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Journal Article

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Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought



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Two common assumptions about Jewish culture in the period of the Italian ghettos have been disavowed by contemporary scholarship. First, that in contrast to the earlier period of the Renaissance, Jewish culture had become and arid intellectual desert, relatively devoid of contact with the outstide world, sterile and uncreative, isolated and absorbed in pietistic and messianic delirium; and second, that the primary agent of this cultural retreat, that throwback to medievalism and obscurantism, was the kabbalah. To the contrary, we have come to learn that despite the patent diminution of social and cultural contacts between Jews and Christians engendered by the ghetto walls, Jewish culture remained vibrant, creative, and open to new expressions of literary and artistic accomplishment. Indeed, the ghetto, with all its negative connotations, was the virtual birthplace of bold innovations in Hebrew poetry and drama, in music, in medical and scientific writing, as well as in the traditional domains of rabbinics, moralistic literature, and liturgy.1 And kabbalah, paradoxically, as Robert Bonfil had recently argued, was the critical mediator between the medieval and modern worlds, the primary agent of many of these innovations, particularly in the religious sphere, and even of modernity itself.2

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Originally published by the Mandel Institute for Jewish Studies © 1993.



Date Posted: 19 February 2019