Renaissance Italy is often characterized as a place of unusual tolerance and privilege toward Jews. Unlike England, France, Germany, Spain, and Portugal, the princely courts of early modern Italy offered economic and social prosperity to Jews. The Italian Rabbinate thus developed very differently than in the surrounding countries, as a result of the more common mingling and interacting with their gentile neighbors. Many world-famous rabbinical authorities who stood on the guard and defending the religion from any breaches were at the same time open to secular studies, fashion, and world literature.
An unpublished manuscript I acquired recently by one of the greatest Italian Rabbis of the 18th century was an exciting find for me. Being a collection of halachic rulings and chiddushim, it was written by Rabbi Yishmael Ha-Kohen, rabbi of Modena. Most famous for his books of responsa, titled Zera Emet, his halachic decisions were sought after from throughout the world, “His rulings were unequivocally accepted and he was famous as a halachic erudite genius and the most significant opinion” (Shevach Pesach, Jerusalem, 1997). He was among those to whom Naphtali Hirsch Wessely appealed in his Divrei Shalom ve-Emet (Berlin, 1782) to defend the introduction of secular studies in Jewish schools. Though formally disassociating himself from the ideology of the maskilim, he did not shy away from writing secular poems. R. Yishmael was among those invited by Napoleon to answer questions put to the Assembly of Jewish Notables which took place in Paris in 1806. His health prevented him from traveling to France, but he did send a detailed response to the questions put forth by Napoleon. Contrary to the response put forth by the rabbis at the assembly, he did not take in to account the response of the local rulers and put forth a forceful and firm approach to dealing with modernity.