Jewish History

, Volume 23, Issue 3, pp 223–253 | Cite as

Abravanel in Italy: the critique of the kabbalist Elijah Hayyim Genazzano

  • Eric Lawee


Among many uncharted vistas of scholarship on Isaac Abravanel, a comprehensive account of his scholarly afterlife seems especially distant. This essay illustrates the possibilities latent in the study of Abravanel’s reception-history by investigating a sharp critique of Abravanel composed in his lifetime. Its author was a Tuscan kabbalist, Elijah Hayyim ben Benjamin of Genazzano (c. 1440–c. 1510), who studied with the renowned talmudist and kabbalist, Benjamin of Montalcino, and engaged in a disputation with a Franciscan friar, Francesco d’Acquapendente. The critique, which appears in Elijah’s ’Igeret ḥamudot (an epistolary tract sent to Benjamin of Montalcino’s son David), comprises such central themes of medieval and early modern Jewish thought as aggadic authority, prophecy’s relationship to human perfection, and philosophy’s relationship to Kabbalah. It unexpectedly serves as the main exhibit in Elijah’s larger argument regarding the limits of the human intellect and of truths arrived at by way of philosophic “speculation.”

After surveying Abravanel’s exegetical monograph ‘Aṭeret zeqenim, the immediate object of Elijah’s wrath, the essay investigates the conceptual components of Elijah’s critique. It concludes by seeking to explain the thoroughly baneful image of Abravanel that Elijah presents despite the significant spiritual sensibilities and intellectual points of contact these two thinkers shared. The key appears to be differences between Elijah’s Italian religious-intellectual context and the Ibero-Jewish tradition that shaped Abravanel. The essay argues that differences in their formative intellectual contexts, coupled with the genuinely elusive character of Abravanel’s religious thought, are among the things that kept the type of Sephardic traditionalism that Abravanel represented—elements of which Elijah ought to have applauded—hidden from Elijah’s view.


Great Matter Human Intellect Divine Attribute Divine Essence Human Perfection 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Division of HumanitiesYork UniversityTorontoCanada

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