Altrove/Elsewhere – Esther, Mordechai, and Simone Luzzatto

Catalan_Atlas_caravan_drawingBy Daniel Leisawitz*

This past week, Jews around the world celebrated the festive holiday of Purim, which celebrates our escape from imminent destruction thanks to the intelligence and bravery of a young Jewish woman, Esther, and her uncle Mordechai. Among the many interpretations of this curious story, I’d like to consider one suggested by Rabbi David Wilensky of Allentown, Pennsylvania. Rabbi Wilensky points out the striking similarities between the story of Esther and the story of Joseph, which both involve a young Jew who finds him/herself close to the seat of power of a strange land, and uses that power for good: “Perhaps one can suggest that both stories are looking to teach us that when Jews are living in the diaspora, although the initial instinct for the Jew is to recoil form the surrounding society and be unnoticed, in the end, the Jew must learn the lesson that intimate involvement in the on goings of the surrounding politics and culture will be necessary.”

This idea led me to think of another Jew in quite different circumstances who, also sought to make a case for the necessary integration (which is not the same as assimilation) of Jews into the larger world. Rabbi Simone Luzzatto (c.1580-1663) lived at Venice where he served as rabbi of the Ashkenazi-rite Scola Tedesco synagogue in the Ghetto. In an age of forced ghettoization and wars of religion, Luzzatto assumed what may seem a surprisingly open and modern outlook when compared with other contemporary Jewish thinkers, especially those operating outside of Italy.

Among his chief works is a treatise written in Italian (this at a time in which almost all Jewish writing was still done in Hebrew) aimed at defending the status and dignity of the Jews of Venice by both explaining Jewish religion and practice and by emphasizing the various benefits that Jews bring to everyone in the community in which they live. He published his Discorso circa lo stato degli Hebrei et in particular dimoranti nell’inclita città di Venezia (“Discourse on the Condition of the Jews and in Particular Those Living in the Illustrious City of Venice”) in 1638, when the Jews of Venice were being threatened with expulsion from the Serenissima. The treatise then enjoyed a second life as the main source of inspiration for the Irish philosopher John Toland’s plea for extending full rights to the Jews of Great Britain in his important, Reasons for Naturalising the Jews in Great Britain and Ireland, on the same foot with all other Nations. Containing also a Defense of the Jews against all vulgar Prejudices in all Countries (1714).

I would like to quote a few lines from the “Introduction” to Luzzatto’s Discorso as an example of his thought. He begins by setting out arguments for the indispensability and logic of Jewish integration with the rest of humanity. In order to do so, this seventeenth-century rabbi first cites the ancient Greek philosophers Leucippus and Democritus, and their theories on atomism, and then pivots to the recent scientific discoveries of Galileo:

While we find that the Stoics, among the famous ancient philosophers, ventured to affirm that the Sun, Moon and the other stars graze and nurture themselves upon the vapor of our low terrestrial globe, so too Democritus and Leucippus dared to say that the world, as great and adorned as it is, has, as the elements that make it up, indivisible and imperceptible particles. […] Therefore, the Jewish people should be permitted to compare itself to Democritus’ atoms by presuming to be a particle of a vast population, a tenuous and terrestrial exhalation, which contributes to giving tribute and nourishment to the sublimity of the public treasury.
Kingdoms are like the celestial Milky Way, which appears to our eyes as a great concourse of miniscule stars, each one of which is invisible to us on its own, but when united form a great expanse of light and splendor. So to do great empires consist of minute and diverse populations. [Translation mine – from: Simone Luzzatto, Scritti politici e filosofici di un ebreo scettico nella Venezia del Seicento, ed. Giuseppe Veltri (Milan: Bompiani, 2013)]

Here we can see that rav Luzzatto not only argues in favor of Jewish integration into the societies of the diaspora, but he also uses ancient and modern scientific and philosophical wisdom to make his argument, proving himself to be as well schooled in secular subjects as in Torah. Had Esther and Joseph read the Greek philosophers or inspected the heavens with Galileo’s telescope, they might have made similar use of these texts.

*Daniel Leisawitz, professor at Muhlenberg College (Allentown, Pennsylvania, USA). The artwork is by Abraham Cresques a 14th-century Jewish Spanish cartographer.