In the Sephardi world of the time, it was not unusual that rabbis would also be involved in commerce, as the two professions often went hand in hand well into the 19th century.Screen Shot 2017-12-31 at 5.49.38 PM

I RECENTLY taught a seminar about the Italian Sephardi Rabbi Elijah Benamozegh (1823-1900) at a leading rabbinical seminary in New York, on a retreat dedicated to a rediscovery of Sephardi culture. The student body, future rabbis and cantors, was agreeably diverse: men and women in their forties, all of them vivacious, engaged and intelligent. But though inquisitive and well read, none had ever heard about Rabbi Benamozegh. Such ignorance is not an isolated phenomenon. While I was assembling the course, I discovered that no one among my cultured friends in New York knew anything about Benamozegh.

Yet Rabbi Elijah Benamozegh (also known as Elia in Italian, Élie in French or Eliyahu in Hebrew) was a towering intellectual figure of the 19th century. Born in the Tuscan port of Leghorn (Livorno), on the northwestern coast of Italy in 1823, he wrote several books, but his most important work, “Israël and Humanity” was published posthumously in 1914 by his Christian disciple Aimé Pallière. Pallière had been so engrossed with Benamozegh’s teachings that he even sought to convert to Judaism, though Rabbi Benamozegh dissuaded him from it. A distinct blend of irreproachable Orthodox credentials, combined with a ceaseless dialogue with the non-Jewish world, conferred a recognizable stamp to his doctrine.

Written in French (the philosophical language of the time), conversant with the foremost intellectual figures and contemporaneous scientific debates, “Israël and Humanity” quotes seamlessly from the Tanakh, the Kabbalah, the Gospels and Eastern spirituality. For its clear-eyed tackling of the challenges of religion faced with modernity, it is a remarkably fresh and relevant work.

It is also a keen examination of the role and mission of Judaism in the early 20th century, specifically dealing with the dynamics between the particular and the universal in Jewish thought. Since it has been available for more than twenty years in Maxwell Luria’s brilliant English translation, it should be a high priority for anyone interested in Jewish texts, in general, and in the Sephardi rabbinical tradition, in particular.

Who was Elijah Benamozegh? Why did his work all but vanish from the Jewish annals, as has most of the Sephardi cultural legacy? In America, Sephardim are a minority, and this on its own might explain their low cultural and intellectual profile. But in France, for example, Sephardim are highly represented relatively to Ashkenazim, and in Israel they are the majority. Other causes must be at play.

Though born in Italy, Benamozegh’s roots were firmly planted on Maghrebi soil: his parents were Moroccans who settled in Leghorn early in the 19th century. Some scholars even view him as a quintessentially Moroccan thinker. On his mother’s side, he came from the illustrious Coriat family, which had produced several esteemed rabbis and kabbalists. On his father’s side, he descended from solid rabbinical stock as well, and his patronymic points to his Judeo-Berber origins (Ben-Amozegh is derived from son of Amazigh – Amazigh means Berber in the Berber language.)

The Benamozeghs were also merchants. In the Sephardi world of the time, it was not unusual that rabbis would also be involved in commerce, as the two professions often went hand in hand well into the 19th century. In contradistinction with the more insular Ashkenazi society of Eastern Europe, the Sephardim actively pursued trade across the Mediterranean basin. Commerce underpinned a particular religious consciousness, anchored in tradition while cosmopolitan in nature. Tellingly, Benamozegh’s family was originally based in Fez, Morocco, which had been a center of civilization and an important commercial hub in the medieval period.

When economic conditions deteriorated in Fez in the 18th century, members of his family migrated down the Atlantic coastline of Morocco, where the Sultan Sidi Muhammad b. Abdallah had just created the port of Essaouira, modeled after Leghorn. Constant commercial activity between the Jews of Essaouira and Anglo-Jewry in London at that time has been well documented in recent studies, as is the rich exchange of religious teachers and students between North Africa and Tuscany.

Benamozegh’s parents then settled in Leghorn in the early 19th century. Livorno, as it is known in Italian, was a prime hub of trade and Jewish scholarship in the Mediterranean. Its Charter, known as the “Livornina,” granted special rights and privileges to foreigners, as well as freedom of religion. The Charter dated from 1593, when the Medicis of Florence sponsored it to attract Jewish merchants with trade links to the Ottoman Empire. Enticed by its wide-ranging liberties, Jewish exiles from the Inquisition brought with them their art, wealth, scholarship, and fascination with the Kabbalah. They were joined by Maghrebi and Italian Jews in the 17th and 18th centuries. The only city in Italy that never had a closed ghetto, Livorno welcomed Jews to live among Persians, Poles, Armenians or Turks. A cosmopolitan culture blossomed.

Leghorn became famous for its printing houses, producing Hebrew books and diffusing Jewish culture to the Orient. Rabbi Benamozegh established a printing press himself, publishing responsa and mahzorim by Maghrebi rabbis, like the esteemed Moroccan Rabbi Yitzhaq Bengualid’s responsa dealing with hillula (visits to rabbis’ graves in Morocco). He also published the Algerian Rabbi Abraham Ankawa’s “Kerem Hemer” (Vineyard of Wine), which included “Sefer Hatakanot,” the progressive statutes of the Castilian communities that arrived in Fez, Morocco, in 1492 (these laws are still prevalent in contemporary Moroccan Jewish communities: twelve years ago, I was married to an American citizen under their regulations).

In this context of great freedom and pro found rootedness in tradition, Benamozegh expanded his ideas, achieving an unusual synthesis of old and new, of orthodoxy and openness to the world. Recent studies have viewed this as a stamp of the Sephardi religious tradition in general. The phrase “Sephardi Religious Humanism” has been coined to describe it.

Rooted in this duality of the particular and the universal, Benamozegh’s doctrine was however often misunderstood in his time. He was derided by the maskilim, scholars influenced by the German-Jewish Enlightenment, which spanned the long 19th century, as being too “Oriental,” especially for his attachment to Kabbalah. Enamored with the idea of progress, these scholars viewed Kabbalah as a pack of superstitions. At the same time, he was chastised as heretical by the ultra-conservative Rabbinates of Jerusalem and Damascus.

Key to his doctrine was his desire to reconcile Jews and Gentiles in a commodious framework, where they would be connected and interdependent. His main thesis is as follows: As the recipient and guardian of God’s unique revelation, Judaism has been anointed to communicate to the nations of mankind the universal essence of humanity, which is crystallized in the Seven Commandments of the Sons of Noah. These are called Noachide laws, to which every person must defer. Because the vocation of the Jews is to bring this set of laws to the world, they must preserve their identity at all cost, in order to form a priesthood that will enable them to serve mankind’s religious needs.

This is the meaning of Israel’s election, and why Israel has been given 613 mitzvot, many of them arcane and seemingly irrational. These are the Mosaic laws, to which Jews only are subject, in order to pursue their providential task for the common interest of humanity. As Maxwell Luria notes, “Israel and mankind are thus two entities, but the difference is one of function, not of merit.” For Benamozegh, the unity of Hebraism – as he called Judaism – is contingent on the complementarity of the Noachide Laws, concerned with a universal code of conduct applicable to all people, with the Mosaic Laws aimed more particularly at the Jewish people.

Equally central to his doctrine (and his Moroccan heritage) is the role of Kabbalah, and especially the Zohar. For Benamozegh, the Kabbalah’s desire to allocate sparks of the divine to the entire creation is far from a dubious set of magic beliefs. It is, rather, an interpretative device doubling as an ethical implement to explain the universe. Concerned with grand metaphysical synthesis, Kabbalah is just as worthy as the Law. Benamozegh draws upon this to explain his paradoxical appraisal of tradition, which he views as progress. Far from considering history as a series of breaks with the past, as in Hegel’s philosophy, Benamozegh views progress as naturally proceeding from tradition.

Historian Daniel Schroeter attributes the discrediting of Sephardi culture to the dominance of German-Jewish historiography. In this school, Jewish history follows those Western modes of interpretation which track a single, familiar trajectory: from darkness to emancipation, then to secularization and assimilation, from antisemitism to Herzlian Zionism. In his view, this is an oversimplified narrative that does not pertain to Sephardi Jews, who belonged to a wide, transnational Sephardi world, which he calls “the Sephardi world order.” They moved easily between North Africa and Europe until the early 19th century, when increased European intervention on the world stage marked the end of a transnational Sephardi identity, and a new division between a backward “Oriental” and a modern “Western” emerged, shaped by the West. Schroeter sees this dichotomy as outdated, and requiring reevaluation.

Elijah Benamozegh’s Sephardi melding of past and present, blending of tradition and modernity, and fusing of rationalism and faith, markedly deviates from the “classic” model invoked in the German school of thought. Because of their different circumstances, Sephardi Jewry responded differently from Western Jewry to the forces of modernity. Benamozegh’s work forces us to consider a radically different, alternative path to Jewish modernity.

Dr. Yaëlle Azagury writes about contemporary art, literature and Sephardi culture.

Her work appears frequently in The Jerusalem Report