The Contemplative Soul: Hebrew Poetry and Philosophical Theory in Medieval Spain

The Contemplative Soul: Hebrew Poetry and Philosophical Theory in Medieval Spain

The Contemplative Soul: Hebrew Poetry and Philosophical Theory in Medieval Spain

The Contemplative Soul: Hebrew Poetry and Philosophical Theory in Medieval Spain

Synopsis

During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Jewish poets in Islamic Spain introduced philosophical themes into their devotional verse. Drawn to Neoplatonic thought, they made liberal use of its myth of the soul to explore the human relationship with the Divine. This novel merger reflected a conviction that ideas borrowed from Greco-Arabic philosophy meshed comfortably with traditional Jewish approaches to prayer and spirituality. This study focuses on Solomon Ibn Gabirol, Moses Ibn Ezra, Abraham Ibn Ezra, and Judah Halevi, polymath poets who also wrote philosophically-informed prose works. It probes the contemplative motifs in their religious verse, uncovering new and, at times, unorthodox layers of meaning. The book includes the Hebrew texts of representative poems accompanied by original English translations and detailed analyses.

Excerpt

During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Jewish poets in Islamic Spain took Hebrew devotional verse in new and striking directions. Remarkably accomplished in the secular sciences as well as in classical Jewish scholarship, these polymath authors infused the ancient, native Jewish tradition of synagogue poetry, or piyyut, with contemplative themes drawn from the Arabic philosophical canon. They also composed philosophically-informed prose works of their own, including Bible commentaries, ethical tracts, and metaphysical treatises—most of them in Judeo-Arabic. Reading their piyyut in light of their speculative writing reveals the impact of the Andalusians’ intellectual and cultural life on their sacred verse. Their poetry reflects a conviction that Greco-Arabic philosophy meshed comfortably with— and even enhanced—traditional Jewish approaches to prayer and spirituality. By exploring the two genres in tandem, and by probing the philosophical motifs in their religious verse, the careful reader uncovers new and, at times, unorthodox layers of meaning.

The idea of the soul occupied a place of paramount importance in this new type of synagogue poetry, which drew on Neoplatonic philosophy. Though composed for insertion into the fixed liturgy, and anchored in traditional Jewish texts, Andalusian piyyut also incorporated elements of the poets’ distinctly medieval world-view, lending a more contemporary understanding to the classical prayers it served to preface. Where pre-Spanish piyyut was exclusively concerned with the collectivity and its historical relationship with God, the new poems reflect an unprecedented awareness of the individual, his spiritual quest, and his eschatological expectations. Yet, even their most daring innovations are couched in language familiar to the worshiper, and are successfully naturalized in their literary setting. Exquisitely crafted, these piyyutim conform to the esthetic ideals of Golden Age Hebrew poetry. Their discriminating figurative language, subtle symbolism, clever ambiguities, and skillful biblical (and even rabbinic) allusions could indirectly suggest novel interpretations of received ideas in a way that few prose works could.

This study focuses on four outstanding members of the Andalusian school whose speculative writing elucidates their poems on the soul:

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