People Of The Book:
Classic Works Of The Jewish Tradition
By Dr. Henry Abramson
An unlikely literary duel in Venice took an unexpected turn in 1621 with the appearance of a slim volume titled “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 30 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.
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 counterattack.
Sulam’s manifesto did not break new ground philosophically, but it stands alone as a 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.Â
Henry Abramson is a specialist in Jewish history and thought, serving as dean at the Avenue J campus of Touro College. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.