[Conference Paper] Recycling the Troubadours in Hebrew: Todros Abulafia, Hebrew Troubadour at the Court of Alfonso X

In a previous post I discussed two poems of Todros Abulafia in the context of the troubadour poetry of his day. This post is the text of an academic conference paper that grew out of the previous post on Abulafia. I presented this paper at this year’s meeting of the Mid-America Medieval Association (MAMA) in Kansas City, Missouri (26 Feb 2011). Your comments are welcome. You can also view this paper as a slidecast (slides + audio) in .mov format.

MLA Citation format: Wacks, David A. Recycling the Troubadours in Hebrew: Todros Abulafia, Hebrew Troubadour at the Court of Alfonso X. 35th Annual Meeting of the Mid-America Medieval Association (MAMA). University of Missouri, Kansas City. 26 February 2011. Conference paper.

Many of you know a lot about trouabadour poetry – in fact most of you probably know a lot more about it than I will ever know. But I’ll bet that fewer of you are familiar with the activities of the troubadours in Spain, and even fewer with the Hebrew poets of Spain, and that is where I would like to take you today, to the crossroads of medieval Hebrew and troubadour poetry, in Toledo, Spain, in the late thirteenth century. The Hebrew poet in question is named Todros ben Meir Halevi Abulafia. We’ll call him Abulafia. He was a notable of the Jewish community of Toledo, which at the time was a very well established community boasting a centuries long history. During Muslim rule, Jewish courtiers had served the Muslim rulers of Tulaytula, and after the Christian conquest, under Christian monarchs as well.

Abulafia was active at the court Alfonso the tenth of Castile, known as ‘the Learned,’ who reigned from 1252-1284.  During Alfonso’s reign there were several court Jews who served as financiers, outfitters, tax farmers, and the like. He himself served Alfonso as a tax farmer and was a sort of notorious man about town, womanizer, and partier who did not hesitate to report on, and probably embellish, his exploits in his poetry. Aside from his choice of language, what sets Abulafia apart from his counterparts writing in Provencal and Galician-Portuguese is Todros’ status as a member of a diasporic religious minority. As such, he is oriented toward two symbolic centers: the biblical homeland of Zion, or Palestine, and the ancestral hostland of Sefarad, the Hebrew word for the Iberian Peninsula.  This dual orientation is helpful in understanding why he writes in Hebrew, and how he adapts contemporary poetic practice into his verse.

In al-Andalus, which is the Arabic word for the Iberian Peninsula, the Jewish elites participated quite fully in secular intellectual culture. They received classical Arabic educations, mastered the works of the Arab poets, and wrote treatises on philosophy, the sciences, even Jewish exegesis, in classical Arabic. They were on equal footing with their Muslim and Christian peers in the official language of the dominant culture, a language that boasted a very prestigious poetic tradition spanning centuries and drawing on the brightest minds of the Muslim world, which at the time reached from The Atlantic in the West to the Indus River in the East.

The ideology that underpinned Jewish participation in the dominant poetic culture of Islam was the Quranic doctrine of dhimma, or protected religious minorities. Under Islam, Jews and Christians were guaranteed the right to practice their religions, provided they paid the jizya, or poll tax, and complied with certain social and economic restrictions. Like any other doctrine, it was applied variously and was in no way a blanket guarantee of the well-being of every Jew or every Christian in a Muslim kingdom, but it did provide a robust juridical framework for the treatment of Jews and Christians in al-Andalus, and justified their participation in all aspects of public life excepting Islamic scholarship and leadership.

In the sphere of literature this meant that Jewish writers in al-Andalus were active at court in the dominant language of the court. This included poetry, and Jewish poets were regularly included in medieval anthologies of Andalusi poetry.This is the diasporic moment in al-Andalus, when Sephardic poets begin to adapt Arabic poetic practice in Hebrew, and invent a diasporic poetics with a double orientation:  the symbolic homeland Zion gave them their words, drawn directly from the Hebrew Bible. Their hostland al-Andalus gave them another layer of poetics, and they drew freely and effortlessly from the Andalusi repertory of imagery, rhetorical figures, metrics, and poetic practice. The result was a thickly intertextual, intercultural poetic corpus. For Jewish audiences, Andalusi Hebrew poetry resonated with both the synagogue and the court.

This is the poetic tradition that Abulafia inherited. However, he lived in Christian Iberia and worked at the court of a Christian monarch. Under Christianity, the situation was different. Unlike their Andalusi grandparents, Sephardic Jews under Christian kings were not typically familiar with the classical language of the dominant culture. In the 13th century, even in the face of the vernacular revolution taking place at the court where Abulafia worked, Latin was the prestige classical language, the language of the Church and of most intellectual activity in Western Christendom. Sephardic Jews were not a part of this activity.

In the context of Christian government, the Andalusi literary legacy of Sephardic Jews was foreign. Prestigious, perhaps, but ultimately foreign to the great majority of Christian elites, who valued Arabic learning but were most likely to consume it in Latin or Castilian translations. The diasporic moment had changed, and the cultural terms of engagement needed to be renegotiated.At this very moment of renegotiation, a new Romance vernacular poetic practice is emergent in Castile. Just as Sephardic poets are no longer practitioners of the dominant intellectual tradition, they are becoming practitioners of the emergent poetic tradition, by virtue of their romance-language nativity. While to us this may seem like a boon, to them it was a conundrum. Before Abulafia’s time, Andalusi Jewish were both connoisseurs and producers of Arabic poetry. Nonetheless, when writing in Hebrew they sometimes made a show of denigrating Arabic tradition, in an effort to exalt Hebrew.

In the Andalusi context this bluster was mostly a rhetorical trope that authors deployed as a kind of accessus in introductions to works Hebrew poetry and prose. Though motivated by a kind of linguistic proto-nationalism, it was ultimately the kind of good-natured brinksmanship one might read in medieval debate poetry of any tradition. But in Christian Iberia, this exaltation of Hebrew poetics took on a new urgency, now that Sephardic intellectuals were estranged from the dominant intellectual tradition. It may well have been sour grapes: in Toledo, for example, between the Christian conquest of 1085 and the beginning of the reign of Alfonso X in 1252, there was no thriving poetic scene in which a Jewish poet might participate. By the late thirteenth century, Poetic production in Arabic outside of Granada and Valencia had virtually ceased, and Sephardic poets had not, for whatever reason, taken to composing courtly poetry in the vernacular.

Even Abulafia, whom his Jewish peers considered a notorious assimilationist and who did not hesitate to socialize, and fraternize, with Christians, he did not, as far as we know, compose in the vernacular. For him it is not really an option to adopt the poetic language of the moment. Perhaps the vernacular had not yet achieved enough prestige  or historical weight for Jewish poets to adopt it wholeheartedly. It may be that Jewish poets, as a diasporic minority, felt insecure about adopting the dominant poetic language because they had no history of participating in Latin intellectual life. Perhaps the admonishments of their grandparents’ generation kept them away. In any event, it was not happening.

Abulafia’s renegotiation of the Sephardic diasporic poetics was going to be different. And, while he did not compose in the vernacular he did participate in vernacular poetics. By this I mean that he expressed his orientation toward hostland poetics by adapting the themes, habits of expression, and poetic ideologies of his peers who composed in the Romance vernaculars. As we will see, Todros creates a new poetic voice that grows naturally from both the Andalusi Hebrew and vernacular troubadour traditions of courtly love. Some of this innovation is original and probably unrelated to what was going on in vernacular troudabour poetry. Todros was very creative in his use of the stock imagery and poetic strategies of Andalusi Hebrew tradtion. But in some cases it is very clear that he is in some ways, a Hebrew troubadour.

This should come as no surprise, as Alfonso’s court was an important center of troubadour poetry. Some of the poets that served at his court include Bonifaci Calvo, Arnaut Catalan, Guiraut Riquer, Peire Cardenal, Cerverí de Girona, and Airas Nunes (Alvar 1977; O’Callaghan 1993: 144). Alfonso regularly employed troubadours as a sort of propaganda corps. Galician-Portuguese troubadours regularly promoted Alfonso’s various political projects on the peninsula, while those writing in Provencal publicized designs on the Holy Roman Imperial throne (Beltrán 2006: 155-56).

On a more formal and specific level, Abulafia adapted some of the same generic conventions used by the troubadours. The Spanish hebraist Ángel Sáenz-Badillos (1996) has demonstrated that some of Abulafia’s invective poetry is structurally and thematically very similar to the tensós and sirventeses of the troubadours among whom he moved at court. The one critic to thoroughly tackle the question of Todros’ involvement with vernacular poetics is Aviva Doron, who in 1989 published a Hebrew language monograph titled A Poet in the King’s Court (Incidentally, in the entire WorldCat system, only a single copy of Doron’s book is available, from Karl Ebershard University in Germany).

Doron deals with a few different aspects of Abulafia’s work, focusing mainly on his poems dedicated to Alfonso and his love poetry. Her main points of reference are Carlos Alvar’s books on troubadouresque poetry in Spain. She makes some interesting points about Abulafia’s take on courtly love, but I would like to build on her observations today and go into more specific detail about how Abulafia’s poetry is in dialogue with the troubadouresque discourse of courtly love. His adaptation of the conventions of fin’amors is where he is at his most innovative, and where he least resembles his predecessors in Hebrew poetry.

Two of his poems in particular, numbers 714 and 715 in the authoritative 1932 Hebrew edition of David Yellin express a number of aspects of courtly love unique to troubadouresque fin’amor and absent from Andalusi Hebrew tradition. In order to better make my point, I choose examples almost exclusively from Provencal and Galician-Portuguese troubadours who also wrote at Alfonso’s court and who may well have known Todros and perhaps even written and recited alongside (or in competition) with him. I have selected a series of quotes expressing commonplaces of troubadouresque fin’amor, or courtly love. In each case, Abulafia follows the lead of the troubadours very closely, and in the final example, as we will see, he takes it to the next level.

In this first example, Bonifacio Calvo, an Italian who wrote in Provencal, performs a standard heresy of courtly love in which he imagines God himself falling in love with his beloved:

Que si plagues amar a dieu / Dompna del mon, avinen plai / Auri’ en leis, que chausid ai (‘if it pleased God to love a woman of the world, he would have a pleasant delight in her whom I have chosen’) (ed. Horan 1960: 34, no. 5, vv. 30-32; trans. Horan 1960: 36)

Abulafias’s heresy is a bit more complex. He imagines a cult of his beloved complete with holidays and a Temple:

My soul celebrates her as a holiday! See how, for her sake my soul sings the name of God! / And so on this holiday I will visit her Temple, and perhaps I will steal a word from her! 
(no. 715, vv. 9-10)

How will I ever choose another, while God himself exalts her? (no. 715, v. 18)

Another commonplace of the fin’amor of the troubadours is the emphasis on the nobility of all aspects of the beloved: her lineage, her conduct, her very soul. Calvo’s example focuses on the conduct of his dompna, or lady:

E·l sieus hontraz chapteners / Es tant genzer dels gensors (‘her honored conduct is so much more noble than the noblest’) (ed. Horan 1960: 24, no. 1, vv. 36-37, trans. Horan 1960: 25)

Abulafia’s example contrasts his indiscrete younger self with his more mature self who realizes the values of nobility in a beloved. Borrows a phrase from the Song of Songs to describe the beloved as an army bearing a standard. It is common in Andalusi Hebrew poetry to describe the beloved using martial imagery, and here Abulafia gives it a courtly twist that is probably reminiscent of the banners used in knightly tournaments. The second example describes three aspects of his lady’s nobility: lineage, and soul:

[When I was young and foolish] I did not distinguish between commoner and high born, or even the daughter of a nobleman, terrible with banners (Song 6:4) (no. 714, v. 4)

I fell in love with a real damsel, an honorable girl, with a noble soul (no. 714, v. 7)

One of the characteristics of the courtly lover is refined, eloquent, morally correct speech. All three of our poets describe this in their ladies:

Pero García Burgalés:

Qual dona Deus fez melhor parecer
e que fezo de quantas outras son
falar melhor, e en melhor razon
(Jensen 1992: 308, no. 45, cantiga 1, vv. 1-3)

‘the lady whom God gave greater beauty,
and whom he endowed with more eloquent and judicious speech, than all the other ladies in the world
(trans. Jensen 1992: 309, no. 45,  cantiga 1, vv. 1-3)

Bonifacio Calvo:

Sos senz e sas granz lauzors (ed. Horan 1960: 25, vv. 36-37)
(‘for her noble speech, [and] her intelligence’) (trans. Horan 1960: 25)

In Abulafia’s case, his lady’s speech is so pure that it motivates and upflits:

“her speech raises up the fallen” (no. 714, v. 20)

Particular to troubadouresque fin’amor is the idea that spiritual love is enough to sustain the lover, who might even prefer to desire the mere idea or memory of his beloved, or perhaps to simply see her or hear her voice, without the possibility of physical union. In this example, Peire Cardenal, writing in Provencal, declares that he actually prefers desire over physical love:

voil ades mais desirar
Que tener ma dona e baisar
‘I still prefer to desire [her]
than to hold my lady and kiss [her]’
(ed. Lavaud 1957: 24, no. 5, vv. 2-3)

Que, ja plazer no-m fezés
Eu fora sos homs adès
‘Though she never grant me pleasure,
I should still be her man forever!’
(ed. Lavaud 1957: 16, no. 3, vv. 12-13)

Abulafia likewise is happy (or happily miserable) to pine away without actually touching his lady, and espouses (at least in this verse) a purely spiritual, hands-off kind of love:

I shall not think ever to touch her
even though I spend my life sobbing over her
(ed. Yellin no. 714, v. 15)

I have no desire to have her, to delight in her body,
only to delight in her soul
(no. 714, v. 21)

In these final texts, I’d like to show you an example of how Abulafia sometimes takes fin’amor to the next level. In this case, he elaborates and builds upon a courtly love trope found in one poem of Pero García Burgalés: that of the skeptic converted, the naysayer who scoffs at the poet’s dedication and suffering, but who, when faced with the irresistible beauty and nobility of the lady in question, finds himself equally if not more enthralled. In this cantiga, Burgalés imagines what would happen to the skeptic if he should be so lucky to catch a glimpse of the poet’s lady:

Ca ben sei eu, u outra ren non á,
que tal esforç’ averá qual eu ei
quando a vejo, que per ren non sei
que lhi dizer: e el assi fará!
Se per ventura lhi dizer quiser
algũa ren, ali u estever
ant’ ela, todo lh’ escaecerá!
(ed. Jensen 1992: 308, cantiga 1, vv. 22-28)

For I know for certain, that, where nobody else is  present,
he will have the same courage I do,
when I see her, for I do not in any way know
what to say to her then: and the same thing will happen to him!
If, by chance, he wanted to tell her
something, as soon as he finds himself
in her presence, everything will slip from his mind!
(trans. Jensen 1992: 309, cantiga 1, vv. 22-28)

In this poem of Abulafia it seems as if he is responding directly to Burgalés, elaborating and dramatizing an entire scene, complete with dialogue, using Burgalés’ verses as an outline. The poet and the skeptic are in the middle of a heated exchange over the futility of the poet’s unrequited love, when the lady herself happens by, trailing with her a cloud of perfume, and illuminating the dark night with her radiance. As you can see, the skeptic is completely won over, and his exuberance exceeds even that of the poet himself in these final verses. I’ll let Abulafia speak for himself here….

When he saw her, even as he spoke ill of her,
His soul began to enter into her light…
Suddenly, his soul was bound to hers
And his heart was locked in the heart of her prison
And even the splendor of her cheek, in its radiance, prevented
his pupils from looking upon her brilliance
The I fell upon my face, and my soul
was like a woman in her first childbirth who fears the pain
And I would have died, had he not
Reminded me of her, and I woke up thinking of her,
When he said: “What is with you, sleeper? (Jonah 1:6) Look:    There goes ‘that certain lady,’ Arise! Behold her beauty!
I give praise and confess to your beloved hind,
I am her ransom and her sacrifice!
Truly, it is enough for the man who loves her
to see her or to hear her words!
It is doctrine for every nobleman to make his life
a treadstone for her, and to lick the dust from her foot!
To suffer completely for her love,
for truly then God shall multiply her reward!
I shall set my heart to serve my love for her for ever
Never shall I ask for her to set me free!
As long as the sun rises in the East, or
As long as the birds sing of her!”

Conclusions

  1. I think that these examples speak for themselves quite well, and from them I believe we can take away three conclusions:
  2. Neither Abulafia’s religion nor his choice of poetic language prevented him from participating in vernacular poetic practice, even if Abulafia was not composing in the vernacular.
  3. While much of Abulafia’s divergence from Andalusi poetic conventions were idiosyncratic, in some poems, his discourse of courtly love bear clear influence of contemporary troubadours who worked at the court with him.

For a diasporic writer working between a diasporic classical tradition and an emergent vernacular tradition, the question of influences is not a zero sum game. This is typical of any case of cultural production where an artist is drawing on more than one linguistic or religious tradition. The Sephardic case is distinct only in the specifics, but there is nothing structurally unique about Abulafias position as a diasporic poet.

While far from exhaustive, I believe the examples we have seen today are sufficient to demonstrate Abulafia’s participation in the troubadour poetics of his day in Alfonso’s court. He has moments of unadulterated fin’amor (pun intended) cast in Hebrew, giving expression to a vernacular love aesthetic in a classical language that is unknown to his peers composing in the vernacular. His is a uniquely diasporic poetics in which the voices of troubadours, Andalusi poets and Biblical prophets echo back and forth in time, and across the mediterranean.


Bibliography

  • Abulafia, Todros Ha-Levi ben Yehudah. The Garden of Parables and Saws, A Collection of Poems [Hebrew]. Jerusalem, 1932.
  • Alvar, Carlos. La poesía trovadoresca en España y Portugal. Madrid: Editorial Planeta; Real Academia de Buenas Letras, 1977.
  • Alvar, Carlos, and Vicente Beltrán, eds. Antología de la poesía gallego-portuguesa. Madrid: Alhambra, 1985.
  • Beltran, Vicenç. “Trovadores en la corte de Alfonso X.” Alcanate: Revista de estudios Alfonsíes 5 (2006): 163-190.
  • Calvo, Bonifacio. The poems of Bonifacio Calvo a critical edition. Ed. and Trans. Robert Horan. The Hague: Mouton, 1966.
  • Cardenal, Peire. Poésies complètes du troubadour Peire Cardenal (1180-1278). Ed. René Lavaud. Toulouse: É. Privat, 1957.
  • Doron, Aviva. A Poet in the King’s Court: Todros Halevi Abulafia, Hebrew Poetry in Christian Spain [Hebrew]. Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1989.
  • Jensen, Frede. Medieval Galician-Portuguese Poetry: An Anthology. New York: Garland, 1992.
  • O’Callaghan, Joseph F. The Learned King: The Reign of Alfonso X of Castile. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.
  • Sáenz-Badillos, Ángel. “Hebrew Invective Poetry: The Debate Between Todros Abulafia and Phinehas Halevi.” Prooftexts 16 (1996): 49-73.

The Pen versus the Sword: What a difference a diaspora makes

The debate over the relative roles of military force and political rhetoric in governance is very, very old. And while the familiar dictum “the pen is mightier than the sword” may now be received wisdom, for hundreds of years it was a site of contention. In Spain during the 12th-14th centuries, authors wrote version after version of the literary debate between the pen and the sword in Arabic and Hebrew.

Students of European literatures are familiar with later debates on the subject of arms and letters. The Arms vs. Letters debate was well-covered territory during the Renaissance and on into Modernity. Baldassare Castiglione includes one in the first part of of The Book of the Courtier (1528), and Miguel de Cervantes has Don Quijote argue vigorously for the superiority of arms over letters in the first part of Don Quixote (ch. 38).

The relative merits of the sword and the pen were frequent subjects of Classical Arab poets during the Umayyad and Abbasid periods, but it was not until the 11th century in Spain when the Pen and Sword come forward to speak for themselves as protagonists in a literary debate. Ahmad ibn Burd the Younger wrote the first such debate as part of a panegyric (a poem written in praise of an individual) dedicated to King Mujahid al-Muwaffaq of Denia around the year 1040.

Ibn Burd, a Muslim writing for a king (who as a monarch would probably identify with the sword to some degree, even if he were a bookish kind of king), came to a safe conclusion: the Pen and the Sword are both worthy instruments, and both occupy an honored place at court. In his version, the two instruments trade barbs but eventually work out a downright Utopian love-fest of an ending in which each recognizes the value of the other’s contributions:

What a beautiful mantle we don, and what excellent sandals! How straight the path we walk and how pure the spring from which we drink! A friendship, the train of whose garment we let drag [i.e. ‘in which we luxuriate’] and a fellowship whose fruits we pick and whose wine we taste. We have left the regions of sin a wasteland and its workmanship in ruins, we have wiped out every trace of hatred and returned sleep to the eyelids!

At the end of the 12th or beginning of the 13th century, the Sephardic writer Judah al-Harizi adapted Ibn Burd’s debate in chapter 40 of Tahkemoni, a collection of rhyming prose narratives. Al-Harizi wrote in Hebrew for a Jewish patron who, unlike Ibn Burd’s patron King Mujahid, was not a military leader and whose relationship to sovereign political power was that of a minority courtier, a member of a diasporic culture. Al-Harizi is writing some 50 years before Todros Abulafia penned his troubadouresque verses at the court of Alfonso X. His prose, like that of all Hebrew authors of his time, is shot through with words, images, and set phrases lifted directly from the Hebrew bible.

Jews in 13th-century Toledo did not fight in wars. They provided financial and logistical support for wars, but they were not marching into battle. So, what does a sword mean to a writer who belongs to a community that does not wage war but that is dependent upon the monarch who does?

It should not, therefore, surprise that Al-Harizi’s debate looks a bit different from that of Ibn Burd. He is writing for an audience that typically does not bear arms themselves and who have suffered violence at the hands of the majority time after time. The massacres of Jews in Granada in 1066, in France and Germany in 1096, and the periodic violence against Jews in Christian Iberia were very real reminders that swords were not just something to write about.

Accordingly, the Pen comes up winner in al-Harizi’s version. This is not surprising – in Latin debates between clerks and knights (written by clerks), the winners were always the clerks. But before ceding the field, the sword reminds the pen:

The king reigns through my power: I shout, his enemies cower, leap, and pull down turret and tower. I am my monarch’s shield against all foes: my fear precedes him where’er he goes. His rivals I efface, their camps erase without a trace. All tremble at my blade’s command, before me who can stand?

The Pen counters the he not only provides right guidance for those in power, but is also the instrument of Divine Will and of religion:

My words bind monarch’s heads with light,
my proverbs, the heart with joy.
I cover the earth with the mantle of Law
and no evil stains that cloak;
Through me, God hewed the Tables Two
at Sinai for His folk.

Al-Harizi’s narrator is won over by the pen, who he describes with sword-like attributes:

When I had heard this well-honed story, this sharp-edged allegory, I inscribed his words on my heart with iron pen, that never they might part.

Al-Harizi here reworks Ibn Burd’s debate in a diasporic key. The Jewish community, a class of administrators, financiers, scholars, and merchants, lives by the pen, yet sometimes dies by the sword despite a (usually) privileged relationship to sovereign political power.

Jacob Ben Elazar, writing in Toledo some years after al-Harizi, takes this diasporic interpretation of the debate a step further. His debate is more than a competition for superiority, it is a moral manifesto for a time of intellectual and religious decadence.  His pen not only wins the debate, it serves as the moral compass for what Ben Elazar describes as a “generation of fools.”

The debate begins like the others, with each instrument bad-mouthing the other and pointing up their respective weaknesses and faults. The sword calls the pen weak, empty, and inconsequential, while describing himself as the “glory of kings.” The pen tells the sword to “get back into your sheath and calm down,” reminding him that he is abusive and unjust, he spills innocent blood and undermines justice. He holds that he has power that far transcends the temporal powers of the sword. The pen, he explains, can form reality, teach history, morals, and law:

My mouth (i.e. the split opening of my quill where the ink flows) will cause you to know what has happened in the past, the history of princes, kings, and priests who came before us, to the point that you will feel you have been friends with every one of them. Its mouth will speak to your mouth and will inform you about their justice and loyalty, their perversity and their sins. From my mouth you will learn doctrine and wisdom and it will teach you mysteries and deep knowledge.

Moses ben Maimon aka Maimonides aka The Rambam

But then the pen changes the rules of the game. He explains that what is at issue is not whether the pen is better than the sword, but whether humans can live righteously according to God’s law. Both pen and sword are mere instruments, and that neither intelligence nor might are of lasting value. He then launches into a sort of Aristotelian sermon on the unity of God dense will allusions to Sephardic scholarship and worthy of Maimonides, the Spanish-born Rabbi and physician who changed Jewish life forever by continuing the work of Ibn Rushd (Averroes) in reconciling Jewish religion and Greek philosophy:

The principles of all the unities are Eight,
but only of he in whom there is no plurality
you may proclaim that he is truly One, and is the only true God,
who is a refuge since times gone by;
He is not found in any place, only in the thoughts
of the wise man and in the forge of Reason….

Here Ben Elazar is weighing in on a philosophical debate that was causing a serious political rift in the Jewish communities of Castile in the mid-13th century: the Maimonidean Controversy. This debate divided Jewish communities in Spain and Southern France into two camps: those who favored a Judaism that could adapt to the advances in science and philosophy made possible by the translations of Aristotle’s works into Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin (Maimonideans), and those who preferred a more traditional interpretation of Jewish law that shunned any reconciliation with Greek philosphy (Traditionalists).

Creationism, Evolution, or Lunch?

In broad strokes, this is a debate that should be familiar to those of us living in the US (and other countries) in the 21st century. Many communities are simliarly torn today by debates between believers of Creationism and Evolution, and more generally between various bands of Fundamentalists and Rationalists.

Ben Elazar continues to expound on the unity of God, and his insistence in following this line makes me think that he is circling back to yet another meaning of the Pen versus the Sword, one particularly suited to a diasporic Jewish audience living under Christian rule:

The Almighty truly must be called One
you cannot divide him into pieces, nor can you join him
all of him is that is called One
is indivisible once it is united.
The One that cannot be divided remains
eternally, but the unity that is created, perishes.

Why, in the context of a debate between Pen and Sword, this insistence on God’s essential unity? It doesn’t seem to make sense for either of the interpretations we have so far discussed. The question of God’s unity seems irrelevant to the traditional interpretation by which the Pen represents letters and the Sword arms. Even when the Pen represents Maimonideans (science) and the Sword traditionalists (fundamentalism), it doesn’t add up: neither side is advocating for a plural God.

It is almost as if Ben Elazar here is suggesting a third interpretation: the Pen is the diasporic Jewish community, and the Sword Christian sovereignty, a double-edged sword (pun intended) that presents both a theological threat in the form of the Trinity (the division of God into parts), and a political threat in the form of the ever-present possibility of violence, perhaps violence in the name of same Trinity.

Bibliography

Photo credits:

This post was made possible with the support of the Oregon Humanities Center, where I am currently Ernest G. Moll Faculty Fellow in Literary Studies. It grows out of my current book project, Double Diaspora in Sephardic Literature 1200-1600.

“Great book, but is it really Spanish?”

 

 

 

 

Read the related article published in Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies [Open Access postprint version]

Popular audiences in Jewish communities across the world are practically addicted to  images of Spanish Jewry’s “Golden Age.” The idea of a Jewish community that was rich, powerful, and intellectually talented has been pretty compelling to the modern Jewish imagination. That whole expulsion/inquisition thing at the end kind of messes things up, but we’ll leave that aside for the time being. As far as most modern Jews are concerned, Spain was the best keg party ever, and like most great keg parties, it got ugly at the end.

The point here is that for the most part, world Jewry is happy to claim the Sephardim as a shining example of Jewish cultural achievement. This was not really ever in question as long as I have been paying attention. But working as a Hispanist and reading a lot of studies by Spanish scholars on Spanish Jewish (Sephardic) topics, I began to wonder if Spain was also eager to claim the Sephardim as Spanish. One way to find out is to read what literary historians have to say about Jewish authors who lived and wrote in Spain.

In two recent posts I wrote about the medieval Sephardic poet Todros Abulafia (late 1200s) and some of his modern critics’ opinions of Abulafia’s troubadour-flavored poetry. In this post I would like to discuss a related case, that of the Sephardic author Shem Tov (‘Santob’) ben Isaac Ardutiel of Carrión (mid 1300s). Like Todros Abulafia, most Jewish authors at this time wrote almost exclusively in Hebrew. Many Jewish intellectuals translated works from Arabic and occasionally Hebrew into Spanish, Catalan, or Portuguese, but when they did their own work it was almost exclusively in Hebrew. As far as we know, Shem Tov Ardutiel is the only Jew of his time to write an original book in the vernacular, the Proverbios Morales (‘Moral Proverbs’).

The book is a collection of wise sayings in verse, an original work of what scholars like to call ‘wisdom literature,’ which during the Middle Ages was a well-cultivated genre. Medieval writers had good models for their books of wisdom literature in the Biblical Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, as well as Greek and Latin collections of philosophical musings, proverbs, aphorisms, and exemplary tales. Shem Tov’s Proverbios was an original, innovative work that incorporated a variety of sources from the bible, rabbinical literature, and folklore. It was not, however, in any way a Jewish text. That is, it did not cite either the Hebrew Bible or the Rabbis, and did not present any specifically Jewish lessons. It was basically a secular book of wisdom or popular philosophy, written in Castilian, the dialect that would eventually come to be called Spanish.

Without going into the question of why medieval Jews didn’t write original work in Spanish (though I write about it a little bit in here on pages 183-185), I would rather like to look at what Shem Tov’s Spanish readers had to say about this rare bird of a book, and whether they considered it (and him) to be, like them, Spanish.

A little caveat: in the 1300s, there was, strictly speaking, no ‘Spain.’ The idea of Spain as a nation state comes later, some say with the reign of the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, some say even later. So to refer to any author writing in Toledo or Barcelona or Seville in 1300 as ‘Spanish’ is a convenient anachronism. Shem Tov was a subject of the Crown of Castile and León, and he probably considered himself to be sefardí, or a Jew from the Iberian Peninsula, but he had no notion of Spain as a modern nation state and could not have considered himself Spanish in that sense. My question is, do his Spanish readers consider him Spanish?

A while back I wrote an article titled “Is Spanish Hebrew literature ‘Spanish?’” in which I looked at what Spanish scholars of Hebrew had to say about the Hebrew literature written in Spain during the Middle Ages. Did they consider it to be part of their national heritage? Did they view the Jewish authors who wrote in Spain as part of their nation’s medieval past or where they part of a foreign culture that happened to live in Spain?

Like most questions, the answer depends on whom you ask. Shem Tov himself seems to have anticipated this problem, and in the introduction to his work he asked his readers not to judge his work by the religion of its author. He says that even if his book was written by a Jew, it’s still worthwhile. Can you imagine an American Jewish author writing these lines today?

Non val el açor menos por nasçer de mal nido,
nin los enxemplos buenos por los dezir judío

The falcon is not worth less for having been born in a poor nest
nor the good proverbs for having been told by a Jew

Íñigo López de Mendoza, Marqués de Santillana

So it seems Shem Tov imagined that Christian readers might think poorly of his work because of his religion. His fears were not always realized. Early on, Spanish literati praised the Proverbios. One of the most influential figures in the Spanish literary scene in the 1400s, the Marquis of Santillana, called Shem Tov a ‘very great troubadour poet’ (“muy grant trobador”).

In modern times, Shem Tov’s readers are divided on the question of the “Jewishness” or “Spanishness” of both the man and his book. As in the case of Todros Abulafia’s Israeli critics, a lot of this division is tied to contemporary politics and professional formation.

José Rodríguez de Castro, wrote during the late 1700s, when the Spanish Inquistion was still officially on the books (it was abolished in 1834). Like Santillana, he praises Shem Tov’s poetry, calling him ‘one of the most famous troubadour poets of his time’ (“uno de los Trobadores más célebres de su tiempo”).  However, he also thought that Shem Tov was a converso, or a Jew converted to Christianity. It may not have been a good idea in Rodríguez de Castro’s day to celebrate a Jew as a great national poet.

José Amador de los Ríos was a liberal 19th-century scholar who wrote the first major Spanish-language treatise on Spanish Jewry. He makes it clear that Shem Tov is a national poet, in fact ‘the most accurate interpreter of the general feeling of the Castilians’ of his time’ (“el más fiel intérprete del sentimiento general de los castellanos”)

Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo

On the other side of the aisle, the rather more conservative Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo, perhaps the most influential intellectual of his time, exoticizes Shem Tov and places him outside of the national culture. Far outside:

[His work] has an oriental flavor so distinct, both in its language and its imagery, that at times it seems to have been written originally in Hebrew and later translated by its author into Castilian. . . . it is difficult to believe that this book, so profoundly Semitic, so denuded of all classical and Christian influences, might have been created in the Campos region of Castile.

tiene un color oriental tan marcado, así en la lengua como en las imágenes, que á ratos parece escrita originalmente en hebreo y traducida luego por su autor al castellano….cuesta trabajo creer que este libro, tan profundamente semítico, tan desnudo de toda influencia clásica y cristiana, haya nacido en tierra de Campos.

Under Franco, this orientalizing of Shem Tov becomes the norm. In 1943 Juan Hurtado y Jiménez de la Serna writes of Shem Tov’s ‘oriental-flavored exotic character’ (“carácter exótico de sabor oriental”), and Juan Luis Alborg (writing in 1970 in the US but publishing in Spain) says that Shem Tov’s style is ‘unique to Hebrew literature’ (“peculiar de la literatura hebrea”), and, it follows, out of place in Spanish literature.

Américo Castro

In exile from Franco’s Spain, Américo Castro, whose controversial theory of convivencia (Spain’s essential Semitic and Christian hybridity) continues to divide scholars of Spanish culture, combines both approaches. For him, Shem Tov is a Semitic and therefore authentically Spanish author. On the one hand, the folksy tone of his Proverbios is ‘Sancho Panza-like’ (“sancho-pancezco”) (1948); On the other, he writes that Shem Tov is a writer who ‘gazes steadily toward the East, and not toward Christian Europe’ (“sigue sigue mirando hacia el Oriente, y no a la Europa cristiana”) (1952).

The debate over Shem Tov’s “Spanishness” or “Jewishness” is just one small piece of the much larger discussion of the role of Spain’s Semitic cultural history. For those outside of Spain, it is a simple matter to celebrate the accomplishments of Spain’s Jews (maybe too simple at times). But for Spaniards themselves, it’s complicated. There is a lot of history, much of it unpleasant, surrounding Spain’s Jews.

For hundreds of years, Spanish identity was not simply about being Catholic, but about not being Jewish or Muslim (think about pork everywhere all the time). From 1478 to 1834 there was a government agency (the Spanish Inquisition) whose only job was to enforce this identity. And despite various experiments in religious freedom during the late 1800s and early 1900s, Spain did not disestablish official Catholicism until 1978. Given this history, it is logical that there would be some ambivalence in embracing Sephardic culture as part of the national heritage.

Nowadays, some thirty years after Franco, things have changed a great deal. In 1992, King Juan Carlos officially welcomed the Sephardic Jews to apply for fast-track citizenship along with Latin Americans, Filipinos, and other ex-colonials (but not Muslims descended from those expelled from Spain). There has been a bit of a Renaissance of Jewish life in Spain, and the numbers of Jewish immigrants to Spain from North Africa and elsewhere have been bolstered by a slow stream of Catholic Spaniards who have converted to Judaism.

The Jewish ‘question’ in Spain continues to be lived and debated, and part of this process is an ongoing rethinking of the role of Spain’s Jews in the story of Spain’s history. Shem Tov’s Proverbios is not widely read by Spaniards today. He does not generally show up in high school literature classes, and there are no popular editions of the Proverbios for sale in bus-stop kiosks. His book  may never gain wide appeal, but it will be interesting to see if and how Spanish readers return to him and to other Iberian Jewish and Muslim authors as they continue to rethink their nation’s cultural heritage.

Bibliography:

  • Alborg, Juan Luis. Historia de la literatura española. Madrid: Editorial Gredos, 1970.
  • Amador de los Rios, José. Historia crítica de la literatura española. Madrid: J. Rodríguez, 1861.
  • Ardutiel, Shem Tov ben Isaac. Provberbios morales. Ed. Paloma Díaz Mas and Carlos Mota. Madrid: Cátedra, 1998.
  • —.  The moral proverbs of Santob de Carrión: Jewish wisdom in Christian Spain. Trans. T. Anthony Perry. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987.
  • Castro, Américo. España en su historia  cristianos, moros y judíos. Buenos Aires: Editorial Losada, 1948.
  • —. “Un aspecto del pensar Hispano-judío.” Hispania 35.2 (1952): 161-172.
  • Hurtado y Jiménez de la Serna, Juan. Historia de la literatura española. Madrid: Tip. de la “Revista e arch., bibl. y museos”, 1921.
  • López de Mendoza, Iñigo (Marqués de Santillana). Obras completas. Ed. Ángel Gómez Moreno & Maximiliaan Paul Adrian Maria Kerkhof. Madrid: Fundación José Antonio de Castro, 2002.
  • Menéndez y Pelayo, Marcelino. Estudios de crítica literaria. Madrid: Sucesores de Rivadeneyra, 1893.
  • Rodríguez de Castro, José. Biblioteca española. Madrid: Imprenta Real de la Gazeta, 1781.

This post was made possible with the support of the Oregon Humanities Center, where I am currently Ernest G. Moll Faculty Fellow in Literary Studies. It grows out of my current book project, Double Diaspora in Sephardic Literature 1200-1600.