Nahman of Braslav: Master of Tales

In tenth-century Spain there was a circle of wealthy Jews, thoroughly educated in Arabic language and literature, skilled in professions, and holding positions of responsibility and power in public life, and also pious, learned, and fiercely loyal to Jewish interests. These extraordinary men, sometimes known as the Andalusian courtier rabbis, were not the first medieval Jews to take part in the life of the larger world, for Jews in tenth-century Iraq had functioned in the courts of the Abbasid caliphs. What was unique about the Andalusian Jewish courtiers was the self-conscious way in which they synthesized the dominant Arabic-Islamic culture with Jewish religious and literary traditions.

These men founded a new type of Jewish life, based on a novel educational program and geared to producing a new leadership; they sought literary expression in a completely renovated poetry. For these Jews, religious commitment, cultural identification, and national loyalty were strong enough and flexible enough to permit them to openly enter the life and style of the dominant culture while maintaining their identity as Jews.

The Andalusian Muslim ruling class of the time was sufficiently worldly and tolerant in its religious outlook to welcome them as participants; the price was acculturation, but not conversion. To the Jews who benefited from the opportunity to join the brilliant material and intellectual life of Andalusian-Moorish culture, at its peak in the tenth century, the world must have seemed one great wine party held in the enormous lush garden of Spain  and they themselves a uniquely gifted generation.

In the world of the Muslim ruling class, literature, particularly poetry, enjoyed enormous prestige. Linguistic studies  grammar, lexicography, and rhetoric  were the basis of education. The intellectual formation of the Muslim aristocracy was based on intense application to a corpus of classical literary texts in a language which, though similar to the dialect in daily use, was distinct from it and required systematic study.

These texts provided a classic cultural model distinct from the religious tradition, rooted in and deriving its values from the world of the pre-Islamic Bedouins tribesmen. This model was somewhat in conflict with the monotheistic religious values of the Quran and Hadith; it provided a secular valence to a life in which religious values and observances played a very great part.

Jews learned the Arabic language and literary models, not by passively absorbing them from the environment but through concentrated study; their aim was to be part of the highest level of a society that judged a man largely by his social graces, linguistic skills, and literary taste. Pious and loyal Jews enjoined their sons to apply themselves with all assiduousness to the study of the Arabic grammarians and rhetoricians.

The Jewish boys who labored at conning the pre-Islamic tribal poetry were at no great disadvantage vis-à-vis their Muslim friends, for both spoke the same dialectical Arabic and, as the children of wealthy city folk, were equally distant culturally from the exotic yet dreary life portrayed by the ancient poets. Since the values inculcated by the study of these poets were outside the Islamic religious system, Jewish boys had no religious inhibitions against studying, absorbing, and eventually even loving them….

Much of the Arabic and Hebrew poetry of medieval Andalusia was courtly panegyric: eulogies of friends, patrons, or allies intended partly to flatter the recipient, partly to shape public opinion in a world in which poetry was the chief form of publicity. Related to panegyric in function were satirical poems, in which the enemies of the poet or his patron were lampooned, and funeral laments, really a species of panegyric. These three genres are united by their predominantly political function as instruments for the regulation of interpersonal relations within the ruling class. As such they are serious works of substantial length, thematic complexity, and a studied, formal character.

But poetry was also composed for simple amusement. Members of the courtier class, Muslims and Jews, entertained each other by listening to poetry, reciting their own verses, discussing those of others, and setting themes for improvisation for one another.

excerpted From: Raymond P. Scheindlin. Wine, Women, and Death. Copyright © 1986 The Jewish Publication Society (Philadelphia), pp. 4-6. Permission of the Jewish Publication Society of America. 

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