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The life and work of Judah Abravanel (ca. 1460-after 1523) are at such odds with each other that one wonders how such an important and optimistic Renaissance treatise could have been produced by such a tragic figure. (1) Although his life was marked by peregrinations and uncertainties, (2) all of which were due to his unwillingness to leave the fold of Judaism, Judah Abravanel's magnum opus, the Dialoghi d'amore, would become a Renaissance bestseller. (3) Originally published in Italian in 1535, (4) they were subsequently translated into a number of other European vernaculars. (5) As a result of these translations, Judah Abravanel became known to the West as Leone Ebreo. (6)
In any examination of Judah's work, a number of seemingly intractable questions present themselves. How and why, for example, did a work of Jewish philosophy become so popular among a non-Jewish audience? (7) The Dialoghi seem to have resonated deeply among Christian Neoplatonists, yet they were largely ignored by contemporaneous Jews. (8) This ambiguity, in turn, suggests another set of questions: Did Judah Abravanel frame his treatise in ways that would have been foreign to other Jews? Do the Dialoghi, which stress the love of God, conflict with the medieval Jewish philosophical enterprise that instead emphasized the knowledge of God? Why did one of the first sustained attempts to delineate an aesthetics of Judaism apparently fall on deaf ears?
There are two possible ways to answer these questions: by considering the language in which the Dialoghi were composed, and by considering their philosophical content. Although I have no intention of wading into the philological evidence, so expertly surveyed by Dorman in the introduction to his Hebrew edition, many Jewish authors in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries increasingly resorted to Romance vernaculars in order to attract a Jewish audience (including conversos and ex-conversos) that no longer understood Hebrew. In sixteenth-century Italy, larger trends in rhetoric and the use of language increasingly led to the creation of the ideal of a pure Italian language. In this regard, Judah was an important transitional thinker in the encounter between Judaism and the Italian Renaissance. Whereas his father, Don Isaac, could still adapt humanistic themes to his Hebrew writings, which were primarily in conversation with medieval thought, (9) it was increasingly the case in Judah's generation that the only way to engage in a full-scale examination of the universal tendencies associated with humanism was to write in the vernacular. As a result, Judah's Dialoghi, if they were in fact originally composed in Italian, would have found without too much difficulty a ready non-Jewish audience.
Philosophically, Judah's aesthetics and his theory of the imagination represent an important shift from the standard medieval Jewish philosophical paradigm. That paradigm, perhaps best articulated in the work of Maimonides (d. 1204), tended to reduce aesthetics to the realm of consensus, and imagination to that of untruth. Judah Abravanel, in contradistinction, provides an early and overwhelmingly positive assessment of both aesthetics and the imagination. (10) For him, beauty, that which inspires love and desire, connects all levels of the universe in an interlocking and organic relationship, which Judah refers to as the "universal circle" (il circulo di tutto). The result is that everything, both sensual and intelligible, has the potential to image and reflect God's beauty. The imagination is crucial here because it is the faculty responsible for decoding such images and reflections by translating the incorporeal into the corporeal and vice versa.
Since Judah stressed the importance of the imagination and aesthetics, the initial Jewish response to the Dialoghi seems to have been primarily negative, undoubtedly contributing to the treatise's general neglect among Jews. Some of the earliest criticisms, especially those of Saul ha-Kohen Ashkenazi, fault Judah for rationalizing kabbalistic principles. Ashkenazi, in a letter to Don Isaac Abravanel, particularly criticizes Judah for violating the Maimonidean principle of keeping philosophical matters from the masses, and for spending too much time on linguistic matters, such as riddles and eloquence. (11) Much of this antagonism reflects the broader context of the Maimonidean controversies, (12) in which philosophers sought to make philosophy known to a broader Jewish public often by means of dramatic dialogues or philosophical novels. Those opposed to the Aristotelian-Maimonidean paradigm of philosophy often blamed such treatises for weakening the leith of Jews by diminishing their commitment to halakhah and thus making them more susceptible to conversion. Moreover, those committed to the philosophical enterprise criticized such treatises for revealing the secrets of philosophy to those who were intellectually incapable of receiving them. Criticism on both of these fronts only intensified in the aftermath of the traumatic expulsion of 1492. (13) It is also important to note that Maimonides came to occupy a particularly ambiguous position in traditional Italian-Jewish thought: philosophers read him philosophically, whereas kabbalists tended to read him mystically. So when I say that Judah "transforms" the Maimonidean imagination, I refer particularly to the "Aristotelian-Maimonidean" imagination of the philosophers.
Although in many ways the thought of Judah Abravanel represents a continuation of medieval Jewish philosophy, a number of features mark his break with that tradition. First, the medieval philosophical tradition tended to place rhetoric among the lower forms of logic, such as those associated with Aristotle's Rhetoric or Poetics, which the medieval tradition regarded as part of Aristotle's Organon. (14) Judah, however, elevates rhetoric to a position among the higher sciences, such as cosmology and epistemology. The beautiful and pleasing speech of the Torah is no longer a concession that Moses had to make for the masses, it is now part and parcel of the divine fabric. The goal of the philosopher/aesthete/artist is to imitate this to the best of his ability. Second, following the lead of Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), Judah presents in the Dialoghi one of the first full-blown attempts to catalogue parallels between pagan myth and the biblical tradition, arguing that the former is ultimately a corruption of the latter. Third, the Dialoghi, in stressing the interlocking relationship between the corporeal and the spiritual, border on the pantheistic or panentheistic, (15) thereby resonating with contemporaneous Christian treatments of the incarnation in literary fiction. (16)
What follows, then, is an attempt to show that Judah Abravanel, in stressing the importance of imagination and aesthetics, developed an aesthetics of Judaism that was, in many ways, a radical departure from the mainstream Aristotelian-Maimonidean paradigm. (17) Judah was a true Renaissance artist who not only attempted to show the ontological correspondence between the celestial and corporeal worlds, but who, in the very composition of his text, put this into praxis by creating a beautiful mimetic representation of the divine.
* The Dialogue in Medieval Jewish and Renaissance Philosophy
Before turning to specifics of Judah's narrative, it is important to consider the genre in which he decided to give expression to his philosophical views. Even the form in which Judah offers his argument, I contend, represents a significant departure from the standard exposition employed by medieval Jewish Aristotelians. There thus exists an intimate connection between genre and argument in the Dialoghi. The dialogue is certainly not foreign to Jewish thought. It was a popular genre in the apocalyptic literature of Late Antiquity; moreover, dialectic and dialogue are central to rabbinic texts. In terms of Jewish philosophy, some of the most important non-Aristotelian texts were written as dialogues (e.g., Ibn Gabirol's Meqor Hayyim, Halevi's Kuzari), not to mention such lesser-known works as Abraham ibn Ezra's Hay ben Meqitz, (18) Isaac Pulcher's 'Ezer ha-Da'at, (19) and Shem Tov Falquerra's Sefer ha-Mevaqqesh. (20) Abravanel certainly knew well the work of Ibn Gabirol and cites him by name in the Dialoghi. (21) In addition, the works of Ibn Ezra and Halevi enjoyed new life in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, which can be attested to by the number of supercommentaries written on Ibn Ezra's biblical commentary, (22) and the various commentaries on Halevi's Kuzari." (23)
The dialogue seems to have provided a convenient genre for speculating about ideas in ways that differed from the standard Aristotelian-Maimonidean paradigm. In the dialogue, according to Lesley, "radically incompatible kinds of discourse can be integrated into a single text, to make significant statements about the relations of the individual, God, and the world." (24) This, in turn, has philosophical consequences. For instance, the genre of the dialogue intimates that the goal of the text resides between the comments of the different characters, and that it is up to the reader to arrive at a meta-textual meaning by working through that which is communicated textually in the narrative. One must, in other words, become an active participant in the text. (25) The philosophical dialogue was, I contend, a form well suited to the expression of a distinctive aesthetics and theory of the imagination.
Aesthetics was intimately connected to the "rhetorical culture" of the Renaissance. (26) Renaissance humanists envisaged rhetoric as the vehicle for "providing a comprehensive system both for creating and for evaluating works of literature, by which they meant not just poetry, drama and fiction, but also letters, history and philosophical treatises." (27) Language was so important to Renaissance humanism because proper linguistic expression was the ideal to which all gentlemen aspired. Rhetoric was at the center of humanist education, which put a premium on elegant expression. Within this context, eloquence was not regarded as the prolegomenon to knowledge, but reflected its telos. The good orator was, thus, someone who was regarded as proficient in all branches of human knowledge. This is the opposite of the medieval period, where rhetoric occupied a very low position on the logical hierarchy. In the Renaissance, however, rhetoric enabled the individual to display his wisdom while persuading others of his position. The perfect orator became synonymous with the perfect man. (28) Many of these themes are also dealt with by the Jewish teacher of Pico della Mirandola, Yohanan Alemanno (1435-1503). Like Judah's Dialoghi, Alemanno's dialogue Hay ha-'olamim, (29) composed in late-fifteenth-century Florence, was in conversation with the neoplatonic thought of Ficino and Pico. Like Judah, Alemanno was also concerned with the relationship between imagination and intellect, and the role of poetics and rhetoric as disciplines necessary for the attainment of human felicity.
On a philosophical level, this meant that allegory and other types of figurative language were not barriers to philosophical understanding. On the contrary, such language imitated the very fabric of the divine. Without beautiful and poetic language, one was unable to encounter the beautiful and, by extension, God. The text par excellence for this, at least according to the Jewish thinkers, was the Torah. Many of the Renaissance humanists, especially Ficino and Pico, argued that the central vehicles for correct philosophical expression were myth and allegory. Both of these thinkers stressed what Kristeller calls a "poetic theology," which claimed that philosophical and religious thought could be found in ancient poetry and mythology if read properly. (30) Importantly, the goal of the philosopher was not simply to unpack a myth by translating it into analytical prose, but to demonstrate an understanding of it by composing other myths. In other words, the humanist composed myths about myths and allegories of other allegories. A beautiful narrative tried to embed within itself the beauty to be found in the intelligible world. (31)
In the Renaissance, therefore, the dialogue provided an important medium for engaging in …