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  • David Castelli on Nationalism and Universalism
  • Jessica M. Marglin (bio)

At the age of twenty-seven, David Castelli had a crisis of faith. Born in the Tuscan port city of Livorno in 1836, Castelli was a promising student on the path to rabbinic ordination. He studied with some of Italy's most influential teachers—including Benedetto (Abraham Barukh) Piperno, who also taught Sabato Morais, founder of the Jewish Theological Seminary.1 But his doubts made Castelli abandon the path to the rabbinate; he moved to Pisa, home of the Scuole Normale Superiore, one of Italy's most venerable seats of Orientalist scholarship. In Tuscany's most famous university town, he devoted himself to the study of Arabic and Syriac.2

As a colleague and friend remarked after Castelli's death in 1901, the scholar's religious crisis was "easily explained." Castelli's "acute and logical intellect" made it impossible for him to conform to the "demands of the synagogue, where, as in any other religious institution," one is required to take part in "indisputable veneration for tradition and practice." Like Ernest Renan—to whom Castelli was often compared by both his admirers and his detractors—the late scholar opted for "complete intellectual liberty."3 Castelli found this in the "scientific" study of Judaism; after publishing The Messiah according to the Jews in 1874, Castelli assumed a position as professor of Hebrew at the Istituto di Studi Superiori in Florence.

In its first year of existence, JQR published Castelli's only work in English;4 Castelli's full-length essay "The Future Life in Rabbinical Literature" [End Page 610] appeared in 1889. The essay was in many ways pathbreaking—one of the first sustained examinations of Jewish conceptions of the afterlife, the resurrection of the dead, and the messianic age in Anglophone scholarship.5 "The Future Life" is a classic example of the kind of Wissenschaft des Judentums most commonly associated with nineteenth-century Germany.

Castelli's crisis of faith led him to engage with Judaism as an object of study rather than as a lived religion. This scientific approach infuriated his more famous contemporary—and former teacher—Rabbi Elia Benamozegh. Also hailing from Livorno, Benamozegh took a different approach to Jewish modernity; he combined mysticism and philosophy to argue strongly that Judaism was a universalist faith.6 Most of all, Benamozegh was a believer; he wrote to elicit what he saw as the divine truth of the Jewish tradition—not a supposedly scientific truth that was inherently alien to religion. Benamozegh accused Castelli of relativism, the same sin of which Renan was guilty.7 The dislike was mutual; Castelli, in turn, dismissed Benamozegh's account of Jewish theology as inaccurate, misleading, and confusing.8

Castelli teased clarity out of the Talmud with the aim not of offering guidance but rather of exposing the multiple and often conflicting accounts held within the rabbinic corpus. The tension Castelli observed in rabbinic texts on the afterlife mapped onto debates raging in postunification Italy—indeed, in Europe more broadly—over the place of Jews in the nation-state. Castelli was deeply influenced by Italian nationalism and his desire for Jews to participate fully as members of a united, liberal Italy. In his JQR piece, Castelli emphasized the potential for universalism embedded in rabbinic concepts of the afterlife. Various passages in the Talmud, he observed, assured non-Jews a place in the world to come; and the justice of God in the future redemption embraces "all men of every race and of every creed." Thus "Judaism passes the limits of a national religion, and if it is not actually a universal religion, it has allowed the road to be opened by which to become one" (p. 328). In short, Christianity did not invent the idea of a resurrection and redemption for all of humanity; that honor should rightfully go to the Pharisees. [End Page 611]

For Castelli, the discovery of a morality at the foundation of Judaism's view of the afterlife is a tool in the fight against antisemitism. Judaism taught that "the humble and the afflicted in this life will triumph in that future state, which to the faithful is the real...