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  • Cultural Intermediaries: Jewish Intellectuals in Early Modern Italy
  • Eric Lawee
David B. Ruderman and Giuseppe Veltri , eds. Cultural Intermediaries: Jewish Intellectuals in Early Modern Italy. Jewish Culture and Contexts. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. 294 pp. index. bibl. $55. ISBN: 0–8122–3779–X.

Early modern Italy's Jewish communities were a crucible of intra- and interreligious complexity. While native Italian, Ashkenazic, and Sefardic religious practices and traditions of learning frequently jostled in them, the thought and literature produced in these communities often reflected intense interactions between Jewish thinkers and cultural trends emanating from a wide spectrum of larger Christian milieus. In Cultural Intermediaries, a geographically diverse group of scholars explores some of the heterogeneous spiritual propensities, scholarly adaptations, fresh literary forms, and diverse Jewish identities forged in this intricate multicultural situation.

With characteristic synthetic prowess, David Ruderman introduces the volume by limning a number of larger issues that hover over it. These include challenges of periodization — is there a "coherent era" (3) of Jewish cultural and social history in the early modern period? — and definition: to whom does the (anachronistic) designation "Jewish intellectuals" announced in the book's subtitle apply? Of the eleven essays that follow, all but two are profiles of Italian Jewish thinkers, writers, or artists viewed as "cultural intermediaries" of one sort or another. (The exceptions are Eleazar Gutwirth's admirably holistic study of the sixteenth-century physician Amatus Lusitanus, whose background was Iberian and whose primary geographic locus was Ottoman, even though he spent time in Ferrara, and Moshe Idel's stimulating and iconoclastic "interactive history of sixteenth-century Kabbalah," which departs from the format of intellectual-religious biography to trace the transformative readings that Italian mystics gave to influential kabbalistic ideas emerging from the Galilean hill town of Safed around the mid-sixteenth century.) The intellectual profiles proceed chronologically, beginning with Fabrizio Lelli's insightful study of the biography of King Solomon composed by Yohanan Alemanno, Pico della Mirandola's late-fifteenth-century mentor in Kabbalah. A concluding chapter by Giuseppe Veltri offers an ample bibliography of "Jewish Cultural History in the Early Modern Period." Though individual readers will undoubtedly find some studies more perspicacious than others, most will probably agree that qualitative differences between the essays are not too great and that the overall level is quite high.

One could cavil about a few issues. The volume contains the rare wrongheaded or less than felicitous formulation. For example, Leone Ebreo's Telunah 'al ha-zeman (Complaint against Destiny) is not a "poetic biographical work" (60). It is, if anything, an autobiographical expression, though it is more precise to call it an anguished poetic outpouring of sentiment over (and, almost certainly, letter to) Leone's first-born son, then living as a forced convert to Christianity in Portugal. While consciousness of methodological issues runs high throughout much of the volume, a lapse occurs in Harvey Hames's revisionist reinterpretation of another of [End Page 215] Pico della Mirandola's Jewish tutors, Elijah Delmedigo. Against a great preponderance of earlier scholarship, Hames argues that Delmedigo was "reluctant" (40) to adopt any version of Averroes's teaching on the relationship between reason and faith. By basing his argument for Delmedigo's religious ideal on passages from Delmedigo's Behinat ha-dat (Examination of Religion) taken according to their prima facie meaning, however, Hames leaves his reading vulnerable to criticisms grounded in earlier interpretations of Delmedigo's tract as an esoteric work, many of whose essential teachings lie below the surface or between the lines.

Though much more obviously deserves to be said about individual contributions to Cultural Intermediaries, three general points may be made. First, it is worth noting that the editors have solicited high-quality contributions from up-and-coming scholars in addition to the seasoned veterans represented in their pages. (An example is Adam Shear's depiction of the religious complexion and "scholarly self-image" [149] of the Mantuan preacher, Judah Moscato.) Second, viewed in terms of modern Jewish studies generally, an implicit suggestion that emerges from this volume is that the cultural dynamics of early modern Italy played a greater role in shaping the contours of early modern (and thence...