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Reconstructing Jewish Identity on the Foundations of Hellenistic History: Azariah de' Rossi's Me'or 'Enayim in Late 16th Century Northern Italy

  • Author(s): Rosenberg-Wohl, David Michael
  • Advisor(s): Gruen, Erich S
  • et al.


Reconstructing Jewish Identity on the Foundations of Hellenistic History:

Azariah de' Rossi's Me'or `Enayim in Late 16th Century Northern Italy


David Michael Rosenberg-Wohl

Doctor of Philosophy in Jewish Studies


the Graduate Theological Union

Professor Erich S. Gruen, Chair

Me'or `Enayim is conventionally considered to be early modern Jewish history. Recent scholarship tends to consider the work Renaissance historiography, Counter-Reformation apology or some combination of the two. The approach to date has focused primarily upon the third and most sizeable part of Me'or `Enayim, the sixty-chapter "Words of Understanding".

In this dissertation, I seek to state a claim to the purpose for the work, a chimerical task. I argue that Azariah de' Rossi wrote Me'or `Enayim neither as history nor as apology but rather to articulate his vision of a new Jewish identity for the Jews of his time and place - late 16th century northern Italy. Recognizing the dominant Christian cultural embrace of the Roman empire and the concomitant Jewish opposition to Rome, de' Rossi felt that the pressure of the Counter-Reformation left Jews with no viable way to be relevant to contemporary Italian culture while remaining Jewish. He proposed abandoning the account of the Jewish interaction with Rome, an account long contested by Christianity, and replacing it with the honor accorded Judaism by Greece, specifically the Hellenistic empire. Key to that enterprise was emphasizing the role in Jewish history of Alexander the Great, Ptolemy Philadelphus and even Gaius Caligula (a Hellenistic monarch by virtue of the fact that he reigned before the destruction of the Second Temple and the advent of the Roman empire).

This purpose accounts for much that is puzzling about Me'or `Enayim. It explains why the book focuses upon Hellenistic history in general and upon the sources Aristeas, Philo and Josephus in particular. It explains why Roman history is either dismissed, in the case of Livy, or discounted, in the case of the Rabbinic midrashim accounting for the death of Titus by a divinely dispatched gnat. It explains why the work is comprised of three parts, for political identity is composed of a past, a present and a future.

Most of all, I believe, my approach explains how both strains of current scholarship - the historians and the apologists - are right, but only in part. It is true that de' Rossi is interested in what actually happened: he takes the time to establish the Hellenistic respect for Jews, their priests and their Temple. And it is true that de' Rossi is eager to discard Rabbinic midrashim dressed up as history that can be debunked: for de' Rossi, Rabbinic midrashim are vital as ethical lessons, lessons of hope. But de' Rossi's interest in history is selective, and not simply because as a religious Jew he is incapable of removing God as a causal agent. De' Rossi privileges Hellenistic history over Roman history because while the latter is useless to Jews of his age, the former is revitalizing.

De' Rossi's Me'or `Enayim is about the usefulness of history - namely, history in support of identity. In that, it is fruitful to think of Me'or `Enayim not simply as a Renaissance work of humanism or of a Counter-Reformation work of apology. It is also, and perhaps primarily, a Jewish work in the spirit of the Protestant Reformation's rearticulation of the religious past.

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