Bonfil, Robert

views updated


BONFIL, ROBERT (1937– ), historian of the Jews of medieval, Renaissance, and early modern Italy. Bonfil was born in Greece and ordained at the Collegio Rabbinico Italiano. He received the Laurea in Physics at the University of Turin (1960) and served as assistant to the chief rabbi of Milan (1959–62) and then as acting chief rabbi of Milan (1962–1968). In 1968 he immigrated to Israel, receiving his Ph.D. in Jewish history from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1976. He obtained full-time appointment at the Hebrew University in 1980, becoming full professor in 1990 and retiring in 2005. He was coeditor of the periodical Italia (1976–92) and sole editor from 1992. He was a member of numerous editorial boards and served as a visiting professor at leading institutions in Italy, France, and the United States.

Bonfil's scholarship is characterized by a thorough acquaintance with Classical Graeco-Roman literature, the Patristic and Medieval Christian tradition, European and especially Renaissance and Baroque Italian history, literature and philosophy, and the classical Jewish legal, philosophical, mystical, and historical texts, to which he applies the latest methodologies in historical and literary criticism.

Commencing with his article, "The Historian's Perception of the Jews in the Italian Renaissance: Towards a Reappraisal" (rej, 143 (1984), 59–82), Bonfil pioneered the now increasingly accepted rejection of the view, based on Jacob Burckhardt's approach to the Renaissance, that the Jews assimilated and were harmoniously integrated into Italian society during the Renaissance. Rather, he pointed out, Christian Italian society did not break with the traditional hostile Catholic approach to the Jews, who continued to be restricted by legislation enacted by the secular authorities in accordance with the theology of the Catholic Church. Additionally, as he further argued, especially in his Jewish Life in Renaissance Italy, rather than thinking primarily in terms of the influence of the surroundings on the Jews and their conscious borrowing and assimilation, instead one should posit an acceptance of the surroundings as representing the natural unself-conscious way of doing things, realizing that the Jews maintained their identity because they considered the essence of Judaism to lie not in a cultural differentiation from Christianity but rather in a religious differentiation, so only those patterns of thought that were considered to be specific organic characteristics of Christianity had to be rejected.

Other publications include Rabbis and Jewish Communities in Renaissance Italy (1990) and Tra due mondi: cultura ebraica e cultura cristiana nel Medioevo (1996).


H. Tirosh-Samuelson, "Jewish Culture in Renaissance Italy: A Methodological Survey," in: Italia, 9 (1990), 63–96; D. Ruderman, "The Cultural Significance of the Ghetto in Jewish History," in: D.N. Myers and W, Rowe (eds.), From Ghetto to Emancipation (1997), 1–16.

[Benjamin Ravid (2nd ed.)]