Alessandro Guetta

Lecture held at the Conference Jewish and the classical tradition in the Renaissance, The Warburg Institute, London, 6-7 march 1997.

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Avraham Portaleone was born in Mantua in 1541. His father was a well-known doctor ; the Portaleone family included an impressive number of physicians, going back to the 15th century.

After a basic education in the Jewish tradition he went to Bologna, where he studied with Ya'aqov Fano. After the burning of the Talmud, he returned to his native city. There, Avraham Provenzalo had, according to Portaleone's account, “all the parts of the Oral Law.” Thus, the young student was able to perfect his talmudic studies; at the same time, Provenzalo taught him latin.

Once this general training was over, he began studying philosophy and medicine in Pavia, or, as he put it, aristotelian philosophy and Greek - Arabic medicine.

From this time on, he began a brilliant career as a physician ; he was the personal doctor of the Duke of Mantua and the Monferrato, Guglielmo Gonzaga ; he wrote several treatises on general medical matters, on drugs and on surgery. Responding to the Duke's request, he composed a dialogue on gold, in which he debated the issue of remedial benefits of this precious metal. The writing was done 'al regel echad, hastily, as he would later explain.

At the age of 65 he had a stroke which left paralysed the left part of his body. From this time on, he was immobile except for his right hand. He was convinced that that terrible illness was caused by a long negligence of the study of the Torah:

“After praying, repenting, imploring, I decided to repair what I deformed”

In order to win God's pardon, he composed a series of ma'amadoth, passages from the Bible, the Talmud and the Zohar to be read each day of the year. His sons, at least, to whom the book was dedicated, would have the possibility of escaping sin; because reading the holy passages would protect their souls from divine punishment.

But Portaleone wouldn't have been well-known and praised in the history of Jewish literature if he had confined himself to a pious work, inspired by a sort of mechanical faith in the virtue of words. In the same book he also described by way of introduction the daily rites of sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple : the morning sacrifice and the evening one, so that the reader could better identify himself to the believer offering the sacrifice. He described in ninety chapters the Temple itself, the garments and the activity of the priests, and the holy rites, from the sacrifices to the burning of incense.

This part is more voluminous than the second one, even if the latter was the 'ikar, the essential, in the author's intention. It is a sort of encyclopaedia, for which Portaleone depends heavily on classical - that is greek and latin - sources. Together, the two parts form the Shiltei ha-gibborim (Shields of the brave, published in Mantua in 1612).

I will try to analyse some aspects of the fusion of classical and Jewish traditional sources, and I will present a short historical insight of this very particular book, in the context of Jewish-Italian history and general - or, better, European - history of ideas.

In order to do this, I would like to take into account the latin dialogue on gold De auro dialogi tres (1584). The contrast between the two books is all the more interesting since both books use, in my opinion, the same intellectual paradigm, but applied to opposed strategies.

I will therefore start with the latin dialogue, which is astonishing on many respects.

As I have already said, the question the author tries to answer is wether gold has curative virtues or not. Portaleone doesn't keep us in suspense for very long, and gives almost immediately his point of view, which is totally negative : metals do have some power, but gold doesn't have more than the others. The false assumption of its special power is due to its beauty, its resistance, its social prestige. Many important medical authorities of the past have been misled by some features which have nothing to do with medicine : this grave misconception was caused by the absence of an experimental mentality. Experiments, experientia, is the leit-motive of the dialogues.

In a very lively scene, one of the two characters, actually the protagonist, Dynachrisus - who is a Jew as it is just suggested in a brief passage - is dressed like a follower of Paracelso in pannosa indumenta, diversis constricta vinculis, raggedy clothes, held tight by several pieces of string. He reacts to the ironical remarks of Achryvasmus - the second character - by denying any identification with the stultitia, the foolishness, of those people. Still, he appreciates one side of their activity : the continuous experimentation, which allows seeing with one's own eyes and achieving clear knowledge.

There is someting in this book which seems to foreshadow the experimental method of Francis Bacon, or of Galileo, particularly in the very precise and very biting criticism of the pseudo-knowledge, based on vague terms such as “specific forms”, “power”, “faculty” or “substance”. This kind of knowledge is the result of a sort of intellectual laziness : before the difficulty of solving the problems - namely the questions of cause and effect - Reason tries to find refuge in a sacra anchora, a sacred anchor, thus hiding the truth and preventing the ship of knowledge from finding a safe harbour. Even a classical authority such as Pline the Ancient doesn't deserve respect, if he doesn't prove what he says ; and actually multa quae erant probanda ipse supponit, he assumed many things that he should have proved.

Of course, the ancient philosophers also wrote beautiful things. So beautiful, that the author's insufficient words - he wrote -. can only put them, by contrast, in a prominent position : like a black bird among white birds, which makes their whiteness stand out. Nice image, which is drawn - as the other character points out - from Boccaccio's Decameron (IXth day, Xth novel). In that book, it is placed before a very enjoyable and extremely obscene novel. It is, I think, a wink at the reader, very interesting if we think about the future, very pious development of Portaleone's literary activity.

Along with the criticism of hyper-rationalistic and not experimental science, comes the praise of complexity. Acting powers and causes in Nature are so many, and so difficult to detect, that man has to give up the attempt of total understanding. In the realm of causes, the final word for human beings is : mystery. Only God has a complete science: Altissimus Deus mundi totius conditor, scit. I think that the praise of experience on the one hand, and the consciousness of complexity on the other hand, is typical of a consistent scientific mentality; but, once it is transferred to a religious context, it produces a sort of fundamentalist attitude, which is visible in the Shiltei ha-Gibborim, as I will try to show later.

Of course these are not the only interesting sections in the dialogue. I could quote the surprising lack of trust in the ancients, brilliantly described through the image of Dynachrisus vainly waiting for a word coming from the dead. The reader discovers that these dead are actually the ancient books, who have nothing to say to a modern man looking for answers. This gap between the past and the present stands in clear contradiction with the total reliance on tradition as it appears in the Shiltei ha-gibborim.

There are many other interesting passages in the book.

I will give an example. The platonic dialogue Eutidemus is referred to. Acryvasmus has no arguments to put forward to Dynachrisus, and defines himself as Ctesippus, the victim of the sophistic arguing of Dionysodorus ; Dynachrisus's answer is: you read Eutidemus, and you still appreciate gold? Right, he says, gold has immense powers, it strengthens a weakened heart, it makes pleasure and good deeds easier, but not as a result of its intrinsic virtues. On the contrary, pure spirituality and morality are obtained only by putting gold aside. (As the simple cloth of the Kohen gadol in the Day of Atonement shows.)

We have to recall that Portaleone draws himself in the character of Dynachrisus : he is a scientist, and a Jew. Via a platonic dialogue, the Jew shows that if you read carefully the so-called sophistic argumentations - which probably refer to Talmud in veiled terms - you will find deep moral and religious values. I hardly need to point out, besides, the allusion to the lack of interest for gold, coming from a Jew.

This is the only hint at Judaism in the dialogue ; which is the work of an open-minded person, “looking for truth wherever he can find it”. This very same expression will occur again and again in the Shiltei ha-gibborim. It was used before him by Maimonides and - a generation before Portaleone - Azariah de Rossi quoted it when he wanted to justify taking information from “external” sources. As for the subject of the refusal of authority, Simha Luzzatto, a generation after Portaleone, puts it at the heart of his philosophical work Socrates. That was the Jewish contribution to the European movement toward the freedom and autonomy of human reason.

But twenty-two years later, along with the grave illness, came repentance. Portaleone expresses himself in the same terms which will be used, later, by Azariah Pixho and - possibly - by Moses Zacuto.

“The cry of neglecting Torah has grown up before God, because I contented myself with the children of Greeks, and flew on high to follow the tempting words of philosophy and medicine.”

Repentance consists in going back to the heritage of Jacob. But how to do it, when one's knowledge is widely classical and scientific? Portaleone made use of his secular notions for a religious purpose. He wrote a sort of Encyclopaedia whose reference is the Beith ha-Miqdash. That allowed him to speak of science - from music to chemistry, from philology to botany - and at the same time to put it within a religious framework. In this new vision of things, there is no room for a neutral sphere. Azariah De Rossi pointed out the existence of a non-religious level : the realm of technique, for instance, from which the Jew was permitted to draw information. But Portaleone calls up all the classical and scientific information for the praise of God. Every matter of study is allowed, he writes, but one should consider it in a religious perspective.

For every subject he gives a detailed and learned description, in which all kinds of sources are used, classical, talmudic and scientific. In a beautiful, fluent hebrew (different from the hebrew of Alemanno and even of De Rossi, still full of archaisms and of rethorical effects) he quotes and translates from greek and from latin, and he often gives the arabic, italian, french, spanish etc. version of important terms.

That was a rather common practice in seventeenth-century Europe : the increasing of knowledge and broadening of horizons led learned people to make efforts at synthesis. But Portaleone seems to do it for another reason : he gives his sons - and the Jewish reader - the access to external sources in order to preserve them from reading them directly. He takes upon himself the task of selecting cultural material.

“Pline wrote about incense: I will quote him here, so that you, my children, will not have to run after the external books of the ancients among the idolatrers.”

The independence of his mind brought him, however, to criticize openly the Jewish traditional sources, when they were in clear contradiction with his personal observations. He dares to oppose Rashi's and Maimonides' conclusions, but with infinite precautions and the continuous declarations of his total respect for them. He goes as far as to say that some assertions of the talmudic Sages are wrong, but he attributes the mistakes to the printer...

The Shiltei ha-Gibborim is a broad, learned, extremely clever and complex work. Almost every chapter deserves an independent analysis. Yet, the general intellectual paradigm is not less important.

Through declaring that he himself didn't enter the pardes ha-elohi, the divine orchard of kabbalists, he has the intellectual attitude of a kabbalist, insofar as he believes in the effectiveness of words and of intentions. Many of the quotations drawn from the Zohar focus on that aspect. Words in the place of actions is a traditional, rabbinical principle intended to express the necessity that prayers take the place of the ceremonies of Beith ha-Miqdash, which were no longer possible. In a certain kabbalistic vision, this idea can be developed and it leads to theurgy, the effectiveness of words and human actions accompanied by the right intentions, on God and on superior spheres.

The sixteenth century Kabbalah is imbued with this attitude, that can be seen as a sort of pseudo-experimental science, inasmuch as it emphasizes the relation between cause and effect. This is a quite different attitude than the one we can observe in the Kabbalah of the Renaissance, often verging on magic and occultism, which inspired some alchemistic trends. We already noticed how far Portaleone is from this mentality. Religious acts can modify the divine world, not the physical one. The two worlds have different natures, and require different approaches. The divorce between God and Nature, between religion and science, is in some ways confirmed

Portaleone shares the vision of “modern” Kabbalah, but he goes a step further, by elaborating an interesting strategy to be studied in the context of religious psichology. By knowing the details of the Temple rites, his sons will be able to identify with a Jew offering a sacrifice. They will imagine, yetzayeru be-mahshavtam, it will be as if they were there, yerahe be-einenu ke-illu amadnu, as if, ke-illu.

“During the prayer it is our obligation to be there, every day with our eyes and with our heart”

The reality has shifted, the believer undertakes an inner journey made possible by classical and modern scholarship, which supplies the empirical references.

We can measure all the distance between this “use” of the Temple and Moses Rieti's one, two centuries before. In his beautiful didactic poem Miqdash me'at (The little Sanctuary, probably written in 1414), Rieti sees the Beith ha-Miqdash as the occasion for an allegorical journey through general (i.e. greek and arabic) and jewish culture, whereas Portaleone makes a learned, scientific use of classical sources (he chooses historians and scientists, of course, not philosophers/scientists) in order to shape a concrete image of the Temple.

Fifty years later, Jacob Jehuda Leon “Templo” from Amsterdam made a scale reproduction of the Beith ha-Miqdash, as the italian kabbalist Immanuel Hay-Ricchi did later.

There was a change in the perception of reality which, for the Jews, was constructed with he focus on the Temple. Of course, this came through the need for religious identification. It is a very particular kind of religious identification, to be situated in the context of Jewish and Christian mysticism of the late sixteenth and of the seventeenth century. The interior process, the elaboration of written formulas for every moment of the day, the emphasis put on kawwanah (intention, direction), the global vision of life as entirely religious, do not recall only lurianic Kabbalah, but also some spiritual patterns of Christian religious life of the same period, such as the spiritual exercises of the Jesuits, the interior direction of François de Sales, the refusal of adiaphora, moral neutral aspects in German pietist thought.

As far as Portaleone is concerned, I think that his late work can be seen as a sort of reaction to secularisation, which kept some of its intellectual paradigms while reorienting them to other objectives.