Thursday, February 21, 2013

In This Land as in a Kingdom of Ishmael

A talk open to the general public,
Delivered at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, Philadelphia, 2/20/13

A few months ago, I had a conversation with a gentleman who is about my grandfather’s age. He was telling me about taking New York State Regents’ Exams as a yeshiva student in the 1940s and how, in spite of having had to learn geometry on his own because there was no teacher for that subject in his yeshiva, he earned a 96 out of 100 on the statewide exam. Proud, he raced home to tell his immigrant father. At this point, I interrupted his story because I knew exactly where it was going: “Your father asked you what happened to the other four points, right?” He answered me: “No, my father asked why I couldn’t get a 100.” Even though I graduated from a secular public high school in a different millennium from this man, and even though not only are my parents not immigrants but most of my great-grandparents were not even immigrants, he and I had a shared, very culturally American Jewish experience of bringing home not quite good enough really good exam scores and being interrogated about them. And even though I knew that my parents were mostly joking when they asked what happened to those last four points I had failed to earn, the persistence of that question also helped to instill two important values in me: the importance of succeeding in education, and the importance of a sort of filial piety — making my parents proud by that very same success.
It turns out that variations on that question — Why couldn’t you get a 100? — go back a lot farther than the Lower East Side in the 1940s. And these questions are not only asked by American Jews who speak English, like my parents, or Eastern European Jews speaking Yiddish, like my elderly friend’s father, but also by Jews whose parents spoke Arabic because they lived in places whose culture was informed by the Muslim leadership of their lands. As far back as antiquity, there are examples of sons bringing home the Hellenistic or Byzantine equivalent of a 96 on the Regents’ Exam and their fathers saying, “What happened to the other four points?” What I’m going to speak about tonight is an example of this question that occurs in the Middle Ages, at the end of the twelfth century. This questions is, in equal measures, an indication of the value that Jews living in and in exile from Islamic lands placed upon what today we might call religious and secular types of education, of the importance of family relationships, and also of an issue that is of special importance to us as Reform Jews in the twenty-first century: the question of assimilation into and within a wider non-Jewish culture.

Our hero for tonight was Jewish a man named Judah ibn Tibbon who was born around the year 1120 in the city of Granada [MAP], in a region that was, at the time, called Sefarad in Hebrew and al-Andalus in Arabic, and what is, today, part of the country of Spain. He inhabited a universe that was marked by a complicated set of relationships between language, religion and culture, where you couldn’t necessarily tell whether a building was a church [SLIDE], a mosque [SLIDE], a palace or governmental building [SLIDE] or a synagogue [SLIDE] based on how it was decorated, and where what religion someone practiced didn’t necessarily correspond to what language they spoke or how they dressed or what kinds of books they liked to read.

The first thing you might notice is that unlike the names of some Jewish heroes from literature and history you might know about — anyone from the biblical Moses’ deputy, Joshua ben Nun, to the ancient resistance fighter Bar Kochba, to the first prime minister of modern Israel, David ben Gurion— Judah’s family name is written with the Arabic word “ibn” to mean “son of” rather than the Hebrew word “ben” or the Aramaic word “bar,” which mean the same thing. This is because Judah was the sort of person we might describe as being an Arabized Jew, which means that even while he was an active and devout Jew, he was fully acculturated within an Arabic-speaking society where Islam was the majority and dominant faith. It means that he participated in the same intellectual and political conversations as his Muslim neighbors. It means that he studied philosophy written by important Muslim thinkers with names like al-Farābī, Ibn Rushd and al-Ghazālī. It means that he believed that the Arabic language was so beautiful and put to such good use in expressing complex ideas that he translated many Arabic texts written by both Jews and Muslims into Hebrew so that a wider Jewish audience could read and come to know them; and in doing so, he Arabized the Hebrew language by coining scientific and philosophical terms based on Arabic ones that had not existed in Hebrew up to that point. It means that because of all of this reading and causal contact among neighbors, someone like Judah knew about the different ways in which Muslim exegetes read the Qur’ān and applied those same questions and exegetical techniques to his own reading of the Hebrew Bible. And it also means that even when a new Muslim regime known as the Almohads arrived in the Iberian Peninsula from their native Morocco and installed themselves as the proverbial new Pharaohs who did not know Joseph, as rulers in Granada who were so much more repressive towards the Jews of al-Andalus than their predecessors had been that Judah felt he had to flee to the French region of Provence, that even then, Judah continued to believe in the value of the Arabic language, of Arabo-Islamic philosophy and literature, and of Arabic culture. The culture of the Arabized Jews transcended both religion and politics even as it was deeply informed by both of those things.

I’ve just used a couple of words in the last few minutes that I want to take another minute now just to define and explain the differences between them, because conversationally, many people use them interchangeably but for our purposes, they all mean really different things. Today we are talking about Jews who live in the Muslim world. This means that the governance of the places they lived was done chiefly by Muslims in accordance with their respective interpretations of Islam, though Christians and Jews often held high-ranking civil service positions; it also means that the majority population was Muslim, with Christians and Jews being minorities. Muslims are people who practice Islam, meaning, in rough terms and with the caveat that just like there are many ways of practicing Judaism, so too are there many ways of practicing Islam, they believe in one God, they believe that Muhammad was the “seal of the prophets” to whom the Qur’an was revealed in Arabic; and among other things they pray five times a day, fast during Ramadan, and make pilgrimage to Mecca. While Muslims hold that Arabic is a divine language, this doesn’t mean that all Muslims speak Arabic or that everyone who speaks Arabic is a Muslim. In the modern world, the largest Muslim country is Indonesia, where the language people is Bahasa, not Arabic; and in Egypt, if you’ve been following the news, you know that one of the populations that has come under fire since the revolution is the Copts, that is, Christians who speak Arabic at home and pray in Arabic in their churches. We use the word Arabic to talk about the language, and about literature that is written in it — so I just mentioned Arabic philosophy, which means that it was written in the Arabic language, sometimes by Muslims but sometimes by Christians or Jews. And we can even talk about literature or social customs as being Arabizing, that is, adopting some of the style while being in a different language or read or practiced by people who don’t speak Arabic. And finally, we use the word “Islamicate” to talk about cultural practices that exist in the Muslim world that are not directly related to the practice of the faith. It’s a word that was coined in the 1950s on the model of Italian painting (that is, painting by Italian masters) and Italianate painting (painting in that same style by non-Italians) So instead of looking at these pictures and calling them “Islamic architecture,” we call them “Islamicate” because they are not all buildings that are relevant to Islam.
Judah’s only son, Samuel, was born in this Provençal exile in the year 1150 and quickly became the vessel for Judah’s aspirations in the professional, cultural and religious spheres. What we know today about their relationship comes largely from a document called an ethical will. An ethical will is a very specifically Jewish genre of writing in which a parent sets out his or her own principles as a sort of coherent ethical bequest to a child. Judah’s ethical will, which was circulated in Provence and more widely in the Mediterranean basin and Europe after his death in the year 1190, covers a tremendous range of topics. He offers Samuel advice on what foods to eat to ensure his health, on how to treat his own family well, and how to prosper in trade.

What this ethical will [IMAGE] is best known for, though, is something else entirely, a characteristic that seems almost antithetical to the genre of the text. Throughout the letter, Judah engages in a sustained and completely over-the-top berating of Samuel. He criticizes him for not studying enough, for failing to rise to a challenge, for laziness, indolence, stupidity, and for the high crime of having worse handwriting than a twelve-year-old. Let’s look at an excerpt :

There is quite a lot going on in this short excerpt. In the first place, this passage bears out what I was saying earlier about the notion of the Arabized Jew and the persistence of that cultural norm even in Christian lands. [SLIDE]  Judah goes as far as to tell Samuel, who was born in Christian Provence and lived among Jews who mostly did not know Arabic, that he cannot achieve but through command of the Arabic language. [SLIDE] The example that he invokes, of the nasi, or community leader, refers to an individual we know to be Sheset Benvenisti of Barcelona, a man who, like Judah, was a physician and an intellectual polymath, and who lived out the later part of his life not in Arabic-speaking principalities governed by Muslims but rather in Christian ones, surrounded by speakers of Romance languages. And yet Judah highlights his skill in Arabic and the esteem that it brought him. This memory of assimilation into an Arabized culture persists.

Judah wasn’t just concerned, though, about his son learning the language of learning and high culture of his own past. [SLIDE] With Samuel growing up in France speaking a Romance dialect — an early precursor to the language that would ultimately become French — as his first language, he was also pretty worried about Judah learning the sacred language of Judaism, that is, Hebrew. As far as Judah saw it, not only was Samuel failing to learn the linguistic and literary traditions that would bring him cultural prestige and allow him to assimilate seamlessly into the highest echelons of the intellectual world, he was also failing to learn Hebrew, the language that would allow him to participate fully in the Jewish religious world.
Judah’s ethical will, in addition to being a valuable source of information about many aspects of medieval Jewish life, is also the medieval parent’s version of the question: Why couldn’t you get a 100? All that Judah wants is for Samuel to flourish in every way in a culture that is at once fully their own and only tenuously so. And all that Samuel has done is to earn a 96 on the exam.
From the tone of Judah’s remarks, it actually makes it sound like Samuel has done a lot worse than a 96. You might even think he’d done really badly and gotten — gasp! — an 80. But what I’ve not yet told you about is what made Samuel famous in his own right. And in light of his father’s complaints, it may well surprise you. How many here have heard of Moses Maimonides? What do you know about him? [PAUSE FOR ANSWERS] Something that nobody has mentioned yet is that like Judah ibn Tibbon, Moses Maimonides was an Arabized Jew and that with one major exception, the Mishneh Torah, he wrote all of his important works of Jewish law and philosophy not in Hebrew but in a dialect of Arabic called Judaeo-Arabic that is used by Jewish writers and written in Hebrew letters rather than in Arabic ones. This is an example of a draft of the his most important work of Jewish law, known as the Guide of the Perplexed, written out in his own handwriting [SLIDE] and this is his signature [SLIDE].

Just as an aside [SLIDE] the book that has this signature in it has been completely digitized and put online by the Bodleian Library in Oxford, which owns the codex, because at one point in the book’s history [SLIDE] it was owned by someone who wrote in his will that it should always be made available to a wide audience. The librarians at the Bodley decided that it was important to honor the terms of this will and when digitization of medieval manuscripts because feasible, they decided that this was the best way to make it really, truly widely available. So if you’re interested, you can go take a look at it online.

Towards the end of Maimonides’ life, that is, at the very beginning of the thirteenth century, he began to realize that many Jews could not read his works in the original Arabic. He considered himself too old to undertake a translation of the Guide of the Perplexed. Instead, the task fell to Samuel ibn Tibbon who had been berated and harangued into learning Hebrew and Arabic and skills useful for translating.
Maimonides was not the only one to notice Samuel’s abilities. In the ethical will, Judah points out: “Surely you are aware of the lofty qualities that the Nasi ascribes to you.” Samuel’s translation of the Guide is praised for its skill in many later commentaries. And later on in the ethical will itself, even Judah relents somewhat and begins the next round of berating with a concession: “If you were ashamed of the name you have made for yourself which has become known far and wide — even though it is largely false — then surely you would have tried to limit its reach.” But generally the contrast stands between Judah, who was roundly embarrassed by his son’s failure to achieve, and Maimonides, who was quite impressed by Samuel’s work. In a letter to his Hebrew translator, he indicates both his own esteem for the younger man’s talent and the depths of the contrasting shame of his father. Maimonides wrote to Samuel:
When I read your remarks on both those passages in my magnum opus the Moreh Nevuchim, concerning the right signification of which you entertain doubt, and on those in which you had discovered errors made by the transcriber, then I said with the ancient poet: ‘Had they known his parentage, they would say/ The father’s excellence has passed over to his son. Blessed be He who has granted a recompense to your learned father and granted him such a son… Already many years ago the fame of the honoured prince, the wise R. Jehuda, your father had reached me; I had heard of his great learning and the elegance of his style, both in Arabic and Hebrew, through the well-known and learned men of Granada… I did not however know that he had left a son.”[2]
In other words, Samuel wrote to Maimonides asking him some truly excellent questions about the Arabic text of the Guide of the Perplexed that he was working from, including about some places that did not make sense because the scribe who had written out his copy by hand had made mistakes. And Maimonides, who knew about Judah and knew his translations and his writing about the Hebrew language, had never heard of Samuel. Whereas other fathers introduced their sons into their professions and offered them valuable connections (and Maimonides even mentions some of these father-son pairs amongst the literati), Judah, the translator, left his son Samuel, the translator, out in the cold.
Later on in the letter to Samuel, Maimonides expressed his opinions about how he wanted to see his work translated into Hebrew. He advised Samuel to read the work, understand it holistically and then explain it in Hebrew. He told him that if he tried to translate word for word, that he would not produce a text that could be read lucidly. That may sound like Maimonides was encouraging Samuel to take huge liberties with the text, but that’s really not the case. He’s just asking Samuel to make sure that the text makes sense in Hebrew. It’s a fine distinction, and one that may seem a little strange if you don’t think about translating for most of the day every day, so let’s look at an example so you can see more clearly what I mean [SLIDE]. This text is two verses from the biblical book of Haggai. And in the first translation, you see what happens when a translator, me in this case, goes through and just substitutes one English word for each Hebrew word. It doesn’t really make sense. In the second example, you can see what happens when that same translator reads the verses in Hebrew, understands them, and then puts them into English in a way that is grammatically correct but still respects the content and basic form of the Hebrew. This first style of translating is how Judah worked, while the second is the way that Maimonides encouraged Samuel to work.

There is a supreme irony to all of this, and that is that by siding with his father, by being the dutiful son, Samuel bore out exactly what his father had criticized him for: By adhering, word-perfect to the Arabic syntax of Dalālat al-Ḥa‘irīn, the Guide of the Perpexed, Samuel destroyed the text in many ways. Although it is widely accepted as the authoritative translation of the Guide, Samuel’s Moreh ha-Nevukhim is unreadable. In the same way that the example that we just looked at was not really English as much as Hebrew written in English words, Samuel’s version of the Guide is not Hebrew. It’s Arabic with Hebrew words.
By preserving the Arabic language that his father valued so precisely, he destroyed the wider values, both of Arabic poetics and style and of Judah himself, that dictate that elegance in composition is to be valued above all else. In the end, it is desperate adherence to a relic of the Arabized culture of the Jews, slipping so quickly from their grasp, the memory of a glorious, golden, assimilated age and pure filial piety that win out. Even Maimonides, the encouraging mentor and Arabized Jew par excellence couldn’t counteract those forces.
The critic Avital Ronell has proposed a theory of the “loser sons,” the men “who fail to live up to [their] fathers’ repute or aspirations, who lose out and deform the world with this sense of ‘counterfeit legacy,’ even,” in her words, “when they win out, often tilting the scales of justice and warping the playing fields on which fateful moves are determined.”[3] Part of her argument about the nature of these loser sons hinges on the political authority of their fathers. That may not be so relevant in the case of Samuel except that Ronell grounds political authority, always and inextricably, in the authority of texts and of authors.[4] Where translators are concerned, Judah, in a limited and deeply medieval fashion, anticipates Roland Barthes by almost exactly 800 years, killing off the possibility of authorship in translated texts and stripping his son of agency in creating the authorized Hebrew version of the Guide of the Perplexed.  In reading as the dutiful son rather than the dutiful student, Samuel accedes to his own intellectual and textual castration.
Now, I am not really interested in pursuing any further such a reading, very Freudian at its core, of Judah’s ethical will and the surrounding texts that make up the corpus of Tibbonid writings on translation — I don’t ultimately think that it is a theory that can contribute a radically new and valuable mode of understanding Judah and Samuel as Jewish readers in the Islamic world. Nor am I really comfortable designating Samuel as a loser son, even if he does fit Ronell’s description to a T. However great his violence against Maimonides’ text, it seems out of proportion to put him in the company of Ronell’s other loser sons: Even as she includes Franz Kafka in the bunch, her main protagonists are George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden. And more than that, it’s a personal predilection within my own academic work: While intellectual and professional rigor demand that I readily admit Samuel’s foibles and contradictions and the challenging aspects of his biography and his intellectual output, I am nevertheless the sort of scholar who loves her subject too well to dismiss him with an easy turn of phrase. Samuel, like me and like the elderly former yeshiva-bocher, ultimately did his father proud with his 96, even if Judah ibn Tibbon, the father of all translators, was culturally, Jewishly bound not to let on — and who am I to argue with that?
Samuel was no loser son although, surely, he lost a thing or two in translation.

When I was first asked to give this lecture here, it was suggested that I frame it in terms of the question: What do Reform Jews need to know about the Middle Ages? My first reaction was to think: Damned if I know. Like many of you, I’ve spent my life as an assimilated, praying-in-the-vernacular, organ-music-and-high-church classical-reform kind of Jew in a synagogue with an Islamicate building [SLIDE].  But I was also always the weird kid who read biographies of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Mary Tudor for fun, and I grew up to be the sort of person who woke up at 4am to listen to the Richard III press conference streamed live from BBC Radio Leicester before going to the office and spending the day translating medieval Hebrew poetry. So in spite of what we have in common as Reform Jews, what I need to know about the Middle Ages is really very different from what most of you need to know about it. And on top of that I don’t like attempts, made very frequently, to say things like, Well, in the Middle Ages in Spain, Jews, Christians and Muslims all got on well with each other, and so why can’t we solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? or conversely, Well, look at the Crusades. Christians and Muslims have been at each other for centuries, scapegoating and slaughtering Jews in the process, so peace and security for us in the modern world is an impossibility. I just don’t think that the Middle Ages maps quite so neatly onto modernity.
But setting up that dichotomy between my professional contact with the Middle Ages and how I might think about it from my vantage point as a rank-and-file Reform Jew — that is, how this matters to me personally rather than professionally and therefore hopefully to you as well —brought me to think about one final passage from Judah’s letter to Samuel:

It’s another short passage of text that, when you stop to think about it and take it apart very carefully, you start to realize is really chock-a-block full of interesting and almost alarming ideas. As I mentioned earlier, one of the hats that Judah wore was as a philosopher. And in that capacity, he subscribed to a school of thought that generally sought to apply the rhetorical tools of Greek philosophy, translated into Arabic, to questions that were of particular interest to practitioners of monotheistic faiths like Judaism and Islam. On that basis, we would expect Judah to tell Samuel to translate or read a translation of the Hebrew Bible in order to better be able to answer questions about, just to give one example of a topic that was of great interest to medieval philosophers, the incorporeality of God. That would be an example of using translation and philosophy in the service of religion. However, what Judah is actually doing here is telling Samuel to take a devotional act — that is, reading parshat ha-shavua on Shabbat — and to put it to good use for his job. He’s not just telling him to read the Bible in Arabic on Shabbat, but rather, he’s telling him to do it “because it will help you with your Arabic vocabulary and with translation, should you wish to become a translator.” It’s sort of the ultimate act of assimilation. Samuel is not only praying in the vernacular but also taking his religious observance and leveraging it for professional purposes.
That’s a pretty familiar thing. We’re really good, we Reform Jews, about promoting education in the secular sphere and in what are or will become our and our descendants’ professional lives. Living in an America where you can’t tell what religion someone practices based on how he dresses or what her name is or what language they speak with their children, we make great doctors, lawyers, scientists, writers and teachers. We read and we pray in the vernacular, sometimes to the exclusion of Hebrew. Like Samuel, we can choose to do professional activities or other things that Orthodox Jews would consider work on Shabbat: We observe by choice, but sometimes at the expense of forgetting what it is that we’re choosing not to do.
So go ahead. Be like Samuel. Every week on Shabbat, read the Bible in Arabic, (or whatever your equivalent is). I’m right there with you. But don’t start to own Judah’s criticisms, either. In other words, read the Bible in Arabic on Shabbat, but don’t forget to learn to read it in Hebrew, too.

[2] Trans. H. Adler in Miscellany of Hebrew Literature, vol. 1, ed. A. Loewy. London: Truebner and Co., 220-21.
[3] Ronell, 2.
[4] Ronell, 21-3.

All of the quotations from the ethical will that are not footnoted are cited from the 1926 edition, in my own translation.


  1. I really enjoyed reading this. Thanks for sharing, C.

  2. Thanks! I felt like after all the hand-wringing earlier in the week it would be a bit of an anti-climax not to post it. Plus, a bit of a shame to have put in as much time and work as I did and have it disappear into the memories of just the people who were there. In any event, so glad you liked it!