Sarra Copia Sulem’s Manifesto

Sarra Copia Sulam’s Manifesto

People of the Book: Great Works of the Jewish Tradition

Dr. Henry Abramson

This article appeared in the February 17, 2016 edition of the Five Towns Jewish Times. 

An unlikely literary duel in Venice took an unexpected turn in 1621 with the appearance of a slim volume entitled “The Manifesto of Sarra Copia Sulam the Jewess, Who Therein Refutes and Reproves Signor Baldassare Bonifacio’s False Accusation that She Denies the Immortality of the Soul.” In concise, even blunt language, the young socialite took arms against a Catholic priest and philosopher who had written a direct attack on her religious beliefs under the title “On the Immortality of the Soul: A Discourse by Baldassare Bonifaccio for Signora Sarra Copia.” This was no mere pamphlet:  charging a Jew with nonbelief in a central article of faith could draw the unwanted attention of the Inquisition, with deadly results. Bonifaccio, however, had no idea who he was dealing with. Young Sarra’s direct and unequivocal response was the first example of a Jewish woman defending her faith in print in early modern Europe.

The roots of the confrontation went back several years, when Sulam began a correspondence with the respected Genoese author Ansaldo Ceba. Deeply impressed with his epic poem on the life of Queen Esther, Sulam gushed that she even slept with the poem on her pillow, such that it might be the first thing she sees upon waking. Ceba, some thirty years her senior and now retired to a monastery, was flattered by her exuberant praise, and resolved to persuade her to convert to Christianity. In a flurry of letters that extended over several years, Ceba directed every literary device to this goal, without success. In a final act of attempted proselytism months before his death, he published all his letters to Sulam in a single volume. Her letters, unfortunately, were not included.

Awareness of Ceba’s pet project to convert this perspicacious young Jewess was well known in Venetian literary circles, motivating a Priest (later Bishop) Baldassare Bonifacio to force her baptism through more aggressive means, thinking that his public attack on her personal Judaism might pressure her to accept Christianity. When news of the publication reached Sulam, she wrote her impassioned defense in two short days and rushed it into print before Bonifacio’s broadside could have any impact: the narrative shifted from Sulam’s intransigence to her brilliant “smack-down” of a meddling interloper. Brilliantly, she dedicated the Manifesto to her late father, pointedly asking Bonifacio how she could do so if she truly believed that the soul of her father was no more? She had no compunction against defending herself with an aggressive counter-attack.

Sulam’s Manifesto did not break new ground philosophically, but it stands alone as an unique statement of a Jewish woman’s voice in early 17th century Venice. Taking advantage of the relatively new technology of printing, Sarra Copia Sulam fearlessly defended her faith from senior Church officials, leaving her mark in Jewish literary history.


People of the Book: The Ways of the Righteous

“When I speak, I regret what I say, but when I am silent, I do not regret. And if I may regret my silence once, I regret speaking many times over.”

—Gate 21: The Gate of Silence,
The Ways of the Righteous

Is it possible that The Ways of the Righteous, among the most influential works of Jewish ethics written over the past millennium, was secretly authored by a woman? Proponents of this controversial view advance three principal points to bolster their argument. First, the text was published anonymously. It was not unknown for authors in the mussar tradition to refrain from claiming authorship. It is also sadly true, even today, that women authors seeking publication are forced to hide their gender with a pseudonym, a single initial for their given name, or even pose behind a living male to have their work circulated. The 15th-century appearance of a deeply learned text like The Ways of the Righteous would certainly have aroused suspicion, even notoriety, with a woman’s name on the title page. Second, the text was first published in Yiddish, the vernacular of Eastern European Jewry, but Hebrew was common language of higher learning. Yiddish was known in some circles as der vayber sprach, the “women’s language,” because female literacy was usually limited to this Hebraized version of Middle High German. Third, and most tantalizingly, internal literary evidence reveals frequent use of domestic metaphors and similes. The author often makes reference to cooking, cleaning, and other home-based work that would have been readily grasped by homemakers. Thus if it were true that a woman authored Orchot Tzaddikim, then she would certainly represent the most learned woman since ancient times.

Tempting as this theory is, the arguments rest on relatively weak foundations. Much more likely is the probability that the author was a conventionally educated man with passing familiarity with domestic chores. Research into the several manuscript versions currently housed in the libraries of Oxford, Hamburg, and Budapest suggests strongly that the original version was written in Hebrew, and then translated into Yiddish for a broader, female audience of readers. The mystery surrounding the author, however, should not distract us from the fact that The Ways of the Righteous is a brilliant exposition of Jewish ethics, demonstrating a profound understanding of human psychology and infused with an abiding message of hope for self-improvement.

The book is divided into 28 “gates,” each of which is dedicated to a particular character trait. Versions of the text circulated in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries under the title The Book of Character Traits (Sefer HaMiddot). For each character trait, the author describes both the positive and negative aspects of this particular moral quality, and suggests development of the beneficial and avoidance of the deleterious factors. The influence of Maimonides’ Hilchot Dei’ot is prominent, although an analysis of the author’s source base reveals an exceptionally broad familiarity with the scope of rabbinic writings through the medieval period.

The Ways of the Righteous insists repeatedly that there is no such thing as a bad character trait, only a misdirected character strength. Misunderstood attributes like hatred, cruelty, worry, anger, jealousy, falsehood, flattery, and gossip are treated extensively. Similarly, the text also discusses many positive traits that can be misused, including humility, mercy, alacrity, and repentance. My personal favorites include the remarkably original chapter on silence, and I often turn to the chapter deceptively named “The Gate of Joy” for its moving discussion of faith (bitachon).

The Ways of the Righteous retains evergreen popularity in mussar-oriented yeshivos, especially the Chofetz Chaim movement. It has been adapted into a three-volume children’s book, and a new four-volume translation with commentary was recently completed by my Miami-based colleague, Rabbi Avrohom Yachnes.

This column originally appeared in the Five Towns Jewish Times on Thursday, January 21, 2016.

Who Was Babatha? Jewish Biography as History Dr. Henry Abramson

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Rolling her precious documents and carefully wrapping them in a leather pouch tied with twine, Babatha buried her entire legal history in the floor of the cave she shared with Bar Kochba’s rebels. They would remain entombed in that desolate refuge for 1800 years until their discovery by archaeologist Yigael Yadin, and then the life of an otherwise forgotten 2nd-century woman suddenly came to light: her marriages, custody battles for her son, property disputes, and much more. The Babatha archive constitutes an amazing source of information for the history of Jewish women in ancient Israel.


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