In Dominion Built of Praise, Jonathan Decter looks at the phenomenon of panegyric in Mediterranean Jewish culture from several overlapping perspectives—social, historical, ethical, poetic, political, and theological—and finds that they depict how representations of Jewish political leadership varied across space and evolved over time.
2018 | 400 pages | Cloth $79.95
Literature / Religion
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1. Performance Matters: Between Public Acclamation and Epistolary Exchange
Chapter 2. Poetic Gifts: Maussian Exchange and the Working of Medieval Jewish Culture
Chapter 3. "Humble Like the Humble One": The Language of Jewish Political Legitimacy
Chapter 4. "Sefarad Boasts over Shinar": Mediterranean Regionalism in Jewish Panegyric
Chapter 5. "A Word Aptly Spoken": The Ethics of Praise
Chapter 6. "A Cedar Whose Stature in the Garden of Wisdom . . . ": Hyperbole, the Imaginary, and the Art of Magnification
Chapter 7. In Praise of God, in Praise of Man: Issues in Political Theology
Chapter 8. "May His Book Be Burnt Even Though It Contains Your Praise!": Jewish Panegyric in the Christian Mediterranean
Chapter 9. The Other "Great Eagle": Interreligious Panegyrics and the Limits of Interpretation
I remember once as a graduate student reading in class a long Hebrew poem, "Lekha re'i ve-re'a ha-me'orim" (Come, my friend and friend of the luminaries), by the eleventh-century Andalusian Jewish poet Shelomoh Ibn Gabirol. We began with the poem's exquisite introduction, which describes a palace garden wherein the flowers, statues, and birds engage in a word battle of one-upmanship, each claiming superiority over his rivals. Ultimately, the poet's voice intrudes upon the scene to silence the competitors and declare that none can compare with the addressee of the poem, whose virtues the poet extols for another ten lines. I remember how we read the poem line by line, meticulously parsing each word, appreciating the aesthetic effects, and comparing themes with themes from Arabic poetry. We began with the first line, and, by the time class ended, we had barely reached the takhalluṣ (Ar., "escape verse"), in which the poet made a transition from the description of the garden to praise for his addressee.
In the next class, we did not return to read the panegyric section but began with another qaṣīda (Ar., formal ode), Yehudah Halevi's "Ereṣ ke-yaldah haytah yoneqet" (The earth nursed like a baby girl), another nature description leading into panegyric. Again, we read to the takhalluṣ, and class ended. None of us missed reading the panegyric in detail. Even a cursory glance at the panegyric sections of several poems revealed a rather predictable set of virtues (generosity, wisdom, eloquence) inevitably presented through tropes that were equally as predictable (generous as the rain, wise as Solomon, speech like arrows). Further, the panegyrics seldom offered any personal data that a biographer or historian might find of interest. And most of all, we found the poet's obsequious posturing downright detestable—all of that fawning was laid on so thick and reeked of phoniness, especially since poets seemed to say the same thing about every addressee.
Alas, medieval Hebrew praise poetry did not fit our literary tastes. Surely, we were not alone. Our preference for love poetry, nature poetry, and other genres was something that we shared with the pioneering scholars of the Wissenschaft des Judentums, whose Romantic tastes had a lasting impact on the development of the field of medieval Hebrew poetry. Jefim Schirmann, in a classic article of 1954, "The Function of the Poet in Medieval Spain," wrote about the patronage system that he saw as the primary context for Hebrew panegyric in al-Andalus (Islamic Iberia): "Such dependence [on patrons] induced the poets to indulge in exaggerations and sycophancy of the worst kind." Years later, in his posthumous Toledot ha-shirah ha-'ivrit bi-Sefarad ha-muslemit (History of Hebrew poetry in Muslim Spain), Schirmann described the patronage system more generously, though he still maintained a sharp division between praise poetry, which he considered a necessary chore, and the other genres, which he believed were closer to the poets' hearts. "Since it was now possible for [the poet] to work under the protection of a patron, he was able to write in his free time poetry for purposes other than making a living—that is for his personal enjoyment—meditative poems, poems on nature, love, and wine, humorous and invective poems, and poems of grief and complaint."
However, we should not be so quick to judge which literary genres held personal meaning for the poets; Schirmann's assessment reflects his own literary tastes more than theirs. Most peculiar is his placement of panegyric in the "chore" category and invective in the "personal enjoyment" category, since classical and medieval critics, including Aristotle, Ibn Rushd, and Mosheh Ibn Ezra, saw them as two sides of the same coin and often treated them together. While Schirmann may well be one of the finest scholars of medieval Hebrew poetry ever to have lived, it is worth critically evaluating his position on panegyric and the cultural assumptions that it entails. His views are reflective of a general devaluation of panegyric in modernity. Already in 1656, an English dictionary by Thomas Blount defined panegyric as "a licentious kind of speaking or oration, in the praise and commendation of Kings, or other great persons, wherein some falsities are joined with many flatteries." J. A. Burrow has argued that, beginning with the late seventeenth century, "[m]any deep seated changes in society, politics, economics and religious belief have contributed to a culture more at home with tin men than with heroes" ("tin men" being a reference to a poem by Ezra Pound).
Panegyric's decline in modern Europe surely had an impact on scholarship's approach to panegyric in non-Western traditions. Jaroslav Stetkevych notes that German Orientalists first "enthusiastically engaged and assimilated the qasida, including panegyric, particularly in adaptations and translations, but then in the mid-nineteenth century, enthusiasm was replaced by a stale technical approach." In 1909, Louis Ginzberg, a leading scholar of rabbinics, blamed Hai Gaon for having gone in panegyric "to an extreme of extravagance unusual even in an Oriental writer." S. D. Goitein also wrote that most praise writings preserved in the Cairo Geniza (a great mass of documents discovered in a Cairo synagogue) were "exasperating by their hyperbolic generalities" (though in this context he wrote that a particular poem was an exception).
No medieval Hebrew poet laments that the exigencies of writing praise poetry kept him from pursuing more noble poetic genres. Poets marshaled their skills in panegyric just as much as they did in other areas. Although the panegyrist had to avoid certain ethical pitfalls, I see no evidence that the poets generally regarded panegyric as a lesser genre. In Mosheh Ibn Ezra's review of desirable literary devices in his Judeo-Arabic treatise on Hebrew poetics, Kitāb al-muḥā?ara wa'l-mudhākara (The book of conversations and discussions), more than one-third of the Hebrew poetic excerpts are taken from panegyrics, and one section is dedicated to a device particular to panegyric; in addition, he quotes four lines of an Arabic panegyric by Abū Tammām in order to demonstrate how poetic meaning is conveyed.
If we can judge from the sheer prevalence and persistence of Hebrew panegyric across time and space, it is clear that it played a vital function in Jewish society in the medieval Mediterranean. In fact, the ubiquity of praise as a social practice is difficult to overstate. It was a common feature of social interaction across a host of relationships, quite often divorced from the remunerative patronage structure that Schirmann emphasized. Further, we will see that literary panegyric was only one facet of a broader practice of praise, which also included terms of address and titles, greetings and blessings, and simply commending one party to another. Although such practices may seem strange to us, they were clearly very important to medieval Jews.
As mentioned, panegyrics can be frustratingly ungenerous sources for the historian; they offer typology, not biography, as well as hyperbolic and formulaic statements—what the historian of the Jews Jacob Mann sometimes called "verbiage." Yet positivist historians such as Mann also recognized that panegyrics are sometimes the only surviving sources that testify to the existence of particular figures, where and when they lived, with whom they were in contact, how many sons they had, and other precious tidbits of data. In the present book, however, panegyric will be used in other ways in order to illuminate medieval Jews' most essential notions of group cohesion, human virtue, leadership, and politics; in fact, the book will consider how praise intersected with nearly every aspect of Jewish social and intellectual culture in the medieval Mediterranean.
Dominion Built of Praise
This book presents Jews of the medieval Mediterranean through the lens of praise writing. The focus is on Jewish centers in the Islamic Mediterranean between the tenth and thirteenth centuries and includes an extensive chapter on Jews in the Christian Mediterranean through the fifteenth century. The book has two main interrelated purposes. One is to study the phenomenon of praise writing in Mediterranean Jewish culture from several overlapping perspectives: social-historical, ethical, poetic, political, and theological. These interests are reflected in the table of contents, where the reader will notice an arc beginning with social history and moving toward topics more abstract and ethereal, before closing with a chapter on the Christian Mediterranean and another on interreligious panegyric. Studying medieval Jewish society through the lens of praise writing reveals some of that society's social values and political structures. The subject also helps delineate the place of Jews within the Mediterranean, including their interior and interreligious discourses of power. Panegyric addresses not only relationships within Jewish groups (whether these are intellectual circles or an imagined polity) but also, on occasion, relationships between Jews and their non-Jewish rulers.
The second purpose of the book is to study more specifically the nature and changing elements of images of ideal Jewish leadership, images that hark back to earlier Jewish constructions of power while drawing upon contemporary non-Jewish formulations of legitimacy. Like visual portraits, panegyrics operate according to a code of cultural norms that tell us at least as much about the society that produced them as they do about the individuals they portray. I am thus less interested in studying the people behind literary facades than in studying the facades themselves. This book seeks to understand the valences of conventional character traits ascribed to Jewish leaders both diachronically within the "Jewish political tradition" and synchronically within Islamic (and, to a lesser extent, Christian) civilization and political culture. Throughout the book, I place subjects under discussion in dialogue with related phenomena in contemporary non-Jewish culture, especially the poetics of political legitimacy as expressed in Arabic writing. I argue that points of overlap between Jewish and Islamic discourses of power demonstrate more than a surface functional parallel between Muslim and Jewish forms of "statecraft" but also that ideas of Islamic legitimacy profoundly shaped how Jews conceptualized and portrayed their own leadership. At the same time, the book studies shifting representations of Jewish leadership according to social role, political rank, period, and region.
To a certain degree, I use the word "legitimacy," which appears in the book title, in the way that Max Weber did, whereby a power-holder essentially persuades a power-subject of his rightful authority through various means. For Weber, different types of claims undergirded a variety of forms of legitimacy: traditional, whereby power is secured by claims of long-standing, sometimes sacredly inflected, norms; charismatic, whereby the governed submit because of some extraordinary quality of a given person, family, or office, and this, too, can be inflected with the sacred; and rational or legal, which appeals to norms that are established not by mere precedent but by reason. Throughout this book, the reader will encounter many examples of the first two varieties, though the idea of "authority" is applied here in a very loose way, since the powers of the men in question were often quite limited; in some cases, to offer a man loyalty or "obedience" meant only to say that he was deserving of praise. Further, many of the relationships witnessed here are more lateral than hierarchic, and, in some cases, panegyrics were written by the more powerful for the less powerful upon whom they nonetheless relied. Where I part with Weber most significantly regards what has been recognized as his "ruler-centric" vantage point that understands claims of legitimacy solely as a tool for implementing obedience, for I am equally interested in what panegyrics did for power-subjects—that is, their authors and audiences. These topics are taken up in the coming chapters, but we can say that while Weber's conception of authority might not be sufficiently nuanced for the corpus under discussion, his categorization of types of claims remains remarkably apt.
Further, I argue that praise was not only reflective but also constitutive of power among medieval Jews. That is, authority was a result of its own articulation and could not be realized but for the presentation of praise with its attending metaphors and conceptual frameworks of legitimacy. These metaphors could be relational (e.g., the leader is to his people as the head is to the limbs) or even theological (the leader as a sacred object, an angel, or even God). As Esperanza Alfonso has argued with respect to Hebrew panegyric in al-Andalus, such metaphors are not only hyperbolic but also provide the audience a cognitive means for interpreting the world; they are, as Lakoff and Johnson put it, metaphors to "live by." Metaphors of political structure are fundamental for the effective exercise of power in even the most heavily militarized and dictatorial of regimes. In the case of Jewish leadership in the medieval Mediterranean, which had no military, no real territory, and few means of coercion, such metaphors were sometimes all that existed for the constitution and promulgation of power. Thus, at the core of this book is a fundamental argument about rhetoric, that it is not merely an ornamental layer superadded to a type of discourse but is the very substance of that discourse that has the power to construct "reality" for its audience.
In an eleventh-century Hebrew panegyric for the court astronomer Avraham Ibn al-Muhājir, Mosheh Ibn Ezra wrote: "[His] dominion is built out of precious stones while others' is built out of whitewash and plaster." What Ibn Ezra recognized was that dominion, whether legitimate or illegitimate, was a matter of construction. In fact, the words translated here as "precious stones" (avnei tehilot, "stones [worthy of] praise") most literally mean "stones of praise." Dominion is built out of stones of praise. Although Ibn Ezra's intent was probably one of comparison and juxtaposition, the verse conveys that dominion is literally built out of praise; without the building blocks of praise, there would be no dominion.
Most studies of Jewish power have focused on the influence of Jews within the court structures of their host cultures, whether or not they carried arms or fought in battle, and the extent of Jewish autonomy. This study, in contrast, is interested in the representation of power, the idealization of attributes as conveyed in panegyric. Like the panegyrics recited before Caesar in the classical world or the literary and artistic portraits of English monarchs, Hebrew panegyrics depict leaders who are at once members of their age—that is, they are born, die, and attain certain accomplishments—and embodiments of ideals of peoplehood, religion, and epochs.
Many figures included in this book held high offices within the Jewish community, with titles such as gaon (academy dean), rosh golah (exilarch), nagid (leader), and ra'īs al-yahūd (head of the Jews); lower-ranking but substantial offices such as qā?ī (judge) and kātib (scribe); or titles of honor bestowed upon them for communal or philanthropic activity, such as aluf (captain), rosh ha-seder (head of the order), and rosh kallah (head of the assembly). At the same time, the book will treat recipients of panegyric who held no official rank for whom "dominion" (misrah) was generally not a reality. Such figures—including grammarians, poets, and exegetes—were portrayed according to sets of conventions particular to their social roles; still, political imagery found its way into their representation as well, albeit in metaphoric form (the "king of poetry" and the like). This book therefore offers a series of cross-sections of the overlapping layers of Jewish society in the medieval Mediterranean—from the macrostructures of trans-regional leadership, to what was more regional, even local, in character, to circles of merchants and intellectuals.
The central body of texts includes the many hundreds of panegyrics dedicated to Jews of these numerous ranks, most often in Hebrew, sometimes in Judeo-Arabic, and, in some cases, both languages. The texts have been preserved through various means, from highly prized examples copied over many times, sometimes in luxury editions of books (and then printed in modernity), to collections of epistles copied by court scribes, and the occasional letters, poems, and other documents haphazardly discarded in the Cairo Geniza. Praise is found not only in freestanding "literary" panegyrics, whether in poetry or prose, but also in texts that are usually designated "documentary sources" such as letters or dedications of books or buildings. One methodological point of this book is to recover the original social function of "literary" texts and to discuss the literary features of "documentary" sources, thus closing the assumed gap between the two corpora; a text presented to the modern reader as a prime example of "medieval Hebrew literature," a text that was copied, anthologized, and commented upon, may have begun its life with a social purpose functionally indistinguishable from a scrap serendipitously preserved in the Geniza. Other sources utilized throughout the book in an ancillary manner include biblical exegesis, legal and lexicographic works, Arabic poetry, and treatises on philosophy, theology, and poetics by Jewish and non-Jewish authors.
Although the focus of the book is on praise among Jews, I also address, in the final chapter, the panegyrics written by Jews in honor of non-Jews, with examples ranging from Byzantium, Egypt, Syria, Castile, and Aragon in Arabic, Hebrew, and Castilian. The chapter demonstrates how Jews adopted discourses of Islamic and Christian power, sometimes praising non-Jewish figures as Muslims or Christians might have praised them, but also how Jews remained reticent about certain aspects of legitimacy and perhaps furtively conveyed to a Jewish audience a poetics of political resistance.
A Culture of Praise
My interest in Jewish panegyric follows renewed interest in panegyric among scholars of classical Greek and Latin literature, who had previously concentrated their efforts on epic and tragedy, and among scholars of Arabic literature. The panegyric turn itself was predicated on new academic interests in the nature and articulation of power, ceremonial aspects of verbal acclamation, anthropological models of exchange, and so forth. As in the cases of other panegyric traditions, a study of Hebrew panegyric is part literary study, part social history, and even part theology. As such, this book will cross paths numerous times with fields of scholarship that grew out of seminal works by figures such as Max Weber, Marcel Mauss, Pierre Bourdieu, Ernst Kantorowicz, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Judith Butler, and others.
The word "panegyric" reflects its originally public function, being derived from a Greek root meaning "public festival." In the classical world, a panegyric could be delivered in poetic or prose form and was recited publicly in conjunction with an event such as an emperor's birthday, the celebration of a victorious battle, or a religious holiday. Recent studies on panegyric in the classical world have treated the poet-patron relationship, shifting images of model leadership, and the role of panegyric in the propaganda of the state. The purposes of panegyric extended far beyond a poet's offering flattery in the hopes of monetary compensation. Panegyrics afforded leaders the opportunity to fashion their public personae, a central practice of state propaganda. Yet the presenting of ruler images cannot be seen as a top-down process only; leaders also functioned as screens upon which the values and aspirations of a cultural group could be projected. Poets sometimes wielded surprising amounts of power and could even use panegyric (and invective) to sway rulers.
Literary representations of leaders tend to pass over individual characteristics in favor of fairly stable and conventional images. They change slowly and are culturally determined and contingent upon historical circumstances. For this reason, seemingly minor shifts within a highly conventional corpus of praise literature can be of great value—both to literary scholars and to historians—not because they reveal much about the biographies of the actual leaders in question but because they represent shifting ideals of leadership itself. Pliny praises Trajan for his humanitas and civitas, stressing his ability to understand and interact with everyday citizens despite his divinity. During the Tetrarchic period, the emperor becomes more removed from his people. Eusebius peppered his portrait of Constantine with references to the biblical Moses, whose combined political and religious leadership made him an apposite paradigm of the Christian emperor. Medieval Byzantine panegyrists were sure to include the emperor's place of origin, his education, his zeal for orthodoxy, and, rather uniquely, as T. Dennis put it, "imperial perspiration" (employing such expressions as "the sweat of virtue").
As in the classical world, panegyric (Ar., madīḥ, praise) played a pronounced public function in the medieval Islamic world. Praise was an established genre in pre-Islamic poetry and occupied an ambivalent place when directed toward the Prophet Muḥammad following the advent of Islam. In numerous anecdotes, Muḥammad is portrayed as rebuking, even maiming, a panegyrist who praised him, though composing panegyric in the Prophet's honor was also one of the charges of ?assān Ibn Thābit, essentially the poet laureate of the new umma (nation); such panegyrics were essential in creating the image of the Prophet in the early Islamic community, which readily recognized poetic praise as a political mode. Poets became famous for their intricate poems dedicated to his honor (known as the burda, or "mantle" tradition), and more popular laudatory poems were recited at festivals such as the celebration of the Prophet's birthday.
As Islam expanded to become an imperial presence in the Near East, panegyric took on specific ceremonial functions. As has been noted by numerous scholars of classical Arabic poetry, including Beatrice Gruendler and Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych, the primary experience of Arabic panegyric was oral/aural such that the written poetic texts that have reached us are memorializations produced subsequent to a public event—usually a religious holiday, a caliph's inauguration or birthday, the celebration of a military victory, or the like. Royal panegyrics, which were often performed in the context of a majlis 'ām (Ar., public assembly), had several audiences: the addressee whose favor the poet sought to curry, the circle of competing poets whom the poet tried to best, and a wider public upon whom the poet (and the addressee) sought to impress a model of just and legitimate government. Many anecdotes have reached us concerning such issues as the "blocking" of the performance—the spatial positioning and physical postures of poet and addressee at the time of recitation—rituals of remuneration, the role of the audience, or the shaming of rival poets.
Arabic panegyric played a fundamental role in the promotion of state propaganda and the caliphal image. In addition to possessing general praiseworthy characteristics such as generosity and valor, caliphs and governors were praised for the nobility and purity of their lineage, their suppression of religious dissidents, their power to thwart enemies, and the eloquence of their tongues and pens in classical Arabic. Paramount in the establishment of political legitimacy were the twin values of territorial expansion through military conquest and the safeguarding of territory for the proper observance of Islam. Poets often concluded panegyrics with hopes for the addressee's long life, for it was through him that the best of all political circumstances were sustained.
In addition to the formal presentation of panegyric in a majlis 'ām, praise could be encountered in a great many contexts, including written addresses, public processions, and "familiar gatherings" (sing., majlis uns) where the caliph or another man of power surrounded himself with favorites in a less public yet highly ritualized setting. Further, as Samer Ali has stressed, a useful distinction can be made between the majlis, the "royal salon," and the mujālasa, a salon based on the majlis but whose participants were of the "middle strata, which included men of overlapping professions, such as merchants, absentee landlords, military personnel, and courtiers, as well as pious and literary scholars." The difference is captured beautifully in the forms of the words: majlis, from the fa'la form, "to sit," and mujālasa, from the fā'ala, "to sit with someone," suggesting reciprocity, sociability, and a higher degree of egalitarianism. As we will see in Chapter 1, this distinction obtains in the various performative contexts of Jewish panegyric.
When one addressed a man of power—either through writing or in person—one was expected to bless and praise him appropriately. The Arabic roots that occur most often in connection with these practices are d'w— "to invoke with blessings"—and mdḥ, "to praise." The praise genre is called madīḥ or madḥ; the person offering praise, the panegyrist, is called the mādiḥ, and his addressee was simply called the mamdūḥ, "the one praised." Because of the range of social relationships that used praise as a mediating device, in this book I generally refer to the addressee of a panegyric as its mamdūḥ, rather than more restrictive and overdetermined terms such as "patron" or "Maecenas," though I will use "patron" in specific senses.
There is little doubt that Jews had firsthand knowledge of Arabic panegyric practices wherein poems were performed orally, both in the Islamic East (mashriq) and in the Islamic West (maghrib). We hear occasional anecdotes about Jews appearing within Muslim courts where panegyric could be heard with frequency. In addition to such known Jewish courtiers as Ya'aqūb Ibn Qillīs (Egypt), Sulaiman Abū al-Munajjā (Egypt), and ?asdai Ibn Shaprut (al-Andalus), the great Arab rhetorician al-Jāḥi? (d. 869) records Arabic verses of three Iraqi Jewish poets in his Kitāb al-bayān that would likely have been transmitted in a courtly setting (though these are not panegyrics themselves). Hai Ben Sherirah Gaon (939-1038) considered a legal question about the permissibility of Jews drinking wine while listening to music in the company of non-Jews and ruled that this is generally a severe offense but is permissible for "those who stand before the ruler and work for the protection of the Jews." Although the responsum does not mention either offering or hearing panegyric for the ruler, the scene described suggests a majlis uns, a familiar gathering, where some version of praise might be heard. The small amount of panegyric for Muslim rulers written by Jews reflects intimate knowledge of praise conventions.
We know that the Jewish exilarch (rosh galut) in Baghdad, essentially the mundane head of the Jewish Diaspora, was granted audience before 'Abbasid caliphs. Natan ha-Bavli (tenth century) describes how the exilarch was given entry by the caliph's chamberlain (ḥājib; lit., "one who veils") and was allowed to "see [the caliph's] face." In one anecdote reported by Natan, the exilarch Mar 'Uqba appeared before the caliph in a certain garden of the royal compound every day for a year and "blessed him (wa-da'āhu) with sweet words and comely poems." It turned out that the poems were not of Mar 'Uqba's own composition but were plagiarized from the notebook of the caliph's scribe, an infraction that ultimately resulted in the exilarch's banishment to the Islamic West. Although the anecdote is likely apocryphal and meant to vilify Mar 'Uqba, it does speak to Jewish knowledge of the inner workings of the Islamic court and the function of panegyric during the classical era of Islam.
It also seems that Jews had familiarity with poems in honor of Muḥammad. Among the documents in Arabic script that have turned up in the Cairo Geniza is an unpublished fragment (TS NS 294.62r Figure 1) that is just such a poem that calls upon God to "perfume his tomb with exaltation . . . and [pray] for the one who brought us our clear religion in truth." It is written in a low literary register and, while lacking the prestige of the most famous poems of the burda tradition, would have been popular (in fact, a nearly identical version can be heard today at celebrations of the Prophet's birthday in the Muslim world).
Regarding al-Andalus, I know of no anecdote wherein a Jew dedicates a panegyric to a Muslim potentate, though Ibn Bassām relates that the Muslim poet 'Abd al-Azīz Ibn Khayra al-Qurṭubī composed an Arabic panegyric for the Jewish kātib (scribe) Shemuel ha-Nagid (aka Ismā'īl Ibn Naghrīla). Muslim historians relate that Ibn Naghrīla was fully adept at the art of Arabic epistle writing, including mastery of Islamic formulas of address; he would have possessed mastery over du'ā and governmental titulature. It is difficult to imagine that he did not also encounter panegyrics for Zirid kings firsthand. Other Jews likely had knowledge of panegyrics that circulated following specific military campaigns. Further, we know of numerous encounters between Jewish and Muslim poets, including the case of a Jewish student (Ar., talmīdh) who studied under a Muslim. Jewish panegyric writing certainly displays deep familiarity with the conventions of courtly Arabic panegyric. It is possible that this could have been acquired through reading rather than performance, but it seems likely that there were dual origins. Mosheh Ibn Ezra, for example, quotes 'Abbasid panegyrics that he encountered through works of Arabic literary criticism and may have also heard contemporary Arabic panegyrics, given his position as "chief of police" (ṣāḥib al-shurṭa) in Granada.
The internalization of practices of praise is reflected in medieval readings of certain biblical passages. When introducing the praise of Saul and David returning from battle, the text in 1 Sm 18:6 reads, "the women in all the towns of Israel came out singing and dancing to greet King Saul with timbrels, joy, and shalishim." This last word was understood in the Targum and in most commentaries as the name of a musical instrument, but Ibn Janāḥ in al-Andalus translated it as "poems (Ar., ash'ār); it is called thus because its station compared with other speech is the station of elites (Ar., ru'asā'; pl. of ra'īs) compared with other men." The word shalish can also refer to a confidant of a king (2 Kgs 7:17) or his military officer (2 Kgs 9:25), hence a ra'īs.
Abundant familiarity with ruler adulation is even apparent in work of the pietist Baḥya Ibn Paquda, who harbored significant animus toward political culture as an incubator of human hubris. In arguing that one must invest literary skill in composing praises for God, whether orally or in writing, the practice of madīḥ is evoked in detail and with the technical vocabulary of the literary arts: "If one were to render one's thanks (shukr) and praise (ḥamd) toward [a ruler] for a kindness (ḥasn) he bestowed or a favor (fa?l) he granted, whether in poetry or prose (bi-na?m aw bi-nathr), in writing or in speech (bi-kitāb aw khiṭāb), one would not omit anything from his rhetoric (balāghah) or eloquence (faṣāḥa): simile and metaphor, truth and falsehood, whatever is permitted for [the poet] to describe [the ruler] . . . . Accordingly, it is fitting to do with acts of obedience to God." Similarly, Avraham Maimonides opines that a prayer precentor is required to stand when reciting pesuqei de-zimra (a liturgical section consisting of praises for God from the Psalms) because, "if a poet (shā'ir) were to praise a leader (ra'īs min al-ru'asā) or a flesh and blood king in a seated position, he would anger the one praised (al-mamdūḥ) more than he would please him."
Panegyric was offered among Jews in the Islamic Mediterranean within many types of social arrangements and in connection with virtually any occasion. It was written by poets for paying patrons but also between friends of equal or similar social rank, between communal officials and their superiors and inferiors, between teachers and students, and between merchants. It could be addressed to a single mamdūḥ, a small group, or an entire community. Panegyrics were exchanged between confidants who knew each other intimately but also between individuals residing at vast distances who knew each other by reputation only. They could be written for a person's appointment to a position of distinction, a marriage, the circumcision of a son, or the death of a relative (i.e., in addition to a lament over the dead, the poet would praise surviving relatives). One wrote panegyric when endorsing a political candidate, appointing a communal officer, requesting a favor, expressing gratitude, responding to an invitation to a party, assuaging anger, and even, paradoxically enough, when offering rebuke. Yehudah Halevi praised Abū Naṣr Ibn al-Yesh'a of Egypt upon the death of his handmaiden (Heb., ammah; quite possibly a concubine); and when a dog bit the foot of a certain Ezra Ben al-Thiqqa, El'azar Ben Ya'aqov ha-Bavli invented the following: "Beasts rushed to kiss his shoe; they bit him for they did not know that princes wrap their heads with the strap of his shoe and the stars on high prostrate themselves before his feet." The disposition to praise thus made up one aspect of the habitus, to use Pierre Bourdieu's term, of Mediterranean Jews, "principles which generate and organize practices ... objectively 'regulated' and 'regular' without being in any way the product of obedience to rules, they can be collectively orchestrated without being the product of the organizing action of a conductor."
Even beyond the formal presentation of panegyric, praise was used as an agent that bound people together within webs of social relations. One might report to an addressee that a third party had uttered words in his praise. Notice the dynamics in the introduction to the Epistle to Yemen, in which Maimonides (d. 1204) responded to a letter from Ya'aqov, son of the noted Yemeni scholar Natanel al-Fayyūmī. The introduction was written in Hebrew while the main content of the epistle was in Judeo-Arabic. Maimonides had not met his correspondent previously and addressed him thus: "To the honored, great, and holy master and teacher, Ya'aqov, wise and kind, beloved and respected sage, son of the honored, great, and holy master and teacher, Natanel al-Fayyūmī, distinguished prince of Yemen, leader of its congregations, head of its communities."
In addition to responding to the pressing issues of Ya'aqov's letter, Maimonides' introduction addressed Ya'aqov's report that Jews in Yemen, "praise, aggrandize, and extol me and compare me with the illustrious geonim." Maimonides also responded to the news that "our friend, our student, Rav Shelomoh, deputy of the priests, the wise, the intelligent, who indulges in hyperboles in praise of me and speaks extravagantly in extolling me, exaggerates wildly according to his desire, and waxes enthusiastic out of his love and kindness." In response to all this praise, Maimonides insists upon his modesty, which was expected according to the unwritten social script. There is no reason to think that the praises referenced in the letter involved formal or poetic panegyric, although Maimonides was certainly the recipient of several literary panegyrics. The praise mentioned here belongs to a more general species of which this and formal panegyric were both a part. Interestingly, the cycle of praise involved not only Maimonides and Ya'aqov but also those who praised Maimonides to Ya'aqov; Ya'aqov's report of praise not only served as a kind of praise in itself but also helped bind him and Maimonides within a specific social and intellectual circle (a contemporary comparison might be the "bringing of regards" from a mutual contact when introducing oneself to someone new). Such practices facilitate the formation of bonds between people who do not know each other but imagine themselves as belonging to the same group. An individual could maintain ties simultaneously in several different or overlapping groups, which could be geographically proximate or diffuse or grounded in different types of social alignment (educational, literary, legal, mercantile). Throughout this book, we will witness the appearance and dissolution over five centuries of numerous groups in the Islamic East, the Islamic West, Christian lands, and in trans-Mediterranean contexts. These groups, their memberships and values, become visible to us through the exchange of panegyric.
Jewish Panegyrics Before the Medieval Period
The Bible, unsurprisingly, foregrounds the praise of God over the praise of human beings, though this praise is often modeled after royal panegyric as known in the Ancient Near East. Psalm 45 likely originated as a royal panegyric, specifically for the occasion of a king's wedding; before turning to the bride, the poem extols the king's handsome appearance, military power, and righteousness and evokes emblems of his power (his throne and scepter). The most sustained biblical passage written in praise of a man, though it is not direct praise delivered to the sovereign, is 1 Kings 5, where Solomon is lauded for extending his rule from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines, for possessing wisdom, for authoring proverbs, and for initiating the building of the Temple. We find other snippets of praise, as when Moses is described as "exceedingly modest" (Nm 12:3), or when Absalom is praised for his beauty (2 Sm 14:20, 25), or when the woman of Tekoa praises David, "My lord is like an angel of God" (2 Sm 14:7). In Ez 28:2-3, we find a sort of anti-panegyric, which God commands the prophet to deliver to the ruler of Tyre: "You have set your mind like the mind of God! Yes, you are wiser than Daniel; in no hidden matter can anyone compare to you. By your shrewd understanding you have gained riches, and amassed gold and silver in treasuries." This "praise," of course, is only a setup to expose the haughtiness of the sovereign who had claimed divine status yet structurally parallels the performance of panegyric in the ancient Near East.
The first Hebrew praise for a man outside the Bible, and here in poetic form, emanates from the Book of Ben Sira, authored by a priest in Jerusalem circa 180 BCE. The book contains a long and well-known section that begins, "Let me now hymn the praises of men of piety (ḥesed), of our fathers in their generations." The text selectively rewrites the lives of Israel's biblical heroes and culminates with praise for Simon the Just, the high priest and Ben Sira's contemporary, including a description of his offering of sacrifices in the Temple on Yom Kippur. The work blends the values of Torah-centered Judaism and Greek paideia; in fact, the work bears the imprints of the traditions of classical biography and the encomium. The praise of Simon combines his ritual functions in the Temple with certain municipal king-like functions such as protecting the people from brigands and defending Jerusalem against enemies and also secures his authority as one who receives commandments and teaches statutes and judgments.
The structure of the praise for Simon is abundantly simple. Following mention of the municipal functions, the appearance of the radiance of the high priest exiting the Holy of Holies is elaborated with a series of similes: "How splendid was he looking out from the Tent and leaving the House of the Curtain: like a bright star among clouds, like a full moon on the holidays [Passover, Sukkot], like the sun shining on the king's temple, like a rainbow in a cloud, like a bud on the branches in the days of the holiday [Passover], like a lily by watercourses, like the blossoms of Lebanon in summer, like the fire of frankincense at the offering, like a vessel of beaten gold adorned with precious stones in the house of a powerful man, like a verdant olive tree abundant with fruit, like a tree whose branch runs with oil."
The similes draw primarily upon the semantic fields of heavenly objects and flora with occasional references to sacrifice, covenant, holidays (especially Passover), and powerful men. Although Simon is a man of power, he is not the king; yet the poem is careful to associate him with kingship by portraying him as the source that illuminates the king's Temple, which had been recently rebuilt. Associating his appearance with the priestly office, the covenant, central holidays, and kingship is hardly haphazard; the similes combine to create a full portrait of the high priest as the embodiment of core values of Jewish life and hence as a legitimate political officer.
As was shown by Cecil Roth, Ben Sira's praise for Simon the Just became the template for a host of liturgical poems (piyyutim) inserted into the 'avodah service of the Yom Kippur liturgy, which, as in Ben Sira's poem, describes the rituals of the high priest in the Holy of Holies. These poems utilize the same incipit and follow the structure of presenting similes in a simple list. They enjoyed many expansions during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages and are key texts for documenting the representation of power through the similes selected by poets. Although many elements of this genre remain stable over time (especially comparisons with heavenly bodies and flowers as well as allusions to Ezekiel's vision), the precise selection of similes varies in different cultural contexts through the adoption of synchronic images of power. In a version attributed to Yosi Ben Yosi (fifth century), the priest is described "like a garland placed on the forehead of a king," which maintains the association with monarchy and reminds us of the practice of Roman officials appearing wreathed in public processions. In the same poem, the priest is likened to Moses, an angel, and a warrior, "like one clad in the garments and helmet of triumph"; the helmet is another key symbol of power from Late Antiquity.
In Islamic al-Andalus during the eleventh century, Mosheh Ibn Ezra depicted the high priest "like the radiance of a king appearing before the masses, before him the land was like the Garden of Eden" and "like a king in his troop among the longing [i.e., Israel], like the wisdom of an angel of God." Yiṣḥaq Ibn Ghiyat wrote: "How wondrous was the high priest ... when he went about in his vestibule with the splendor of a king, justice went before him; when he tread upon a pavement of marble, a star rose." Although there are obvious references to Temple rituals, the poets also incorporate elements of caliphal pageantry such as his appearing before the masses, surveying his territory, and moving in a military entourage. The Temple, too, is made into a kind of royal palace replete with a marble floor. These fascinating changes in representation within the fairly fixed corpus of the 'avodah liturgy is a telling measure of shifting cultural ideals about power. The liturgical poems were only about an imagined priest and not a particular person; the high priest was a screen upon which historically contingent and culturally specific images of power were projected.
Rabbinic literature continues the biblical practice of emphasizing God's praise over man's. Praise for God is presented as a contractual requirement, given the great miracles that God had performed for Israel, an idea captured in a famous passage introducing the hallel (praise) service of the Passover seder. Immediately after commending God for having freed "our ancestors" and "us" from Egypt in order to "bring us to and give us the land that He swore to our ancestors," the seder participants recite (with an exceptionally long list of verbs): "Because of this, we must thank, praise, honor, glorify, exalt, magnify, bless, elevate, and celebrate the One who performed all these miracles for us and our ancestors." Further, rabbinic Jews set laudation of the ruler as the operative metaphor in treating praise for God. As David Stern notes, following a study by Ignaz Ziegler in the early twentieth century, "features of the king-mashal [allegory] are modeled upon those of the Roman emperor. . . . The many references in the meshalim to the larger world in which the Rabbis lived certainly show how profoundly familiar the sages were with that world and its culture."
There are points in rabbinic literature wherein a man is praised with a short phrase or epithet: a few sages of the Talmud are given the Aramaic sobriquet gavra rabba ("great man"); after Rabbi Yoḥanan had made an astute comment, Rabbi ?izqiyah exclaims (also in Aramaic) that "he is not a [mere] mortal" (leit dein bar inash). It is reported that Yoḥanan Ben Zakkai "used to recount the praises" (hayah moneh shivḥan) of five students, but the text merely illustrates ideal types and does not suggest that he praised the students directly. In fact, rabbinic writing expresses reservation toward direct praise and further demonstrates, as Seth Schwartz argues, that the rabbis largely opted out of the euergetic system of their day. An illustrative text is b. Eruvin 18b, wherein Yermiyahu Ben El'azar expounds upon a discrepancy between Gn 6:9 and 7:1. The narrative voice of the Flood story (i.e., God, in Yermiyahu's view) introduces Noah as a "righteous and upright man in his generation; Noah walked with God." However, when God addresses Noah directly, He calls him "righteous" only. From this, Ben El'azar concludes, "one speaks little of a man's praise before him but all of it when not before him." Even in death, the sages warned against excessive praise for the deceased.
The dramatic shift in the place of praise in Jewish society in the medieval period is illustrated with the following text, an unpublished Geniza manuscript (TS 8 J 16.18r; Figure 2), which is an address to a certain Ovadiah. Following a brief wish for success, the text praises the recipient in a mixture of Judeo-Arabic and Hebrew (Hebrew in italics):
All that reaches a man with respect to praise [al-madīḥ] and sincere thanks [al-shukr al-ṣarīḥ] falls short with regard to the lofty lord, confidant of the state, security of kingship, our lord and master Ovadiah the minister, the noble, the wise, the intelligent, may God extend his grace, elevate his status, and give him abundant fortune in the eyes of kings and ministers. May he bless his brothers and his sons the ministers and may they be a blessing in the midst of the land. All that they address before him [of praise and thanks] is but a fraction of what is said when he is not present according to what the rabbis [al-awā'il], may God be satisfied with them, made clear in their saying, "One says little of a man's praise before him but all of it when not before him." They said this because we have found that God, lofty and exalted, when Noah was not present, described him with three qualities—righteous, upright, and so on—but when he addressed him, He said, "For I have seen you righteous before me" and so on. He described him as righteous only.The letter suggests that praise had previously been directed to Ovadiah in person, which is not at all surprising, given that he was a man of significant rank. He was called "confidant of the state, security of kingship" (amīn al-dawla, thiqqat al-mulk), both of which are titles common in Islamic political discourse that were appropriated within the titulature of the Jewish academies. Most strikingly, the rabbinic warning against direct praise becomes a device exploited within panegyric (i.e., all this is said about you in your presence; just imagine what is said when you are not present!). The document also reveals something about the letter's reception and afterlife; the margins bear a text in Judeo-Arabic, composed in a different hand, which explains the content of the letter, including the rabbinic dictum regarding what is "said of praise (min al-madīḥ) in the presence of the individual praised (al-shakhṣ al-mamdūḥ)" and the references to Noah. The letter was of sufficient value to merit commentary and was interpreted through the contemporary idiom of Arabic praise writing, replete with the terminology of madīḥ and mamdūḥ. Clearly, a great deal had changed since the rabbinic period.
Why this change? The short answer is Islam, but that is hardly descriptive of a process. It is difficult to identify any single cause that brought Jews into the social practice of offering extensive praise in a manner similar to the practice among Muslims. It would be far too facile to ascribe the Jewish adoption of an Islamic social and political practice to the affinity of Judaism for Islam generally, though perhaps it was of at least some relevance that another aniconic monotheistic community had found a way to accommodate praise for men without usurping God's place as the one true object of praise. Certainly, the Arabization of the Near East is relevant, as are the migration patterns of Jews to cosmopolitan centers of Islamic power and the relocation of the great academies of Sura and Pumbedita from their ancestral homes along the Euphrates to the 'Abbasid capital of Baghdad (late ninth—early tenth century). While the leadership institutions of the geonic period pre-date the spread of Islam, in the words of Robert Brody: "Under the unifying umbrella of Islam, international trade flourished as never before, and a form of international banking developed as well. Jews played a leading role in both of these areas . . . . [T]he center of this vast empire was transferred from Syria, where the Umayyads had had their capital at Damascus, to Babylonia, where the Abbasids made their capital at Baghdad. The leaders of Babylonian Jewry were thus admirably positioned to influence their coreligionists worldwide, and they made the most of their opportunities."
These transformations aligned the geonim, the leaders of the Baghdad academies (and also their counterparts at the Jerusalem academy), with an imperial perspective, and, in many ways, the administrative functions of the academies mirrored those of the 'Abbasid government whose central preoccupation was to establish and maintain loyalty over a vast region. To these ends, Jewish leaders staged ceremonies of power, political rituals that included laudation and the profession of loyalty; they circulated textual accounts that "re-created" those ceremonies for distant communities; they sent legal opinions (responsa) and epistles on moral themes; and they dispatched emissaries throughout the region to represent them. Further, in comparison with Jews in Late Antiquity, Jews in Islamic empires appeared more often in governmental spaces, either as petitioners before officials or as courtiers, and probably had greater exposure to modes of professing loyalty and acclamation. Still, our knowledge about how these transformations occurred will necessarily remain deficient because of lacunae in the written record.
Inasmuch as satellite Jewish communities in Syria, North Africa, al-Andalus, and Yemen turned to the various academies for legal opinions or expressed loyalty toward them (bonds that could be multiple, shifting, or ephemeral), they also maintained robust local leaderships, including courtiers who enjoyed audience with proximate dynasties of Islamic power, including independent caliphates. The precise interplay between local and central Jewish authority in the Islamic Mediterranean, between hierarchic and horizontal structure, has been and remains a central preoccupation of scholarship. Like responsa literature, panegyrics can help historians create rich pictures of institutional loyalties.
Moreover, bonds among Jews across the region of Islamic aegis were not limited to the hierarchy of religious institutions; Jews participated in smaller and sometimes interrelated groups or social networks that could be oriented toward shared goals of a political, mercantile, or intellectual nature. Inasmuch as a panegyric demonstrates a link, though sometimes an aspirational one, between two men, a full map of panegyric exchanges allows for a kind of representation, however partial, of Jewish social relations in the medieval Mediterranean, both spatially and across ranks. To understand the web of social relations among Jews in the region, we must envision several overlapping maps: (1) academy leaders, their local supporters, emissaries, and adherents in satellite communities; (2) local Jewish authorities and their adherents; (3) merchants, their family members, and partners in enterprise; and (4) intellectuals who had tastes for various types of knowledge. Although not mutually exclusive, the maps for each of these could look quite different, and praise writing is a major resource for marking their contours and characters.
A single author might belong to several social networks simultaneously and address members of each appropriately. Shemuel ha-Nagid of al-Andalus praised his fellow Andalusian Abū Fa?l Ibn ?asdai in a pure biblicizing Hebrew for his wisdom, generosity, and eloquence, but, when he lamented Hai Gaon of Baghdad, he wrote in a register described in the manuscript as "like the language of the Mishnah" (mithl lughat al-mishnah) and focused on his knowledge of Torah, Mishnah, and Talmud as well as his power of judgment. Here, the linguistic registers themselves, along with the characteristics selected for praise, demarcate the social networks, one a set of Andalusian intellectuals devoted to linguistic purity, the other a group of rabbinic scholars for whom mishnaic Hebrew marked a legal community with ancient roots.
Similarly, Yehudah Halevi praised his fellow Andalusian poet-scholar Yehudah Ibn Ghiyat as one who wears garments of wisdom, fear, integrity, justice, skill, honor, modesty, and kindness, a "tree of knowledge that gives life to those who gather [its fruit], a lion whelp who shepherds ewes." Both Halevi and Ibn Ghiyat belonged to the circle of Andalusian Jews who have sometimes been called "courtier rabbis," though it is preferable to refer to them as they sometimes referred to themselves in Arabic, as ahl al-adab, the "people of adab," an expansive concept that incorporated wide-ranging knowledge (in poetry, oratory, rhetoric, grammar, exegesis) and a refined, urbane code of etiquette. At the same time, Halevi praised the Nagid Shemuel Ben ?ananiah of Egypt by dwelling on his power, "A Nagid 'who seeks the good of his people and speaks peace to all its seed,'" a verbatim description of Mordechai, the archetypal Jewish courtier (Est 10:3); "a righteous man who rules over men, who rules with the fear of God," predicated of King David (2 Sm 23:3); "he stood in the counsel of the holy." Moreover, this poem situates the Nagid geographically within the Mediterranean: "Canaan (Palestine) envies Egypt because it is illumined by the light of his face; Shinar (Iraq) studies his ways and beseeches 'Majestic Full of Light' (i.e., God) to see the king who stands above the waters of the Nile. Sefarad (al-Andalus) joins them to measure out his boundary."
Iraq and Palestine, the gravitational centers to which other communities turn, here focus their gaze upon this "king" of Egypt; al-Andalus "joins them" in honoring the Nagid, thus setting the place of al-Andalus within the hierarchy. The representation of Mediterranean geography is taken up in Chapter 4, but a few words are in order here.
It should be clear by now that Dominion Built of Praise treats a broad geographic expanse that ranges from al-Andalus and North Africa in the Islamic West to Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq in the Islamic East, and then areas along the Mediterranean Sea under Christian control (northern Iberia, southern France, Sicily). This whole region has, with much justification, been called "the Mediterranean," and since I use the term in the title of this book, I will include here a brief discussion of the term's history and my usage of it. At other points, I reflect further on this book as a Mediterranean project.
The idea of the Mediterranean as an object of study enjoyed considerable prestige during the early and mid-twentieth century (with scholars such as Henri Pirenne and Fernand Braudel) and has emerged with renewed force in recent decades. By placing the well-traversed sea at the center of a map rather than segregating Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East according to continent, or the Islamic world from the Christian world according to spheres of religious dominance, scholars have appreciated lines of continuity that emerged across political, religious, or linguistic lines, even through war and conflict. Debates over the utility of a Mediterranean orientation have revolved around whether the region (however demarcated) can be analyzed as a unity—a "discriminable whole," in Horden and Purcell's phrasing—or whether the various points around a Mediterranean route remained sufficiently distinct as to resist unified treatment. Should political unity or relative peace be considered a necessary precondition for undertaking the region as a whole? Should continuities such as vocabulary items or culinary influence be considered sufficient for imagining a shared cultural sphere? The harshest critiques of the Mediterranean as an analytic framework have argued that it is essentializing and imperialist, much as Edward Said argued in the case of the Orient.
The first question that might be asked is: Where, exactly, was the Mediterranean—its territorial contours? As Sarah Stroumsa laconically notes in her study of Maimonides as a "Mediterranean thinker," the cultural notion of the Mediterranean world has taken on "impressive dimensions," sometimes reaching as far as the Low Countries and, ironically enough, the Atlantic world. In S. D. Goitein's monumental A Mediterranean Society, a study of Jewish (and, to a significant degree, Muslim) society as reflected in the documents of the Cairo Geniza, the Mediterranean meant the areas under Islamic rule that bordered the Mediterranean Sea (Egypt, al-Andalus, the Maghrib, Sicily, Palestine) and included the region termed the Near East, extending toward the Indian Ocean (primarily Syria and Iraq). Although Goitein was well aware that the political and cultural climates of the locales throughout the Mediterranean were diverse, he chose to stress the interconnection and cohesion of Jews in the Arabic-speaking Mediterranean over several centuries, offering the "big picture" according to major categories (economy, family, community) rather than a series of local histories. The further exposure and organization of Geniza documents has allowed Goitein's successors to produce more localized histories, even focusing on fairly small groups of people; but still, the idea of the Mediterranean has not lost meaning.
Throughout most of this book, I use the term "Mediterranean" largely in the way that Goitein used it—an "Islamized Mediterranean," as Fred Astren has termed it. Clearly, figures introduced above, such as Shemuel ha-Nagid of al-Andalus and Yehudah Halevi, can be analyzed simultaneously as members of intimate Andalusian circles and broader trans-Mediterranean networks. In order to document specific phenomena (say, installation to communal office), I bring together examples from Iraq in the tenth century, al-Andalus in the eleventh, and Syria in the twelfth, knowing full well that I am eliding important distinctions. To the extent that "jumping around" is a quality from which A Mediterranean Society suffers, the present book will be guilty of the same offense. While I give weight to regional and temporal variation and, at times, strongly emphasize it, I believe that looking at specific locales only would obscure certain elements of Jewish culture across the region.
At the same time, my outlook on the Mediterranean differs from Goitein's in two main respects. First, in Goitein's study, due to the natural pertinence of Geniza materials to Egypt, al-Andalus appears as a remote frontier of the Islamic world (which it undoubtedly was!). Given the focus of the present study on praise writing and the plethora of surviving materials that originated in al-Andalus, this area will loom larger than in A Mediterranean Society. Second, whereas the geographic span of Goitein's magnum opus remained more or less within the confines of the Islamic world, this study contains an extended chapter on the Christian Mediterranean, including Christian Iberia, southern France, and Norman Sicily.
One might argue that any segregation between the Islamic and the Christian Mediterranean is artificial and obscures a cultural continuity that was not delimited by language or creed. Thus, the coherence of al-Andalus, Castile, and southern France might be at least as strong as that of Qairawan, Yemen, and Iraq. Not segregating Christian and Islamic domains is further justified when one considers the itineraries of certain individuals. Yehudah Halevi and Yehudah al-?arīzī, the focal characters of Chapter 4, engaged with communities not only in the Islamic East and the Islamic West but also within Christian Iberia and southern France. A Jewish intellectual such as Anatoli Ben Yosef (late twelfth-early thirteenth century) was active in Marseilles, Lunel, Alexandria, and Sicily. Indeed, I consider the movement of people, objects, knowledge, and cultural practices across Islamic and Christian territories to be one of the more interesting and fruitful areas of scholarship today. My segregating the Christian Mediterranean within a single chapter has more to do with chronology than geography and certainly does not reflect an assumption that the Islamic world was at odds with Christendom.
Finally, this book is not an attempt to write a grand history "of the Mediterranean," the vast project attempted by Horden and Purcell, but rather a relatively modest history of an identifiable phenomenon "in the Mediterranean"—and then largely within the confines of a single religious community. Although social and political dynamics vary substantively over time and space, the basic practice of offering praise remained a constant among Mediterranean Jews. We are not simply witnessing a set of parallel cultures of praise but a coherent, genetically interrelated corpus of texts with shared literary features and tropes; certain continuities exist across Islamic and Christian domains on the level of both literary history and the construction of legitimacy. This project is therefore grounded in a relatively concrete kind of "connectivity," the term given by Horden and Purcell for justifying a Mediterranean study, and demonstrates the coherence, at some minimal level, of Jewish culture throughout the region over the centuries. I therefore see differences among Jewish groups across the regions of the Mediterranean not as differences between but rather as differences within. At the same time, this is a study in regionalism: for example, distinct features in the representation of Jewish legitimacy emerge in Christian domains due to the different place of Jews and Judaism within Christian theology and the nature of Jewish-Christian debate. Concentrating on the practice of panegyric and the representation of legitimacy over space and time allows for significant, if subtle, changes in Jewish culture to emerge.
Outline of Chapters
Dominion Built of Praise begins with two chapters on the social function of Jewish panegyric in the Islamic Mediterranean. The first, "Performance Matters: Between Oral Acclamation and Epistolary Exchange," studies how Jewish panegyric texts were patronized, received, performed, and circulated. Were they delivered orally, either before small or large audiences, or read privately by their mamdūḥs? What relationship exists between the written testimonies and oral/aural experiences? Here I consider the function of panegyric within Jewish political rituals, such as the appointment of a man to office, less formal social gatherings, and within epistolary exchange in which it helped forge and maintain bonds over distances.
Chapter 2, "Poetic Gifts: Maussian Exchange and the Working of Medieval Jewish Culture," reflects upon the metapoetic trope by which medieval Jewish authors referred to their panegyrics as "gifts." Jewish culture in the Islamic Mediterranean may be said to have operated according to a complex "economy of gifts" wherein goods and favors were exchanged among people over distances and at close proximity to one another. The rhetoric of gift giving permeates panegyrics and reveals a great deal about the functions that their authors and readers ascribed them. I argue, based on the theory of gift exchange first advanced by Marcel Mauss (a theory that has already been applied to Greek, Latin, and Arabic panegyric), that portraying panegyrics as gifts constituted them as material objects whose value served as or demanded reciprocation, thus initiating or perpetuating a cycle of loyalty. Toward the end of the chapter, I consider the specific implications of describing gifts through the language of the sacrificial cult of ancient Israel, as though these gifts were offered not for their human recipients but rather for God.
Chapter 3, "'Humble Like the Humble One': The Language of Jewish Political Legitimacy," reviews dominant characteristics ascribed to idealized Jewish figures and interprets the cultural resonances of these virtues through diachronic and synchronic representations of power and legitimacy. Thus, the chapter considers such elements as associating the mamdūḥ with biblical predecessors (e.g., Moses, David, Samuel) and offices (priests, prophets, kings) as well as resonances with contemporary images of Islamic legitimacy. Further, the chapter considers ways in which panegyrists tailored their compositions for mamdūḥs of different rank.
Chapter 4, "'Sefarad Boasts over Shinar': Mediterranean Regionalism in Jewish Panegyric," reflects upon the present study as a "Mediterranean" project. The subject of this book offers an ideal case study for thinking through debates concerning Mediterranean cohesion in that it traces a demonstrable feature of continuity and connectivity—the praise writing of Jews who lived, traveled, and traded around "the sea"—even as it stresses variations and disjunctions among the several subregions. With a focus on the panegyrics of Yehudah Halevi and Yehudah al-?arīzī, I argue that minor fluctuations in the idealization of leadership across the highly conventional and relatively stable corpus of Jewish panegyric provide a telling measure of differences in Jewish political cultures.
Although panegyric writing was clearly more normative and acceptable in the medieval period than it is in our own day, the practice was not without its detractors. The ethical misgivings surrounding the culture of praise were several, from the worldly aspirations of fame-seeking mamdūḥs, to the sincerity of the panegyrist (especially when he received remuneration), the potential falsehood of poetic statements themselves, and the problem of praising men when, theologically speaking, all praise was properly due to God. In Chapter 5, "'A Word Aptly Spoken': The Ethics of Praise," I review comments concerning praise among major Jewish authors (e.g., Sa'adia Gaon, Baḥya Ibn Paquda, Mosheh Ibn Ezra, Maimonides) who expressed qualms about the practice or tried to navigate the ethical concerns implicit. Because these authors did not treat these topics extensively or systematically, their views are gleaned from occasional statements in their biblical exegesis and ethical and poetic writings. I show that, with a few exceptions, praise writing was viewed as ethically sound as long as it was executed within certain parameters.
Chapter 6, "'A Cedar Whose Stature in the Garden of Wisdom . . . ': Hyperbole, the Imaginary, and the Art of Magnification," continues with one theme raised in Chapter 5 concerning the potential of panegyric for presenting falsehood. Beyond the suspicion that the conniving panegyrist could simply lie for personal gain was the concern that panegyric, like other poetic genres, relied upon "deception" as its very mode of discourse. This chapter considers the role of hyperbole and metaphor in panegyric composition as well as the prescribed boundaries for these devices, especially with regard to Mosheh Ibn Ezra's Judeo-Arabic treatise on Hebrew poetics within the context of Arabic poetics. I demonstrate that the fundamental mode of panegyric discourse is what Aristotle called auxesis, "magnification" (Heb., giddul; Ar., ta'a?īm) and that magnifying the qualities of a mamdūḥ was not only permitted but was required according to "his due." Although poetic discourse remained a kind of deception, it was a unique quality of poetic speech that it could make statements that were meaningful without any particular claim to truth.
Chapter 7, "In Praise of God, in Praise of Man: Issues in Political Theology," is an exhaustive treatment of the poetic device of praising mamdūḥs with phrases that are predicated of God in the Hebrew Bible. The discussion is situated within classical Arabic literary criticism, in which the practice of interlacing panegyrics with God's praises from the Qur'ān was sometimes labeled contemptible speech and even polytheism (Ar., shirk, "attributing partners to God"). Despite such condemnations, Muslim and Jewish poets adopted this poetic practice precisely because it pressed against a perceived boundary between the human and the divine. Not only was sacred hyperbole rhetorically effective, but it provided poets a means of conveying vital aspects of political ideology. Through engagement with the idea of political theology as formulated by Carl Schmitt and Ernst Kantorowicz, I argue that divine association in panegyric did not make mamdūḥs divine so much as it presented a theological structure within politics.
Chapter 8, "'May His Book Be Burnt Even Though It Contains Your Praise!': Jewish Panegyric in the Christian Mediterranean," follows themes developed throughout the book in Christian Iberia, southern France, and Sicily during the later Middle Ages. I stress continuities and disjunctions in patronage relationships, poetic ideals, modes of representation, and political culture. The chapter recognizes new elements that left imprints on the panegyric corpus such as the kabbalah, Jewish-Christian polemics, religious conversion, and Romance vernacular literature.
Chapter 9, "The Other 'Great Eagle': Interreligious Panegyrics and the Limits of Interpretation," treats the several poems penned by Jewish authors in honor of Muslim and Christian addressees (in Hebrew, Judeo-Arabic, Arabic, and Castilian). The chapter studies the discursive strategies through which Jews praised non-Jewish rulers and explores how Jews used panegyric to negotiate their political position within local and imperial structures. Although recognizing the temporal authority of non-Jewish potentates while maintaining traditional Jewish stances on sacred history could certainly be awkward, interreligious panegyrics reveal various strategies for accommodating these rival claims. Further, the chapter investigates the methodological issues involved in determining whether words of praise should be read subversively as containing a "hidden transcript" that conceals a poetics of Jewish resistance.
A brief afterword revisits some major points of the book.