Paradiso 7 begins with Justinian’s prayer in a divine mixture of Hebrew and Latin, preserved by Mandelbaum untranslated because indeed untranslatable:
Osanna, sanctus Deus sabaòth, superillustrans claritate tua felices ignes horum malacòth. (Par. 7.1-3)
In discussing the monstrous language used by Plutus at the beginning of Inferno 7, I alluded to the instability caused by the melding of Dante’s committed and muscular Christianity with his pre-humanism: while Dante is praising Aristotle and Vergil and using the Bible, he is simultaneously making Plutus’ degraded language out of Hebrew and Greek, based on the rudimentary knowledge of these languages that he obtained from medieval glossaries.
In Paradiso 7, Justinian’s celestial language is similarly concocted, from Hebrew and Latin. Clearly, there is a certain amount of cognitive dissonance in Dante’s thinking about the makers of these languages.
I need here to record the development of my own thinking on Dante’s treatment of Jews in the Commedia. In the Introduction to Dante and the Origins of Italian Literary Culture (2006), I wrote that Dante’s poem is certainly not without “historical stain” and elaborated as follows on the work of Sylvia Tomasch on Jews in the Commedia:
For a painful demonstration of a deep stain, we need only read Sylvia Tomasch’s discussion of “Judecca, Dante’s Satan, and the Dis-placed Jew.” Tomasch’s use of the The Undivine Comedy in her essay exemplifies what that book is most fundamentally about: I was trying to create a framework of readerly resistance that would allow us to get beyond the Commedia’s masterful self-presentation, and it was deeply gratifying to me—as someone who has not written on the ethnic communities of the Commedia (in the case of the Jews an absent community, since, as Tomasch writes, “the whole of the Commedia does not include even one postbiblical Jew”)—to learn from another scholar who used that programmatic resistance to go in directions that I certainly did not explicitly foresee. (Dante and the Origins, p. 9)
Later, in my 2011 essay “Dante’s Sympathy for the Other or the Non-Stereotyping Imagination,” I was struck by Dante’s non-stereotyping of Jews as usurers, so common in the Europe of his day, and modified my view somewhat:
In ethnic terms as well, I believe we can see Dante pushing at the normative boundaries of inclusion and exclusion. In Dante and the Origins of Italian Literary Culture, I wrote that Dante was not “immune from the blind spots of his time nor his poem without historical stain” (p. 9): as an example, I cited Sylvia Tomasch’s essay on the “erasure” of Jews, who “never appear as Jews anywhere in the Divine Comedy”. While there are remarks in the Commedia that I would classify as anti-Jewish (I am thinking in particular of the acceptance of the deicide charge in Paradiso 7), I am no longer convinced by Tomasch’s argument that the absence of Jews from the Commedia is itself a negative. Once I had viewed the virulent visual evidence on Jews (coming it is true from Germany, England, and France) laid out in Debra Strickland’s Saracens, Demons, and Jews: Making Monsters in the Medieval Art, I decided that in this case exclusion is a good thing. In a context in which visual representations of hell were full of contemporary Jews, depicted with the visual stereotypes that serves as markers for Jews (hooked noses, Phrygian caps, and moneybags) (figs. 9-11), the absence of any contemporary Jews in Dante’s hell may again indicate the non-stereotyping nature of his imaginative processes. Maybe this is why the prominent Jewish writer and scholar, Immanuel ben Solomon, contemporary of Dante, (c. 1270-c. 1330), so admired Dante that he wrote a Hebrew imitation of Inferno and Paradiso. (“Dante’s Sympathy for the Other,” pp. 185-86)
I do not now disagree with what I wrote in “Dante’s Sympathy for the Other”: Dante’s avoidance of Jews among his usurers in hell is indeed singular and noteworthy. However, we have arrived at Paradiso 7, which includes the charge of deicide leveled against the Jews. While I could legitimately place that charge in a parenthesis in a treatment focused on usury—“While there are remarks in the Commedia that I would classify as anti-Jewish (I am thinking in particular of the acceptance of the deicide charge in Paradiso 7)”—the charge cannot be treated as parenthetical in this Introduction.
As of this writing, in November 2014, I would say the deicide charge of Paradiso 7 cannot in any way be made parenthetical or marginal to a discussion of Dante’s view of Providential history as he expounds it in Paradiso 5, Paradiso 6, and Paradiso 7. The charge of Paradiso 7 is embedded within a vision of history that Dante—advanced as he is in some respects—cannot shake. At best, perhaps one could infer some lack of complacency from Dante’s need to buttress the “legality” of that vision, dramatized through the choice of Justinian, the codifier of law, as presenter of the concept of the “vendetta . . . / de la vendetta del peccato antico” (Par. 6.92-93).
Paradiso 7 recounts a very different kind of history from the previous canto, though linked both substantively and rhetorically by the crucifixion of Christ as a punishment for mankind’s original transgression. The link to Paradiso 6 is stated by Beatrice in Paradiso 7.20-21:
Secondo mio infallibile avviso, come giusta vendetta giustamente punita fosse, t’ha in pensier miso (Par. 7.19-21)
According to my never-erring judgment, the question that perplexes you is how just vengeance can deserve just punishment
Let me note in passing, to remind us of Dante’s capacities for radical distance from cultural norms in this canto where he accepts the worst of cultural normativity, that the use of the word “infallible” in the above terzina for female speech is stunning, given the long and documented tradition of female speech as the special focus and target of misogyny. Beatrice’s “secondo mio infallibile avviso” constitutes the Commedia’s only use of “infallibile” for human speech of any sort, male or female. (See Dante and the Origins of Italian Literary Culture, p. 368.)
The question that perplexes the pilgrim is: How can a just punishment be justly punished? In other words, if it was just to kill Christ, how can it have been just to punish the Jews for killing Christ?
The answer requires a somber and poetically very beautiful Dantean retelling of the fundamental Christian narrative: the story of how Adam sinned and of how Christ died to redeem Adam’s sin. In terms of the polarities of Paradiso that we have been discussing, this canto skews toward the Augustinian rather than toward the Aristotelian. It is not so much a celebration of difference as a theological discussion of the ways in which we became unlike God: the ways in which we entered what Augustine calls the regio dissimilitudinis.
Here is a breakdown of Beatrice’s discourse:
- Paradiso 7.25-33: Adam damned himself by accepting no limits to his will. In the Ulyssean overlay and lexicon that Dante adds to the Adamic myth, Ulysses damned himself through his “folle volo” (Inf. 26.125), and the word “follia” will be used for mankind’s sin in Par. 7.93. In damning himself, Adam damned all his progeny. As a result, mankind lived in great error until it pleased the second person of the Trinity (“the Verb of God”) to descend and to unite to Himself the human nature that had so distanced itself from God. So: God became man in the person of Christ.
- Paradiso 7.34-51: The dual nature of Christ (a discussion prefigured by Justinian’s conversion to belief in Christ’s dual nature; see Paradiso 6.13-21; this in turn is prefigured by Paradiso 2.42, “come nostra natura a Dio s’unìo”) provides the distinction that helps to “resolve” the apparent contradiction of the just punishment that is justly punished. In as much as we are speaking of Christ’s human nature, the punishment of the crucifixion was merited; in as much as we are speaking of Christ’s divine nature, it was not. The result is an action, the killing of Christ, that pleased both God and the Jews—but for different reasons. Paradiso 7.47, “ch’a Dio e a’ Giudei piacque una morte” (God and the Jews were pleased by one same death) is an acceptance of the deicide charge leveled at the Jews and is the most anti-Semitic verse in the Commedia.
- Paradiso 7.52-64: Dante doesn’t understand (and neither do I!) why God willed our redemption to take place in the arduous way that he chose: “perché Dio volesse . . . / a nostra redenzion pur questo modo” (56-57). What follows is the “explanation”.
- Paradiso 7.64-78: On a backdrop of creation theology—verses 64-66 are a medieval description of the Big Bang—Beatrice explains that God created humans directly, without mediation (“sanza mezzo”). Our im-mediate or un-mediated creation by God (similarly, God directly breathes life and soul into the human embryo in Purgatorio 25) is a joyous interlude in the tragic story of the fall that Beatrice is recounting, for that which is created “immediately” by God receives from Him the gifts of eternity, liberty, and conformity:
Ciò che da lei sanza mezzo distilla non ha poi fine, perché non si move la sua imprenta quand’ella sigilla. Ciò che da essa sanza mezzo piove libero è tutto, perché non soggiace a la virtute de le cose nove. (Par. 7.67-72)
All that derives directly from this Goodness is everlasting, since the seal of Goodness impresses an imprint that never alters. Whatever rains from It immediately is fully free, for it is not constrained by any influence of other things.
These exceptionally beautiful lines affirm in solemn cadences that what is made directly by God is immortal—“non ha poi fine” (68)—and free: “libero è tutto” (71). Liberty is the result of not being subject to the power of the heavens—the “new things” of Par. 7.72—as Beatrice affirmed in Paradiso 4, following Marco Lombardo in Purgatorio 16. The verb soggiacere in “non soggiace / a la virtute de le cose nove” (Par. 7.71-72) recalls the paradox of free will and our willing subjection to God as expressed by Marco Lombado: “liberi soggiacete” (Purg. 16.80).
The good news however turns bad. Humans received those gifts but they lost those original gifts as a result of original sin, which caused us to fall from our native nobility.
- Paradiso 7.79-120: Sin is what un-frees humans, makes us dissimilar to God; we will never return to our original dignity unless we fill where sin has emptied. That can be done either by God forgiving us, or by humans on our own paying back the debt (91-93). But we don’t have the means to make reparations on our own, so God has to use his methods to restore mankind “to his full life”: “a sua intera vita” (104). God’s methods are two: the way of mercy and the way of justice. He decides to use both (“di proceder per tutte le sue vie”, verse 110). There is no greater event in all of time (112-113) than when God gives himself in order to raise mankind back up.
- Paradiso 7.121-148: Going back to the theme of creation, Beatrice adds a corollary that clarifies and reinforces mankind’s position as a being created directly by God. Even our bodies are created directly by God; from this fact we can deduce our resurrections.
The strangely “happy” ending to a theologically gloomy canto reminds us of the joyfulness of the linguistic play on “d” in Paradiso 7.10-12, which echo a similar play in Paradiso 5.119-23:
e però, se disii di noi chiarirti, a tuo piacer ti sazia.» Così da un di quelli spirti piidetto mi fu; e da Beatrice: «Dì, dì sicuramente, e credi come a dii.»(Par. 5.119-23)
thus, if you would know us, sate yourself as you may please.” So did one of those pious spirits speak to me. And Beatrice then urged: “Speak, speak confidently; trust them as you trust gods.”
Io dubitava e dicea «Dille, dille!» fra me, «dille», dicea, «a la mia donna che mi diseta con le dolci stille».(Par. 7.10-12)
I was perplexed, and to myself, I said: “Tell her! Tell her! Tell her, the lady who can slake my thirst with her sweet drops.”
The poet’s play on the “d” sound connects the urgency of speech—“Dì, dì / sicuramente” (Par. 5.122-23) and “Dille, dille!” (Par. 7.10)—with the urgency of the desire to know: “se disii / di noi chiarirti” (Par. 5.119-20). In these luminous and playful verses disio is not transgressive. Disio and dire are here joined in a happy delirium of expression and sweetness that seems to belong to a different universe from Adam’s sin.