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The Compunctious Poet: Cultural Ambiguity and Hebrew Poetry in Muslim Spain.

The appearance of secular Hebrew poetry in tenth-century al-Andalus began a tradition that lasted five centuries on the Iberian peninsula. Nor did this tradition end with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, for already in the twelfth century Andalusian Hebrew poetry put out a branch in Italy that would flourish into an Italian school of Hebrew poets. The stimulation of contact with Arabic culture produced not only the original burst of Hebrew literary creativity, generally known as the Hebrew Golden Age (tenth to twelfth centuries), but also a poetic tradition in Iberia that endured until 1492 and a line of secular Hebrew poetry that survived in Italy until the threshold of modern times. Its effect on Hebrew religious poetry was profound and even longer lasting, eventually affecting Hebrew poetry throughout the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East until quite recently.

But the introduction of Arabic rhythms, themes, and poetic taste into Hebrew did not occur without misgivings within the Jewish community. The propriety of the use of Hebrew for secular love poetry, and the propriety of love poetry in general were challenged in various quarters. The participation of Jews in secular entertainments and the celebration of such entertainments in Hebrew verse were also felt to be religiously problematic from the very beginning of the Golden Age, as evidenced by the often quoted poem of Dunash Ibn Labrat. The use of Hebrew as the language of secular madih and hija troubled even such a master poet as Moses Ibn Ezra, whose Arabic treatise on Hebrew poetry reflects a certain unease with Arabizing Hebrew poetry of the type that he himself cultivated with such success. And Maimonides' objections to secular poetry are well known.

Besides having their own specifically Jewish reasons for doubting the propriety of secular Hebrew poetry, the Hebrew poets inherited some doubts from Islam, for even the host culture from which they had learned about secular poetry harbored misgivings about its religious legitimacy.

The purpose of the present volume is to explore the ambivalent attitudes of Andalusian Hebrew poets of the Golden Age toward their poetry. The problem is defined as being to uncover "how the typology of the 'compunctious poet' functions in different literary cultures," i.e., within Islam and Judaism. There is an introduction sketching the historical and literary background and character of the Hebrew Golden Age and a chapter explaining the issues that aroused the compunctions of the poets. The body of the book consists of four chapters devoted to five poets: three mainstream Golden Age poets and two later poets, designated "epigones."

Before examining the book's argument more closely, it should be said at the outset that it is an extremely valuable work. Its subject, medieval Hebrew poetry, is all but inaccessible to readers who do not know Hebrew. This situation is lamentable for medievalists and is especially unfortunate for Arabists, who would find in Andalusian Hebrew poetry a reflection of Andalusian Arabic poetry that might provide insight into the Arabic model. Though not designed as a textbook, Brann's book could almost be used as such because it covers so many aspects of the field so thoroughly and accurately. The notes, extensive and up-to-date, provide a valuable guide to anyone interested in following up the large number of topics touched upon in the course of the discussion. Another virtue of the book is that it makes frequent reference to literary studies of Christian Europe and draws on literary techniques developed outside the sphere of Semitic philology. It is thus one of the few really literary studies in any language on any aspect of Medieval Hebrew literature. Unlike most treatments of Andalusian Hebrew poetry it does not stop with the Golden Age but takes into consideration the badly neglected poets of Christian Spain and in an afterword even touches on Hebrew poetry in Italy. Finally, the book has considerable intrinsic value for its exploration of its own many-faceted theme: the "compunctious poet."

This term has been coined by Brann as a handy way of referring to the inhibitions about poetry reflected in the works and careers of the Hebrew poets of al-Andalus. Examined closely, these inhibitions turn out to be of several different kinds, which are neatly exemplified by the three chapters devoted to major Golden Age poets. Samuel the Nagid appeals in his poetry to biblical archetypes to justify a public career unprecedented for a Jew in a Muslim environment. Moses Ibn Ezra's book about poetry, the Kitab al-muhadara wa 'l-mudhakara, seeks to define for poetry a role that will defend it against philosophical and moral objections. And Judah Halevi's vacillations about giving up poetry as well as his critique of poetry in his Kitab al-hujja wa 'l-dalil (the Kuzari) and in his treatise on metrics reflect the objections to poetry raised by pietism. Of the two later poets, Shemtov Falaqera's objections are similar in nature to, though more extreme than, those raised by Moses Ibn Ezra, while Todros Abulafia manipulates the convention of criticizing poetry, turning it into a rhetorical device.

Samuel the Nagid's problem and his approach to its solution are, as far as I know, peculiarly Jewish, but the issues raised by Moses Ibn Ezra and Judah Halevi are paralleled in the Islamic world. The Muslim writers who raised these objections, some of them poets and some theologians, are mentioned and studies of them are duly cited in the text and notes.

To these Islamic parallels to the case of Halevi, another particularly apposite one from al-Andalus may be added, the wonderful story of Bakkar the Marwanid told by al-Maqqari (Nafh al-tib, ed. Abbas, III: 334-40). Bakkar (b. 440/1048-49), an old poet turned ascetic, is visited by a younger poet who asks him to recite his verse. The old man has given up such unbecoming activities, but invites the younger man to recite his own poetry. At first embarrassed at the thought of exposing the pious Bakkar to his mujun verse, at length the visitor does recite some lines to the great delight of the ascetic. Although the latter never agrees to recite his own youthful poems, he genuinely enjoys the young man's performance, and urges him to repeat his visit. But when the young poet returns, he is distressed to learn that Bakkar, tormented by regrets over his lapse, has abandoned his family and gone on jihad, and, given his age, to certain death, as an atonement. The story, narrated in the voice of the young poet, provides a vivid and psychologically realistic version of the theme of the repentant poet which we ordinarily encounter only in schematic form.

To have the hesitations and compunctions of five great Hebrew poets exposed in one volume is a valuable contribution to the study of the intellectual orientation of their age; but the exact nature of the compunctions is not identical in the cases of each of the five poets. Thus, Samuel the Nagid (Ibn Naghrala)'s quest for biblical models seems to be intended more to justify his career than to justify his poetry. Though to be sure these are inextricably bound up with each other, all but one of the passages in his poetry containing an explicit apologia deal with his career and way of life. The one passage that might seem to be intended to justify his poetry is the often quoted line:

They ask: "Should you extol the Lord on high?"

I say, "The David of my age am I!"

But in context the line appears to be rather a defense against the view that a Jewish courtier and warrior who spends his life in service to Muslim princes has no right to play the pietist and compose poetry praising God; again the career, not the verse are in the center of the argument.

There is a methodological problem in lumping these five poets together that will have eventually to be addressed. Ever since the seminal essay by Joseph Weiss, Tarbut hasranit veshira hasranit (1952), and especially since the appearance of Gerson D. Cohen's Sefer Ha-Qabbalah: The Book of Tradition by Abraham Ibn Daud (1967), everyone who has written about the Andalusian Hebrew poets has applied to them the model of the courtier-rabbi. Yet when we look closely we find that, of the poets whose works and lives are known, only the Nagid actually was a courtier rabbi. To review the poets treated in this book: Ibn Gabirol apparently wrote under patronage of various Jewish courtiers; Moses Ibn Ezra lost whatever public position he had on the arrival of the Almoravids; Judah Halevi apparently lived from medicine and various business affairs; Todros enjoyed the patronage of Jewish courtiers, and Falaqera's life is unknown. Their outlook may have been shaped by the class of courtier rabbis, but they were different individuals with different kinds of careers. They had much in common intellectually, but also many differences. Now that the large picture of their world is fairly well known, it may be time to examine these differences and to give more attention to their individuality.

But these thoughts are not meant to detract from the value of Brann's book. By examining a theme that recurs in the works of several poets, Brann provides a starting point for thinking about the variations within the large model of the Golden Age poet. Brann has shown that compunctions are part of the career of the Andalusian Hebrew poet and he has exposed some of the forms in which these compunctions appear. In doing so he has performed a service for all who are concerned with the intersection of Arabic and Jewish culture in al-Andalus.
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Author:Scheindlin, Raymond P.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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