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Why there were more Jews than Christians in Dante’s ‘Paradise’ (and no Jews of his time in Dante’s ‘Hell’)

This year, commemorations of the 700th anniversary of the death of the Italian poet Dante Alighieri, author of “The Divine Comedy,” have scarcely addressed the subject of how Dante wrote about Jews.

Dante places a number of Old Testament Jews, including Abraham, Sarah, Rachel and Joshua in Paradise. Because some of the limited space is left empty there for Christians, the complement of Jews who prefigure the New Testament is full; so there are, at least temporarily, more Jews in Dante’s Paradise than Christians.

Dante’s Purgatory includes the story of Mordecai and Haman to decry the sin of anger, whereas Daniel is praised for his temperance. In his Paradise, Dante likewise lauds Joshua and Judas Maccabeus as combatants for righteousness, while King David and Hezekiah from the Second Book of Kings and Second Book of Chronicles are exalted as just monarchs.

Of course, like every other Christian writer of the era and afterwards, Dante refers to Jews negatively in terms of the crucifixion of Jesus: “From one act, therefore, came diverse effects, for the same death was pleasing/ both to God and to the Jews.”

As the medievalist Jay Ruud has observed, the Jews who martyred Saint Stephen are likewise presented as an “evil example contrasting with the saint’s meekness” in Purgatory.

But other readers note that Dante does not attack or demonize Jews as others in his era did. So in the section of Hell reserved for usurers, Dante placed no Jews; all the damned were Christians.

Mention of Jews in Dante’s Paradise is made by Beatrice, one of Dante’s guides through the “Comedy” who represents divine revelation.

Beatrice recommends that those who may be thinking of entering religious orders avoid greed: “Be like men and not like foolish sheep,/ So that the Jew who dwells among you will not mock you.”

Jews of Dante’s time considered the notion of Jews being arbiters for the behavior of monastic Christians to be flattering, rather than otherwise.

Dante also drew from Jewish writers. A reference to Jewish suffering in Purgatory is inspired by the Jewish historian Josephus’s description of cannibalism during the Roman siege of Jerusalem.

In Josephus’s “Jewish War,” the protagonist Mary of Bethezuba, daughter of Eleazar, is referred to by Dante to evoke the ordeals of starving Christian gluttons tormented in Purgatory.

The unsurpassed power of Dante’s language and its sparse antisemitic content led many Jewish readers to champion the poet.

In the 19th century, it was widely believed that Dante was friendly with a Jewish poet, Immanuel ben Solomon ben Jekuthiel of Rome. Immanuel of Rome wrote “Mahberet ha-tofet ve-ha-eden” (The Treatise on Hell and Heaven), a Hebrew language knockoff of Dante’s Comedy.

Critical consensus today discards the notion of any such friendship, although Immanuel remains a poet of interest, if no Dante.

The Israel poet Saul Tchernichowsky later deemed Immanuel a poetic predecessor of Dante, and the biblical scholar Umberto Cassuto, while not overrating Immanuel’s poetic skills, lauded the “concordant and admirably industrious harmony” between the Jewish poet and Dante. Later Israelis who translated Dante into Hebrew included the political leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky.

Dante could not speak or read Hebrew or Arabic, languages used by Jews of his time. So the few words of Hebrew origin in his “Comedy” include the Latinized term Sabaoth, from the Hebrew tseva’ot (hosts) drawn from the Latin translation of the Bible.

Those determined to find intellectual indebtedness to Yiddishkeit in Dante’s writings point to the poet’s “A Question of the Water and of the Land” (1320) explaining why earth is not covered with water. It was preceded by an earlier tract, “Let the Waters Be Gathered” by Samuel Ibn Tibbon, a 13th century biblical commentator who translated Maimonides’ “Guide for the Perplexed” from Arabic into Hebrew.

There are even some theories that Dante may have encountered Jews of Verona who informed him indirectly about Kabbalah, especially in terms of resolving a thorny question about what language Adam spoke.

In his “On Vernacular Eloquence,” (c. 1305) Dante stated that Adam’s native language was Hebrew, with unchanging words created by God and spoken by everyone from the Creation until the Tower of Babel.

But in Dante’s “Paradise,” Adam claims that languages develop over the years, and his own mother tongue, a different language than Hebrew, no longer existed by the time of the Tower of Babel.

Clearly Dante had changed his mind about Adam and languages, possibly influenced in this and related matters by debates among Jewish thinkers of his time.

From these and other instances, Italian Jews of the 19th century saw Dante as a landsman, someone who survived Hell, much like Italian Jews, and was aspiring to the heavenly realms.

In 1847, Elia Benamozegh, Sephardic Orthodox Rabbi of Livorno, asked his congregation: “Who among you fails to bow their heads reverently to the prodigious names of Moses and Dante in human and divine glories?” Benamozegh, a Kabbalist and author of “Israel and Humanity,” often cited non-Jewish religious sources, including the Gospels, as valued Midrash comparable to the Talmudic Aggadah.

By the turn of the century, Leone Raccah, another Livorno rabbi, kvetched that young Italian Jews had abandoned Moses and openly preferred to read Dante.

The first translation into Hebrew of the “Comedy” was produced by Saul Formiggini, an Austrian Jewish doctor and translator who lived in Trieste. However, his effort was scorned by Lelio Hillel Della Torre, an Italian Jewish scholar and poet who translated the “Book of Psalms” (1845, 1854). Della Torre charged that Formiggini’s version lacked formal and technical graces.

In the original Italian, the “Comedy” galvanized aspiring Jewish philosophers such as Carlo Michelstaedter and Giorgio Voghera, born in Trieste. The latter’s “Israel Notebook (Quaderno d’Israele)” long overdue for English translation, describe his life on a kibbutz during the war years, citing Dante abundantly.

There is no more moving example of an Italian Jewish writer transformed by Dante than Primo Levi in his “If This is a Man” and especially “Survival in Auschwitz,” in which he recites lines by Dante to a fellow concentration camp prisoner.

Other Dante-obsessed modernist Jewish writers include Russia’s Osip Mandelstam, whose “Conversation About Dante” (1933) underlined the Italian’s status as an exile, shunned by his contemporaries.

On the 600th anniversary of Dante’s death, the Jewish scholar Samuel David Luzzatto wrote a sonnet in Hebrew describing Dante as the greatest poet, even compared with the biblical prophets. However, some years earlier, in a letter to a friend, Luzzatto admitted that he didn’t think Dante has “anything to do with Judaism.”

One response to that viewpoint 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 in the Holocaust.

Kokhav-Shtern might have disagreed with the assertion that there is no Yiddishkeit in Dante.

And American Jewish readers of Dante might reflect that one reason that the poet’s work has been so popular in the New World may be that the Italian Jewish scholar Lorenzo Da Ponte who taught at Columbia University after writing librettos for Mozart operas, promoted Dante’s poetry fervently.


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