This year, the commemorations of the 700th anniversary of the death of Italian poet Dante Alighieri, author of “The Divine Comedy,” barely touched on the subject of how Dante wrote about the Jews.
Dante places a number of Old Testament Jews, including Abraham, Sarah, Rachel, and Joshua in paradise. Because part of the limited space is left empty for Christians, the complement of Jews who prefigure the New Testament is full; there are therefore, at least temporarily, more Jews in Dante’s paradise than Christians.
Dante’s Purgatory includes the story of Mordecai and Haman denouncing the sin of wrath, while Daniel is praised for his temperance. In his paradise, Dante also praises Joshua and Judas Maccabeus as fighters for justice, while King David and Hezekiah from the Second Book of Kings and the Second Book of Chronicles are exalted as righteous monarchs.
Of course, like any other Christian writer of the time and after, Dante refers negatively to the Jews in terms of the crucifixion of Jesus: “From an act, therefore, various effects came, for the same death was pleasant / both to God and to the Jews. “
As the medievalist Jay Ruud observed, the Jews who martyred Saint Stephen are also presented as a “bad example contrasting with the gentleness of the saint” in Purgatory.
But other readers note that Dante did not attack or demonize Jews like others did in his day. Thus, in the section of Hell reserved for usurers, Dante did not place any Jews; all the damned were Christians.
Mention of Jews in Dante [Paradise] https://www.amazon.com/Paradiso-Dante/dp/140003115X/?tag=thefor03-20) is directed by Beatrice, one of Dante’s guides through the “Comedy” which represents divine revelation.
Beatrice advises those who are considering entering religious orders to avoid greed: “Be like men and not foolish sheep, / So that the Jew who dwells among you does not laugh at you.
Jews in Dante’s day considered the notion of Jews as arbiters of the behavior of monastic Christians to be flattering, rather than otherwise.
Dante was also inspired by Jewish writers. A reference to Jewish suffering in Purgatory is inspired by Jewish historian Josephus’s description of cannibalism during the Roman siege of Jerusalem.
In Josephus’ “Jewish war”, the protagonist Marie de Bethezuba, daughter of Eleazar, is mentioned by Dante to evoke the trials of hungry Christian gluttons tormented in purgatory.
The unparalleled power of Dante’s language and its sparse anti-Semitic content led many Jewish readers to defend the poet.
In the 19th century, it was widely believed that Dante was friends with a Jewish poet, Immanuel ben Solomon ben Jekuthiel of Rome. Emmanuel of Rome wrote “Mahberet ha-tofet ve-ha-eden” (The Treatise on Hell and Heaven), a Hebrew copy of Dante’s Comedy.
Critical consensus today rejects the notion of such a friendship, although Emmanuel remains a poet of interest, if not Dante.
The Israeli poet Saul Tchernichowsky later regarded Emmanuel as a poetic predecessor of Dante, and the biblical scholar Umberto Cassuto, without overestimating Emmanuel’s poetic skills, praised the “concordant and admirably industrious harmony” between the Jewish poet and Dante. Later, the Israelis who translated Dante into Hebrew included the political leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky.
Dante could neither speak nor read Hebrew or Arabic, languages used by the Jews of his time. Thus, the few words of Hebrew origin in his “Comedy” include the Latinized term Sabaoth, from hebrew tseva’ot (hosts) taken from the Latin translation of the Bible.
Those determined to find an intellectual debt to Yiddishkeit in Dante’s writings point to the poet’s “A Question of Water and Land” (1320) explaining why the earth is not covered with water. It was preceded by an earlier tract, “May the Waters Collect” by Samuel Ibn Tibbon, a thirteenth-century Bible commentator who translated Maimonides’ “Guide of the Perplexed” from Arabic to Hebrew.
There are even some theories that Dante might have encountered Jews in Verona who indirectly informed him about Kabbalah, especially to resolve a thorny question about the language Adam spoke.
In his “On Vernacular Eloquence” (c. 1305), Dante declared that Adam’s mother tongue was Hebrew, with immutable words created by God and spoken by everyone from Creation to the Tower. of Babel.
But in Dante’s “Paradise”, Adam claims that languages developed over the years and that his own mother tongue, a language other than Hebrew, no longer existed at the time of the Tower of Babel.
Obviously, Dante had changed his mind about Adam and languages, possibly influenced in this and related matters by debates among the Jewish thinkers of his time.
From these and other examples, 19th-century Italian Jews viewed Dante as an earthling, someone who survived hell, much like the Italian Jews, and aspired to heavenly realms.
In 1847, Elia Benamozegh, Sephardic Orthodox rabbi of Livorno, asked his congregation: “Who among you does not bow their heads with reverence before the prodigious names of Moses and Dante in human and divine glories?” Benamozegh, a Kabbalist and author of “Israel and Mankind,” has often cited non-Jewish religious sources, including the Gospels, as valuing the Midrash comparable to the Talmudic Aggadah.
At the turn of the century, Leone Raccah, another rabbi from Livorno, realized that young Italian Jews had abandoned Moses and openly preferred to read Dante.
The first Hebrew translation of the “Comedy” was made by Saul Formiggini, an Austrian Jewish doctor and translator who lived in Trieste. However, his effort was looked down upon by Lelio Hillel Della Torre, an Italian Jewish scholar and poet who translated the “Book of Psalms” (1845, 1854). Della Torre accused Formiggini’s version of lacking formal and technical graces.
In the Italian original, the “Comedy” galvanized aspiring Jewish philosophers such as Carlo Michelstaedter and Giorgio Voghera, born in Trieste. The latter’s “Israel Notebook (Quaderno d’Israele)”, whose translation into English is long overdue, describes his life in a kibbutz during the war years, quoting extensively from Dante.
There is no more moving example of an Italian Jewish writer transformed by Dante than Primo Levi in his “Si c’est un homme” and especially “Survival à Auschwitz”, in which he recites verses from Dante to a another inmate from a concentration camp.
Other modernist Jewish writers obsessed with Dante include the Russian Osip Mandelstam, whose “Conversation on Dante” (1933) underscored the Italian’s status as an exile, shunned by his contemporaries.
On the occasion of the 600th anniversary of Dante’s death, Jewish scholar Samuel David Luzzatto wrote a sonnet in Hebrew describing Dante as the greatest poet, even compared to biblical prophets. However, a few years earlier, in a letter to a friend, Luzzatto admitted that he didn’t think Dante had “anything to do with Judaism”.
An answer to this point of view might be “Der Gehinnom”, the first Yiddish translation of Dante’s “Hell”, published in Lithuania in 1932 by Shmuel Kokhav-Shtern, a Yiddish poet murdered during the Holocaust.
Kokhav-Shtern might have disagreed with the claim that there is no Yiddishkeit in Dante.
And American Jewish readers of Dante might think that one of the reasons the poet’s work has been so popular in the New World may be because the Italian Jewish scholar Lorenzo Da Ponte who taught at the University of Columbia after writing librettos for Mozart’s operas, fervently promoted Dante’s poetry.