Nina Caputo

title.none: Tanenbaum, The Contemplative Soul (Nina Caputo)

identifier.other: baj9928.0411.015 04.11.15

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Nina Caputo, University of Florida,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Tanenbaum, Adena. The Contemplative Soul: Hebrew Poetry and Philosophical Theory in Medieval Spain. Series: Etudes sur le judaisme medieval, vol. 25. Leiden: Brill, 2002. Pp. xv, 290. $124.00 90-04-12091-2. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.11.15

Tanenbaum, Adena. The Contemplative Soul: Hebrew Poetry and Philosophical Theory in Medieval Spain. Series: Etudes sur le judaisme medieval, vol. 25. Leiden: Brill, 2002. Pp. xv, 290. $124.00 90-04-12091-2. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Nina Caputo
University of Florida

The genre of medieval Jewish liturgical poetry (piyyut) has enjoyed a renewal of scholarly interest in recent years. Piyyut has often been framed as an insular art--inspired by the tenets of Jewish law and scriptures, written for an exclusively Jewish audience. Adena Tanenbaum's recent work The Contemplative Soul: Hebrew Poetry and Philosophic Theory in Medieval Spain endeavors to revise these assumptions. Tanenbaum offers a close investigation of the melding of poetic and philosophical aesthetics in medieval Andalusian Hebrew poetry. Her examination of this poetry carefully contextualizes the poets in the world of Hebrew letters, both stylistically and historically. Tanenbaum shows that five of the most important and influential Hebrew poets of 'Golden Age Spain'--Solomon ibn Gabirol, Moses ibn Ezra, Abraham ibn Ezra, Judah ha-Levi, and Judah Alharizi--brought together their deep knowledge of Jewish liturgical, legal and exegetical literature and a mastery of secular poetic forms and philosophy, producing a unique literary and liturgical form. In this book, Tanenbaum provides a painstaking account of the genesis of philosophical liturgical poetry, meticulous translations and close readings of the central poems in the genre, and a rich contextual landscape establishing a continuity between stylistic antecedents of this poetic form in Hebrew letters and its literary offspring.

Tanenbaum organizes the book chronologically, highlighting the organic development of this poetic genre. Because these poets were inspired as much by traditional Jewish liturgical forms as they were by the precepts and organizing principles of philosophy, the Andalusian piyyutim (liturgical poems) reflect a concern for individual psychology, and in particular, an attempt to conceptualize the profound ways the soul is transformed by its connection and devotion to God. Chapter 1 lays out the formal, liturgical, and philosophical ground from which Andalusian philosophical piyyutim grew. By the Middle Ages, Jewish liturgy and synagogue prayer services were largely standardized. These poets used the language of and themes of traditional Jewish texts, Tanenbaum argues, to encourage fortification of the individual soul through prayer and systematic reflection. "Philosophy elevated the exercise of individual reason to a supreme value. Each human being had a potential for intellectual growth which could be fulfilled through one's own agency. One was expected to investigate the nature of the soul as part of his prescribed regime of study.... While Jewish philosophers often articulated these ideas in the theistic and communal vocabulary of Jewish tradition, they emphasized the aspirations of the individual in a manner that had no parallel in rabbinic Judaism" (22).

The want for canonical Jewish sources for philosophical or contemplative models drove Andalusian poets to seek rabbinic discussions of worship and prayer that could be interpreted allegorically to stress a basic division between body and soul. Tracing the formal and thematic antecedents to Andalusian philosophical piyyutim, Tanenbaum provides a comprehensive survey of early medieval Hebrew liturgical poetry, including poets whose work was clearly accessible to and known by the Andalusian poets, like Saadya Gaon, and others whose influence is more difficult to ascertain, such as Yannai (likely of the mid-sixth century). This focus on formal continuity, irrespective of any direct relationship between Andalusian contemplative poetry and the poetic antecedent, is meant to suggest that an organic foundation for this contemplative discourse was already well established in Jewish tradition before the middle ages. There seems to be a slight tension, however, between the argument of this introductory chapter, which suggests that Andalusian philosophical piyyutim emerged organically from beliefs and forms of expression that were well established already in rabbinic Judaism, and the argument that develops in the remainder of the book: that this genre of philosophic liturgical poetry was a direct out-growth of the social and cultural conditions of Jewish life in Muslim ruled Spain.

The Andalusian piyyutim examined in this book all struggle to reconcile the philosophers' understanding of the soul as immortal and unquestionably superior to the physical aspect of human life, with the traditional Jewish tenet of the resurrection of the dead at the time of redemption, of the relationship between the individual and the collective soul. Tanenbaum moves from a general treatment of the development of poetic forms that melded a philosophical preference for the intellect over the body with traditional topoi of Jewish prayer and liturgy to a thorough and detailed discussion of the realization of this philosophical poetic in the works of representative medieval poets. Most of the chapters (2, 3, 4, 6, and 8) are intensive analyses of representative piyyutim written by the central poets discussed in this book. Chapters 5 and 7 provide a synthetic frame, each examining a central motif and tracing stylistic and thematic links with Muslim poets. These chapters are particularly engaging and informative, for they provide a glimpse of the dynamic interplay between Jewish and Muslim authors, between the linguistic demands of Hebrew and Arabic, and between philosophy as a conceptual framework and the relationship between God and man as represented in the works of the Jewish canon.

Tanenbaum's painstaking analysis is dense, and at times almost too technical, but it renders a group of highly esoteric poems accessible to a broad audience of medievalists. Throughout this book, Tanenbaum provides careful and detailed formal commentary on each of the poems, sensitive translations of the central works, and a rich history of each of the central concepts or topoi in the poems. But what makes this book a particularly important work of scholarship is the balance the author strikes between her systematic close reading/translation of this highly difficult body of literature and her successful effort to situate these themes in the history of Jewish philosophy and more conventional rabbinic liturgy.