Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.
Moses Hayyim Luzzatto (1707-47) was an Italian Kabbalist, poet, and religious thinker. Luzzatto was born in Padua. His father, a wealthy merchant, saw to it that his son received a good traditional Jewish education and a sound grounding in Latin, Italian, and the general culture of his day. In all his writings there is a remarkable blending of the two cultures. He composed, for example, allegorical dramas in the Italian style but in elegant Hebrew and has often been hailed as the father of modern Hebrew literature.
A mystic, who claimed to have received, like Joseph Karo, a heavenly mentor, he attracted around him a group of young enthusiasts with whom he studied the Kabbalah. These followers, and, possibly, Luzzatto himself, believed that he would be the longed-for Messiah.
His activities were viewed with suspicion by the Rabbinic authorities and he was compelled to hide his Kabbalistic writings and to move to Amsterdam, where he earned his living as a diamond-polisher. He journeyed to the land of Israel in 1743 and died there at the early age of 40. His grave can still be seen in Tiberias.
Luzzatto was a prolific author, compiling works on theology, the Kabbalah, and Talmudic methodology. His Kabbalistic works are in the rationalistic vein in which the Kabbalistic concepts are demythologized, to some extent at least.
Luzzatto’s major work is the Mesillat Yesharim (Path of the Upright). In this work Luzzatto provides a step-by-step account of how the ladder of saintliness is to be scaled until the devotee attains to the holy spirit.
Luzzatto was held in the highest esteem by both the Hasidim and the Mitnaggedim. The Path of the Upright became one of the most popular works of Jewish devotional literature, especially among the adherents of the Musar movement.
Luzzatto states in the introduction to the Path of the Upright that his aim is to demonstrate that saintliness is a science that can only be appreciated by the learned.