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  • Lost and Found
  • Peter N. Miller, Professor and Chair of Academic Programs

My memory of reading Zakhor is clear; it inspired the first piece of scholarship that I ever published, in a student journal during my last year at Harvard. Almost ten years later, at the University of Chicago, I heard Robert Bonfil present his alternate view of the sixteenth century in the history of Jewish historiography. If, for Yosef Yerushalmi, the shattering reality of the Spanish Expulsion marked the Jews' reentry into history, for Bonfil the historical writing of the sixteenth century in Italy is the tombstone for a once-living engagement with the world. Yet Yerushalmi at the same time wanted to cordon off early modern Jewish historical production from the later, full-on beginnings of modern Jewish history writing, which he linked to the Wissenschaftler des Judentums in nineteenth-century Berlin. Bonfil's argument began in Renaissance Italy and ended in Counter-Reformation Italy with the reaction against that Renaissance among Christians, who sequestered Jews in ghettos of iron and brick, and Jews, who sequestered themselves from Christian learning in paper ghettos of excommunications and strictures.

Both Yerushalmi and Bonfil looked forward, beyond Italy, for confirmation of their wider views—Yerushalmi to seventeenth-century Amsterdam and nineteenth-century Berlin, Bonfil to Safed and Krakow of the sixteenth century. I will do the same, below. But it might be worth stopping first to look at Italian Jewish historical production in the crucial second half of the sixteenth century—when the experience of expulsion from Spain was being assimilated by Italian Jews at the same time that they were experiencing their own Counter-Reformation expulsion from the Italian urban milieu.

There are two outstanding representatives of Jewish historical scholarship in this period, Azariah de Rossi (1511–c. 1578) and Abraham Portaleone (1542–1612). Both Yerushalmi and Bonfil have written about de Rossi, and before them so had Salo Baron and Leopold Zunz. If de Rossi's Me'or 'eynayim, published in Mantua in 1573 (reprinted in enlightened [End Page 502] Berlin in 1794!) earned him no small measure of contemporary notoriety—though Bonfil, for one, disputes the romanticized view of him as the calumniated scholar—for Yerushalmi and Bonfil he is important for characteristically different things: for the former as "the real beginning of historical criticism" and for the latter as the creator of a new kind of "apologetic" response to "the general intellectual crisis affecting Italian Jewry."1

But part of the appeal of de Rossi, from Zunz and Bernays through Arnaldo Momigliano and his students Joanna Weinberg and Anthony Grafton, is the extent to which the method he developed for responding to the apologetic challenge connected with the wider history of historical scholarship. De Rossi's own attempt to answer the Christians in the terms used by contemporary Christian scholarship put the Hellenistic world at the front of the early modern agenda, where it remained, shaping projects as different as Droysen's nineteenth-century biography of Alexander the Great, Wolfson's twentieth-century history of philosophy from Philo to Spinoza, and Ralph Häfner's twenty-first-century study of the Second Sophistic and seventeenth-century philology.

Portaleone is a different, more complex, and perhaps more telling case. Although he had published in Latin on gold (Dialogi tres de auro, 1584) in a rather conventional quasi-alchemical vein, it was his final, virtually unreadable, posthumous masterwork, Shilte ha-giborim, also published in Mantua, in 1612, that has attracted the scant attention he has received. This strange work, ostensibly an encyclopedic study of the Temple and its service, was actually framed as a kind of spiritual exercise in which erudition and imagination were to stimulate ritual contemplation. Giovanni Miletto in the only book-length study of Portaleone (Glauben und Wissen im Zeitalter der Reformation, 2004) might be overstating things to connect this directly with the Ignatian moment in Italian spirituality—Jesuits giving a model for Jewish scholarship seems a bit of a reach—but it surely reflects that moment, however idiosyncratically. [End Page 503]

Shilte ha-giborim is of interest to students of historical scholarship because like all good early modern encyclopedists, Portaleone is prone to digression, and...


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