The forgotten Sephardi heritage: Rabbi Elijah Benamozegh

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.

By YAËLLE AZAGURY
December 28, 2017 22:57
Villain (Illustrative)Illustration by Pepe Fainberg

Illustration by Pepe Fainberg. (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)

 
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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.

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