Samuel David Luzzatto (Shadal)

Though religiously observant, this Bible commentator was not averse to textual criticism.

Samuel David Luzzatto (1800-65) was an Italian historian, theologian, and biblical exegete, known, after the initial letters of his Hebrew name, as Shadal. Shadal was one of the pioneers of the Judische Wissenschaft movement, contributing many studies in Jewish history to learned periodicals and producing a critical edition of the Italian Prayer Book.

An opponent of the Kabbalah, he wrote a critique of this mystical lore in which he argued against the traditional ascription of the Zohar to the second-century teacher, Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai.

Shadal was also critical of Maimonides’ attempt to interpret Judaism in the light of Aristotelian philosophy, which he dubbed Atticism. He was particularly severe on Maimonides’ espousal of the Greek golden mean. The disciples of Abraham are required to go to extremes in generosity, he argued.

In 1829 Shadal was appointed Principal of the Rabbinic College in Padua where he influenced more than one generation of Italian Rabbis.

Although Shadal’s work on the Bible is not uncritical, he was not averse to textual criticism, for example, he believed that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch and that the whole of the book of Isaiah was the work of the prophet whose name it bears.

He believed that to deny that a prophet can foretell events that would take place long after his time was to deny prophecy altogether. He was not bothered by the command to exterminate the Canaanites, including the little children, since it was God’s will, and God does sometimes allow the death of little children.

In Shadal’s understanding of divine providence, each human being is given an

equal degree of happiness and frustration, which should all be accepted in faith and trust.

In his personal life, Shadal was an observant Jew but with reservations regarding some of the details of observance as laid down in the Rabbinic tradition. Shadal’s religious philosophy has had virtually no influence on Jewish life and thought but his scholarly works are still acknowledged to be of much value.

Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

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