Elijah Benamozegh

Italian Orthodox Rabbi Elijah BenamozeghElijah Benamozegh, sometimes Elia or Eliyahu, (born 1822; died 6 February 1900) was an Italian rabbi and a noted Kabbalist, highly respected in his day as one of Italy’s most eminent Jewish scholars. He served for half a century as rabbi of the important Jewish community of Livorno, where the Piazza Benamozegh now commemorates his name and distinction. His major work is Israel and Humanity (1863), which was translated into English by Dr. Mordechai Luria in 1995.

Elijah (Eliyahu) Benamozegh, 1822 -1900
Italian Orthodox Rabbi, Kabbalist

Elijah Benamozegh was born in I823 in Leghorn, Italy. His family had come to Italy from Fez, Morocco, and it has been suggested, with some reason, that these Moroccan roots may have provided significant nourishment to the intellectual development of a man who would eventually be called the Plato of Italian Judaism.

It is certain that despite his exceptionally thorough assimilation of European culture, both his work and his cast of mind always retained an oriental stamp. His father died when he was young, and he was brought up in a deeply religious atmosphere by his mother, a woman of almost matriarchal faith, for whom he always had a touching reverence. He was originally intended for a business career; although he had at his disposal the means to achieve success in the field, he turned aside, while still young, to the religious and secular studies for which he felt an irresistible attraction. He was introduced to Jewish learning by Rabbi Yehuda Coriat, his mother’s brother. But it would be correct to say that the young student, impelled by a passion to explore all branches of human knowledge, was his own teacher. His exceptional intelligence compensated for the lack of any precise method in his self-instruction.

At the age of sixteen, he contributed a preface to Rabbi Coriat’s Ma’or va-Shemesh (Leghorn, 1839), which even then provided evidence of his precocious talent. Several years later he completed his rabbinical studies with particular brilliance. Remaining in Leghorn, he devoted himself for the next half-century to a rabbinical career which was perhaps never adequately appreciated by his contemporaries. What this man succeeded in reading and writing in his lifetime is truly astonishing.

Authors whom he might reasonably regard as adversaries were as familiar to him as those who shared his convictions. Their ideas crowded together profusely in his prodigious memory. Indeed, if his own publications – or those writings, more numerous still, which remain in manuscript – are vulnerable to any criticism, it is precisely by reason of their rushing out from the mind to paper without editorial sense. Much of his work was written in French, yet he was an Italian Rabbi. Israel and Humanity, his largest written work, remained largely untranslated until recent times.

Yet it should be wrong to see in Elijah Benamozegh only a scholar. He was also in every sense a man of God. It is above all as a Kabbalist that Benamozegh is known; but this epithet, which he always welcomed, has harmed him considerably in the eyes of men as devoted as he to the cause of Judaism, though resolutely hostile toward this school to which he adhered. It is essential, therefore, to point out at once that the Kabbalah – which Benamozegh always considered to be “the most legitimate theology in Judaism” – is in no sense a mere mass of superstitions and puerilities, capable of distorting grievously the very religion which it purports to serve. Rather, it is a philosophical system which has more than one point of contact with Platonism and other systems, and one which a man like Benamozegh could thoroughly reconcile with modern culture. In his opinion, Kabbalism was not even a separate, discrete branch of knowledge. Instead, he readily said of it what Renan said of philosophy in general: “That it is the distillation of all departments of knowledge – the sound, the light, the vibration of that divine essence within each of them.”

Benamozegh is not alone in the application of the Kabbalah to modern life. Carolyn Myss, author of Anatomy of the Spirit and Why People Don’t Heal and How They Can used the Kabbalah in presenting one valid understanding of the spiritual construction of the five kosas from another mode of expression, wrapped in the 2nd Century mystical schools of the Near East.

Unity of all Religions

At the heart of Benamozegh’s thesis is the belief that there is a universal religion that predates Mosaic religion, the latter being specifically designed for the Jewish people. The former religion is far more ancient, and its manifestations are to be felt in veiled form in every major pagan tradition. This revelation, which Jewish tradition, according to Benamozegh’s formulation, associates with Noah, is monotheistic. Its principal message is the unity of God, especially as this is manifest in the unity of mankind and the unity of the universe.

True faith in one God can unite all peoples and all religions. It can also harmonise science and religion. Benamozegh characterised modern science as the search for causal chains and singular principles, such as Newton’s laws, to explain the universe. He saw himself on the same path of discovering singular truths in the universe. He saw the challenge of religious diversity as no less important than the challenge of a world of chaos without a scientific explanation. Religious diversity indicates a multiplicity of avenues to God that awaits a higher synthesis that would resolve the conflicts of religions, and particularly sectarianism, a key concern in his intellectual milieu.

Isaiah 6:3 and Isaiah 45:5 are both seen as evidence of a pantheistic side to the higher unity of Judaism. The word describing God as kavod is key here. Isaiah 6:3 is normally translated as “Holy, Holy, Holy, the world is filled with His Glory.” Benamozegh translated this as, “. .. all that fills the world is His glory.” Isaiah 45:5 is usually translated, “I am the Lord and there is none else …,” while Benamozegh stressed, “I am the Lord and nothing else exists.”


blowing the shofar
A shofar is an ancient musical horn typically made of a ram’s horn, used for Jewish religious purposes. Like the modern bugle, the shofar lacks pitch-altering devices, with all pitch control done by varying the player’s embouchure.

Benamozegh and Kabbalah

Benamozegh, in his most original and daring speculations asserts the Kabbalah, he asserts, embodies concepts that in Judaism are esoteric though in other systems commonplace. The most significant and startling of these is the multiple manifestations of Deity:

For the Jews (apart from the Kabbalah) the single, indivisible divine personality is always infinitely above the material creation. The Gentiles, however, feel the need to humanize the gods, to see an embodiment of the divine even on the lower stages of the scale of being. The Kabbalah allows us to see how these two impulses – the latter embodied in the plural name of Divinity (Elohim), the first in the uncommunicable name of the one God – are joined in the religious synthesis of Hebraism. And if God may be found in surprising places, so also may less exalted manifestations of Truth be found.

Benamozegh writes that the Christian incarnation of Christ as the Son of God,

is but an imitation of the Hebrew Shekinah, or divine immanence, of the Malkut of the Kabbalah – though with an essential difference. According to Christianity, the descent of God into the finite is accomplished in the bosom of mankind alone, or rather in a single man; but for the Kabbalah, the incarnation exists in and through the very fact of the entire creation, although man occupies the central focus.

Thus Kabbalah forms a bridge between Israel and mankind because it has preserved, and acknowledges, elements of primal truth that had been obscured in exoteric Judaism, though retained, perhaps in a corrupt form, by the ‘Gentiles’. Kabbalism regards the long sojourn of the Hebrews in Egypt as a means used by divine Providence to restore to the religion of Israel – to incorporate in it through a selective process – all that was good and true in Egyptian religion. It points out the resemblance between the words Mitzri’iyim, Egypt, and met-zu-i-irn, frontiers or limits, to indicate that Egypt was the nearest country to Palestine, not only geographically but also from a religious perspective.

Dispensing with Religion, Metaphysics and Morality:

What then is to be the religious future of mankind? Will man dispense with all religion? And what would be the fate of man if thus spiritually mutilated? What would happen to social institutions? It has been said very rightly that metaphysics is only theology in a short gown. Once religion proper is dismissed for good, it cannot be long till metaphysics too is sent packing.

A further deplorable consequence would be the subversion of law, justice, moral beauty, virtue, freedom, heroism, and sacrifice, which are nothing but applied metaphysics, and it is hard to see how such ideas can be preserved when their unique source shall have been stopped up.

It is true of course that everyone does not immediately perceive the necessary implications of a given principle. Society has such inertia that it always requires a certain amount to time tor the transformations wrought by the ideas which it accepts to become evident at last in their entire extent; but in the long run, logic always draws the consequences from premises. Already, certain free-thinkers have boldly decided to allow morals to disappear with metaphysics and to cede their place to personal interest as sole rule of conduct. Thus, inevitably, negations are linked up together, hastening men without religion all the way to the brink of an abyss. One wonders, then, to whom mankind will turn when it has rejected as out-of-date all the traditional religions, while nevertheless it continues to feel the need for religion more and more insistently, lo resolve this problem, a double quest is necessary, and we bid our readers undertake it now.

Elijah Benamozegh did not feel threatened by science; instead he sought to demonstrate similarities between Judaism and science. He believed that geological discoveries provided palaeontological evidence for old traditions rooted in the Midrashim, ancient texts of the oral tradition, which claimed that God had created and destroyed many worlds before this one. The scholar Raphael Shuchat has argued that this particular tradition, called the Doctrine of the Sabbatical Worlds, had lain dormant since the sixteenth-century. Seemingly, though, it was remembered when new scientific evidence began to emerge which postulated a long Earth history. Benamozegh was not the only rabbi to utilise it when considering geological evidence; it was also employed by Rabbi Yisrael Lipshutz in Germany, Rabbi Sholom Mordechai Schwadron in Poland and Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, of the Volozhin yeshiva.

He was a singular character, if even some of the numerous anecdotes recounting his exploits can be believed. Let me quote just one: Benamozegh was giving a Talmud lesson in his house; while teaching, he was cooking. Someone knocked at the door: it was a man dressed in a formal, elegant style, who introduced himself as Ernest Renan. The Frenchman Renan was the most important theological historian of his day and certainly among the most prominent and influential scholars of the century. “I would like to meet Professor Benamozegh”, he said. “Just a moment”, said the little man, who came back after taking off his apron; “I am Professor Benamozegh, nice to meet you”.

Benamozegh writes on Man as Temple of God

Hebraism bestows on man a still more majestic title in making him the temple of God on earth, because, as we have said, he epitomizes all parts of creation and fulfils, in a sense, the necessary organic conditions for receiving and sheltering the Spirit which animates him. (In the same way, the human soul can attain natural life only when attached to the human body.) This is not a kabbalistic idea only, but is professed also by such theologians as Judah Halevi, author of the Kuzari, who, without drawing on the Kabbalah, teaches that appropriate form or material organisation is a necessary condition for the descent and habitation of Spirit.’ Yet if we reject the Kabbalah, we shall lose an abundant source of noble and profound doctrine.

To the Kabbalists, the human body and its physical faculties are the embodiment and clothing of spirituality. Created in the image of divine reality, man is its realisation in matter. Not only do the rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash agree on this point, but the Bible itself is familiar with it. The notion of the presence of God, the immanence of the Shekinah, appears often in Scripture; and though here it is nature, the totality of created things, which is represented as the temple of God, the ideas are closely related, and the more comprehensive conception of divine presence implies (at least in a certain measure) the other. Assuredly, the perfect temple is the holy nation itself, pending the time when it will he all of mankind; but the individual, as one of the stones of the edifice, is also a temple, not only by virtue of being a part, but because on his own level and in his limited sphere he too reproduces the holy. For the world, viewed from a spiritual perspective, has this characteristic: Its component materials, which together form man (the higher being), are not merely means; they have their own ends and their own intrinsic value, at the same time that each joins with the others in the composition of the whole. For Hebraism, the universe, mankind, the nation, and man are in reality so many stages through which the Holy reveals Itself and in which It dwells. Consequently, it is reasonable to see in these stages so many parts of the temple of God. This theory of man as temple of God has appeared elsewhere besides Judaism. When Jesus, questioned about the coming of the kingdom of God, answered: “The kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 7:21), he was undoubtedly repeating what a thousand voices, all around him and before him, had declared.

Benamozegh writes on The Imitation of God

Is it possible to imagine a free being who is not capable of moral improvement? Can we imagine a morally perfectible person who is not, at the same time, free to draw nearer and nearer to an ideal of absolute perfection? And what good would it do a man to be free it he did not use his freedom to fill up the gaps in his being, to advance, as it were, his own creation?

Being free, man is therefore necessarily perfectible, Freedom is precisely the means at his disposal to acquire what he lacks. And let no one object that God, being absolutely perfect, is free without being perfectible. It is exactly in this quality of absolute perfection that we call Him free, for freedom in Him is identical with necessity. As He is absolute and infinite Being, and as there is nothing outside Him which can influence Him – as He cannot experience any necessity – freedom for Him consists in acting according to His own nature, which is absolute and perfect. In other words, His freedom necessarily expresses itself in the direction of the Good. Other beings, however, having only a relative perfection, are influenced in their acts because there are causes outside themselves which act upon them, and perfectible beings are free to rise or fall precisely because they are perfectible. Their improvement is contingent upon the good use of their freedom.

Belief in human perfectibility has given birth to a great ethical principle of the Bible and rabbis: the imitation of God. Man, created in God’s image, should recognise as a practical rule of conduct the imitation of his creator, that is, a drawing ever closer to his divine model, an effort ceaselessly increasing to reproduce in himself that image which is the law of his being. From this comes the law of indefinite progress, which is derived on the one hand from the infinite perfection of the model, and on the other from the imperfect nature of the copy. For it would be inadmissible to claim that man is created in the image of God if he were infinitely distant from his model and without at least the capability of drawing ever closer to Him.

Benamozegh lived for 50 years in the port of Leghorn, Italy. He became widely known for his original writings in Hebrew, Italian, and French, for his biblical commentaries, studies in theology, law, history and ethics, polemical works in defence of the Kabbalah and its principal text, the Zohar. Israel and Humanity was his opus and a grand synthesis of this ideas about Judaism, its place in the world, which occupied him until the end of his life, when he died in 1900.


Tomb of Elijah Benamozegh
Tomb of Elijah Benamozegh: Source, Wikipedia


Authentic Judaism … is connected to a certain extent with the pagan mysteries. The authentic Jewish tradition acknowledges both the immanence and the transcendence of God, and thus links monotheism with the reasonable element in pantheism. Belief in the unity of God, as Israel preserves it, therefore harmonises the demands of science and the needs of religious faith. One day it will be able also to reconcile the divided churches.

Candidly, Elijah Benamozegh was a geat-souled One in that he sought unity among religions. He regarded Islam and Christianity as daughter religions of Hebraism, that is to say, the Religion of the Torah as informed by Kabbalistic Mysticism.

Here is an excerpt from Benamozegh’s introduction to Israel and Humanity.

Everyone agrees that we are in the midst of a great religious crisis. This reveals itself in three ways. The conflict between religion and science is an acute state, and therefore occupies us the most; but to this must be added the antagonism among religions themselves, and the evolutionary changes which are occurring simultaneously at the heart of each religion. The contention among religions started with Christianity’s affirmation of one God and a single faith for all mankind. Until then, each people had its own special deities but acknowledged the legitimacy of foreign divinities in their own countries.

Far indeed from seeking to replace their worship as false and blasphemous, people believed that each nation’s duty was to worship the gods which presided over its destinies. But with Christianity – and this is the foundation of its greatest claim to glory – there was now but one religion which could secure salvation, every other form of worship having become sacrilege. Yet although it is generally agreed that religious unity is desirable, there is no consensus with respect to the authentic religion. Having long ago triumphed over ancient paganism, Christianity has not yet managed to attract all members of the human family.

We are not speaking of the great Eastern religions, nor of pagan cults, which continue to exist in other parts of the world. Although the number of their adherents far exceeds that of all the Christian churches together, it is clear that they have long been in decline and that their influence is waning and extremely limited. It is not to these that the future belongs. The religions to be reckoned with are those which have descended from Hebraism – we shall not say, as is ordinarily done, “sprung from the Bible,” for they have in fact issued from Hebraism as a whole, that is, from the Bible as well as from the Oral Tradition; and their vitality, their current activity, and their future possibilities depend as much upon what they owe to Oral Tradition as upon what they owe to the Bible, perhaps even more.

Unhappily, however, these daughters of the same mother are far from agreeing that this is so. But does peace prevail at least within each of the different confessions? Not at all. Various tendencies work incessantly to disturb the inner harmony of the religions. Wherever there is no outside authority to impose silence on these discordant voices, the differences reveal themselves in broad daylight … … Thus, the inner crisis of the religions ultimately complicates the other two conflicts. But at bottom, we are dealing with a single, identical crisis, which is nothing other than the struggle between faith and reason – whether this latter, in trying to evaluate the world and society, finds itself at grips with traditional beliefs, or whether it undertakes to study the contradictory claims of various religions in the light of historical criticism, exegesis, and science, or, finally, whether in penetrating to the core of each religion it induces free scrutiny, and, unable to settle for the old formulas, drives the investigating mind to search for new ones which allow it to become reconciled with faith.

Having noted the existence of the crisis, we may ask what will be its resolution. Will the rupture opened long ago between heaven and earth, between the ideals of religion and the realities of history, be permanent? Are we on the verge of seeing Jewish monotheism proven guilty of impotence in its three forms – Hebrew, Christian, and Islamic – and swept from the earth as polytheism was nineteen centuries ago? If so, what would replace it? Would it be rationalism? Here is not the place to discuss in detail this possibility. Many learned pages have been written on the inadequacy of pure rationalism as a religion. It has been shown persuasively that rationalism could never be the religion of a great number of men, that it is incapable of satisfying the needs of the human heart. But a more careful study would quickly reveal still more serious objections. One would find, indeed, that Religion – devotion to and worship of the Absolute – cannot simply be a product of the human spirit. Its role being to satisfy the reason, to open to it unknown horizons and to initiate it to a higher life, it must therefore express the entire truth, embrace not only the totality of intelligible things but also that mysterious aspect of eternal existence which transcends, and will always transcend, our senses and faculties – which is to say, it must be revealed.


View of Livorno, circa 1850
View of Livorno, circa 1850 at the time Elijah Benamozegh was resident there.

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