The Bible in Medieval Jewish Creativity


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In the Middle Ages, reception of the Bible among Jews wasn’t limited to “professional” interpreters. Poets and visual artists put the Bible to use in their own creative media. This presentation introduces viewers to some of the trends in medieval Jewish creativity. It’s intended for early-stage undergraduate students with minimal prior background in Jewish studies, medieval studies, or biblical studies. Suggestions from colleagues with expertise in this field are most welcome. (I’m aware that the presentation needs much more in the way of visual art; this is an incomplete draft released to students under time pressure.)

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The Bible in Medieval Jewish Creativity

  1. 1. The Bible inMedieval JewishCreativityA Very Short Introduction forBeginning Reception Historians Chris Heard Associate Professor of Religion Pepperdine University
  2. 2. Note: This presentation is a draft,a work in progress. It will beupdated later to give additionalattention to visual art, especially10th- to 15th-century illustratedBibles and Haggadoth.
  3. 3. 476Rome falls to the “barbarians.” The Middle Ages fade in.
  4. 4. Jewish literary and visual art thrivesespecially in Syria-Palestine.* INE EST L PA * As far as we know from the works that have survived the centuries.
  5. 5. Literary Art: Yose ben YoseSynagogue cantors such as Yoseben Yose further develop thepiyut or liturgical poem, a genrethat emerged in late antiquity.
  6. 6. Piyutim* sometimes retell biblicalstories or connect biblicalpassages to worship activities.
  7. 7. [On Yom Kippur, the priest] exults in the fringed linen pants—like an envoy,like a horseman on the alert, a messenger faithful to those who dispatch him.By wearing the pants he atones for lechery,for they were prescribed to cover his nakedness.He completes the concealment of his body with a double tunic,fringed, reaching down to the wrists.
  8. 8. Thus, he atones for the house of Jacob, who sold the righteous Joseph because of his ornamented tunic.From a fourth- or fifth-century avodah (liturgical poem for Yom Kippur) by Yose ben Yose, as translated in Carmi (2006). Yose ben Yose is “the earliest Palestinian paytan [liturgical poet] known by name” (Carmi 2006: 87).
  9. 9. Visual Art: Beit Alfa SynagoguePatrons of the sixth-century BeitAlfa* synagogue decorate itsfloors with mosaics illustratingBible stories and cultural symbols. * Also spelled “Beth Alpha.”
  10. 10. * Opposition to the use of figural images in (places of) worship. ** People who destroy (religious) images.
  11. 11. * Opposition to the use of figural imagesaqedah of) worship. ** People who destroy (religious) images. Bible illustration: the in (places (“binding” of Isaac, Genesis 22)
  12. 12. Cultural illustration: the zodiac wheel* Opposition to the use of figural images in (places of) worship. ** People who destroy (religious) images.
  13. 13. Liturgical to the use of figural imagesand menorahs flanking a Torah(religious) images. * Opposition illustration: lions in (places of) worship. ** People who destroy ark (cabinet)
  14. 14. The defacing of figures in somesynagogues has led to speculationsabout a Jewish iconoclastic*movement in the sixth century. * “Image-destroying.”
  15. 15. However, evidence for widespreadJewish iconoclasm in late antiquityand the early Middle Ages is lacking …
  16. 16. … and some examples of Jewishfigural art (both in synagogues andother contexts) remain unscathed.
  17. 17. Eleazar ben KallirEleazar ben Kallir* infuses thepiyut form with greatercomplexity and other innovations. * Or “Killir.”
  18. 18. Then* shall the gates of the garden of Eden be opened,**and the seven preordained companies of righteous men shall be revealed within the garden,**and the tree of life in the middle of the garden. * At the end of time. ** In the Hebrew text, the last word of the line is “garden.” *** This line is only four words in Hebrew, but requires a long English translation.
  19. 19. They shall hear the sound of their Creator in the garden;and as once He moved about in the garden,so shall He now move amongst them in the garden.
  20. 20. They shall see, and pointing a finger at His likeness,*they shall say: ‘Such is God, our God, and we shall not die.**He shall be our guide forever!’*** * Ubidmut. ** Velo namut. *** Al mut.
  21. 21. Whereupon He shall show them the three rewards:*Ziz, Leviathan and Behemoth.**…………… * Nechamot. ** Uvehemot.
  22. 22. Behemoth arches his horns, Leviathan rears his fins— but now He makes an end of the pair, to slaughter, prepare, and consecrate them. They shall be served up as a dish to the faithful people.** Each line ends with the sound -man. | Quoted from the translation given in Carmi (2006).
  23. 23. 610Muhammad hears a voice telling him to “Recite!” Islam is on the rise.
  24. 24. 632–661Muslims conquer lands they, Jews, and Christians all consider holy.
  25. 25. 711–718Muslims from North Africainvade and conquer Spain.
  26. 26. Christians and Muslims vie for control over Spain …… for the next seven centuries.
  27. 27. Saadia ben Joseph (882–942) or Saadia Gaon** Head of a Jewish academy (in Saadia’s case, at Sura in Babylonia, the most prestigious one at that time).
  28. 28. Saadia Gaon • Translates the Tanak into Arabic • Writes a rhyming dictionary for poets • Introduces alternating rhyme schemes into Hebrew poetryWant to know more about the Goan? Explore my slideshow on “The Bible in Medieval Jewish Scholarship.”
  29. 29. You [God] are far greater than all architects:for they fix the lower, then erect the upper part above it;*but You first fixed the heavens, then stretched the earth beneath them as a haven.O Lord my God, You are great indeed! Quoted from the translation given in Carmi (2006).
  30. 30. Literary ArtDunash ben Labrat “introduc[es]quantitative meter and seculargenres”* as well as new rhymeschemes into Hebrew poetry. * Carmi (2006): 97.
  31. 31. FRANCE The centers of Jewish creativity ITSPAIN AL Y shift into Europe, especially Spain, France, and Italy.
  32. 32. Solomon ibn Gabirol (1021–1055)• “[I]ntroduce[s] the full range of Hispano- Arab conventions into the piyut.”*• Reflects increasing persecution of Jews by Christians and Muslims * Carmi (2006): 101.
  33. 33. Open the gate, my love, arise and open the gate! My soul is dismayed and shaken with terror. Hagar, 1 my mother’s slave-girl, laughed me to scorn; she grew haughty because God heard the outcry of her child Ishmael. 2 In this midnight of exile, I was trampled by the wild boar 3 of the thickets, then pursued by the wild ass. 4, 5Quoted from the translation given in Carmi (2006). | 1, 2 The names “Hagar” and “Ishmael” don’t appear in the Hebrew text; the translator has added them to help readers recognize the allusion to Genesis 16. | 3 Christianity, perhaps representedthus due to its non-kosher diets. | 4 Islam, through its association with Ishmael (Genesis 16:12). | 5 For reasons unknown to me, the translator has swapped the order of the ass and the boar. The ass comes first in the Hebrew poem.
  34. 34. 1096–1099 Christian crusaders retake Jerusalem from its Muslim occupants.This was the first of several crusades.
  35. 35. Abraham ibn* Ezra (1089–1164)* Like Hebrew ben, Arabic ibn means “son of.”
  36. 36. Ibn Ezra • Gains fame not only as a biblical scholar, but also as a poet • Writes religious poetry with many biblical allusions, but also romantic poems and drinking songs
  37. 37. Judah Halevi(1075–1141)
  38. 38. Judah Halevi• Lives periodically in both Muslim-controlled and Christian-controlled Spain• Gives voice to the distress of Jews caught between warring Christians and Muslims• Presents Jewish suffering as a sacrifice to God
  39. 39. My love, have you forgotten how you lay between my breasts? 1 Then why have you sold me forever to my enslavers? Did I not follow you through a barren land? Let Mount Seir 2 and Mount Paran,3 Sinai and Sin be my witness! There my love was yours, and I was your delight. 1The speaker is Zion (Jerusalem), addressing God. | 2 The territory of Esau (Genesis 36), associated metaphorically withRome and thence, by extension, with Christians. | 3 The territory of Ishmael (Genesis 21), associated by extension with Islam.
  40. 40. Then how can you now bestow my glory upon others? I am thrust into Seir,1 driven towards Kedar,2 tested in the furnace of Greece, 3 crushed under the yoke of Media. 4 1 See previous slide. | 2 A region in Arabia, sharing a name with one of Ishmael’s sons (Genesis 25:13), and thereforeassociated with Islam by extension. | 3 Here associated with Christianity, in parallel with Seir/Esau/Rome. | 4 Geographically contiguous with Persia, here associated with Islam, in parallel to Kedar/Ishmael.
  41. 41. Immanuel of Rome (1261–1332)• Writes poetry in the Hebrew language, but in European style• Uses biblical imagery in ribald fashion
  42. 42. Deep in my heart I have resolvedto spurn the garden of Eden in favour of Hell,for there I shall find dripping honey and nectar:all the graceful does and lustful ladies.
  43. 43. What is there for me in Eden? There are no love[r]sthere, only women blacker than soot or pitch,and crones covered with lichen.My spirit would droop in their company.
  44. 44. Eden, what are you to me? You assembleall the maimed women and infamous men.That is why I think of you with contempt.
  45. 45. Hell, I consider you excellent in charm and grandeur, for you house all the girls in their elegant dresses. It is you who have assembled all the delights of our eyes.Quoted from Carmi 2006: 421–422. The poem is a sonnet with an aaaa aaaa bac bac rhyme scheme.
  46. 46. 1453Constantinople falls to the Ottomans. The Middle Ages begin to fade out.
  47. 47. 1492Christians complete the Reconquista, expelling Muslims from Spain. Modernity is coming.
  48. 48. SourcesBland, Kalman P. 2000. The Artless Jew: Medieval and Modern Affirmations and Denials of the Visual. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Carmi, T., ed. 2006. The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse. London: Penguin.Epstein, Marc Michael. 1997. Dreams of Subversion in Medieval Jewish Art and Literature. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.Halper, B. 1921. Post-Biblical Hebrew Literature: An Anthology. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America.Sed-Ranja. 1985. Ancient Jewish Art: East and West. Neuchâtel: Paul Attinger.Tahan, Ilana. 2007. Hebrew Manuscripts: The Power of Script and Image. London: The British Library.Wigoder, Geoffrey, ed. 1972. Jewish Art and Civilization. Fribourg: Office du Livre.
  49. 49. Photo SourcesWalters Art Museum via Chris Yunker via WikimediaWikimedia Commons CommonsAndreas Tille via Wikimedia Sam Segar via stock.xchngCommonsBilly Alexander via stock.xchng Uncredited via all-history.orgMagdalena Kucova via iStockphoto Uncredited via Jewogle.comTalmonyair via Wikimedia Raananms via WikimediaCommons CommonsPrasetyo via Wikimedia Commons Marion Schneider & Christoph Aistleitner via Wikimedia Commons