A Return to the Golden Age Is His Goal and Research Focus


Prof. Yosef Tobi would like to return to the Golden Age of Spain. It was, he says, an era when Judaism was open to the surrounding general culture and gained from it.

“Sephardic Jewry in the Middle Ages provides a model that is appropriate for Judaism today,” he states. “This model can solve problems, like sectoralism [the strife between the secular and the religious]. It enables Judaism to work for the whole world, for Jews to be a light unto the nations, not only for themselves.” His research attempts in part to prove this point.

Tobi, a sabra of Yemenite origin who wears the knit kippa of the modern Orthodox, is not a historian or teacher of Jewish Thought. He is Associate Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature, who was recently named 1999 winner of the prestigious Jerusalem Prize for outstanding studies of Jewish ethnci groups. His most recent book, Acceptance and Rejection: The Relationship of Hebrew and Arabic Poetry in the Middle Ages, shared one of the 1998 Bahat Prizes awarded by the University of Haifa Press in conjunction with the prestigious Israeli publisher, Zmora-Bitan, for belles lettres in Hebrew.

Before describing his research, Tobi reiterates that the contact in the Middle Ages to which he refers was that between Judaism and Islam. This contact, unlike that with the Christian world, he emphasizes, was fruitful in all areas: literature, science, philosophy. He encourages budding scholars to publish in this area of Islam-Judaism relations in hope that it will help influence what he terms the “natural image” of Judaism today. The literary scholar notes, though, that Jewish writers and thinkers of the Middle Ages were not uncritical in what they accepted from Islamic culture, nor—in contrast to many liberal Jewish authors today—did they neglect their Jewish heritage.

A prime example of this contact, according to Tobi, was Shmuel Hanagid, whose mid-11th century war poems borrowed the concept of fatalism from Arabic poetry, but used it only as a literary, not a philosophical, motif. These poems have “the presence of God, a God whom one can pray to. The reader comes away with the Jewishness of the poems. This was his great art.”

Arabic poetry had its origins in pagan literature, and therefore employed fatalism as a philosophical concept. Judaism negates that approach, promoting instead the idea of free choice. Shmuel Hanagid’s poetry demonstrates an openness in employing fatalism—taken from the non-Jewish world—as a literary device, but not an assimilation of the concept itself. By creating a duality model, this poet went further than any Jewish writer to that time in breaking boundaries. But not in overstepping them, Tobi made clear.

Another example of openness to the world around them was the writing of erotic poetry by some Jewish poets in the Middle Ages. The prevailing philosophy was that humankind’s spiritual reward was to be gained in the world to come, much more than in this world. Eros was seen as a value. Even the great Maimonides, Tobi pointed out, once made reference to the fact that we cannot understand the spiritual joy after death in the way that a eunuch cannot understand the enjoyment of sex. The Jewish writers of the time were careful, though, not to overstep into pornography. Openness had its limits.

Still another great Jewish writer of the Golden Age of Spain was Shlomo Ibn Gabirol. Philosopher and poet, he “preached” through his works that people should strive to attain perfection. It was a concept that came from Greek philosophy by way of Arab philosophy, Tobi commented. Judaism internalized the idea and gave it expression in poetry and other written works. For Ibn Gabirol, though, this striving for perfection was a personal feeling. Moreover, it was not self-sufficient. It still needed God’s grace to bring one to Him.

The Spanish-Jewish poet detailed his philosophy of getting close to God in a work he wrote in Judeo-Arabic, but which survived only in its Latin translation, entitled Fons Vitae, meaning The Source of Life. His poetry speaks of doing everything possible to reach God, but suddenly encountering a cloud that prevents him from this sublime attainment. God is blamed for interposing this cloud and the poet is angry with Him, but will still not desist in his attempt to know the Supreme Being. He still believes that this is the purpose of human beings on earth. Later in this period, the biblical exegete Ibn Ezra provides an explanation for this cloud: God, he says, is jealous when man comes closer to Him, closer to perfection.

Tobi finds that Ibn Gabirol maintains a positive, optimistic feeling throughout. His works were not allegorical, the Haifa scholar says, because then they would have no feeling. “Human beings,” he continues, “are not creatures forbidden to feel. That was their [the Jewish writers of the Middle Ages] greatness. Their had solid faith in openness, but also in Jewish tradition.”

By contrast, Tobi finds stagnation in Jewish letters. The secular leave behind tradition, at one end; the ultra-Orthodox lack creativity, at the other end. Nor have the modern Orthodox produced any especially great figures in philosophy and literature to match those of the Golden Age of Spain. He believes that the Middle Ages may hold the secrets to undoing this stagnant cultural situation, and so hopes that his research will have some influence to this end.

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