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The Scandal of Kabbalah: Leon Modena, Jewish Mysticism, Early Modern Venice, by Yaacob Dweck

Reviewed by Gareth Medway

After Spain and Portugal expelled the Jews, north Italy, and in particular Venice, became a major centre for Judaism. Among the prominent Venetian rabbis of this period was Leon Modena (1571-1648), who wrote an autobiography at a time when that was an unusual thing to do, so that a great deal is known about him. This book is not so much about his life, however, as a biography of his best-known work, Ari Nohem, ‘A Roaring Lion’.

This was dedicated to his leading student, Joseph Hamiz, and intended “as a cure for Hamiz’s kabbalistic tendencies.” It was, accordingly, an attack upon the Kabbalah, the mystical system which dominated Judaic thought in the late mediaeval and early modern eras.

Like most critics of Kabbalah, before and since, he concentrated upon the question of the authorship of the Zohar, by far the best-known kabbalistic treatise. The Zohar purports to be the work of Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai and his disciples in the early second century.

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