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19.08.04 Decter, Dominion Built of Praise

19.08.04 Decter, Dominion Built of Praise

I fully sympathize with the experience with which Jonathan Decter opens this volume. I confess that, like him, I have not analyzed Hebrew panegyric in detail in my classes. Because of the conventional nature of this genre, the catalogue of virtues that repeat from one poem to another and the apparent lack of "sincerity," this type of poetry composed throughout the medieval period has received scant attention. Although researchers as renowned as Israel Levin [1] and Dan Pagis [2] have focused on this literary genre, followed more recently by Yosef Tobi, [3] among others, Decter's volume proposes an original approach to the topic it examines: the phenomenon of panegyric and its place in Jewish intellectual and social culture in the Middle Ages.

The book begins solidly, in my opinion, by choosing the Mediterranean as the framework for the study, which makes it possible to see the connections between cultures and languages in a space with flexible borders and internal pluralities. From this broad perspective, the author studies the phenomenon of praise between the tenth and thirteenth centuries in the Islamic world (and, more cursorily, between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries in the Christian and Romance context) and its concrete expression in poetry. Over the course of nine chapters, the insights offered are accompanied by carefully translated poems and texts that illuminate and support the study. A large number of these texts have not been published to date, which makes this vast corpus in Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Judeo-Arabic and, to a lesser extent, the Romance languages even more interesting.

The social function of Jewish panegyric in the Islamic Mediterranean is the focus of the first two chapters. The first of these ("Performance Matters: Between Public Acclamation and Epistolary Exchange") places us in the social and administrative system that integrated a highly ritualized system with regard to the articulation of power and its expression. The author reconstructs the variety of situations that inspired praise and its contexts, analyzing the relationship between public and private space and the way in which oral and written transmission coexisted. Panegyric is not only examined as a written text, but also as part of public ceremonies and an instrument to promote and legitimize the image of the powerful. In this respect, the use of panegyric in epistolary exchange is particularly illuminating in revealing the importance of this practice in creating social relationships that went beyond the desire to receive a financial remuneration in return for the praise. The image of the Andalusi Jewish "courtier" is redefined in light of these courtly panegyrics exchanged, gaining complexity. In my opinion, the friendships underlying some of these poetic exchanges in Jewish circles also help to explain a number of the features of these poems.

Panegyric is also analyzed within the context of a practice that, beyond any financial value, was highly symbolically loaded: the exchange of gifts ("Poetic Gifts: Maussian Exchange and the Working of Medieval Jewish Culture"). From this perspective, the delivery of a poem is identified as a social act that creates communal relationships and entails a recognition of authority. This use of panegyric as a type of material object reveals its importance as a mediator of relationships in a culture in which exchange perpetuates a cycle of loyalty between individuals. The texts used here show how this rhetoric of gift giving appears in Jewish panegyric in al-Andalus and highlight the network of associations created by the verses around the Islamic Mediterranean. The study of the use of the language of sacrifice from ancient Israel in these poems underscores some particularly meaningful facets of this dynamic, especially in the institutional context.

In the next chapter ("'Humble Like the Humble One': The Language of Jewish Political Legitimacy"), Decter engages in a complex discussion of the degree of reality contained in panegyric, focusing on its interest as a source of information about the values of medieval Jews. Specifically, he analyzes its use in the construction of political legitimacy. For this purpose, he examines the most common topoi found in these poems, rejecting the usual opposition between convention and reality, in order to describe a Jewish political discourse permeated by the model of Islamic power. The virtues commonly associated with the praised person (humility, wisdom, good advice, etc.) are reread to interpret their cultural resonance, analyze their role in representing the powerful and study the particular political sensibility that is configured through the repetition of these elements. In my opinion, the patronage relationship which, in some cases, ties the poet to the object of praise (mamdūḥ), explains the recourse to virtues like generosity and eloquence, which, more than legitimizing leadership, seem to seek to seduce through praise.

Following this, the book focuses on another novel question: the different leadership profiles depending on the particular sensitivities of each place ("'Sefarad Boasts over Shinar': Mediterranean Regionalism in Jewish Panegyric"). From this perspective, the way in which an author and his audience conceptualized geography and hierarchized its representation explains the differences observed in the representation of power, which was less homogenous than is usually believed. Using the poems of Yehudah Halevi and Yehudah al-Ḥarizi, Decter highlights not only the continuity, but also the fluctuations in the image of the mamdūḥ in regional communities with intellectual and cultural views that were quite different. The analysis of the term nasi in both cases is particularly thought-provoking.

The "dangers" faced by the panegyrist (lying, hypocrisy) lead the author to explore the "ethics of praise" ("'A Word Aptly Spoken': The Ethics of Praise"). To look at this issue, Decter gathers together reflections scattered though the works of poets and thinkers that contain different conceptions of the practice of praising. Questions like potential falsehood, the theological problem of addressing a man with praise that only God merits or plagiarism reflect the concerns faced by poets and the way in which they resolved them. The issues of the tension that surrounded the medieval Jews who wrote panegyric and the different attitudes towards this practice, from acceptance to rejection, provide new keys to interpret and understand this genre.

Among the challenges presented by panegyric, the question of truth and falsehood deserves special attention. In addition to the ethical aspect discussed above, this topic affects different aspects of medieval thought (exegesis, logic, philosophy), including the very conception of Jewish poetic discourse. Using Aristotle as a starting point, Decter examines the literary theory of the medieval Arab world, which is masterfully connected to the ideas contained in the Kitāb al-Muḥādara wa'l-mudhākara by Mosheh ibn Ezra. Thus, the figure of hyperbole in all its diversity and the discourse around it are approached from the truth/falsehood dialectic, which is placed front and centre. Some thoughts about the content/form difference and the concept of imagination complete this chapter, with the arguments illustrated by and based on a valuable selection of medieval texts.

Chapter 7 ("In Praise of God, in Praise of Man: Issues in Political Theology") develops what I consider to be one of the most interesting points in the book: the praise of the mamdūḥ using phrases that are applied to God in the Hebrew Bible. Using numerous examples, Decter offers different interpretations of this complex phenomenon, which raises the question of the sacralization of the powerful, with all the attendant implications. Cognitive metaphor and political theology substantiate this reading. After providing a brief overview of the application of this theory of political philosophy in Christian contexts, the book analyzes the different models of leadership (specifically, royalty) from the Bible through medieval Jewish sources to, finally, Islam. It then looks at the difficulties inherent in associating God with a ruler and details the strategies used to maintain the limits between the human and the divine. In Jewish texts, where the impact of medieval Islam is obvious, the association of God with the object of praise is also rich with nuances and, frequently, ambivalent. Poems reveal how authors negotiated with the tension inherent in this approach, the way in which the place of the ruler was conceptualized and how a political structure was combined with a theological one.

After this journey trough the world of Islam, the book moves to the Christian Mediterranean to offer an overview of medieval Jewish panegyric in this context ("'May His Book Be Burnt Even Though it Contains Your Praise!': Jewish Panegyric in the Christian Mediterranean"). Unlike the earlier chapters, which are structured around major themes, this section studies different "microcultures" from a diachronic point of view, taking a closer look at the most representative authors. Although the geographic range (Sicily, Toledo and Gerona, southern France, etc.) and chronology do not allow for an in-depth analysis of all the questions posed, the chapter does identify the unique elements in the representation of the mamdūḥ, the conceptualization of patronage and the political relationships related to these non-Islamic circles. It discusses the impact of the Andalusi legacy and the values of the texts in relation to the circumstances in which they were written. Literary phenomena like the development of invective, currents of thought like kabbalah and religious conversion help to explain the evolution in the functions and meanings of Jewish panegyric. Perhaps future research could examine more deeply the image of Christian leadership in the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries and the cultural and social practice of praise in this context, as was done with Mediterranean Islam.

The last chapter ("The Other 'Great Eagle': Interreligious Panegyrics and the Limits of Interpretation") focuses on a group of poems in which the mixture between cultures, languages and religions is particularly clear. These are panegyrics (written in Arabic, Judeo-Arabic or Romance languages) dedicated by Jewish authors to Muslims and Christians. This circumstance forced the writers to develop discursive strategies in order to handle the tensions that resulted from praising members of a different community. One of the fundamental questions in this context concerns the existence (or lack thereof) of a "poetics of resistance" in these interreligious texts. Additionally, Decter discusses the reasons behind certain linguistic choices, the way in which praise for a non-Jewish authority was negotiated and his power delimited, as well as the possible existence of different audiences (Muslims and Jews, for example). The author explores a world that has received little academic attention and offers a magnificent selection of interreligious poems that he uses to analyze the different possible levels of interpretation and pose intriguing questions about them. In my opinion, there is no better way to end this volume, where panegyric takes the reader on a passionate journey through the discourses of power, authority and political legitimacy in the medieval Mediterranean.

With excellent notes, a carefully honed bibliography and an extremely useful index, Dominion Built of Praise teachers the reader to read and understand Jewish panegyric from new perspectives and to rethink its values and functions. With this study, medieval praise poetry ceases to be synonymous with convention and predictability to reveal its importance as a discourse of power and transmitter of values in the culture of Mediterranean Jewish society.



1. Israel Levin, The Embroidered Coat: The Genres of HebrewSecular Poetry in Spain [Heb.]. Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1980, pp. 77-149.

2. Dan Pagis, Secular Poetry and Poetic Theory: Moses Ibn-Ezra and his Contemporaries [Heb.]. Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 1970.

3. Yosef Tobi, Between Hebrew and Arabic Poetry: Studies in Spanish Medieval Hebrew Poetry. Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2010, pp. 4-25.