Commentary Magazine

Ben Emunah li-Khefirah [“Between Faith and Heresy”], by Ephraim Shemuell

The Rabbi and the Heretic

Ben Emunah Li-Khefirah [“Between Faith and Heresy”].
by Ephraim Shemueli.
Masada. 240 pp.

Mr. Shemueli’s account of the 17th-century controversy between Leon da Modena and Uriel da Costa constitutes the major part of what is a fascinating and important study in faith and heresy—a subject that has gone quite out of fashion in our era of “dogma-less” Judaism. By focusing on these two men, one of them a pronounced heretic under ban of excommunication, and the other a respected rabbi, the author has served to revivify for us those basic issues in Jewish religion about which, as Solomon Schechter once remarked, our “flexibility has progressed so far as to classify Judaism among the invertebrate species, the lowest order of living things.”

Leon da Modena, rabbi of Venice, was both a learned, faithful Jew and an urbane, cultivated Venetian. Though he is best known for treatises vigorously defending rabbinic Judaism against its detractors, he also wrote Italian verses, maintained close friendships with the leaders of Christian society, and was thoroughly at home in the Christian culture of his day. For all his worldliness, however, Modena preserved an absolute public obedience to rabbinic law and opinion, an obedience which, according to Mr. Shemueli, derived from serious weaknesses in his character: an enormous fear of criticism and jealousy of popular approval. He rendered his decisions to the community with one eye on the possible reaction to them; he refused to express his theological opinions openly and became an artful practitioner of the esoteric. (In this connection, Mr. Shemueli points to Modena’s frequent and peculiar use of the words “sakhal” and “kesil,” which ordinarily simply mean “fool” but which in Modena’s work are used to describe “anyone who publicly expresses an unpopular opinion.”)

Uriel da Costa, Modena’s putative antagonist, was the son of a Marrano family and grew up as a devout Catholic. Da Costa had none of Modena’s timidity in the face of public opinion, and when he fell into doubt about the validity of Christianity, he finally decided to return to the Judaism of his ancestors. With his family he left Portugal and settled in Amsterdam, where he was received into the Jewish community. Before long, however, new doubts arose—Da Costa found rabbinic tradition to be a violation and falsification of the written Torah. He began by denying the authority of the rabbis, went on to deny such established doctrines as the immortality of the soul, and ended by doubting much of the written Torah itself. His heresy was published and spoken publicly, and brought the inevitable consequence among European Jewry at that time: a ban of excommunication. Rabbi Leon da Modena was among those who signed and proclaimed the ban, and further, he wrote several tracts in answer to Da Costa’s heretical attacks against rabbinic Judaism.

Yet the controversy between these two men—as Shemueli, who is sympathetic to both, points out—became sharp and bitter precisely because at bottom they had so much in common. Modena, defender of rabbinic law, was himself plagued by the very doubts Da Costa had voiced. Beneath his piety, in the depths of his thought, he rejected much established Jewish doctrine, as well as established halachic decision. The most significant difference between him and Da Costa was that, having been born and bred a Jew, he felt a deep attachment to the Jewish people: he saw himself as a link in the chain of Jewish history, tied to the Jewish past and responsible for the Jewish future, and was therefore reluctant to do or say anything that might reflect either on the tradition or on the people. Da Costa, growing up a Christian, never came to have that sense of personal identification with the people to whose faith he so briefly returned. His concern, both in adopting Judaism and then in rejecting it, had been only for his own salvation. This difference—coupled with the difference in character that left Da Costa unconcerned about the personal consequences of voicing his ideas and Modena seemingly preoccupied with very little else—furnished the ground for the curious debate that took place between these two brother-doubters.

Mr. Shemueli’s view of Modena, if correct, goes a long way toward substantiating his notion about the authorship of the Kol Sakhal (“A Fool’s Voice,” which purports to be a dialogue between a heretic and a believer), itself long under controversy. A standard view of the document, the late Isaiah Sonne’s, is that the heretical arguments in the Kol Sakhal are essentially those of Da Costa, recorded at length by Modena merely in order to refute them. Mr. Shemueli agrees with the first supposition; but since Modena never wrote his refutation, except for a few pages, he does not accept Sonne’s idea that Modena’s main purpose was to refute Da Costa. He says that Modena “did not merely lend his technical literary skill to Da Costa’s work . . . he did not merely translate the words of Da Costa, did not merely order and explain them, but he also added arguments of his own and of others, drawing on the whole literature of polemic against the established tradition. He impressed on the book the stamp of his own personality, his opinions, his doubts, his yearnings, and his spiritual afflictions.” What may have begun as a dialogue with the sakhal, the foolish unbeliever, quickly became for Modena a dialogue with himself. Like Da Costa, his questioning of the validity of rabbinic authority in the name of fundamental Biblical law finally led him to doubt certain of the fundamental articles of Jewish faith.



Whether or not Mr. Shemueli’s reading of Leon da Modena is correct is a matter for the trained historian to decide. What is of indisputable significance in his book is the application he finds in the religious struggles of Modena and Da Costa to the problems of contemporary Jews. Implicit in the telling of his story is the notion that these two men really suffered from the impositions of an official, communally sanctioned orthodoxy whose norms were prescriptive: Da Costa paying with his mental health and perhaps with his life for his challenge of that orthodoxy, and Modena perhaps an even heavier price—namely, his self-respect—for his docile conformity with it. Believing that even in the 17 th century the old categories of orthodoxy and heresy were beginning to lose their internal force and to depend on external imposition, Mr. Schemueli regards contemporary Orthodox Judaism as an entirely dead option (even though there are many Orthodox Jews who live as active participants in contemporary culture). The problem for us, then—not so different from Modena’s—is how to maintain and give expression to our connection with a tradition whose fundamentals in dogma we do not accept. How, in other words, “can we transmit to a non-orthodox generation the culture of generations of believers?”

Mr. Shemueli’s formulation of the problem is surely the correct one. No one will deny that in contemporary Jewish life even most of what goes by the name of “religion” or “Judaism” is really secular. However his own solution to this problem—offered in the concluding section of his book—seems hardly adequate. He pleads for a greater tolerance toward divergent religious views, and urges that we abandon the terminology of the medieval Jewish philosophers in favor of theological usage that would be more congenial to the contemporary mind. Such proposals, though perhaps unexceptionable, are at best only a way of opening up the channels of communication. The challenge of secularism—and particularly of the atheistic existentialism and nihilism that Mr. Shemueli regards as genuine counter-faiths—can hardly be met by an enlargement of tolerance and the use of modern philosophic language.

“God,” says Mr. Shemueli, “is the symbol of the possibility of reflection on what I truly am and what I truly want, a symbol of the validity of my own self-knowledge and of the honesty of my desire for freedom, i.e. my self-realization, my redemption. God is the symbol of the possibility of understanding, justice, love . . . a symbol that those things which I must believe are not only private certainties, but public certainties.” In spite of himself, he seems to agree with Nietzsche that God is dead: for in his system the transcendent God of Jewish tradition is to be replaced by reflective man. The God who once created heaven and earth is to become a symbol of man’s aspirations, and we are offered a pious (but ungrounded) affirmation that the symbol is itself a guarantee that man’s spiritual aspirations are not in vain.

Mr. Shemueli, then, is a man who is really seeking the comfortable assurances of traditional religion at the same time that he aligns himself with an essentially secular position. One does not, however, remain faithful to Judaism merely by choosing a language which speaks of God. While traditional Judaism grounded its moral values in a transcendent God, modern secularism teaches that man must find his values in himself or in his society. Mr. Shemueli’s God, who demands nothing more concrete than self-reflection, is not the God of whom we say “asher kiddeshanu be-mitzvotav” (“who made us holy through His commandments”). Of this much Modena and Da Costa seemed more clearly aware three centuries ago than their modern interpreter seems today.

The book ends by quoting the following lines from the poem Keter Malkhut (“Royal Crown”) by Solomon ibn Gabirol:

Thou art God, and all things formed are
   Thy servants and worshippers.
Yet is not Thy glory diminished by reason
   of those that worship aught beside Thee.
For the yearning of them all is to draw
   nigh to Thee.

Mr. Shemueli stresses that the poet sees even those “who worship aught beside Thee” as truly seeking God, and concludes that Gabirol stands with him beyond orthodoxy and heresy. He would have done well to go on to the very next lines of the poem, in which the poet says:

But they are like the blind,
Setting their faces forward on the King’s
Yet still wandering from the path.
One sinketh into the well of a pit
And another falleth into a snare,
But all imagine they have reached their
Albeit they have suffered in vain.



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