Sephardic Literature after Las Navas de Tolosa: The Romance Turn in Jacob ben Elazar’s “Sahar and Kima”

This is the paper that I would have given today at the 47th International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalmazoo, Michigan, if the ticket from Eugene to Kalamazoo did not cost $900. Special thanks go to Prof Erik Ekman of Oklahoma State for organizing the panel “1212 Remembered: The Eight Hundreth Anniversary of Las Navas de Tolosa,” and for allowing me to lurk electronically via Skype from my office in Eugene. Thanks also to my co-panelists, Professor Barbara Boloix-Gallardo of Washington University and Prof. Jonathan Ray of Georgetown University. Feedback and comments are welcome via email.

 The Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, as all of you know, is the cliché turning point of the balance of political power on the Iberian Peninsula between Christian and Muslim kingdoms. For Muslim political power, it was the beginning of the end, for Christians it was, or came to be understood retrospectively, as the point after which the total elimination of Muslim political power seemed imminent or at least possible. I’ll leave to the historians in the room the small detail that Granada continued to be a sovereign, if eventually tributary kingdom for some two hundred fifty years after Las Navas, and the even more problematic detail that Islam continued to be practiced in parts of Castile-Leon and Aragon for a full four hundred years after Las Navas.

But I am not going to speak about the battle itself, or even of the political context or related historical issues. Instead, I would like to use the literary production of Iberian Jews as a kind of lens through which to examine the cultural impact of the transition between Muslim and Christian rule in Castile, paying specific attention to how one Castilian writer of prose fiction in Hebrew bridged the Andalusi and Christian periods. The text in question, a collection of Hebrew tales by a man named Jacob ben Elazar, dates from the same decade as Las Navas de Tolosa, and is a bellweather for how Jewish literary culture reacted to regime change in Castile.

Ben Elazar’s Book of Tales (Sefer Ha-meshalim in Hebrew) is a collection of 10 short pieces of narrative.[1] In Ben Elazar’s tale “Sahar and Kima,” the author demonstrates his relationship to the literary culture of the dominant Christian society while simultaneously reflecting the Andalusi Hebrew literary tradition. In his manipulation of the literary conventions of the Hebrew maqama (rhyming prose narrative) he carves out new literary space to give voice to the concerns of a community in transition between Arabic-dominant and Romance-dominant host cultures.[2]

Ben Elazar is writing precisely when Castilian is still very much emergent as a literary language, when Gonzalo de Berceo —often named in literary histories as the first author to write in literary Castilian—writes his works of mester de clerecía (religious narrative poetry), and a full generation or two before the massive vernacularization project of Alfonso X.

In the context of Christian Castile, some of these new examples were bound to come from the literary practice of the Christian majority, notably the Romance-language poetry and prose that was written and read in the courts of Christian monarchs and nobles. Just as the Hebrew poets of the Jewish communities of al-Andalus succeeded in adapting Arabic poetics and literary mores for a Hebrew-speaking audience, Sephardic writers living in Christian Iberia drew on the literature of the Christian majority for inspiration. In the example we are about to explain, Ben Elazar’s adaptation of courtly romance is a diasporic literary strategy that draws both on the authority of Andalusi Hebrew literature and on the examples of the emergent Romance-language styles, including French chivalric romances, and troubadour poetry that were popular in Castile during the thirteenth century.

It is not particularly shocking in itself that a Sephardic writer would be imitating styles popular at court where he or his benefactor might have served. This was very much the case with Jewish writers in al-Andalus, who famously adapted Arabic poetics in their Hebrew verse over the course of the tenth to the twelfth centuries. In this case, however, Ben Elazar’s discourse of courtly love (for lack of a better term) appears some years before writers working in Castilian begin to bring over the world of the French Tristan, Arthur, and Lancelot into their own language. Ben Elazar’s Sahar and Kima is a very early example —perhaps the first example— of an authoctonous Iberian writer adapting Arthurian courtly discourse in an original composition.

Apart from scattered references to Arthurian material mentioned by trouabours during the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, the first Iberian narratives that bear significant Arthurian influence were those included in the Alfonsine histories, and these did not emerge until the mid- to late-thirteenth century, followed shortly thereafter by the book of Cavallero Cífar at the turn of the fourteenth. This means that Ben Elazar’s tale of Sahar and Kima would be one of the first Iberian texts to bear influence of chivalric courtly mores, some three quarters of a century before the first Castilian-language example. Reading Ben Elazar’s Hebrew text in the Romance language context gives us more data points to bring to our consideration of the development of Chivalric Romance in Spain. He introduces elements of the courtly attitudes and behaviors (as well as the physical surroundings and props) of the world of chivalric romance while substituting feats of poetic and rhetorical brilliance (the pen) for that of arms (the sword) as is the norm among heroes of French and Castilian chivalric novels. Jonathan Decter points up this distinction in his comparison between Ben Elazar’s book with the French and (considerably later) Castilian versions of the romance Floire et Blanchefloir. He concludes that “Ben Elazar does not create protagonists who embark upon chivalrous forest adventures or engage in tournaments to earn love and prestige. Yet his characters do embody the internal transformations charcteristic of Romance protagonists”.[3]

How does this synthesis between Arabic and French tradition play out in Ben Elazar’s text? Much of it has to do with the way in which he adapts the chivalric literary sensibility to the culture of the Sepharadim. If epic poetry such as the Cantar de Mio Cid or the Chanson de Roland tells the story of arms in service to feudal lord, the great innovation of chivalric romance was to press arms into the service of love. The feudal lord is displaced by the lady as the figure around which the action is oriented.

One might think that since Ben Elazar is using biblical Hebrew to tell his tale he might graft bits of Biblical feats of arms into the text to keep with the spirit of the genre. Maybe he would describe rhetorical heroics using the language of Biblical heroics, describing feats of arms in the same language the bible uses to describe the great military exploits of Samuel, Joshua, or even the against-all-odds battle between David and Goliath. He does not. The heroics of “Sahar and Kima” are courtly, but not chivalric. Since there is no Jewish class of warrior-nobles in Christian Iberia, the literature does not develop an inventory of imagery of the warrior hero. He is more indebted to the Arabic sense of rhetorical prowess featured in the medieval maqamat. While tenth- and eleventh-century Andalusi Hebrew poets —most notably the Granadan general Samuel Hanagid ibn Nagrela— wrote war poetry, the exemplary values of the poetry of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries are poetic excellence and religious piety. For Ben Elazar’s audience, the criteria for heroic values do not include feats of arms. Knights appear very infrequently in works by Sephardic and other Jewish authors, and when they do it is through translation from other languages or when the knight is a subject of parody. There is no autochtonous chivalric hero in Hebrew literature. Arms as a category of excellence is often replaced by letters, whether secular or sacred.

Let’s see for ourselves how this plays out in the text. The story begins with the young nobleman Sahar embarking from the port of Jaffa to Syria. There is a storm, and a shipwreck,[4] and our hero washes up on the shores of the land of Tsovah, perhaps Aleppo, but as in chivalric romance, the geography is fuzzy, fantastic, sort of irrelevant. He wanders into the city, where are all the girls and women of the place are stunned by his beauty. He stumbles into the palace, mistaking it for a synagogue, and is immediately detained and tied up by a pair of Ethiopian guards. When he recites an extemporaneous poem in protest, the crowd is floored by his poetic skill, and he is released. Kima hears this poem and falls in love with him, tossing him an apple inscribed with a poem and blowing him a kiss. Sahar is escorted out of the court and tossed into the street, forlorn and pining for Kima. She sends a servant with a letter professing her love for him. The servant leads him back to the palace where Sahar recites more poems of his love for Kima. After making him pass through a series of tests of his resolve and poetic prowess, Kima reveals herself to him, reproaching him for speaking openly of their love. There ensues a series of sung and written poetic exchanges, followed by a Bollywood-esque song and dance routine, and then a romantic all-nighter in the hortus conclusus of the palace garden. The couple is discovered by Kima’s father, the King, who threatens to kick Sahar out, but is so moved by laments of the young lovers that he agrees to allow them to marry. Shortly after the nuptials he dies of plague, conveniently passing his crown to Sahar and Kima, who live happily ever after — Vivieron felices y comieron perdices.[5]

What most distinguishes this narrative from other Hebrew (and Arabic) love stories of the middle ages is its particular brand of courtliness. It is the details of the behavior of the young lovers that really sets this story apart from its Hebrew analogues and places it closer to medieval Romances written in European vernaculars.

Not all of the details of the amores of the protagonists are specific to courtly love chez Capellanus. Much of the nuts and bolts of the amorous discourse is common to both Andalusi and Romance courtly traditions. Sahar falls in love with Kima from just hearing her voice.[6] He complains of her aloofness, constantly laments the mere possibility of being separated from her despite never really having been united with her. Ladies in waiting serve as go-betweens, carrying poetic messages between the lovers. Love letters and poems are not simply recited or written on paper. In one case Kima embroiders a poem to Sahar on a curtain behind which she hides from him.[7] And of course, the lovers complain of the impossibility of love and of the pain of separation.

However, there are many examples of amorous motifs and moves that are anomalous in Hebrew or and Arabic tradition and seem much more characteristic of vernacular courtly discourse. When Sahar sees Kima, he bows and kisses her hand.[8] He does this to avoid scandal in front of Kima’s ladies in waiting. I’ve never heard of anyone kissing anyone else’s hand in Hebrew. Her response to this advance is to wax lyrical about the value of chaste love, but she couches this idea in terms of class and in terms of an understood doctrine of courtly love. She explains to Sahar the ‘laws and customs of true lovers’ enforce chastity, while the sons of slaves yield to their passions. The narrator assures us that her words ennoble and edify Sahar, who then concedes to spend the entire night in the palace gardens with her, speaking of approved courtly topics but not actually touching physically.[9]

Kima repeatedly chastises Sahar to be chaste in his love for her. What is interesting about this is that she is not simply preoccupied with her honor, or with being haughty, which would be a perfectly recognizable posture for a courtly lover: la belle dame sans merci. No, Kima’s objection to physical love is on moral grounds. She explains that “to love with passion is a sin”[10] and does her best to stave off his physical advances. This manifestation of troubadouresque chaste love is particular to the vernacular literary tradition of Western Europe, and has no exact analogue in Arabic. Though the figure of the suffering, chaste lover is found in the verses of the so-called Udhri (‘pure’) poets,[11] and Ibn Hazm himself includes a chapter on “Submission” in The Dove’s Neck-Ring, the nature of Sahar’s devotions to Kima are more suggestive of the French Arthurian romances.

Ben Elazar is doing things here that no other Hebrew author in Latin Christendom has done. He is adopting the local conventions for representing idealized heterosexual love and blending these sensibilities with conventions, ideologies, and habits of expression drawn from the Andalusi and Biblical poetic traditions.[12]

In light of all this, if we compare “Sahar and Kima” to the Hebrew tradition alone, Ben Elazar looks like an outlier, a radical innovator. But when we look at him next to his colleagues writing in Romance, he looks like a writer who is simply up to date and writing the way people write in France and Spain at this time.  It is noteworthy that Ben Elazar would be writing something that looks like courtly romance in the early thirteenth century in Toledo, when such courtly subjects do not appear in Castilian until the turn of the fourteenth century.[13]

In order to properly situate “Sahar and Kima” in the discussion of Romance we need to distinguish the Courtly from the Chivalric. In his definition of Chivalric Romance, Cesar Segre emphasizes the relation of the characters to the courtly setting,[14] and while there is no doubt that Jews were players on the courtly scene, and occasionally went to war, there is relatively little of the Chivalric in the medieval Jewish experience.

Conclusion

In “Sahar and Kima,” the courtly chivalric ideal is displaced by a scholarly, but still courtly, ideal. While critics tend to characterize the tension in Romance between the clerkly and the knightly,[15] this dichotomy is obviated in the Jewish context. This stands to reason when we think about the social context of Jewish writers and readers in comparison to that of their Christian counterparts. The patrons of most Hebrew authors are not nobles, but notables, courtiers whose fortunes hinged on royal patronage and business affairs, but not feats of arms. We have in “Sahar and Kima,” a case of courtly ideals refracted through a diasporic experience, where courtly heroics are framed in terms of excellence with the pen, as opposed to the sword.[16] “Sahar and Kima” gives us an example of the practice of courtly romance in Castile well before the Castilan Crónica de Flores y Blancaflor intercalated in the Alfonsine Primera Crónica General, and some seventy years before the Cavallero Zifar.


Notes

[1] The first four chapters are literary debates between body and soul, poetry and prose, this poet and that one, and the pen and the sword. The next six are tales narrating various configurations of love interests, whether a boy and a man, a woman and two men, a man and two women, an old man, a man and a woman, or in the final chapter, a boy raised by a wolf. Decter has written studies of individual chapters. Decter, Jewish Iberian 164-74, “Sodomite,” “Landscapes.”

[2] On this transition and its impact on Sephardic writers see Decter, Iberian.

[3] Decter, Iberian 156.

[4] The shipwreck motif is resonant with the Libro del cavallero Cífar and with the Byzantine novel that is generally populated with shipwrecks. Thomas, Romances 16. Historians of the novel frequently include it in characteristic features of the Byzantine novel. In her discussion of Achilles Tatius’ Kleitophon and Leukippé, Margaret Doody refers to the “usual shipwreck.” Doody, True 54. Margaret Mullett writes that “on a textual level, shipwreck, adverse winds, calms, and pirate raids were expectedly unexpected — and essential to some travel genres as well as to the world view of Byzantium” Mullett, “Peril” 259. For an overview of the shipwreck in the Byzantine novel (both ancient and medieval), see Mullett, “Peril” 269-72.

[5] For a summary of the tale see Decter, Iberian 150-52.

[6] Ben Elazar, Stories 90, ll. 100-05. We find similar such examples of love-before-first-sight in Ibn Hazm’s The Dove’s Neck Ring, where he discusses those who fall in love by dreaming of their beloveds or by hearing others talk about them. Ibn Hazm, Neck-Ring 26-30, Tauq 28-29.

[7] Ben Elazar, Stories 94, ll. 214-17.

[8] Ben Elazar, Stories, 89-90, l. 90-91.

[9] Ben Elazar, Stories 98, ll. 330-31. What makes this so interesting is that it is all couched in Biblical Hebrew, with all the stock biblical imagery, phrasing, and allusions that implies. For example, Kima describes their amorous bond in the same terms that God explains the covenant to Noah. Much like his Christian counterparts, Ben Elazar speaks of love in religious language.. When Sahar speaks of the ‘laws and customs’ of courtly lovers he uses language drawn from Exodus, where Moses’ father-in-law Jethro is exhorting Moses to instruct the Israelites in the new laws received at Sinai (Exodus 18:20).

[10] Ben Elazar, Stories 92, ll. 155-58. According to Georges Duby, “courtly love was a game, an educational game. It was the exact counterpart of the tournament… As at the tournament, the young man was risking his life in the hope of improving himself, of enhancing his worth, his price, and also of taking, taking his pleasure, capturing his adversary after breaking down her defences, unseating her, knocking her down, and toppling her.” Duby, Love 57.

[11] On the Udhri poets, see Encyclopedia of Islam, “`Udhri.” Roger Allen’s capsule description of the love-sensibility of the Udhri corpus bears repeating in full: “The poet-lover places his beloved on a pedestal and worships her from afar. He is obsessed and tormented; he becomes debilitated, ill, and is doomed to a love-death. The beloved in turn becomes the personification of the ideal woman, a transcendental image of all that is beautiful and chaste. The cheek, the neck, the bosom, and, above all, the eyes —a mere glance— these are the cause of passion, longing, devastation, and exhaustion.” Allen, Introduction 105.

[12] Hayim Schirmann notes that the women in Ben Elazar’s stories have a more active role and are more agentive in the narrative (“Contes” 295). This squares with the idea that the chivalric romance developed in order to speak to the concerns of a courtly audience (and perhaps to courtly patronage) that included powerful women.

[13] Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and Helga Bennett claim that in Spain, “courtly subjects do not begin to appear until 1300 in the genre of the Libros de caballería.” Gumbrecht and Bennett, “Literary Translation” 208.

[14] Segre, “Bakhtin” 28.

[15] Simon Gaunt writes that “the ubiquitous irony of romance is undoubtedly informed by the opposition between chevalrie and clergie that underscores many texts: a clerical narrator offers an ironic perspective on his chivalric hero.” Gaunt, “Romance” 47.  According to Barbara Fuchs, “their scholarly values of clergerie (clerkness) differ markedly from the aristocratic, heroic chevalrie (chivalry) of romance heroes’ Knights, that is, did not write romances.” Fuchs, Romance 40.

[16] Not just a lack of sovereignty, but speaks to a specific experience – it would be entirely possible to have a religious minority that traditionally bore arms for their king.

Works Cited

Allen, Roger. An Introduction to Arabic Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Print.

Ben Eleazar, Jacob. The Love Stories of Jacob Ben Eleazar (1170-1233?). Ed. Yonah David. Tel Aviv: Ramot Publishing, 1992. Print.

Decter, Jonathan. “A Hebrew ‘sodomite’ Tale from Thirteenth-century Toledo: Jacob Ben El‘azar’s Story of Sapir, Shapir, and Birsha.” Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies 3 (2011): 187–202. Web. 28 Nov. 2011.

—. “Changing Landscapes of the Hebrew Rhymed Prose Narrative.” Studies in Medieval Jewish Poetry: A Message Upon the Garden. Leiden: Brill, 2011. 55–67. Print.

Decter, Jonathan P. Jewish Iberian Literature: From al-Andalus to Christian Spain. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007. Print.

Doody, Margaret. The True Story of the Novel. New Brunswick  N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1996. Print.

Duby, Georges. Love and Marriage in the Middle Ages. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. Print.

Encyclopedia of Islam CD-ROM Edition. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2004. Print.

Fuchs, Barbara. Romance. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Gaunt, Simon. “Romance and Other Genres.” The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Romance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 45–59. Print.

Gumbrecht, Hans Ulrich, and Helga Bennett. “Literary Translation and Its Social Conditioning in the Middle Ages: Four Spanish Romance Texts of the 13th Century.” Yale French Studies 51 (1974): 205–222. Web. 23 Feb. 2010.

Ibn Hazm, Ali ibn Ahmad. El Collar De La Paloma. Vol. [3. Madrid: Alianza, 1971. Print.

—. Ṭawq Al-ḥamāmah Fī Al-ulfah Wa-al-ullāf. Ed. Muhammad Ibrahim Salim. al-Qāhirah: Maktabat Ibn Sīnā, 1993. Print.

Mullett, Margaret. “In Peril on the Sea: Travel Genres and the Unexpected.” Travel in the Byzantine World. Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate, 2002. 259–284. Print.

Schirmann, J. “Les Contes Rimées De Jacob Ben Eleazar De Toledo.” Etudes D’orientalisme Dédiées a La Mémoire De Lévi-Provençal. Paris, 1962. 285–297. Print.

Segre, Cesare. “What Bakhtin Left Unsaid.” Romance : Generic Transformation from Chrétien De Troyes to Cervantes. Ed. Kevin Brownlee & Marina Scordilis Brownlee. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1985. 23–46. Print.

Work in Progress Talk

This is the slidecast from a Work in Progress talk I gave last week at the Oregon Humanities Center, where I was Ernest Moll Fellow in Literary Studies during Winter term 2011. You can also listen to the .mp3 here.

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.