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  • La lettera preziosa: Elyyah Hayyim ben Binyamin da Genazzano
  • Arthur M. Lesley
Eliyyah Hayyim ben Binyamin da Genazzano . La lettera preziosa: Elyyah Hayyim ben Binyamin da Genazzano. Ed. Fabrizio Lelli. Nimes: La Giuntina, 2002. 315 pp. index. append. bibl. €19. ISBN: 88–8057–157–5.

This Italian introduction and translation makes available and intelligible to western scholars a significant Hebrew document of Italian Kabbalah. The introduction situates A Precious Letter, by Eliyyah Hayyim (more conventionally, Elijah Hayim) da Genazzano, within currents of Italian-Jewish scholarship during the 1480s and 1490s. The editor, Fabrizio Lelli, surveys scholarship about Elijah Hayim and connects the text to its sources and references. This book is the more valuable because the Hebrew text, in the margin of the translation, is a necessary and all-too-rare addition to the evidence of Hebrew writing in Florence at that time. The Hebrew text, not fully annotated, is based on two manuscripts that are superior to those from which A. W. Greenup published the Precious Letter in 1931 and includes Greenup's best readings. [End Page 216]

The extensive introduction situates Elijah Hayim, a philosophically trained physician and talmudist, within three distinct tendencies of Jewish scholarship in his time: Maimonidean philosophers who disapproved of kabbalah, such as Yehuda Messer Leon and Elijah del Medigo; kabbalists who denounced philosophy for endangering religion, including Elijah Hayim and several Spanish émigrés; and scholars who accepted both philosophy and kabbalah and tried to harmonize them. This last group included Yohanan Alemanno, Isaac da Pisa, David Messer Leon and, among Iberian émigrés, Isaac and Yehuda Abravanel. Elijah Hayim argues for kabbalah against philosophy by invoking the prestige of the eminent Hebrew scholar and poet, Moses of Rieti (d. ca. 1460), but the passage quoted in the Precious Letter does not require the interpretation he gives it. Rieti may only have been renouncing his youthful poetry, like such poets as Chaucer and Yehuda Halevi, not all philosophy. Elijah Hayim applies his critique of philosophy to writings by Joseph Albo, Isaac Abravanel, and, more respectfully, Moses Maimonides. Then he gives the addressee, the son of his former teacher, an account of particular issues in kabbalah, such as metempsychosis and the relations of the ten sefirot to unknowable divinity.

The assertion that kabbalah had superior truth and authority to philosophy was one side of a polarized dispute among members of the elite, all of whom evidently were trained in both rabbinics and philosophy. The dispute may have expanded or restricted the communal authority of particular scholars and their patrons. Claims of supreme authority for kabbalah may have been assertions of authority in the name of the community against philosophers, who, as physicians and recipients of individual patronage from Christians, had some independence of Jewish communities. Philosophers defended their freedom of study by admitting that reason occasionally appeared to contradict revelation, but they accepted the ultimate authority of revelation. Both extremes in the dispute attacked scholars who, perhaps encouraged by the example or presence of Ficino and Pico, worked at harmonizing philosophy with Jewish revelation.

This edition of an important fifteenth-century Hebrew text contributes essential evidence and judgments to a topic that is attracting renewed attention. Two kinds of criticism to which it is open are relatively minor: first, the designation of all Christian scholars contemporary with Elijah Hayim as "humanists" does not helpfully distinguish literary figures from philosophers, Platonists from Aristotelians, or Ficino from Pico. Making such distinctions could suggest the character of any relations he had with them and the various attitudes they would have had towards him. Second, there is always room for disagreement among readers about the best translation of ambiguous poetic lines and the precise references of allusions. The translation, annotation, and interpretation here are always well-informed and more than helpful.

Arthur M. Lesley
Baltimore Hebrew University