Monday, February 19, 2007

Did Elias Levita become a Christian? Also, teaching Torah to non-Jews.

R. Eliyahu Bachur (but known by many names: "R. Eliyahu Ha-medakdek" "R. Eliyahu Ashkenazi" "Elias Levita" "Elia Levita," and today, "Elijah Levita") (1469-1549) was an interesting character. Known chiefly in some circles for authoring the Yiddish Bobe-Buch (which eventually gave birth to the name "Bubbe mayseh" for tall-tale), but in others for his work on Hebrew grammar and the massorah. He was the author of an Aramaic dictionary, a detailed introduction to the massorah called Massores Ha-massorah, served as editor and proofreader in the famed Bomberg press in Venice (much more info).

In addition, he became, for Christian Hebraists the great authority in all matters Hebrew and, particularly, the masorah of the Hebrew Bible.

In a book by Richard Mayo (1631?-1695) called "A conference betwixt a Protestant and a Jevv, or, A second letter from a merchant in London to his correspondent in Amsterdam," London, 1678. A fictional account of a conversation between "Mr B" and "Rabbi J." we find the following:

On what grounds did a 17th century writer say that he became a Christian? Did he, in fact, become a Christian in his seventies? (To say nothing of "bringing some 30 Jews more with him to be baptiz'd, about the year 1547")

I believe the answer is no, that this is but a rumor. The source of the rumor may have come from any combination of two facts. One, better known, that Elias Levita resided with a Catholic Cardinal for ten years, during which time he taught him Hebrew (and the Cardinal in tutored him in Greek). The second is that two of his grandsons became Christians (but both after he died). The Jewish Encyclopedia notes that Vittorio Eliano, a Catholic censor, was his grandson. After he converted, his brother traveled to him with the aim of convincing him to return, but apparently he himself became converted and became a Jesuit called Giovanni Salomo Romano Eliano Baptista. This great guy, along with two other converts, denounced the Talmud as blasphemous to Pope Julius III. I was able to find a reference to him as Levita's grandson in a snippet in a 1722 publication, provided by Google Books: Elias Levita was his Grandfather by the Mother's Side, and took care of his Education. This younger Elias, who went by the Name of Joannes (and that's all Google will give up!)

In short, Elias Levita was a celebrity among Christian scholars. His works were translated into Latin, German and English and were studied in the original Hebrew as well. He had a close working relationship with a Cardinal, was mistrusted because of it by his fellow Jews (more of that below) and two of his grandson's did convert. Perhaps the convergence of all these created the story that he did become a Christian, such that a 17th century writer would mention it in a polemic against Jews, in which a list of Jewish converts was being recounted.

In the rhyming introduction to Massores Ha-massores, Elias Levita discusses his relationship with the Cardinal, that other Jews criticized him for teaching Torah to non-Jews and how he understood the prohibition not to apply to what he was doing. The relevant passages from the Ginsburg edition are reproduced below.

Perhaps of some importance is a particular line in this piece, where he writes the following, in his own defense:

והנה הכלל העולה
הנני מודה בפה מלא
כמודה בפני בית דין חשוב
דבר ולא ישוב
כי מלמד לגוים הייתי
אך דעו כי אפילו הכי
תהלה לאל עברי אנכי
ואת האלהים אנכי ירא
שמים וארץ בורא
וחלילה לי מרשע
וזך אני בלי פשע

and Ginsburg's loose translation

"In conclusion, I fully acknowledge it, as one confesses before a solemn tribunal, and shall not withdraw it, that I have been a teacher to Christians; yea, I have assuredly been; but nevertheless, know that I am a Hebrew, praise the Lord, and revere the Lord, who made heaven and earth; I have not sinned, and am innocent and guiltless."

Is this an acknowledgment and rebuttal of the rumor that he had become a Christian? And also, did Ginsburg translate correctly? Did he meant to say "I am a Hebrew, praise the Lord" or did he say "I pray to a Hebrew God"? And if the latter--is there some room for ambiguity? (If I am not mistaken I may have seen this alternate translation noted in something by Jordan Penkower--or perhaps I remember incorrectly)

But I digress.

(click below to enlarge and read, or see here, pp. 96-101.

--I know my own habits and it's quite possible that I wouldn't take the time to read those five pages if it were suggested to me on someone else's blog--but I highly recommend reading these pages. They are extremely interesting, especially his defense as to why he believed he was not violating halakhah by teaching Torah to non-Jews)

Finally, a sample of his handwriting I found somewhere.

Edit: I have since come across some more relevant sources.

1. Joshua William Brooks writes, in 1841, in his "history of the Hebrew nation: From its first origin to the present time":

"There were however numerous instances of conversion from among the Jews, arising from the attention drawn to the nature of real Christianity by the proceedings of the Reformers. Among the more eminent was Rabbi Elias Levita, commonly called the Grammarian, with thirty of his followers.

2. John Kitto's "Cyclopaedia of Biblical Literature" (1862-66) references "Alsted's strong assertion that he died a Christian, see Wolfii Bibl. Hebr. i. 161, and for Bartolocci's strong regret that he continued in Judaism, see his Bibl. Rabbin. i. 137.

1 comment:

  1. cf



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