The Renaissance ‎

What is God? | Total Comments: 0 | Total Topics: 24

			The Renaissance (Rebirth) was a period of great intellectual and artistic growth in much of ‎Europe. Many historians date its start to the late 14th century though there was no great event ‎to mark its inception. After gestating in a few cities in Italy for about 100 years, things ‎expanded in the late 15th century. Beginning with art in the form of painting, sculpture, and ‎architecture, it captured the attention of the most creative minds of the time. The most ‎famous of these were Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, but they were just two out of a ‎major trend. The crowning achievement that almost defined the spirit of the times was ‎Copernicus’ theory of the heliocentric (sun-centered) universe that shoved the earth from its ‎Biblical and Aristotelian position in the center to the scientific position on the periphery. The ‎stage was set for even more radical breaching of walls. It was the cusp of the Age of ‎Discovery. ‎
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The borders of the known world expanded in all directions. The shackles that an antiquated ‎and overly authoritative religion had placed on the human mind were slowly being removed. ‎The invention of the printing press insured that the new ideas being thought up would not be ‎suppressed by opposing forces.  By the second half of the 17th century, Galileo and Newton ‎had firmly established science as the final arbiter of all natural matters. It was a new world ‎and there was no looking back. ‎
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Surprisingly, none of this made more than a ripple on the Jews. If one looks at Jewish ‎literature of the era from 1400 to 1700, it would be almost impossible to detect that any of ‎this was happening in the wider world. There are a few scattered references to the work of ‎Galileo and Copernicus, but they are usually in opposition. None of the other great names and ‎works are mentioned anywhere. Even the discovery of the New World, something that was ‎an established fact and not a theory, was largely ignored. The prominent exceptions to this are ‎the great Bible commentator Ovadia Sforno, who lived in Italy around 1500 right in the midst ‎of the Renaissance, and Baruch Spinoza, the 17th century Dutch philosopher who was ‎excommunicated by his community for his heretical writings. ‎
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This ignorance is not what one would have expected from the Jewish influence in science ‎during pre-Renaissance centuries. Sefaradi Jews were at the forefront of medical advances. ‎They were also among the leading astronomers of the era. Jews were frequently the ‎mapmakers for the Spanish and Portuguese explorers of the 15th century.  If anyone ‎understood the possibilities of discovering new routes and new lands, it was the Jews. Dutch ‎Jews, who were refugees from the Portuguese inquisition, were among the first to exploit the ‎economic potential of the New World, and were among its earliest settlers. By all rights, Jews ‎should have been among the leading lights of the Renaissance. Instead, it passed them by ‎almost unnoticed. ‎
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What accounts for this? The best guess is that it was probably a combination of anti-Semitism ‎from outside and an increasingly insular attitude from inside. The Inquisition was raging ‎during the Renaissance in Spain, Portugal, Italy, and the New World. Jews were not welcome ‎in most intellectual and artistic circles. With the exception of Holland and Poland, they really ‎weren’t welcome at all. The forced conversions in Spain during the 15th century and the final ‎expulsion in 1492 had a cataclysmic effect on the Jews who experienced it and their ‎descendants. While they managed to find homes in new lands, they were no longer even ‎second-class citizens. They were unwanted foreigners with a repulsive religion and strange ‎ideas. ‎
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The Ashkenazi Jews, who for the most part experienced no inquisitions or expulsions, had ‎their own anti-Semitic matters to deal with. They were always treated with suspicion and ‎scorn for both religious and economic reasons. In Poland they thrived, but only by the grace ‎of the local and national authorities who could be overruled or overthrown by a mob or could ‎change their attitude on a whim. Any local priest could foment a pogrom. Jewish populations ‎grew rapidly in Eastern Europe, but this was in spite of their economic and social condition, ‎not because of it. ‎
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This blatant antagonism from the people they lived amongst forced the Jews to look inward ‎instead of outward. If their contributions were no longer welcome in secular circles, they ‎would direct their energies exclusively to Jewish studies. Talmudic scholarship thrived in the ‎ghettos of Europe. Especially among the growing communities of Poland, it became the ‎supreme intellectual goal. Secular studies such as philosophy were treated with suspicion and ‎derision. They hadn’t accomplished anything for the Jews so why should they continue to ‎study them? ‎
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The substitute was mysticism, which emerged from its battles with philosophy as the ‎unchallenged victor. Kabbalah, as it was increasingly referred to from the Renaissance ‎onward, was the Jewish version of science and philosophy. That it worked almost exclusively ‎on tradition and hidden knowledge instead of on observation and logic, was not a ‎disadvantage at all. On the contrary, this only broadened its appeal. This was secret ‎knowledge that was inaccessible to all but the Jews (this wasn’t entirely true) so it must be the ‎ultimate path to truth. In addition to its esoteric appeal, it also blended in much better with ‎the superstition and spirituality of the Talmud than did philosophy, which was frequently at ‎odds with rabbinic ideas. ‎
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Nowhere was this more evident than in the small Galilean town of Tzefat. This little mountain ‎village became the number one refuge for Sefaradi Jews looking for a home after wandering ‎away from Spain and Portugal and other lands. It became a magnet for Talmudic and ‎Kabbalistic scholars, and the place for the combination of the two. ‎
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The person who most epitomized this thoroughly Jewish mixture was Rabbi Yosef Karo, a ‎refugee who left Spain in 1492 at the age of 4 and grew up in Turkey. He was the scholar’s ‎scholar – expert in all matters of Talmud and Halacha. His Shulhan Aruch, a complete code of ‎all of the relevant Halacha of his time, has never been replaced as the primary text of Jewish ‎law. But he was also a mystic who fit right into the mystical aura of Tzefat. He spoke ‎regularly with an angelic guide and occasionally incorporated his mystical leanings into his ‎legal rulings. Among other things, he introduced a little known formula for auspicious dream ‎interpretation into Jewish practice. This formula, and the description of God that it uses, will ‎be our first image from this era. ‎
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Tzefat was best known as a town of mystics whose lives revolved around comforting ‎the Shechina in its exile, welcoming the Shabbat Queen in the Field of Apples, and exploring ‎the Zohar and revealing its hidden knowledge to the world. Among many, there were two ‎who systemized the massive amount of conflicting and complementary ideas that were ‎floating almost randomly around the Kabbalistic stratosphere. The first of these was Rabbi ‎Moshe Cordovero, who was responsible for the initial phase of systemization. He may have ‎been a native of Tzefat and unquestionably lived most of his life there. He immersed himself ‎in the study of the Zohar at the age of 20. After mastering it in a short time, he set about ‎organizing it into a cohesive and semi-rational system. His major ‎works, Pardes Rimonim (Orchard of Pomegranates) and Or Yakar (Precious Light) go into ‎great detail about this system. Among the main concerns in these books is how the ‎unknowable essence of God becomes known through the emanations known as the Sefirot. ‎The Sefirot will be our second image. ‎
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The successor of Rabbi Cordovero, whom tradition has arriving in Tzefat the day ‎of Cordovero’s funeral, was the famous Yitzchak Luria, or the Ari (an acronym of his name ‎combined with lofty titles), as he is better known. There is little doubt that in an informal vote ‎of the most influential Kabbalist, he would win hands down. He refined the earlier system in ‎a way that it is clear he is not replacing it as much as filling in important gaps and making ‎subtle but important changes. Getting the two systems to mesh has been one of the major ‎concerns of subsequent Kabbalah. By and large, mainstream opinion follows the system of ‎the Ari, but since it is much more difficult to access due to the lack of an organized ‎presentation by its originator, the earlier system is still widely used. More than anything, the ‎Ari clarified how the different components of the system work to make things happen in the ‎world. He introduced a crucial element of the transformation that allowed the unknowable ‎essence (the En Sof) to be revealed in some way through the Sefirot. This element goes by the ‎odd-sounding name Tzimtzum, or constriction. We will attempt to perceive a third image ‎through it. ‎
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Jewish poetry began with the Bible itself. It reached its Biblical peak with the Psalms. ‎Throughout the second temple period, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Talmudic era, and the ‎medieval centuries of Spain, Italy, France and Germany, Jewish poetry flourished wherever ‎Jews found the emotional inspiration to express their inner feelings. God was usually the ‎subject, but not always. By the Tzefat period, poetry had encompassed Kabbalistic ‎concepts. Lecha Dodi by Shlomo Alkebetz is probably the most famous example of Jewish ‎poetry exalting a somewhat Kabbalistic idea. Another example that likely came out ‎of Tzefat is the famous poem Yedid Nefesh. It introduces at least two new images of God – ‎the Beloved Friend and the Radiance of the Universe. While these two images do not sound ‎remotely connected, they blend seamlessly into this beautiful poem. This combination is our ‎fourth image. ‎
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While it is true that the most innovative developments were happening in Tzefat, Jews were ‎struggling and thriving all over the known world and a little bit in the New World. Dutch ‎Jews, refugees from Spain and Portugal, found immediate success in Holland. Some took ‎their business savvy to the New World to grow sugar and other cash crops. Holland was one ‎of the few places where Jews were welcomed with somewhat open arms. In addition to being ‎highly enlightened politically, it was also a bastion of Renaissance thought. ‎
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Among the most innovative thinkers was the Jewish renegade mentioned earlier, Baruch ‎Spinoza. His ideas were way beyond the pale of normative Judaism, so the community ‎leaders had to take the drastic step of excommunicating him. As far as history can tell, he ‎wasn’t the least bit disturbed by this. He went on with his philosophical speculations, ‎eventually encapsulating it all in his groundbreaking and extremely cerebral work, ‘Ethics’. ‎He wrote other works that paralleled Ethics in its radical ideas about God and religion. One ‎of these goes by the unlikely name of ‘Theological-Political Treatise’. He introduces a very ‎non-Biblical and non-rabbinic image of God which would have great influence on the future. ‎This is our fifth and final image from this period. ‎
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The Renaissance may have skipped the Jews for the most part, but these two centuries were ‎among the most innovative in Jewish history. Most of the innovation emerged from Tzefat, a ‎town that was steeped in tradition but not tied down by inflexibility. In a sense it was ‎representative of the most important feature of this period – the mixing of traditions and the ‎exchange of ideas through the twin watershed events of the Spanish expulsion and the ‎invention of printing. Tzefat was a place that absorbed many of those exiles, as was Holland. ‎It should come as no surprise that these two places produced the most radical developments ‎in Jewish thought. Both were inundated with new Jewish blood and unencumbered by the ‎weight of custom. Perhaps they, more than anywhere else, represent the Jewish version of ‎the Renaissance. ‎



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