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Overview: Science, Philosophy, and Literature

For the most part, early modern Jews had limited access to the great ferment in science, thought, and letters in European life in this period. As it was for the rest of the European world as well, access was in any case limited to a small elite of men (and a few women). But the barriers were particularly rigid for Jews. Even Jews who had the necessary leisure, linguistic skills, and desire to participate in the path-breaking intellectual achievements of the age faced insurmountable social and institutional barriers. Jews were mostly barred from studying (much less teaching) at universities. (The medical schools at Padua and Perugia were notable exceptions, and by the seventeenth century Jews were also studying medicine at the universities of Leiden and Frankfurt on the Oder.) Many of the important breakthroughs in early modern science and philosophy occurred outside the university at courts of monarchs and aristocrats, and at newly created scientific societies, to which Jews had limited access. But the intellectual circles and scientific societies in which they took place were also mostly closed to Jews.

Moreover, the world of traditional Jewish learning had long been ambivalent about the “alien sciences” – that is, disciplines of learning that were not rooted in Torah study. Medical knowledge and astronomy were somewhat exceptional. Medical knowledge had been valued by Jews at least since the early rabbinic period, and medicine was a prominent occupation of medieval Jews throughout the diaspora. In medieval Spain, Jewish astronomers were highly valued in court circles.

Still, it is very difficult to make generalizations about attitudes toward the natural sciences among early modern Jews. Two scholars who have studied the subject, David Ruderman and Noah Ephron, are in agreement that among the elite who took an interest, three cultural types should be distinguished- 1) converso physicians and intellectuals trained at Spanish and Portuguese universities (not very adventurous places, it should be acknowledged), many of whom left the Iberian Peninsula and brought their scientific learning to Jewish communities elsewhere in Europe; 2) small circles of Jewish scholars in central and eastern Europe (primarily Prague and Cracow) who informally pursued scientific studies, particularly in astronomy; and 3) the hundreds of Jews who attended medical school in this period, primarily at the University of Padua. Those among the first type include Amatus Lusitanus (1511-1642), Elijah Montalto, Abraham Zacut (Zacutus Lusitanus, 1575-1642), and Rodrigo de Castro. Among the central and eastern European Jews who engaged in scientific studies were Moses Isserles (1525-1572) of Cracow, whose astronomical studies were an outgrowth of his Talmudic interests, and David Gans, of Prague, who was acquainted with Tycho Brahe. Among the Jewish graduates of the medical school at the University of Padua were Tobias Cohen, Isaac Lampronti, and Joseph Delmedigo. It is relatively easy to catalog such figures, and thus to demonstrate that science was not ignored by early modern Jews. But much remains to be understood about the nature of the scientific thinking of such men, particularly its relationship to theology.

Historically, speculative philosophy has been much more problematic in Jewish societies. It is true that many educated Jews in the medieval Muslim and Spanish Christian worlds became deeply immersed in Neoplatonic or Aristotelian philosophy, and some of them developed a philosophical framework for original Jewish theological thought. Indeed, philosophy became an integral part of Spanish-Jewish courtier culture. But in the thirteenth century the study of philosophy was sharply challenged by pietists in Spain and Provence, and it continued to be regarded as a threat to Jewish piety by some Jewish leaders up to, and beyond, the Expulsion. Nevertheless, educated Spanish exiles carried philosophical habits with them wherever they settled. One of the exiles was Judah Abarbanel, a university-trained physician and son of the exegete Isaac Abarbanel, who composed a neoplatonic dialogue titled Dialoghi d’amore (Rome 1535) that became well-known in Italian intellectual circles. By this time Jews in Italy, somewhat independently, had absorbed philosophical currents from Italian Renaissance thinkers, with Christian Hebraism supplying one of the conduits. Among the major adepts of philosophy in Italy were Elijah Delmedigo and Johanan Alemanno, both of whom were associated with Pico della Mirandola. In the Ashkenazic world, however, philosophy had little impact on “high” Jewish culture until the Haskalah of the late eighteenth century.

An interest in the vernacular literature of the majority society (particularly poetry) was also an aspect of Sephardi and Italian Jews in the early modern period. Italian Jews appropriated the sonnet, and developed it as a genre of Hebrew verse. The wealthy Sara Coppio Sullam (ca. 1592-1641), among the Italian Jews who wrote sonnets, stands alone as a female member of the early modern Jewish cultural elite. The brothers Jacob and Immanuel Frances turned their considerable talents to polemical use in their poems satirizing the sabbatean movement. Many others of lesser talent wrote occasional poetry, both sacred and profane, and sometimes quite profane. But the impact of European belles lettres was most profoundly felt among the ex-conversos who left the Iberian Peninsula and settled in Jewish communities. The poets and litterateurs of these communities, who wrote primarily in Spanish, drew inspiration from Golden Age Spanish poets like Góngora and Quevedo. Outstanding among them are João Pinto Delgado, Daniel Levi de Barrios, and Solomon Oliveyra. Libraries of ex-conversos contain some of the classics of Golden Age literature, and in Amsterdam, the Portuguese Jews put on theatrical productions of works by Lope de Vega and Calderón.

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