- Mikve Israel
Rabbi Israel Najara (1550–1625) was born in Safed and died in Gaza. His father, Rabbi Moses Najara, was one of the immediate disciples of R. Isaac Luria Ashkenazi (1534–72), the leader of a Jewish mystical fellowship in Safed. Rabbi Moses Najara emerged as an influential rabbi in Damascus, where he served as judge there for twenty years. Rabbi Moses Najara and his father, Rabbi Israel de Quriel, were the main teachers of Rabbi Israel Najara, the subject of the book under consideration. So long as Moses Najara was alive, Israel Najara was financially secure, but he could not come into his own as a rabbinic leader. After the father died, Israel Najara experienced some financial difficulties and earned his living as an official scribe, facilitating communication between Jewish communities. At that point he began to preach, not in Damascus proper, but in one of its outlying communities, Kefar Joubar. Perhaps contacts with the Jewish community in Gaza, a major commercial center on the highway between Egypt and Palestine, brought Israel Najara to Gaza, where he taught Torah and where he finally died.
The lasting legacy of Rabbi Israel Najara was exquisite religious poetry. Two collections of hymns were published in his day to great acclaim, but Najara's poetry also had its share of criticism. Some claimed that Najara imitated non-Jewish erotic poetry, others disliked his tendency to start his poems with Hebrew words that sounded like non-Hebrew words, and still others were critical of his tendency to frequent bars and occasionally get drunk. At the time, Jewish hymn writers did not compose their own melodies but set their words to popular tunes composed by non-Jews. The result was an interesting fusion of Jewish and non-Jewish elements, the sacred and the profane, elite and popular cultures. While the poetry has received a lot of scholarly attention, less-known is that Israel Najara also composed a Commentary on the Book of Job, a Commentary on the Pentateuch, a collection of sermons, several legal decisions (responsa), and several collections of letters.
Mikve Israel is the collection of forty sermons, delivered on, or occasioned by, special circumstances. Most of the sermons were delivered either in Damascus or in Safed, but not in Gaza, and not all sermons have a specified location. Some of the sermons were delivered on the beginning of the new month, when it was customary to fast and study Torah; others were delivered in connection with Jewish religious festivals. The collection also includes eulogies for members of the Najara family, friends, teachers, and disciples; conversely, there are also sermons delivered on joyous occasions such as weddings and births. Finally, there are several philosophical sermons whose goal was to instruct the listener or reader in the pursuit of religious perfection. Najara himself selected the sermons and edited them for publication, and he even prepared the index for the collection. The collection clearly had a didactic purpose, to generate introspection and lead to repentance, which is necessary for religious perfection.
Because Regev wishes to present Najara as a theologian and moral teacher, [End Page 1329] much of the introductory essay summarizes the themes of the sermons. Even though the thematic summary is useful, Regev fails to convince this reader that Najara was indeed a theologian of either depth or originality. All the standard themes of late medieval Jewish theology are represented in Najara's sermons — for example, the election of Israel, the superiority of the Torah, providence and retribution, charity, reasons for the commandments, prayer, repentance, the human soul, human perfection, saintliness, sexuality, death, and peace — but the treatment is by no means exceptional. While the edition provides the biblical and rabbinic references that made up Najara's discourse, there is no analysis of Najara's rhetorical devices and no attempt to explain his artistry. Therefore, although Regev's edition of Mikve Israel constitutes source material for the history of Jewish preaching, it cannot be considered a major contribution to that history. A comparison of...