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Sefirot as the Essence of God in the Writings of David Messer Leon

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 October 2009

Hava Tirosh-Rothschild
Department of History, Columbia University, New York, NY 10027
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The period from the middle of the fifteenth century to the middle of the sixteenth century marks a transition in Jewish intellectual history in the Italian Renaissance characterized by the decline of Jewish rationalism and the rise of kabbalah. This process reached its culmination with the printing of Sefer ha-Zohar in 1558–59, an event accompanied by heated controversy on many fronts. During these years we find those thinkers who unambiguously profess their allegiance to one camp or the other, but we also find many whose allegiance is at least superficially ambivalent.

Research Article
Copyright © Association for Jewish Studies 1982

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1. For an overview of the relationship between kabbalah and philosophy in the Italian Renaissance, see Bonfil, Robert, The Rabbinate in Renaissance Italy[Hebrew] (Jerusalem, 1979), pp. 174–90; idem, “Biṭṭuyyim le-yihud ‘am yisra'el be-'Italyah bi-tequfat ha-renesans,” Sinai76 (1975): 36–46; Isaac Barzilay, Between Reason and Faith: Anti-Rationalism in Italian Jewish Thought (1250–1650)(The Hague, 1967) and the review by Joseph Sermoneta, Kiryat Sefer45 (1970): 539–46; Umberto Cassuto, Ha-yehudim be-Firenṣeh bi-tequfat ha-renesans, trans. Menahem Artom (Jerusalem, 1967), pp. 245–46; 275–77.Google Scholar

2. SeeTishby, Isaiah, “The Controversy about the Zoharin the Sixteenth Century in Italy” [Hebrew], Peraqim: Yearbook of the Schocken Institute for Jewish Research 1 (1967-1968): 131–82.Google Scholar

3. For the biography and works of David Messer Leon, see my “The Philosophy of David Ben Yehudah Messer Leon” [Hebrew], Ph.D. diss., Hebrew University, 1978, pp. 19.Google Scholar

4. For a discussion of Judah Messer Leon's thought, see Abraham Melamed, “Rhetoric and Philosophy in ‘Nofet Ṣufim’ by Judah Messer Leon” [Hebrew], Italia 2(1978): 7–38, and bibliography at p. 10, n. 8.

5. Barzilay, , Between Reason and Faith, p. 68.Google Scholar

6. SeeBen-Shlomo, Joseph, The Mystical Theology of Moses Cordovero[Hebrew] (Jerusalem, 1965), pp. 7274.Google Scholar

7. Scholem, Gershom, Kabbalah(Jerusalem, 1974), p. 69.Google Scholar

8. See Gottlieb, Efraim, “'Or ‘olam le-rabbi ’Elhanan Saggi Nahor,” Studies in the Kabbalah Literature[Hebrew] (Tel Aviv, 1976), p. 405.Google Scholar

9. Nadav, Yael, “An Epistle of the Qabbalist R. Isaac Mar Hayyim Concerning the Doctrine of 'supernal Lights'” [Hebrew], Tarbiz 26 (1957): 458. Concerning the correspondence between Isaac Mar Hayyim and Isaac of Pisa, see Joseph Hacker, “Some Letters on the Expul sion from Spain” [Hebrew], in Emmanuel Etkes and Joseph Salmon, eds., Studies in the History of Jewish Society Presented to Professor Jacob Katz on his Seventy-Fifth Birthday(Jerusalem, 1980), pp. 64–97. Hacker corrects Nadav's dating of this letter from 1491 to 1490.Google Scholar

10. Messer Leon uses the term “kabbalah” in three different senses: (a) rabbinic tradition as recorded in the Mishnah and Talmud; (b) revealed theology as presented and studied by religious philosophy; and (c) mystical teachings, specifically those of the Spanish school of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. This varied usage is not atypical; see, e.g., Simeon ben Zemah Duran, Magen ‘avot;Joseph Albo, Sefer ha-'iqqarim;and Abraham Shalom, Neveh shalom.“Kabbalah” is used herein in the third sense only.

11. David Messer Leon, Tehillah le-David(Constantinople, 1576), p. 72b; compare Ibid., p. 71a; “'esem sikhli ba-po'al ha-gamur.”

12. See my “The Concept of Divine Law in the Writings of David Messer Leon” [Hebrew], Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought2 (1981): 94–117.

13. See Hourany, George, Averroes on the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy(London, 1961), pp. 44, 51, 56–71; Alfred L. Ivry, “Toward a Unified View of Averroes’ Philosophy,” The Philosophical Forum4 (1972): 87–113; Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologicala, q. 1, art. 3; idem, Contra gentiles1, 1; Etienne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas(New York, 1956), pp. 15–25.Google Scholar

14. For the influence of Averroist and Thomist scholasticism upon Jewish philosophy in general, see Joseph Sermoneta, “Scholastic Philosophic Literature in Rabbi Joseph Taitaṣak's ”Porat Yosef“[Hebrew] Sefer Yavan1 (=Sefunol11 [1971–78]): 135–85.

15. See Julius Guttmann, ”Le-ḥeqer ha-meqorot shel Sefer ha-'iqqarim,“ Dat u-madda, trans. Saul Esh (Jerusalem, 1957), pp. 169–91.

16. See Judah Messer Leon's letter to the Jewish community of Florence of 1454–55, in Simbah'Assaf, “From the Hidden Treasures of the Library in Jerusalem” [Hebrew], Minhah le- DavidQoves ma'amarim he-hokhmat yisra'el…R. David Yellin(Jerusalem, 1935), p. 227; excerpted in David B. Ruderman, The World of the Renaissance Jew: The Life and Thought of Abraham Ben Mordecai Farissol(Cincinnati, 1981), p. 194, n. 75.

17. See Hacker, “Some Letters,” pp. 69–78.

18. See Sara O. Heller-Wilensky, “Isaac Ibn Latif: Philosopher or Kabbalist?,” in Alexander Altmann, ed., Jewish Medieval and Renaissance Studies(Cambridge, Mass., 1967), pp. 185–223; Scholem, Kabbalah, pp. 63–64; Georges Vajda, Recherches sur la philosophic et la kabbale dans la penséejuivedu Moyen Âge(Paris, 1962), pp. 143–247.

19. See Ruderman, World, pp. 44–56; Isaiah Tishby, Mishnat ha-Zohar, 2vols. (Jerusalem, 1971), 1:42–48; Scholem, Kabbalah, pp. 196–97.

20. Kristeller, Paul O., Renaissance Thought and its Sources(New York, 1979), pp. 196210.Google Scholar

21. Concerning this controversy see Scholem, Kabbalah, pp. 101–5; Efraim Gottlieb, “Ha-Qabbalah be-khitvei R. Yosef Giqatilia u-ve-Sefer ma'arekhet ha-'elohut,” in his Studies in Kabbalah, pp. 293–315.

22. On the relationship between Messer Leon and R. David of Tivoli, see Cassuto, Hayehudim be-Firenseh, pp. 275–58; Daniel Carpi, “R. Judah Messer Leon and his Activity as a Doctor” [Hebrew], Michael1 (1972): 277–301, esp. pp. 278, n. 9; 285, n. 51.

23. Magen Davidis extant only in MS Montefiore 290, which I examined in microfilm at the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts, Jewish National and University Library, Jerusalem. The other two are Tehillah le-Davidand 'Ein ha-qore, Bodleian MS Opp. Add. 108 (Neubauer 1263).

24. See Gottlieb, , Studies in Kabbalah, pp. 404–11. Messer Leon followed the common medieval practice of interspersing his own comments within sections copied from elsewhere. His treatment of Mar Hayyim was discriminating: while he copied Mar Hayyim's use of the first person verbatim, he also corrected Mar Hayyim's citations, i.e., where Mar Hayyim had attributed Sefer ha-peraqimto Plato, Messer Leon corrected it to Galen. See Magen David, fol. 9r.Google Scholar

25. Moshe Idel, “Bein tefisat ha-'asmut li-tefisat ha-kelim bi-tequfat ha-renesans,” Italia3 (1982) (in press). I thank Dr. Idel for directing me to this article and for his most helpful comments throughout.

26. Ben-Shlomo, , Mystical Theology, pp. 7274, 102–3.Google Scholar

27. Ibid., at p. 73. There is confusion in the application of the terms “nominalism,” “realism,” and “conceptualism” to the analysis of divine attributes in medieval Jewish philosophy. Harry A. Wolfson, the major contributor in this field, changed his views and applied the terms differently over the course of time. See Harry A. Wolfson, Repercussions of the Kalam in Jewish Philosophy(Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1979), p. 34, n. 22. Ben-Shlomo followed Wolfson's earlier definitions in applying the term “nominalism” to Messer Leon's position on universals; by current definitions, the term “conceptualism” would be more appropriate to Ben-Shlomo's analysis. See n. 38 below.

28. Gottlieb, Studies in Kabbalah, pp. 295,403–25.

29. See Elizabeth Enscomb and Peter Geach, Three Philosophers(Oxford, 1961), p. 91. This distinction is the cornerstone of Aquinas's analysis of divine attributes, which influenced, along with Christian scholastics, such Jewish philosophers as Joseph Albo, Abraham Bibago, and David Messer Leon.

30. Magen David, fol. 4v.

31. Aquinas, Summa theologica, la, q. 12, art. 4, trans. Anton C. Pegis, Thomas Aquinas' Basic Writings(New York, 1954), p. 97.

32. Messer Leon incorporated verbatim Aquinas's first and second proofs in Tehillah le-David, p. 71a. He weaved the third proof, the so-called “cosmological argument,” through his analysis of “necessary being,” and frequently repeated the fourth in Magen David.

33. On Gersonides’ view of divine attributes, see Alexander Altmann, “The Divine Attributes: A Historical Survey,” Judaism15 (1966): 54–56; Harry A. Wolfson, “Maimonides and Gersonides on Divine Attributes as Ambiguous Terms,” in Isadore Twersky and George H Williams, eds., Studies in the History of Philosophy and Religion, 2vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1977), 2: 561–82; Shlomo Pines, “Scholasticism after Thomas Aquinas and the Teachings of Hasdai Crescas and His Predecessors” [Hebrew], in his Studies in the History of Jewish Philosophy(Jerusalem, 1977), pp. 204–22.

34. This argument was suggested earlier by Hasdai Crescas in ‘Or ’Adonai, 1.3.3.

35. Tehillah le-David, p. 72b: from which premise follows the assertion in

36. Messer Leon rejected Crescas's theory of “essential attributes” (te'arim 'asmiyyim)as identical to that of Mutazilite Islam refuted by Maimonides in Moreh nevukhim, 1: 53; 'Ein haqore, fol. 20r. Abravanel made the same identification of Crescas's theory in his Commentary on Moreh nevukhim[Hebrew], 1:51. Whether or not Messer Leon's characterization of Crescas's theory was accurate, Messer Leon's thought bore greater resemblance to that of Crescas than Messer Leon was ready to admit.

37. See Gersonides, Miihamol 'Adonai, 3: 3 (Leipzig, 1866), p. 135, and the analysis of this passage in Norbert M. Samuelson, The Wars of the Lord: Treatise Three on God's Knowledge(Toronto, 1977), pp. 210–13. The passage was copied by succeeding Jewish philosophers, e.g., Abraham Shalom and Abraham Bibago.

38. In an article first published in 1916, H. A. Wolfson called such an attribute “nominal” or “invented universal,” “Crescas on Divine Attributes,” Studies 2:284. He therefore called Gersonides and Jewish philosophers who followed him, e.g., Albo, “nominalists.” Julius Guttmann first noticed in 1929 that this characterization was in error, because Wolfson failed to distinguish between theory of predication and theory of universals. See “Levi Ben Gersons Theorie des Begriffs,” Festchrifi zum 75-jährigen Bestehen des Jüdisch-Theologischen Seminars, 2 vols. (Breslau, 1929), 2: 131–49; in Hebrew, Dat u-madda', pp. 136–48. Wolfson later clarified his definitions, and called Gersonides not a nominalist but a conceptualist; see n. 27 above. So too was Messer Leon not a nominalist.

39. There is a striking similarity between the treatments of divine attributes by Messer Leon and Aquinas. Compare, e.g., Tehillah le-David, 3: 8 with Summa theologica, la, q. 18, art. 3; Tehillah3:9 with Summa, la, q. 10, art, 2. Messer Leon frequently expresses the notion of participation of beings in God's being, e.g., Magen David, fol. 23v:

40. Messer Leon here follows Aquinas, e.g., Summa, la, q. 13, art. 2. See also Gilson, Christian Philosophy, p. 109; Frederick A. Copelston, Aquinas(London, 1955), pp. 135–36; Enscomb and Geach, Three Philosophers, p. 89.Google Scholar

41. This formulation of the theory of universals is very close to that of Avicenna, who, as Etienne Gilson proved, influenced Aquinas.

42. I suggest this term because it is usually applied to Aquinas's and Scotus's treatment of universals. “Realism” recognizes the debt to Plato, and “moderate” the distinction. See Anton C. Pegis, “The Dilemma of Being and Unity,” in Robert E. Brennan, ed., Essays in Thomism(Freeport and New York, 1972), pp. 151–83, esp. 174–78.

43. Joseph Albo, Sefer ha-'iqqarim2:25: Compare Aquinas, Summa, Ia, q. 13, art. 7. Albo and Messer Leon agree on the philosophic concept of perfections in God but differ on the application of that theory to the kabbalistic doctrine of sefirot:Albo identifies 'einso/with perfections in God, and distinguishes sefirotas the separate intellects; Messer Leon identifies both with the divine perfections. See section IV below.

44. Compare Bibago, Derekh 'emunah, pp. lib, 17c, with Shalom, Neveh shalom(Venice, 1574), p. 257b, and Abravanel, e.g., Mifalot 'Elohim, 7: 4 (Lemberg, 1863), p. 51b. See also Nuriel, Abraham, “The Philosophy of Abraham Bibago” [Hebrew], Ph.D. diss., Hebrew University, 1975, pp. 4547; Alan Lazaroff, The Theology of Abraham Bibago(University, Al., 1980) pp. 12–15; Herbert A. Davidson, The Philosophy of Abraham Shalom(Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1964), pp. 26–42, esp. 32–33.Google Scholar

45. Magen David, fol. 5v: Compare Simon Van Den Bergh, trans., Averroes’ Tahafut Al-Tahafut, 2vols. (London, 1954), 1: 361. I could not locate Messer Leon's second reference to Averroes (“bemaqom 'aher”).

46. Messer Leon's praise of Plato is not accidental. Plato influenced Messer Leon's philosophy, and Platonism experienced a revival generally in fifteenth-century Italy, mainly through Marsilio Ficino's works. Even so, this compliment may be the result of a case of mistaken identity. Messer Leon thought that Plato, and not Ibn Allah, wrote Sefer ha-tamar, 'Ein haqore, fol. 157r. Gershom Scholem, in his critical edition of Sefer ha-tamar(Jerusalem, 1927), notes that it may have been a source of the Zohar, if so, this may account for Messer Leon's mistaken identification. See Shlomo Pines, “Le Sefer Ha-Tamar et les Maggidim des Kabbalistes,” Gèrard Nahon and Charles Touati, eds., Hommage à Georges Vajda: Etudes a“histoire et de pensèe juives(Louvain, 1980), pp. 333–63.

47. Magen David, fol. 5v:

48. As Moshe Idel has noted in “Bein tefisat,” Messer Leon drew this analogy from Menahem Recanati, Perush ha-tefillot, MS Jewish Theological Seminary of America 1887, fol. 137r. Meir Ibn Gabbai took it from Messer Leon, 'Avodat ha-qodesh(Warsaw, 1883), p. 14b. Cordovero used it in Pardes rimmonim;see Ben-Shlomo Mystical Theology, pp. 127–34.

49. Magen David, fol. 7v:

50. Moses Cordovero, Pardes rimmonim(Cracow, 1592), pp. 22a-b; Ben-Shlomo, Mystical Theology, p. 73.

51. Messer Leon's treatment of this passage of Zohar typifies his philosophic bias. In Isaac Mar Hayyim's second letter to Isaac of Pisa, Messer Leon read the passage both in the original, , and in Mar Hayyim's translation, . Messer Leon rejected Mar Hayyim's use of mitqashet(beautified, bedecked of jewelry), and translated instead metuqqan(perfected, fixed). While both are acceptable, (see Yehuda Liebes, “Sections of the Zohar Lexicon” [Hebrew], Ph.D. diss., Hebrew University, 1976, p. 197), Messer Leon rejected that which agrees more readily with the mythical symbolism found throughout the Zohar.Further, having explicated his own interpretation, he then cites Aristotle's Metaphysicsfor support, chap. 12.

52. SeeWolfson, Harry A., “The History of Platonic Ideas”, Journal of the History of Ideas 22 (1961): 332.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

53. Magen David, fol. 22r.

54. Compare Magen David, fol. 13rwith Aquinas, De veritate, I, q. 2, art. 2.

55. Compare Magen David, fol. 13vwith Van Den Bergh, Averroes, 1:130.

56. 'Ein ha-qore, fol. 202v:

57. Magen David, fol. 13r.

58. See my “Tefisat ha-Torah,” n. 12. above.

59. The Gerona kabbalists, e.g., R. Ezra and R. Jacob ben Sheshet, interpreted teshuvahas the ontological process of the return of all things to their divine source. See Efraim Gottlieb, The Kabbalah in the Writings of R. Bahya Ben Asher Ibn tfalawa[Hebrew] (Jerusalem, 1970), pp. 61–62, 119–21, 233–37. They founded this interpretation upon the biblical verse, “veshavtem 'ish 'el ‘aḥuzzato,” Lev. 25:10, and made it the major tenet of their doctrine of shemiṭṭot.R. Ezra cites for support “he-ḥakham,” usually a reference to a non-Jewish source, and oftentimes Aristotle. R. Ezra repeats a neoplatonic concept, “everything came from the first cause and everything then returns to the first cause.” Messer Leon then could and did claim that the kabbalistic concept teshuvahwas verified by the metaphysicians (ha-filosofim haelohiyyim).

60. Aquinas, De veritate, I. q. 2, art. 2. Cf. Isaac Abravanel, Mifalot 'Elohim, 7:4.

61. See Altmann, Alexander, “Moses Narboni's ‘Epistle on Shiur Qoma,’” Jewish Medieval and Renaissance Studies (Cambridge, Mass., 1967), pp. 225–88CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Ivry, Alfred, “The Implications of Averroes' Thought for Jewish Philosophy” [Hebrew], Proceedings of the Sixth World Congress of Jewish Studies (Jerusalem, 1977), 3: 321–27Google Scholar. Ivry's conclusions are valid not only with respect to Narboni's philosophy but also with respect to that of later Jewish commentators of Averroes who depended greatly upon Narboni's works. These include Joseph and Isaac Ibn Shem Tov, Abraham Bibago, and David Messer Leon, whose commentaries to Averroes are extant mainly in manuscripts.

62. See Lazaroff, Theology of Bibago, p. 57, where kabbalistic texts cited in Derekh ‘emunah are listed; Nuriel, “Philosophy of Bibago,” pp. 7, 30.

63. See Albo, Sefer ha-iqqarim, 2:11, 26.

64. See Shalom, Neveh shalom (Venice, 1574), p. 81b. The controversy of ‘asmut and kelim is treated at length in Elia Delmedigo, Behinat ha-dat (Vienna, 1833), p. 45.

65. Isaac Abravanel, ‘Aferet zeqenim (Warsaw, 1894), p. 41b.

66. 6See Meir Ibn Gabbai, ‘Avodat ha-qodesh, 1: 4.