By ESTI KELLER
The audience that assembled last week at Yad Yitzhak Ben-Zvi for a conference on 18th-century Italian scholar and Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Haim Luzzato was a mixture of secular and Orthodox, perhaps reflecting his universal appeal across the spectrum of religious observance.
Luzzato, commonly referred to by the Hebrew acronym Ramhal, is the author of numerous religious works, including today's much studied philosophic texts The Path of the Just and The Way of God. Lesser known sides of the sage's writings are his poetry and dramatic compositions; his elegant literary style has earned him acclaim among secular Jewish academics.
"The founders of the Haskala [Enlightenment] movement in late 18th-century Europe adopted the Ramhal as the father of modern Hebrew literature," explained Rachel Elior, chair of the department of Jewish Studies at Hebrew University and a professor of Jewish mysticism, during her talk.
Luzzato's sophisticated creative style also captured the attention of Chaim Nachman Bialik and his contemporaries. "Between the two world wars, Bialik and others such as Shimon Ginzburg and Itzhak Rifkind researched the Ramhal in Europe and the US and it is due in no small part to their efforts that there is substantial information on his life and works available, ensuring that the Ramhal is relatively widely studied today," Elior continued.
She went on to detail Luzzato's extraordinary life. Born in Padua, Italy, in 1707, he proved from a young age to be an outstanding pupil in the fields of both Jewish and secular study. At the age of 20 he began studying the ancient Kabbalistic text The Zohar and soon after claimed to be receiving divine instruction from a mystical being known as a magid.
During the 20 years in which the magid is said to have communicated with him, the Ramhal wrote close to 100 books, among them controversial Kabbalistic texts. In these writings Luzzato maintained that the magid had revealed to him the secrets to of how to hasten the coming of the Messiah, claiming that he and his followers were taking steps to achieve this ultimate redemption of the Jewish people.
The rabbinic authorities in Italy and the international Jewish community considered these assertions with suspicion. The Jewish world was still recovering from the traumatic false Messiah claim of less than 100 years earlier - in 1648 Shabtai Tzvi, a young Turkish Kabbalist, convinced a large proportion of global Jewry that he was the Messiah, only to convert to Islam in 1666.
The similarities between the Ramhal's writings and Shabtai Zvi's led to accusations that Luzzato was a follower of the Sabbatean movement, and to the burning of many of his works. In 1735 he quit Italy, under threat of excommunication, eventually settling in Palestine where he was able to pursue Kabbala freely. However three years later, in 1747, he and his family died from a plague.
"If the Ramhal had experienced contact with the magid before 1666 he'd have been considered a prophet," asserted Elior, "but because of the fear that resulted from the Shabtai Zvi incident he was instead regarded with mistrust."
"The irony is," she continued, "a mere 20 years after his death the Ramhal's works were embraced by religious Jews of all sects. The Gaon of Vilna, a leading Torah authority of the time, praised his writings and the Gaon's religious opponents, the Hassidim, also welcomed his insights."
In the 19th century Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, head of the Mussar Movement in Eastern Europe, adopted Luzzato's ethical work The Path of the Just as a manual for his students, placing it at the heart of Jewish curricula where it has remained since.
Regulars at the part-time learning center at Ramhal House, a Har Nof-based institute dedicated to researching and publishing the Ramhal's works, are among those who study its lessons. "I consider it particularly important to study the Ramhal because he had insights into how the world works that few other sages had," said Rabbi Mordechai Chrique, director of the institute and one of the speakers at the conference, "although because of their fear his generation were unable to appreciate him."
"However," he continued, "in reality they had nothing to fear, as the Ramhal did not actually claim to be the Messiah as Shabtai Zvi had, and evidence suggests that he was not affiliated with the Sabbatean movement."
Elior echoed his sentiments. "My research has led me to refute the idea that the Ramhal was a Sabbatean," she declared, "and the fact that he was so widely accepted in religious circles so soon after his death suggests that it is not a claim religious scholars took seriously."
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