The Mind and Heart of the Jew



IN every age the soul of the Jew has been torn between the resolve to make his way in a hostile world, and his hunger for the goods of the mind. A Jewish merchant is a dead scholar; he envies and generously honors the man who, escaping the fever of wealth, pursues in peace the love of learning and the mirage of wisdom. The Jewish traders and bankers who went to the fairs of Troyes stopped on the way to hear the great Rashi expound the Talmud.1So, amid commercial cares, or degrading poverty, or mortal contumely, the Jews of the Middle Ages continued to produce grammarians, theologians, mystics, poets, scientists, and philosophers; and for a while (1150-1200) only the Moslems equaled them in widespread literacy and intellectual wealth.2They had the advantage of living in contact or communication with Islam; many of them read Arabic; the whole rich world of medieval Moslem culture was open to them; they took from Islam in science, medicine, and philosophy what they had given in religion to Mohammed and the Koran; and by their mediation they aroused the mind of the Christian West with the stimulus of Saracen thought.

Within Islam the Jews used Arabic in daily speech and written prose; their poets kept to Hebrew, but accepted Arabic meters and poetic forms. In Christendom the Jews spoke the language of the people among whom they lived, but wrote their literature, and worshiped Yahveh, in the ancient tongue. After Maimonides the Jews of Spain, fleeing from Almohad persecution, abandoned Arabic for Hebrew as their literary medium. The revival of Hebrew was made possible by the devoted labors of Jewish philologists. The Old Testament text had become difficult to understand through lack of vowels and punctuation; three centuries of scholarship—from the seventh to the tenth—evolved the “Masoretic” (tradition-sanctioned) text by adding vowel points, accent strokes, punctuation marks, verse separations, and marginal notes. Thereafter any literate Jew could read the Scriptures of his people.

Such studies compelled the development of Hebrew grammar and lexicography. The poetry and learning of Menachem ben Saruk (910-70) attracted the attention of Hasdai ben Shaprut; the great minister called him to Cordova, and encouraged him in the task of compiling a dictionary of Biblical Hebrew. Menachem’s pupil Jehuda ibn Daud Chayuj (c. 1000) put Hebrew grammar upon a scientific basis with three Arabic works on the language of the Bible; Chayuj’s pupil Jonah ibn Janaeh (995-1050) of Saragossa surpassed him with an Arabic Book of Critique that advanced Hebrew syntax and lexicography; Judah ibn Quraish of Morocco (fl. 900) founded the comparative philology of the Semitic languages by his study of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic; the Qaraite Jew Abraham al-Fasi (i.e., of Fez, c. 980) furthered the matter with a dictionary in which all the words of the Old Testament were reduced to their roots alphabetically arranged. Nathan ben Yechiel of Rome (d. 1106) excelled all other Jewish lexicographers with his dictionary of the Talmud. In Narbonne Joseph Kimchi and his sons Moses and David (1160-1235) labored for generations in these fields; David’s Michlol, or Compendium, became for centuries the authoritative grammar of Hebrew, and was a constant aid to King James’ translators of the Bible.3 These names are chosen from a thousand.

Profiting from this widespread scholarship, Hebrew poetry emancipated itself from Arabic exemplars, developed its own forms and themes, and produced in Spain alone three men quite equal to any triad in the Moslem or Christian literature of their age. Solomon ibn Gabirol, known to the Christian world as the philosopher Avicebron, was prepared by his personal tragedy to voice the feelings of Israel. This “poet among philosophers, and philosopher among poets,” as Heine called him,4 was born at Malaga about 1021. He lost both parents early, and grew up in a poverty that inclined him to morose contemplation. His verses caught the fancy of Yekutiel ibn Hassan, a high official in the Moslem city-state of Saragossa. There for a time Gabirol found protection and happiness, and sang the joy of life. But Yekutiel was assassinated by enemies of the emir, and Gabirol fled. For years he wandered through Moslem Spain, poor and sick, and so thin that “a fly could now bear me up with ease.” Samuel ibn Naghdela, himself a poet, gave him refuge at Granada. There Solomon wrote his philosophical works, and pledged his poetry to wisdom:

How shall I forsake wisdom?

I have made a covenant with her.

She is my mother, I am her dearest child;

She hath clasped her jewels about my neck….

While life is mine my spirit shall aspire

Unto her heavenly heights.…

I will not rest until I find her source.5

Presumably his impetuous pride caused his quarrel with Samuel. Still a youth in his late twenties, he resumed his wandering poverty; misfortune humbled his spirit, and he turned from philosophy to religion:

Lord, what is man? A carcass fouled and trodden,

A noxious creature brimming with deceit,

A fading flower that shrivels in the heat.6

His poetry took at times the somber grandeur of the Psalms:

Establish peace for us, O Lord,

In everlasting grace,

Nor let us be of Thee abhorred,

Who art our dwelling place.

We wander ever to and fro,

Or sit in chains in exile drear;

Yet still proclaim, where’er we go,

The splendor of our Lord is here.7

His masterpiece, Kether Malkuth (Royal Crown), celebrated the greatness of God as his early poems had celebrated his own:

From Thee to Thee I fly to win

A place of refuge, and within

Thy shadow from Thy anger hide,

Until Thy wrath be turned aside.

Unto Thy mercy I will cling

Until Thou hearken pitying;

Nor will I quit my hold of Thee

Until Thy blessing light on me.8

The richness and variety of Jewish culture in Moslem Spain were summed up in the Ibn Ezra family at Granada. Jacob ibn Ezra held an important post in the government of King Habbus under Samuel ibn Naghdela. His home was a salon of literature and philosophy. Of his four sons, reared in this atmosphere of learning, three reached distinction: Joseph rose to high office in the state, and to leadership of the Jewish community; Isaac was a poet, a scientist, and a Talmudist; Moses ibn Ezra (1070-1139) was a scholar, a philosopher, and the greatest Jewish poet of the generation before Halevi. His happy youth ended when he fell in love with a beautiful niece, whose father (his older brother Isaac) married her to his younger brother Abraham. Moses left Granada, wandered through strange lands, and fed his hopeless passion with poetry. “Though thy lips drop honey for others to sip, live on, breathe myrrh for others to inhale. Though thou art false to me, yet shall I be true to thee till the cold earth claims her own. My heart rejoices in the nightingale’s song, though the singer soars above me and afar.”9 In the end, like Gabirol, he tuned his harp to piety, and sang psalms of mystic surrender.

Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra—whom Browning used as a mouthpiece of Victorian philosophy—was a distant relative, but an intimate friend, of Moses ibn Ezra. Born in Toledo in 1093, his youth knew hunger, and thirsted for knowledge in every field. He too wandered from town to town, from occupation to occupation, luckless in all; “were candles my merchandise,” he said, with the wry humor of the Jew, “the sun would never set; if I sold burial shrouds, men would live forever.” He traveled through Egypt and Iraq to Iran, perhaps to India, back to Italy, then to France and England; at seventy-five he was returning to Spain when he died, still poor, but acclaimed throughout Jewry for both his poetry and his prose. His works were as varied as his domiciles—on mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, religion; his poems ranged through love and friendship, God and nature, anatomy and the seasons, chess and the stars. He gave poetic form to ideas ubiquitous in the Age of Faith, and he anticipated Newman in a Hebrew melody:

O God of earth and heaven,

Spirit and flesh are Thine!

Thou hast in wisdom given

Man’s inward light divine

My times are in Thy hand,

Thou knowest what is best;

And where I fear to stand

Thy strength brings succor blest.

Thy mantle hides my sins,

Thy mercies are my sure defense;

And for Thy bounteous providence

Thou wilt demand no recompense.10

His contemporaries valued him chiefly for his Biblical commentaries on every book of the Old Testament. He defended the authenticity and divine inspiration of the Hebrew Scriptures, but interpreted as metaphors the anthropomorphic phrases applied to the Deity. He was the first to suggest that the Book of Isaiah was the work of two prophets, not one. Spinoza considered him a founder of rational Biblical criticism.11

The greatest European poet of his age was Jehuda Halevi (1086-1147?). Born at Toledo a year after its capture by Alfonso VI of Castile, he grew up in security under the most enlightened and liberal Christian monarch of the time. One of his early poems pleased Moses ibn Ezra; the older poet invited Jehuda to come and stay with him in Granada; there Moses and Isaac ibn Ezra entertained him for months in their homes. His verses were read, his epigrams were repeated, in every Jewish community in Spain. His poetry reflected his genial character and his fortunate youth; he sang of love with all the skill and artifice of a Moslem or Provençal troubadour, and with the sensuous intensity of the Song of Songs. One poem—“The Garden of His Delight”—put into fervent verse the frankest passages of that erotic masterpiece:

Come down, her beloved; why tarriest thou

To feed amid her gardens?

Turn aside to the couch of love,

To gather her lilies.

Secret apples of her breasts

Give forth their fragrance;

For thee she hideth in her necklaces

Precious fruits shining like light….

She would shame, but for her veil,

All the stars of heaven.12

Leaving the Ibn Ezras’ courteous hospitality, Halevi went to Lucena, and studied for several years in the Jewish academy there; he took up medicine, and became an undistinguished practitioner. He founded a Hebrew institute in Toledo, and lectured there on the Scriptures. He married, and had four children. As he grew older he became more conscious of Israel’s misfortunes than of his own prosperity; he began to sing of his people, their sorrows, and their faith. Like so many Jews, he longed to end his days in Palestine.

O City of the World [Jerusalem], beauteous in proud splendor!

Oh, that I had eagle’s wings that I might fly to thee,

Till I wet thy dust with my tears!

My heart is in the East, while I tarry in the West.13

Comfortable Spanish Jews accepted such verses as a poetical pose, but Halevi was sincere. In 1141, leaving his family in good hands, he began an arduous pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Unfavorable winds drove his ship off course to Alexandria. There the Jewish community feted him, and begged him not to venture into Jerusalem, then in the Crusaders’ hands. After some delay he went on to Damietta and Tyre, and thence, for some unknown reason, to Damascus. There he disappeared from history. Legend says that he made his way to Jerusalem, knelt at the first sight of it, kissed the earth, and was trampled to death by an Arab horseman.14 We do not know if he ever reached the city of his dreams. We do know that at Damascus, perhaps in the last year of his life, he composed an ‘Ode to Zion” that Goethe ranked among the greatest poems in world literature.15

Art thou not, Zion, fain

To send forth greetings from thy sacred rock

Unto thy captive train

Who greet thee as the remnants of thy flock?…

Harsh is my voice when I bewail thy woes;

But when in fancy’s dream

I see thy freedom, forth its cadence flows,

Sweet as the harps that hung by Babel’s stream.…

I would that, where God’s Spirit was of yore

Poured out unto thy holy ones, I might

There too my soul outpour!

The house of kings and throne of God wert thou;

How comes it then that now

Slaves fill the throne where sat thy kings before?

Oh, who will lead me on

To seek the posts where, in far distant years,

The angels in their glory dawned upon

Thy messengers and seers?

Oh, who will give me wings

That I may fly away,

And there, at rest from all my wanderings,

The ruins of my heart among thy ruins lay?

I’ll bend my face unto thy soil, and hold

Thy stones as precious gold….

Thy air is life unto my soul, thy grains

Of dust are myrrh, thy streams with honey flow;

Naked and barefoot, to thy ruined fanes

How gladly would I go!

To where the ark was treasured, and in dim

Recesses dwelt the holy cherubim…

Perfect in beauty, Zion, how in thee

Do love and grace unite!

The souls of thy companions tenderly

Turn unto thee; thy joy was their delight,

And weeping they lament thy ruin now

In distant exile; for thy sacred height

They long, and toward thy gates in prayer they bow.

The Lord desires thee for His dwelling place

Eternally; and blest

Is he whom God has chosen for the grace

Within thy courts to rest.

Happy is he that watches, drawing near,

Until he sees thy glorious lights arise,

And over whom thy dawn breaks full and clear

Set in the orient skies.

But happiest he who, with exultant eyes

The bliss of thy redeemed ones shall behold,

And see thy youth renewed as in the days of old.16

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