- Dominion Built of Praise: Panegyric and Legitimacy Among Jews in the Medieval Mediterranean by Jonathan Decter
‘He peered from behind a lattice and illuminated our darkness’ (Decter, 132). These were the words of praise that Yehudah Halevi offered to a Jewish dignitary in Seville in the twelfth century. I now echo Halevi in my appreciation of Jonathan Decter’s new book Dominion Built of Praise: the winner of the 2018 National Jewish Book Award in Sephardic Culture. Dominion Built of Praise is a monumental contribution to the study of the Medieval Jewish Mediterranean. Decter masterfully harnesses the familiarity of medieval Jewish history while consistently finding new ways to contextualise its most well-known figures such as Sa’adia Gaon, Hasdai ibn Shaprut, Dunash ibn Labrat, Moshe ibn Ezra, Yehudah Halevi, Yehudah al-Ḥarizi, and Todros Halevi Abulafia. Decter recasts these characters as either praise givers or as the recipients of praise with satisfying novelty. In so doing, Dominion Built of Praise breaches the walls between literary, intellectual, and social history. It is everything a history book should be: readable, explanatory, insightful, revisionist, and impressively well-researched.
At the heart of the book are numerous forsaken — many yet unpublished — praise poems. Decter informs us that these poems were often attached to letters and he makes the case that they were regularly performed or read aloud. They were written to extol the virtues of a wide range of recipients including geonim, exilarchs, nagidim, courtiers, fellow poets, patrons, and even non-Jewish political figures. Sometimes, praise poems were penned in honour of ceremonial occasions such as births, marriages, and deaths. They are almost all composed in Hebrew or Judeo-Arabic. Several of the poems under Decter’s microscope were discovered among the treasures of the Cairo Geniza.
Even the most casual reader of Medieval Jewish literature has some familiarity with these kinds of texts, yet they have been summarily dismissed by generations of scholars as formulaic exercises in social obligation, excessive verbiage, rhetorical flamboyancy or self-interested pandering. Decter observes that praise poetry of this kind is completely alien from the literary tastes of modern readers. But for Decter, the stone that the builder refused will become the head cornerstone (Psalms, 118: 22). With an impressive range of skill sets — linguistic, literary, and analytical — Decter meticulously demonstrates that these texts were not only meaningful to medieval poets and patrons but that they represent the very essence of medieval Jewish, Islamic, and Christian power dynamics as the objects of a ‘Maussian Exchange’. They represent, that is, capital investments in social mobility. Decter demonstrates that all forms of ‘Dominion’ during the Middle Ages, be they political, intellectual, or rabbinic, were ‘built on praise’, and panegyrics were the very currency of such ‘Dominion’.
As a purely literary history, Dominion Built of Praise is highly successful. Decter rescues a rejected genre from obscurity, offering a welcome counterpoint to the extensive scholarly interest in Andalusian Hebrew poetry with erotic and drinking themes. These ‘sexier’ medieval genres remain popular today and attract more attention from modern scholars because, unlike panegyrics, they more closely resemble our own literary tastes. In defining Jewish panegyric as a genre, Decter describes its connection to letter-writing, the terminologies used in praise (including the highly controversial use of biblical divine imagery) and the place of this genre within an Aristotelian Ars Poetica. Decter further brings us into the realm of intellectual history through an assessment of Rabbinic attitudes both positive and negative toward panegyrics, ranging from Moshe ibn Ezra’s own attempts to define the mechanics of praise poetry to Baḥya ibn Paquda’s complete rejection of the genre as a prideful elevation of worldliness. Thus, if only for its efforts in establishing the various uses and parameters of praise poetry, [End Page 107] Dominion Built of Praise would have made a valuable contribution.
The book, however, is so much more. It is primarily a social history exploring the nature of political legitimacy among Jews as captured in the language of panegyrics. As...