12.05.01, Tobi, Between Hebrew and Arabic Poetry

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Susan Einbinder

The Medieval Review 12.05.01

Tobi, Yosef. Between Hebrew and Arabic Poetry: Studies in Spanish Medieval Hebrew Poetry. Medieval and Renaissance Authors and Texts. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2010. Pp. x, 520. ISBN: 978-90-04-18499-2.

Reviewed by:
Susan Einbinder
Hebrew Union College

The publication of this volume coincided with Professor Tobi's retirement from the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Haifa; the sixteen essays offer English readers a glimpse of the questions and texts that have characterized a long and rich career. Oddly absent is the poetry of Yemeni Jews, a subject Tobi has treated extensively. What is included, however, is noteworthy for the author's willingness to engage with big questions and challenge received scholarship. The first of these goals is most welcome, especially in a field that historically has shown a proclivity for getting bogged down in philological details. The second is undertaken more problematically.

Professor Tobi's interests properly begin with Saadia Gaon and his disciples in tenth-century Iraq, and move westward to the Hebrew and Arabic poetry of Muslim Andalusia. This is not the volume English readers will be buying to introduce themselves to this terrain. Lacking a real introduction or conclusion, or any interest in defining terms of Hebrew and Arabic prosody or genre, the essays are accessible only to specialists. This is a pity because Tobi takes on interesting questions--the rise of Hebrew secular poetry; the place of "national themes" in Hebrew poetry of the tenth and eleventh centuries; the war poems of Shmuel haNagid and their Arabic counterparts; the forms of musical accompaniment for medieval Hebrew poetry; hunting motifs in Hebrew and Arabic; feminized representations of Wisdom; the conflict of Body and Soul; and the status of poetry for Judah HaLevi, Maimonides, and Shem Tov ibn Falaqera. Three chapters treat Arabic literary sources that survive by way of citation, transcription or translation in Hebrew versions. Professor Tobi's erudition is impressive, and his devotion to this poetry is underscored in his engagement with war-horses of the canon as well as lesser-known texts.

Some of his conclusions, nonetheless, sit less comfortably with recent scholarship. Thus, for instance, Tobi refers to the view that as Arabic poetry in ninth and tenth century Andalusia sought to distance itself from eastern (Baghdadi) hegemony, it "approached the European taste" (94). However, "the European taste" of the time is Carolingian; is there evidence for cross-fertilization between the Carolingian courts and Andalusian caliphate? Tobi situates early Arabic poetry in a "court" context, where poets served chiefly to compose panegyrics (28). Jewish poets, he claims, never entirely integrated this model. Even Shmuel haNagid's war poems, which are unique in the Hebrew corpus, differ from their Arabic counterparts: the Arabic war poet praises his patron's role in battle, but the Nagid directs his praise to God (114).

So, too, secular love has a courtly context, which in Hebrew produces scenarios whose "reality" is suspect. Here Tobi surpasses his conservative Hebrew predecessors, insisting that both the heterosexual and homosexual love imagery of the Hebrew poetry does not "describe actual experiences" (144), but is an "allegorical" technique enlisted to refer to the qualities of a friend or patron, Wisdom, or the relationship of the Jewish people to God. Most of Tobi's exemplars are qasidas, the elegiac Arabic and Hebrew genre that begins with a desert lament, transitions to an erotic section and then to panegyric. For Tobi, the erotic section of the Hebrew qasida is always "allegorical" and never refers to real men and women. Even erotic motifs in wedding songs--generally strophic and not elegies--are allegorical, as weddings were above all "occasions of personal spiritual elevation" (140). Among later poets like the Castilian Todros Abulafia (d. after 1295), the erotic Beloved can stand for Poetry (172). Shmuel haNagid's erotic poetry should not be taken literally, and Solomon ibn Gabirol composes allegorical references to Wisdom, not women, who could not be intended. Tobi never defines what he means by "allegory," but his position collides forcefully with received readings of the poems and their social and cultural contexts. Tobi respectfully notes the scholars whose work he rejects; the list is a reader's guide to the scholarship and includes the giants of the last century, from Schirmann and Fleischer to Yellin, Jarden, Scheindlin, Brann, Rosen, and more. In exchange, he favors nineteenth- and early twentieth-century studies that made facile claims for the Victorian sensibilities and sexual mores of the Jewish poets of an earlier age (e.g., 231).

In a related vein, Tobi goes to great lengths to "prove" that Judah HaLevi's reservations about secular poetry characterized his entire writing career (403). Tobi claims that this same disinclination for profane poetry can be found in HaLevi's mentor, Moses ibn Ezra (419), and he cites Maimonides (who lived after both men) to validate this claim. Indeed, while modern scholarship has come to view the Golden Age of Andalusian Hebrew poetry as the moment of secular poetry's triumph, this triumph, according to Tobi, is an "ideological" illusion, because "all the secular Hebrew poets in Spain saw themselves completely committed to Jewish tradition and its practical commandments" (426). This religious commitment led them ultimately to avoid the "wild poetic" styles that characterized some of their Arabic models and adapt others for spiritually nutritional use. The final chapter, which treats Shem Tov Falaqera, a relatively late poet of Christian Spain, reads Falaqera's parodic representation of the professional poet as a serious rejection of poetic art--regardless of the fact that Falaqera's Sefer haMevaqqesh, to which this text belongs, includes a series of parodic representations in addition to that of the lying poet. For Tobi, the anti-rhetorical stance of the satire was meant to reinforce the anti-secular argument that poetry has value only when it is in service to something else, either as a didactic tool or in praise of God (479-80).

If it can be astonishing to encounter some of Tobi's arguments, it is also valuable to have them in English and to acknowledge their enduring vigor in the critical literature. Indeed, it is a good thing, I think, to have coexistence--and conversation--among ideas as well as people, and I am grateful to Professor Tobi for the dedication and learning that breathe through this work. I am less grateful to Brill and to his translators for the way they have delivered it, however, and I would like to conclude on this theme.

There are a number of important Hebrew studies on medieval poetry that rely heavily on excerpts from primary texts. Almost all of them remain untranslated: it is not only the (often technical) Hebrew of the modern author that must be rendered in coherent English, but the medieval Hebrew of the excerpts. Very few translators of modern prose can handle medieval texts, and those who do are usually scholars with their own research agendas. For this reason, the major works of scholars like Haim Schirmann, Ezra Fleischer and Dan Pagis are untranslated. More recently, some Israeli scholars have attempted to write directly for an English audience, and some have turned to translators, with mixed results. Brill has published several volumes now that are translation catastrophes both with respect to the scholarly prose and excerpted texts. The result is ultimately a professional disservice--even a kind of duplicity--to authors who believe they are gaining access to English-speaking audiences, and an aesthetic disservice--even a kind of tragedy--to the texts they love.

Professor Tobi has written a long book: 484 pages of text plus bibliography and index. The erratic quality and quirks (i.e., errors) of the prose suggest that multiple translators produced the English text. The first few chapters are superior to the rest, but overall the English is awkward, at times ungrammatical, antiquated, or simply weird; this prose was not edited by anyone with a native command of English. Some confusions are basic, e.g., between "reigns" and "reins" (129, 134) or "confident" and "confidant" (423). Some are idiomatic, e.g., "By live God's life" for "By the life of my living Redeemer!" (81). Nor was the editing done by anyone familiar with the conventions of academic citation, as evidenced by the reiterated "diddo," presumably for "ditto" (336-52), or "See on him" (71, n. 49).

The fate of the poetic excerpts is even worse. We wade through endless peculiarities like "when he stood up to kiss his friends upon the dissected mountains" (370), probably "splintered mountains." In the same excerpt, from a poem by Judah HaLevi, we find in Hebrew the beautiful image of a woman turning away so that her hem traces a "snake-like" path of perfume on the ground. Tobi's translator writes:

When, behold! Upon the trail of her coat's tail, was the likeness of a serpent, spikenard

with henna! (370)

The Arabic source for HaLevi's poem appears on the following page, where the parallel verse is translated:

She then turned and from the tail-end of her garment [dragging] along the ground was a

line of musk; like the back of a serpent have they made its comparison! (372)

Virtually every excerpt poses a similar inanity. Sometimes it is a matter of failing to render an idiom so that it makes English sense: "even if Day should not saddle its ass" (271) means "if Time does not run out." Sometimes a passage is virtually incomprehensible. It is clear from the analysis that Tobi understands what the poem is saying. It is equally clear that his translator does not have a clue -- and readers, likewise, will surely be left wondering what this poetry has to recommend it.

In general, I agree with Professor Tobi about the actual meaning of the Hebrew (or Arabic) text. In some cases, his reading has perhaps unfairly influenced the translation. On pp. 398-99, Tobi supplies a seven-verse excerpt from a qasida by Judah HaLevi that he will argue signals the poet's disenchantment with secular poetry. The poem is a panegyric dedicated to the poet Levi al-Tabban; it begins Shalom le-vat rabbu negafeha (Greetings to the girl who has been greatly injured). Following the standard description of the beloved's departure, the speaker wonders if Levi's poetry has the power to heal his pain, then transitions to extol the praises of a female personification of Poetry. Tobi's excerpt comes from the end of this passage, which will then transition to direct praise of his friend. The Hebrew excerpt has unfortunately elided an entire verse between the first and second of the following excerpt. Referring to Poetry ("she"), Tobi's translation begins:

She looks down with eyes fraught with the poem's conceptual ideas. Her prospect is from the towers of wisdom

She hinted by it that poetry is my vocation, but my heart became as one of the things beguiled by her

'Nay and nay,' I reply to her words, only the dropping of her song became pleasant to me

I had soon rejected this for my soul; may God forbid if poetry becomes my sole occupation!

What could this possibly mean? I returned to Brody's critical edition to discover the missing verse and the place of the excerpt in the composition. The opening image is convoluted, but I think HaLevi is saying that Levi al-Tabban's Poetry regards the general matter of poetry from her perch on the towers of Wisdom. The missing verse, which is quite difficult, continues to single out al-Tabban's verses, which are superior to the most righteous songs even in their "corrupting" elements. The personified Poetry of al-Tabban hints that HaLevi has fallen prey to the profession of poetry, which he denies emphatically. Rather, poetry's corollary benefits are what attract him, and he swears that versifying is not his sole occupation. Certainly, the poem disdains the writing of verse as a serious occupation, but in the context of a panegyric that extols the exceptional quality of al-Tabban's poetry, which has such purity that it can nullify the "corrupt" aspects of poetic language, its capacity to make falsehood seem true.

This poem is crucial to Tobi's claim that HaLevi, like Moses ibn Ezra and Maimonides, never overcame his disapproval of secular poetry. I am not convinced that the indictment is so forceful or comprehensive. Either way, the translation bears the burden of the argument, and needs to be worthy of that burden. Both author and poets deserve better. Brill's series, Medieval and Renaissance Authors and Texts, boasts an impressive editorial board, scholars whose work I know and admire. Perhaps it is time that they look more closely at the works that appear under their editorial supervision. In an age when what we do is so hard to justify, is it unfair to ask that it be communicated decently and well?

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Susan Einbinder

Hebrew Union College