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  • Jewish Metaphysical Poetry?
  • T. A. Perry
Adena Tanenbaum . The Contemplative Soul: Hebrew Poetry and Philosophical Theory in Medieval Spain. Leiden: Brill, 2002, xv + 290 pp.

"During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Jewish poets in Islamic Spain took Hebrew devotional verse in new and striking directions" (xi). Thus Adena Tanenbaum, now assistant professor at the Ohio State University, takes the first step into this far-ranging, complex, and beautifully written book. Developed from her 1993 Harvard dissertation under the guidance of Isadore Twersky and Bernard Septimus, the book documents a phase of Jewish thought not quite at home with either ancient rabbinic or modern Judaism but that enticed some of its greatest poets during the Andalusian period. With the exception of more generalized projections at the start and finish of this book-"From Greco-Arabic Thought to Poetry" (chapter 1) and "The Afterlife of the Genre . . ." (concluding chapter)-each chapter is centered on the explication de texte of major poems that, in her view, illustrate the philosophical theme. Thus, the Neoplatonic thrust is represented mainly by Solomon Ibn Gabirol, Moses Ibn Ezra (each of whom receives two chapters), and Abraham Ibn Ezra, while the skeptical reaction is entrusted to Judah Halevi's beautiful "Shuvi nafshi limenuḥaykhi," expertly translated and explicated. Finally, the entire tradition is carried forward-exploded? deconstructed?-to its sublimely ridiculous outer reaches by that precocious wag Judah Alḥarizi, whose rhymed prose Taḥkemoni is the subject of a brilliant chapter bearing the understated title: "An Inventive Heir."

There are grounds for adjusting the book's subtitle, since, on the one hand, "medieval Spain" is an overreach because only Muslim Spain is considered; and, on the other, because what is of special interest to the author is the ideology that undergirds these major poems (thus, perhaps, "Neoplatonic Philosophy in Andalusian Hebrew Poetry"). For, indeed, while Tanenbaum's overriding interest is Hebrew poetry, in particular Jewish penitential piyyutim preaching return to God, the constant point of reference is, rather than contemporaneous "philosophical theory" in general, a Neoplatonism that, perhaps even in Maimonides' [End Page 210] writings at the end of this period, seems to have remained operative so long as it was not admitted. The author thus performs a fruitful balancing act from start to finish, first announcing her plan to use poetry as a source of intellectual history (xii), but constantly shifting to reverse to the benefit of both: using intellectual history-here Neoplatonism-as an important component of a certain kind of religious poetry and as an exegetical tool for uncovering its not always patent structures of thought. It is here that Tanenbaum's subtlety and honesty shine-as well as her consummate skill as an exegete of Andalusian poetry-for while positing a kind of trobar clus (my comparison), a level of crypto-writing required by the novelty of the subject and the poets' danger of saying too much, she is careful to present all possible readings. Let the interpreter with understanding understand!

Tanenbaum's special focus on the soul is extremely thoughtful and faithful to the poets under her scrutiny. The author opens and closes by quoting the "metaphysical" poet Andrew Marvell, suggesting a kind of literary affinity. This is a tease of the most suggestive kind, for if, as the French critic Jean-Pierre Attal would have it, "the central theme of all metaphysical poetry is the relation between body and soul," then Ibn Gabirol and Moses Ibn Ezra can be considered as precursors of later mainstream poets such as John Donne and Maurice Scève. Using poetry as a vehicle for philosophical speculation, these Jewish metaphysicals mediated a philosophical vision that skirted around the standard Neoplatonic issues (problems of the one and the many, emanation versus Creation, and so on) in favor of a sharper and more belletristic concern, that of the individual soul's relations. These were analyzed as tripartite: with the body, with the self, and with God; or, in Bonaventura's formulation, with what is extra nos, intra nos, and supra nos. Each had its own coloration and variants.

God, of course, occupied the top of the pyramid. But if God was the final goal of human happiness, both...


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