Moses Hayyim Luzzatto
( Originally Published 1909 )
In its precise sense, the term renaissance cannot be applied to the movement that asserted itself in Hebrew literature at the end of the fifteenth century, as little as the term Decadence can be applied to the epoch preceding it.
Long before Dante and Boccaccio, as far back as the eleventh century, Hebrew literature, particularly in Spain, and to a certain extent also in the Provence, had reached a degree of development unknown in European languages during the Middle Ages.
Though the persecutions toward the end of the fourteenth and the fifteenth century crushed the Jewish communities in Spain and in the Provence, they yet did not succeed in annihilating completely the intellectual traditions of the Spanish and French Jews. Remnants of Jewish science and Jewish literature were carried by the refugees into the countries of their adoption, and in the Netherlands, in Turkey, even in Palestine, schools were founded after a short interval.
But a literary revival was possible only in Italy.' Elsewhere, in the backward countries of the North and the East, the Jews, smarting from blows recently inflicted, withdrew within themselves. They took refuge in the most sombre of mysticisms, or, at least, in dogmatism of the narrowest kind. The Italian Jewish communities, thanks to the more bearable conditions prevailing around them, were in a position to carry on the literary traditions of Jewish Spain. In Italy thinkers arose, and writers, and poets. There was Azariah dei Rossi, the father of historical criticism ; Messer Leon, the subtle philosopher; Elijah Levita, the grammarian; Leon of Modena, the keen-witted rationalist; Joseph Delmedigo, of encyclopedic mind; the Frances brothers, both poets, who combated mysticism ; and many others too numerous to mention. These, together with a few stray writers in Turkey and the Netherlands, imparted a certain degree of distinction to the Hebrew literature of the sixteenth and the seventeenth century.
Heirs to the Spanish traditions, they nevertheless were inclined to oppose the spirit and particularly the rules of Arabic prosody, which had put manacles upon Hebrew poetry. Their efforts were directed to the end of introducing new literary forms and new concepts into Hebrew literature.
They did not meet with notable success. The greater number of Jewish men of letters, whose knowledge of foreign literatures was meagre, were destined to remain in the thrall of the Middle Ages until a much later time. As to the unlettered, they preferred to make use of the vernacular, which presented fewer difficulties than the Hebrew.
The task of tearing asunder the chains that hampered the evolution of Hebrew in a modern sense devolved upon an Italian Jew of amazing talent. He became the true, the sovereign inaugurator of the Hebrew renaissance.
Moses Hayyim Luzzatto was born at Padua, in 1707. He was descended from a family celebrated for the Rabbinic scholars and the writers it had given to Judaism, a celebrity which it has continued to earn for itself down to our own day.
His education was strictly Rabbinic, consisting chiefly of the study of the Talmud, under the direction of a Polish teacher, for the Polish Rabbis had attained to a position of great esteem as early as Luzzatto's day. He lost little time in initiating his pupil into the mysteries of the Kabbalah, and so the early childhood years of our poet were a sad time spent in the stifling atmosphere of the ghetto. Happily for him, it was an Italian ghetto, whence secular learning had not been banished completely.
While pursuing his religious studies, the child became acquainted with the Hebrew poetry of the Middle Ages and with the Italian literature of his own time. In the latter accomplishment lies his superiority to the Hebrew scholars of other countries, who were shut off from every outside influence, and held fast to obsolete forms and ideas.
From early youth Luzzatto showed remark-able aptitude for poetry. At the age of seventeen he composed a drama in verse entitled " Samson and Delilah ". A little later he published a work on prosody, Leshon Limmudim (" The Language of Learners ", Mantua, 1727), and dedicated it to his Polish teacher. The young man then decided to break with the poetry of the Middle Ages, which hampered the development of the Hebrew language. His allegorical drama, Migdal `Oz ("The Tower of Victory"),' inspired by the Pastor fido of Guarini, was the first token of this reform. Its style is marked by an elegance and vividness not attained since the close of the Bible. In spite of its prolixity and the absence of all dramatic action, it continues to this day to make its appeal to the fancy of the literary. A poetic breath animates it, and it is characterized by the artistic taste that is one of the distinctions of its author.
It was a new world that Migdal `Oz, by its laudation of rural life, disclosed to the votaries of a literature the most enlightened representatives of which refused to see in the Song of Songs anything but religious symbolism, so far had their appreciation of reality and nature degenerated.
In imitation of the pastorals of his time, though it may be with more genuine feeling, Luzzatto sings the praises of the shepherd's life:
"How beautiful, how sweet, is the lot of the young shepherd of flocks! Between the folds he leads his sheep, now walking, now running hither and thither. Poor though he is, he is full of joy. His countenance reflects the gladness of his heart. In the shade of trees he reposes, and apprehends no danger. Poor though he is, yet he is happy.
"The maiden who charms his eyes, and attracts his desire, in whom his heart has pleasure, returns his affection with responsive gladness. They know naught but delight neither separation nor obstacle affrights them. They sport together, they enjoy their happiness, with none to disturb. When weariness steals over him, he forgets his toil on her bosom; the light of her countenance swiftly banishes all thought of his travail. Poor though he is, yet he is happy!" (Act III, scene r.)
Alas, this call to a more natural life, after centuries of physical degeneration and suppression of all feeling for nature, could not be understood, nor even taken seriously, in surroundings in which air, sunlight, the very right to live, had been re-fused or measured out penuriously. The drama remained in manuscript, and did not become known to the public at large.
It was Luzzatto's chief work that exercised decisive influence on the development of Hebrew literature. La-Yesharim Tehillah (" Glory to the Righteous "), another allegorical drama, which appeared in 1743, is considered a model of its kind until this day. It introduced a new epoch, the modern-epoch, in The history of Hebrew literature. The master stands revealed by every touch. Everything betrays his skill the style, at once elegant, significant, and precise, recalling the pure style of the Bible, the fresh and glowing figures of speech, the original poetic inspiration, and the thought, which bears the imprint of a profound philosophy and a high moral sense, and is free from all trace of mystical exaggeration.
From the point of view of dramatic art, the piece is not of the highest interest. The subject,' purely moral and didactic, gives no opportunity for a serious study of character, and, as in all allegorical pieces, the dramatic action is weak.
The theme was not new. Even in Hebrew and before Luzzatto, it had been treated several times. It is the struggle between justice and Injustice, between Truth and Falsehood. The allegorical personages who take part in the action are, arrayed on one side, Yosher (Righteousness) aided by Sekel (Reason) and Mishpat (Justice), and, on the other side, Sheker (Falsehood) and her auxiliaries, Tarmit (Deceit), Dimyon (Imagination), and Taawah (Passion). The two hostile camps strive together for the favor of the beautiful maiden Tehillah (Glory), the daughter of Hamon (the Crowd) . The struggle is unequal. Imagination and Passion carry the day in the face of Truth and Righteousness. Then the inevitable deus ex machina, in this case God Himself, intervenes, and Justice is again enthroned.
This simple and not strikingly original frame encloses beautiful descriptions of nature and, above all, sublime thoughts, which make the piece one of the gems of Hebrew poetry. The predominant idea of the book is to glorify God and admire the " innumerable wonders of the Creator."
"All who seek will find them, in every living being, in every plant, in every lifeless object, in all things on earth and in the sea, in whatsoever the human eye rests upon. Happy he who hath found knowledge and wisdom, happy he if their speech hath fallen upon an attentive ear!" (Act II, scene I.)
But the Creator is not capricious. Reason and Truth are His attributes, and they appear in all His acts. Humanity is a mob, and two opposing forces contend for the mastery over it: Truth with Righteousness on one side, Falsehood and her ilk on the other. Each of these two forces seeks to rule the crowd and prevail in triumph.
The Reason personified by the poet has nothing in common with the positive Reason of the rationalists, which takes the world to be directed by mechanical and immutable laws. It is supreme Reason, obeying moral laws too sublimated for our powers of appreciation. How could it be other-wise? Are we not the continual plaything of our senses, which are incapable of grasping absolute truths, and deceive us even about the appearance of things?
" Truly, our eyes are deluded, for eyes of flesh they are. There-fore they change truth into falsehood, darkness they make light, and light darkness. Lo, a small chance, a mere accident, suffices to distort our view of tangible things ; how much more do we stray from the truth with things beyond the reach of our senses? See the oars in the water. They seem crooked and twisted. Yet we know them to be straight... .
" Verily, man's heart is like the ocean ceaselessly agitated by the battling winds. As. the waves roll forward and backward in perpetual motion, so our hearts are stirred by never-ending pain and trouble, and as our emotions sway our will, so our senses suffer change within us. We see only what we desire to see, hear only what we long to hear, what our imagination conjures up." (Act II, scene I.)
This philosophy of externalism and of the impotence of the human mind threw the poet, believer and devotee of the Kabbalah, into a most dangerous mysticism. He continued to write for some time: an imitation of the Psalms; a treatise on logic, Ha-Higgayon, not without value; another treatise on ethics, Mesilat Yesharim (" The Path of the Righteous ") ; and a large number of poetic pieces and Kabbalistic compositions, the greater part of which were never published; and this enumeration does not exhaust the tale of his literary achievements.' Then his powers were used up, the tension of his mind increased to the last degree ; he lost his moral equilibrium. The day came when he strayed so far afield as to believe himself called to play the rôle of the Messiah. The Rabbis, alarmed at the gloomy prospect of a repetition of the pseudo-Messianic movements which time and again had shaken the Jewish world to its foundations, launched the ban against him. His fate was sealed by his ingenious imitation of the Zohar, written in Aramaic, of which only fragments have been preserved. Obliged to leave Italy, Luzzatto wandered through Germany, and took up his abode at Amsterdam. He enjoyed the gratification of being welcomed there by literary men among his people as a veritable master. At Amsterdam he wrote his last works. But he did not remain there long. He went to seek Divine inspiration at Safed in Palestine, the far-famed centre of the Kabbalah. There he died, cut off by the plague at the age of forty.
Such was the sad life of the poet, a victim of the abnormal surroundings in which he lived. Under more favorable conditions, he might have achieved that which would have. won him universal recognition. His main distinction is that he released the Hebrew language forever from the forms and ideas of the Middle Ages, and connected it with the circle of modern literatures. He bequeathed to posterity a model of classic poetry, which ushered in Hebrew humanism, the return to the style and the manner of the Bible, in the same way as the general humanistic movement led the European mind back upon its own steps along the paths marked out by the classic languages. No sooner did his work become known in the north countries and in the Orient than it raised up imitators. Mendes and Wessely, leaders of literary revivals, the. one at Amsterdam, the other in Germany, are but the disciples and successors of the Italian poet.