How a 16th-Century Italian Earthquake Led a Jew to the Renaissance

April 4, 2019 | Henry Abramson
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In 1570, a severe earthquake struck the city of Ferrara; among the survivors was a learned Jew named Azariah de’ Rossi, who thereafter began composing controversial, but widely read, works on Judaism and Jewish history. Henry Abramson describes the disaster’s impact on de’ Rossi’s thinking, and argues that his ideas adumbrated what would now be considered “Modern Orthodoxy.”

Narrowly escaping the collapse of his home, [de’ Rossi] and his family sought refuge with other survivors, Jews and Christians alike, in open fields and even aboard boats on the Po River. His encounter with Christian scholars in the aftermath of the earthquake convinced him to write a religious book, inspired by the earthquake, that described the majesty of God’s universe. [T]itled The Voice of God, [it] was a religious-scientific exploration of the nature and purpose of earthquakes. He surveyed the extant knowledge of the phenomenon from a wide variety of non-Jewish sources, folding it into detailed discussions of rabbinic and biblical passages in a sometimes disjointed and lumpy whole.

[Soon thereafter he began work on his] 700-page magnum opus, titled Light of the Eyes, which caused an intellectually seismic event whose aftershocks would reverberate for the next 500 years. De’ Rossi was broadly inclusive of all wisdoms, regardless of their source. Elements of this orientation are evident in isolated works of Jewish physicians such as Maimonides, but de’ Rossi was much more radical, consulting controversial Jewish thinkers like Philo and Christian ones like Augustine of Hippo.

A child of the burgeoning rationalist humanism of the 16th century, he saw the nondenominational advancement of human wisdom as a garden of intellectual delights, open to visitors of all persuasions and welcoming whatever beneficial seeds might be planted there. Many [devout Jews] would toil in that garden over the next five centuries, but Azariah de’ Rossi was arguably the first to seed the landscape.

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