even rabbis are at best only accompaniments. The text—the actual Schrift—waits before us with just as much urgency as the Pantheon waited before Brunelleschi. Just as we need only sit and breathe, we need only open up and read.