Jewish Literature by Gustav Karpeles - HTML preview
Download the book in PDF, ePub, Kindle for a complete version.
The following essays were delivered during the last ten years, in the
form of addresses, before the largest associations in the great cities
of Germany. Each one is a dear and precious possession to me. As I once
more pass them in review, reminiscences fill my mind of solemn occasions
and impressive scenes, of excellent men and charming women. I feel as
though I were sending the best beloved children of my fancy out into the
world, and sadness seizes me when I realize that they no longer belong
to me alone--that they have become the property of strangers. The living
word falling upon the ear of the listener is one thing; quite another
the word staring from the cold, printed page. Will my thoughts be
accorded the same friendly welcome that greeted them when first they
I venture to hope that they may be kindly received; for these addresses
were born of devoted love to Judaism. The consciousness that Israel is
charged with a great historical mission, not yet accomplished, ushered
them into existence. Truth and sincerity stood sponsor to every word. Is
it presumptuous, then, to hope that they may find favor in the New
World? Brethren of my faith live there as here; our ancient watchword,
"Sh'ma Yisrael," resounds in their synagogues as in ours; the old
blood-stained flag, with its sublime inscription, "The Lord is my
banner!" floats over them; and Jewish hearts in America are loyal like
ours, and sustained by steadfast faith in the Messianic time when our
hopes and ideals, our aims and dreams, will be realized.
There is but
one Judaism the world over, by the Jordan and the Tagus as by the
Vistula and the Mississippi. God bless and protect it, and lead it to
the goal of its glorious future!
To all Jewish hearts beyond the ocean, in free America, fraternal
BERLIN, Pesach 5652/1892.
A GLANCE AT JEWISH LITERATURE
THE JEW IN THE HISTORY OF CIVILIZATION
WOMEN IN JEWISH LITERATURE
JEWISH TROUBADOURS AND MINNESINGERS
HUMOR AND LOVE IN JEWISH POETRY
THE JEWISH STAGE
THE JEW'S QUEST IN AFRICA
A JEWISH KING IN POLAND
JEWISH SOCIETY IN THE TIME OF MENDELSSOHN
HEINRICH HEINE AND JUDAISM
THE MUSIC OF THE SYNAGOGUE
A GLANCE AT JEWISH LITERATURE
In a well-known passage of the _Romanzero_, rebuking Jewish women for
their ignorance of the magnificent golden age of their nation's poetry,
Heine used unmeasured terms of condemnation. He was too severe, for the
sources from which he drew his own information were of a purely
scientific character, necessarily unintelligible to the ordinary reader.
The first truly popular presentation of the whole of Jewish literature
was made only a few years ago, and could not have existed in Heine's
time, as the most valuable treasures of that literature, a veritable
Hebrew Pompeii, have been unearthed from the mould and rubbish of the
libraries within this century. Investigations of the history of Jewish
literature have been possible, then, only during the last fifty years.
But in the course of this half-century, conscientious research has so
actively been prosecuted that we can now gain at least a bird's-eye view
of the whole course of our literature. Some stretches still lie in
shadow, and it is not astonishing that eminent scholars continue to
maintain that "there is no such thing as an organic history, a logical
development, of the gigantic neo-Hebraic literature"; while such as are
acquainted with the results of late research at best concede that
Hebrew literature has been permitted to garner a "tender aftermath."
Both verdicts are untrue and unfair. Jewish literature has developed
organically, and in the course of its evolution it has had its
spring-tide as well as its season of decay, this again followed by
Such opinions are part and parcel of the vicissitudes of our literature,
in themselves sufficient matter for an interesting book.
certainly is that a people without a home, without a land, living under
repression and persecution, could produce so great a literature;
stranger still, that it should at first have been preserved and
disseminated, then forgotten, or treated with the disdain of prejudice,
and finally roused from torpid slumber into robust life by the breath of
the modern era. In the neighborhood of twenty-two thousand works are
known to us now. Fifty years ago bibliographers were ignorant of the
existence of half of these, and in the libraries of Italy, England, and
Germany an untold number awaits resurrection.
In fact, our literature has not yet been given a name that recommends
itself to universal acceptance. Some have called it
Literature," because during the middle ages every Jew of learning bore
the title Rabbi; others, "Neo-Hebraic"; and a third party considers it
purely theological. These names are all inadequate.
Perhaps the only one
sufficiently comprehensive is "Jewish Literature." That embraces, as it
should, the aggregate of writings produced by Jews from the earliest
days of their history up to the present time, regardless of form, of
language, and, in the middle ages at least, of subject-matter.
With this definition in mind, we are able to sketch the whole course of
our literature, though in the frame of an essay only in outline. We
shall learn, as Leopold Zunz, the Humboldt of Jewish science, well says,
that it is "intimately bound up with the culture of the ancient world,
with the origin and development of Christianity, and with the scientific
endeavors of the middle ages. Inasmuch as it shares the intellectual
aspirations of the past and the present, their conflicts and their
reverses, it is supplementary to general literature. Its peculiar
features, themselves falling under universal laws, are in turn helpful
in the interpretation of general characteristics. If the aggregate
results of mankind's intellectual activity can be likened unto a sea,
Jewish literature is one of the tributaries that feed it. Like other
literatures and like literature in general, it reveals to the student
what noble ideals the soul of man has cherished, and striven to realize,
and discloses the varied achievements of man's intellectual powers. If
we of to-day are the witnesses and the offspring of an eternal, creative
principle, then, in turn, the present is but the beginning of a future,
that is, the translation of knowledge into life.
consciously held by any portion of mankind lend freedom to thought,
grace to feeling, and by sailing up this one stream we may reach the
fountain-head whence have emanated all spiritual forces, and about
which, as a fixed pole, all spiritual currents eddy."
The cornerstone of this Jewish literature is the Bible, or what we call
Old Testament literature--the oldest and at the same time the most
important of Jewish writings. It extends over the period ending with the
second century before the common era; is written, for the most part, in
Hebrew, and is the clearest and the most faithful reflection of the
original characteristics of the Jewish people. This biblical literature
has engaged the closest attention of all nations and every age. Until
the seventeenth century, biblical science was purely dogmatic, and only
since Herder pointed the way have its æsthetic elements been dwelt upon
along with, often in defiance of, dogmatic considerations. Up to this
time, Ernest Meier and Theodor Nöldeke have been the only ones to treat
of the Old Testament with reference to its place in the history of
Despite the dogmatic air clinging to the critical introductions to the
study of the Old Testament, their authors have not shrunk from treating
the book sacred to two religions with childish arbitrariness. Since the
days of Spinoza's essay at rationalistic explanation, Bible criticism
has been the wrestling-ground of the most extravagant exegesis, of bold
hypotheses, and hazardous conjectures. No Latin or Greek classic has
been so ruthlessly attacked and dissected; no mediæval poetry so
arbitrarily interpreted. As a natural consequence, the æsthetic
elements were more and more pushed into the background.
have we begun to ridicule this craze for hypotheses, and returned to
more sober methods of inquiry. Bible criticism reached the climax of
absurdity, and the scorn was just which greeted one of the most
important works of the critical school, Hitzig's
"Explanation of the
Psalms." A reviewer said: "We may entertain the fond hope that, in a
second edition of this clever writer's commentary, he will be in the
enviable position to tell us the day and the hour when each psalm was
The reaction began a few years ago with the recognition of the
inadequacy of Astruc's document hypothesis, until then the creed of all
Bible critics. Astruc, a celebrated French physician, in 1753 advanced
the theory that the Pentateuch--the five books of Moses-
-consists of two
parallel documents, called respectively Yahvistic and Elohistic, from
the name applied to God in each. On this basis, German science after him
raised a superstructure. No date was deemed too late to be assigned to
the composition of the Pentateuch. If the historian Flavius Josephus had
not existed, and if Jesus had not spoken of "the Law"
prophets," and of the things "which were written in the Law of Moses,
and in the Prophets, and in the Psalms," critics would have been
disposed to transfer the redaction of the Bible to some period of the
Christian era. So wide is the divergence of opinions on the subject
that two learned critics, Ewald and Hitzig, differ in the date assigned
to a certain biblical passage by no less than a thousand years!
Bible archæology, Bible exegesis, and discussions of grammatical
niceties, were confounded with the history of biblical literature, and
naturally it was the latter that suffered by the lack of differentiation. Orthodoxy assumed a purely divine origin for the Bible,
while sceptics treated the holy book with greater levity than they would
dare display in criticising a modern novel. The one party raised a hue
and cry when Moses was spoken of as the first author; the other
discovered "obscene, rude, even cannibalistic traits"
in the sublime
narratives of the Bible. It should be the task of coming generations,
successors by one remove of credulous Bible lovers, and immediate heirs
of thorough-going rationalists, to reconcile and fuse in a higher
conception of the Bible the two divergent theories of its purely divine
and its purely human origin. Unfortunately, it must be admitted that
Ernest Meier is right, when he says, in his "History of the National
Poetry of the Hebrews," that this task wholly belongs to the future; at
present it is an unsolved problem.
The æsthetic is the only proper point of view for a full recognition of
the value of biblical literature. It certainly does not rob the sacred
Scriptures, the perennial source of spiritual comfort, of their exalted
character and divine worth to assume that legend, myth, and history
have combined to produce the perfect harmony which is their imperishable
distinction. The peasant dwelling on inaccessible mountain-heights, next
to the record of Abraham's shepherd life, inscribes the main events of
his own career, the anniversary dates sacred to his family. The young
count among their first impressions that of "the brown folio," and more
vividly than all else remember
"The maidens fair and true,
The sages and the heroes bold,
Whose tale by seers inspired
In our Book of books is told.
The simple life and faith
Of patriarchs of ancient day
Like angels hover near,
And guard, and lead them on the way."
Above all, a whole nation has for centuries been living with, and only
by virtue of, this book. Surely this is abundant testimony to the
undying value of the great work, in which the simplest shepherd tales
and the naïvest legends, profound moral saws and magnificent images, the
ideals of a Messianic future and the purest, the most humane conception
of life, alternate with sublime descriptions of nature and the sweet
strains of love-poems, with national songs breathing hope, or trembling
with anguish, and with the dull tones of despairing pessimism and the
divinely inspired hymns of an exalted theodicy--all blending to form
what the reverential love of men has named the Book of books.
It was natural that a book of this kind should become the basis of a
great literature. Whatever was produced in later times had to submit to
be judged by its exalted standard. It became the rule of conduct, the
prophetic mirror reflecting the future work of a nation whose fate was
inextricably bound up with its own. It is not known how and when the
biblical scriptures were welded into one book, a holy canon, but it is
probably correct to assume that it was done by the _Soferim_, the
Scribes, between 200 and 150 B.C.E. At all events, it is certain that
the three divisions of the Bible--the Pentateuch, the Prophets, and the
miscellaneous writings--were contained in the Greek version, the
Septuagint, so called from the seventy or seventy-two Alexandrians
supposed to have done the work of translation under Ptolemy
The Greek translation of the Bible marks the beginning of the second
period of Jewish literature, the Judæo-Hellenic. Hebrew ceased to be the
language of the people; it was thenceforth used only by scholars and in
divine worship. Jewish for the first time met Greek intellect. Shem and
Japheth embraced fraternally. "But even while the teachings of Hellas
were pushing their way into subjugated Palestine, seducing Jewish
philosophy to apostasy, and seeking, by main force, to introduce
paganism, the Greek philosophers themselves stood awed by the majesty
and power of the Jewish prophets. Swords and words entered the lists as
champions of Judaism. The vernacular Aramæan, having suffered the Greek
to put its impress upon many of its substantives, refused to yield to
the influence of the Greek verb, and, in the end, Hebrew truth, in the
guise of the teachings of Jesus, undermined the proud structure of the
heathen." This is a most excellent characterization of that literary
period, which lasted about three centuries, ending between 100 and 150
C. E. Its influence upon Jewish literature can scarcely be said to have
been enduring. To it belong all the apocryphal writings which,
originally composed in the Greek language, were for that reason not
incorporated into the Holy Canon. The centre of intellectual life was no
longer in Palestine, but at Alexandria in Egypt, where three hundred
thousand Jews were then living, and thus this literature came to be
called Judæo-Alexandrian. It includes among its writers the last of the
Neoplatonists, particularly Philo, the originator of the allegorical
interpretation of the Bible and of a Jewish philosophy of religion;
Aristeas, and pseudo-Phokylides. There were also Jewish _littérateurs_:
the dramatist Ezekielos; Jason; Philo the Elder; Aristobulus, the
popularizer of the Aristotelian philosophy; Eupolemos, the historian;
and probably the Jewish Sybil, who had to have recourse to the oracular
manner of the pagans to proclaim the truths of Judaism, and to Greek
figures of speech for her apocalyptic visions, which foretold, in
biblical phrase and with prophetic ardor, the future of Israel and of
the nations in contact with it.
Meanwhile the word of the Bible was steadily gaining importance in
Palestine. To search into and expound the sacred text had become the
inheritance of the congregation of Jacob, of those that had not lent ear
to the siren notes of Hellenism. Midrash, as the investigations of the
commentators were called, by and by divided into two streams--Halacha,
which establishes and systematizes the statutes of the Law, and Haggada,
which uses the sacred texts for homiletic, historical, ethical, and
pedagogic discussions. The latter is the poetic, the former, the
legislative, element in the Talmudic writings, whose composition,
extending over a thousand years, constitutes the third, the most
momentous, period of Jewish literature. Of course, none of these periods
can be so sharply defined as a rapid survey might lead one to suppose.
For instance, on the threshold of this third epoch stands the figure of
Flavius Josephus, the famous Jewish historian, who, at once an
enthusiastic Jew and a friend of the Romans, writes the story of his
nation in the Greek language--a character as peculiar as his age, which,
listening to the mocking laughter of a Lucian, saw Olympus overthrown
and its gods dethroned, the Temple at Jerusalem pass away in flame and
smoke, and the new doctrine of the son of the carpenter at Nazareth
begin its victorious course.
By the side of this Janus-faced historian, the heroes of the Talmud
stand enveloped in glory. We meet with men like Hillel and Shammaï,
Jochanan ben Zakkaï, Gamaliel, Joshua ben Chananya, the famous Akiba,
and later on Yehuda the Prince, friend of the imperial philosopher
Marcus Aurelius, and compiler of the Mishna, the authoritative code of
laws superseding all other collections. Then there are the fabulist
Meïr; Simon ben Yochaï, falsely accused of the authorship of the
mystical Kabbala; Chiya; Rab; Samuel, equally famous as a physician and
a rabbi; Jochanan, the supposed compiler of the Jerusalem Talmud; and
Ashi and Abina, the former probably the arranger of the Babylonian
Talmud. This latter Talmud, the one invested with authority among Jews,
by reason of its varying fortunes, is the most marvellous literary
monument extant. Never has book been so hated and so persecuted, so
misjudged and so despised, on the other hand, so prized and so honored,
and, above all, so imperfectly understood, as this very Talmud.
For the Jews and their literature it has had untold significance. That
the Talmud has been the conservator of Judaism is an irrefutable
statement. It is true that the study of the Talmud unduly absorbed the
great intellectual force of its adherents, and brought about a somewhat
one-sided mental development in the Jews; but it also is true, as a
writer says, that "whenever in troublous times scientific inquiry was
laid low; whenever, for any reason, the Jew was excluded from
participation in public life, the study of the Talmud maintained the
elasticity and the vigor of the Jewish mind, and rescued the Jew from
sterile mysticism and spiritual apathy. The Talmud, as a rule, has been
inimical to mysticism, and the most brilliant Talmudists, in propitious
days, have achieved distinguished success in secular science. The Jew
survived ages of bitterness, all the while clinging loyally to his faith
in the midst of hostility, and the first ray of light that penetrated
the walls of the Ghetto found him ready to take part in the intellectual
work of his time. This admirable elasticity of mind he owes, first and
foremost, to the study of the Talmud."
From this much abused Talmud, as from its contemporary the Midrash in
the restricted sense, sprouted forth the blossoms of the Haggada--that
"Where the beauteous, ancient sagas, Angel legends fraught with meaning,
Martyrs' silent sacrifices,
Festal songs and wisdom's sayings,
Trope and allegoric fancies--
All, howe'er by faith's triumphant
Glow pervaded--where they gleaming,
Glist'ning, well in strength exhaustless.
And the boyish heart responsive
Drinks the wild, fantastic sweetness, Greets the woful, wondrous anguish,
Yields to grewsome charm of myst'ry, Hid in blessed worlds of fable.
Overawed it hearkens solemn
To that sacred revelation
Mortal man hath poetry called."
A story from the Midrash charmingly characterizes the relation between
Halacha and Haggada. Two rabbis, Chiya bar Abba, a Halachist, and
Abbahu, a Haggadist, happened to be lecturing in the same town. Abbahu,
the Haggadist, was always listened to by great crowds, while Chiya, with
his Halacha, stood practically deserted. The Haggadist comforted the
disappointed teacher with a parable. "Let us suppose two merchants," he
said, "to come to town, and offer wares for sale. The one has pearls and
precious gems to display, the other, cheap finery, gilt chains, rings,
and gaudy ribbons. About whose booth, think you, does the crowd
press?--Formerly, when the struggle for existence was not fierce and
inevitable, men had leisure and desire for the profound teachings of the
Law; now they need the cheering words of consolation and hope."
For more than a thousand years this nameless spirit of national poesy
was abroad, and produced manifold works, which, in the course of time,
were gathered together into comprehensive collections, variously named
Midrash Rabba, Pesikta, Tanchuma, etc. Their compilation was begun in
about 700 C. E., that is, soon after the close of the Talmud, in the
transition period from the third epoch of Jewish literature to the
fourth, the golden age, which lasted from the ninth to the fifteenth
century, and, according to the law of human products, shows a season of
growth, blossom, and decay.
The scene of action during this period was western Asia, northern
Africa, sometimes Italy and France, but chiefly Spain, where Arabic
culture, destined to influence Jewish thought to an incalculable degree,
was at that time at its zenith. "A second time the Jews were drawn into
the vortex of a foreign civilization, and two hundred years after
Mohammed, Jews in Kairwan and Bagdad were speaking the same language,
Arabic. A language once again became the mediatrix between Jewish and
general literature, and the best minds of the two races, by means of the
language, reciprocally influenced each other. Jews, as they once had
written Greek for their brethren, now wrote Arabic; and, as in
Hellenistic times, the civilization of the dominant race, both in its
original features and in its adaptations from foreign sources, was
reflected in that of the Jews." It would be interesting to analyze this
important process of assimilation, but we can concern ourselves only
with the works of the Jewish intellect. Again we meet, at the threshold
of the period, a characteristic figure, the thinker Sa'adia, ranking
high as author and religious philosopher, known also as a grammarian and
a poet. He is followed by Sherira, to whom we owe the beginnings of a
history of Talmudic literature, and his son Haï Gaon, a strictly
orthodox teacher of the Law. In their wake come troops of physicians,
theologians, lexicographers, Talmudists, and grammarians. Great is the
circle of our national literature: it embraces theology, philosophy,
exegesis, grammar, poetry, and jurisprudence, yea, even astronomy and
chronology, mathematics and medicine. But these widely varying subjects
constitute only one class, inasmuch as they all are infused with the
spirit of Judaism, and subordinate themselves to its demands. A mention
of the prominent actors would turn this whole essay into a dry list of
names. Therefore it is better for us merely to sketch the period in
outline, dwelling only on its greatest poets and philosophers, the
moulders of its character.
The opinion is current that the Semitic race lacks the philosophic
faculty. Yet it cannot be denied that Jews were the first to carry Greek
philosophy to Europe, teaching and developing it there before its
dissemination by celebrated Arabs. In their zeal to harmonize philosophy
with their religion, and in the lesser endeavor to defend traditional
Judaism against the polemic attacks of a new sect, the Karaites, they
invested the Aristotelian system with peculiar features, making it, as
it were, their national philosophy. At all events, it must be
universally accepted that the Jews share with the Arabs the merit "of
having cherished the study of philosophy during centuries of barbarism,
and of having for a long time exerted a civilizing influence upon
The meagre achievements of the Jews in the departments of history and
history of literature do not justify the conclusion that they are
wanting in historic perception. The lack of writings on these subjects
is traceable to the sufferings and persecutions that have marked their
pathway. Before their chroniclers had time to record past afflictions,
new sorrows and troubles broke in upon them. In the middle ages, the
history of Jewish literature is the entire history of the Jewish people,
its course outlined by blood and watered by rivers of tears, at whose
source the genius of Jewish poetry sits lamenting. "The Orient dwells an
exile in the Occident," Franz Delitzsch, the first alien to give loving
study to this literature, poetically says, "and its tears of longing for
home are the fountain-head of Jewish poetry."
That poetry reached its perfection in the works of the celebrated trio,
Solomon Gabirol, Yehuda Halevi, and Moses ben Ezra.
triumphs had been heralded by the more modest achievements of Abitur,
writing Hebrew, and Adia and the poetess Xemona (Kasmune) using Arabic,
to sing the praise of God and lament the woes of Israel.
The predominant, but not exclusive, characteristic of Jewish poetry is
its religious strain. Great thinkers, men equipped with philosophic
training, and at the same time endowed with poetic gifts, have
contributed to the huge volume of synagogue poetry, whose subjects are
praise of the Lord and regret for Zion. The sorrow for our lost
fatherland has never taken on more glowing colors, never been expressed
in fuller tones than in this poetry. As ancient Hebrew poetry flowed in
the two streams of prophecy and psalmody, so the Jewish poetry of the
middle ages was divided into _Piut_ and _Selicha_. Songs of hope and
despair, cries of revenge, exhortations to peace among men, elegies on
every single persecution, and laments for Zion, follow each other in
kaleidoscopic succession. Unfortunately, there never was lack of
historic matter for this poetry to elaborate. To furnish that was the
well-accomplished task of rulers and priests in the middle ages, alike
"in the realm of the Islamic king of kings and in that of the apostolic
servant of servants." So fate made this poetry classical and eminently
national. Those characteristics which, in general literature, earn for a
work the description "Homeric," in Jewish literature make a liturgical
poem "Kaliric," so called from the poet Eliezer Kalir, the subject of
many mythical tales, and the first of a long line of poets, Spanish,
French, and German, extending to the sixteenth or seventeenth century.
The literary history of this epoch has been written by Leopold Zunz with
warmth of feeling and stupendous learning. He closes his work with the
hope that mankind, at some future day, will adopt Israel's religious
poetry as its own, transforming the elegiac _Selicha_
into a joyous
psalm of universal peace and good-will.
Side by side with religious flourishes secular poetry, clothing itself
in rhyme and metre, adopting every current form of poesy, and treating
of every appropriate subject. Its first votary was Solomon Gabirol, that
"Human nightingale that warbled Forth her songs of tender love,
In the darkness of the sombre,
Gothic mediæval night.
She, that nightingale, sang only,
Sobbing forth her adoration,
To her Lord, her God, in heaven,
Whom her songs of praise extolled."
Solomon Gabirol may be said to have been the first poet thrilled by
_Weltschmerz_. "He produced hymns and songs, penitential prayers,
psalms, and threnodies, filled with hope and longing for a blessed
future. They are marked throughout by austere earnestness, brushing
away, in its rigor, the color and bloom of life; but side by side with
it, surging forth from the deepest recesses of a human soul, is humble
adoration of God."
Gabirol was a distinguished philosopher besides. In 1150, his chief
work, "The Fount of Life," was translated into Latin by Archdeacon
Dominicus Gundisalvi, with the help of Johannes Avendeath, an apostate
Jew, the author's name being corrupted into Avencebrol, later becoming
Avicebron. The work was made a text-book of scholastic philosophy, but
neither Scotists nor Thomists, neither adherents nor detractors,
suspected that a heretical Jew was slumbering under the name Avicebron.
It remained for an inquirer of our own day, Solomon Munk, to reveal the
face of Gabirol under the mask of a garbled name.
Amazed, we behold that
the pessimistic philosopher of to-day can as little as the schoolmen of
the middle ages shake himself free from the despised Jew. Schopenhauer
may object as he will, it is certain that Gabirol was his predecessor by
more than eight hundred years!
Charisi, whom we shall presently meet, has expressed the verdict on his
poetry which still holds good: "Solomon Gabirol pleases to call himself
the small--yet before him all the great must dwindle and fall.--Who can
like him with mighty speech appall?--Compared with him the poets of his
time are without power--he, the small, alone is a tower.--The highest
round of poetry's ladder has he won.--Wisdom fondled him, eloquence hath
called him son--and clothing him with purple, said:
son, go forth, to conquest go!'--His predecessors' songs are naught with
his compared--nor have his many followers better fared.-
singers by him were taught--the heirs they are of his poetic
thought.--But still he's king, to him all praise belongs--for Solomon's
is the Song of Songs."
By Gabirol's side stands Yehuda Halevi, probably the only Jewish poet
known to the reader of general literature, to whom his name, life, and
fate have become familiar through Heinrich Heine's _Romanzero_. His
magnificent descriptions of nature "reflect southern skies, verdant
meadows, deep blue rivers, and the stormy sea," and his erotic lyrics
are chaste and tender. He sounds the praise of wine, youth, and
happiness, and extols the charms of his lady-love, but above and beyond
all he devotes his song to Zion and his people. The pearl of his poems
"Is the famous lamentation
Sung in all the tents of Jacob,
Scattered wide upon the earth ...
Yea, it is the song of Zion,
Which Yehuda ben Halevy,
Dying on the holy ruins,
Sang of loved Jerusalem."
"In the whole compass of religious poetry, Milton's and Klopstock's not
excepted, nothing can be found to surpass the elegy of Zion," says a
modern writer, a non-Jew. This soul-stirring "Lay of Zion," better
than any number of critical dissertations, will give the reader a clear
insight into the character and spirit of Jewish poetry in general:
O Zion! of thine exiles' peace take thought, The remnant of thy flock, who thine have sought!
From west, from east, from north and south resounds, Afar and now anear, from all thy bounds, And no surcease,
"With thee be peace!"
In longing's fetters chained I greet thee, too, My tears fast welling forth like Hermon's dew--
O bliss could they but drop on holy hills!
A croaking bird I turn, when through me thrills Thy desolate state; but when I dream anon, The Lord brings back thy ev'ry captive son--
A harp straightway
To sing thy lay.
In heart I dwell where once thy purest son At Bethel and Peniel, triumphs won;
God's awesome presence there was close to thee, Whose doors thy Maker, by divine decree, Opposed as mates
To heaven's gates.
Nor sun, nor moon, nor stars had need to be; God's countenance alone illumined thee On whose elect He poured his spirit out.
In thee would I my soul pour forth devout!
Thou wert the kingdom's seat, of God the throne, And now there dwells a slave race, not thine own, In royal state,
Where reigned thy great.
O would that I could roam o'er ev'ry place Where God to missioned prophets showed His grace!
And who will give me wings? An off'ring meet, I'd haste to lay upon thy shattered seat, Thy counterpart--
My bruisèd heart.
Upon thy precious ground I'd fall prostrate, Thy stones caress, the dust within thy gate, And happiness it were in awe to stand At Hebron's graves, the treasures of thy land, And greet thy woods, thy vine-clad slopes, thy vales,
Greet Abarim and Hor, whose light ne'er pales, A radiant crown,
Thy priests' renown.
Thy air is balm for souls; like myrrh thy sand; With honey run the rivers of thy land.
Though bare my feet, my heart's delight I'd count To thread my way all o'er thy desert mount, Where once rose tall
Thy holy hall,
Where stood thy treasure-ark, in recess dim, Close-curtained, guarded o'er by cherubim.
My Naz'rite's crown would I pluck off, and cast It gladly forth. With curses would I blast The impious time thy people, diadem-crowned, Thy Nazirites, did pass, by en'mies bound With hatred's bands,
In unclean lands.
By dogs thy lusty lions are brutal torn And dragged; thy strong, young eaglets, heav'nward borne,
By foul-mouthed ravens snatched, and all undone.
Can food still tempt my taste? Can light of sun Seem fair to shine
To eyes like mine?
Soft, soft! Leave off a while, O cup of pain!
My loins are weighted down, my heart and brain, With bitterness from thee. Whene'er I think Of Oholah, proud northern queen, I drink Thy wrath, and when my Oholivah forlorn Comes back to mind--'tis then I quaff thy scorn, Then, draught of pain,
Thy lees I drain.
O Zion! Crown of grace! Thy comeliness Hath ever favor won and fond caress.
Thy faithful lovers' lives are bound in thine; They joy in thy security, but pine
And weep in gloom
O'er thy sad doom.
From out the prisoner's cell they sigh for thee, And each in prayer, wherever he may be, Towards thy demolished portals turns. Exiled, Dispersed from mount to hill, thy flock defiled Hath not forgot thy sheltering fold. They grasp Thy garment's hem, and trustful, eager, clasp, With outstretched arms,
Thy branching palms.
Shinar, Pathros--can they in majesty With thee compare? Or their idolatry With thy Urim and thy Thummim august?
Who can surpass thy priests, thy saintly just, Thy prophets bold,
And bards of old?
The heathen kingdoms change and wholly cease--
Thy might alone stands firm without decrease, Thy Nazirites from age to age abide, Thy God in thee desireth to reside.
Then happy he who maketh choice of thee To dwell within thy courts, and waits to see, And toils to make,
Thy light awake.
On him shall as the morning break thy light, The bliss of thy elect shall glad his sight, In thy felicities shall he rejoice,
In triumph sweet exult, with jubilant voice, O'er thee, adored,
To youth restored.
We have loitered long with Yehuda Halevi, and still not long enough, for
we have not yet spoken of his claims to the title philosopher, won for
him by his book _Al-Chazari_. But now we must hurry on to Moses ben
Ezra, the last and most worldly of the three great poets. He devotes his
genius to his patrons, to wine, his faithless mistress, and to
"bacchanalian feasts under leafy canopies, with merry minstrelsy of
birds." He laments over separation from friends and kin, weeps over the
shortness of life and the rapid approach of hoary age--
all in polished
language, sometimes, however, lacking euphony. Even when he strikes his
lyre in praise and honor of his people Israel, he fails to rise to the
lofty heights attained by his mates in song.
With Yehuda Charisi, at the beginning of the thirteenth century, the
period of the epigones sets in for Spanish-Jewish literature. In
Charisi's _Tachkemoni_, an imitation of the poetry of the Arab Hariri,
jest and serious criticism, joy and grief, the sublime and the trivial,
follow each other like tints in a parti-colored skein.
is the ease with which he plays upon the Hebrew language, not the most
pliable of instruments. In general, Jewish poets and philosophers have
manipulated that language with surprising dexterity.
elegies, penitential prayers, exhortations, and religious meditations,
generation after generation, were couched in the idiom of the psalmist,
yet the structure of the language underwent no change.
of the neo-Hebraic idiom from the ancient Hebrew," a distinguished
modern ethnographer justly says, "confirms, by linguistic evidence, the
plasticity, the logical acumen, the comprehensive and at the same time
versatile intellectuality of the Jewish race. By the ingenious
compounding of words, by investing old expressions with new meanings,
and adapting the material offered by alien or related languages to its
own purposes, it has increased and enriched a comparatively meagre
treasury of words."
Side by side with this cosmopolitanism, illustrated in the Haggada,
whose pages prove that nothing human is strange to the Jewish race, it
reveals, in its literary development, as notably in the Halacha, a
sharply defined subjectivity. Jellinek says: "Not losing itself in the
contemplation of the phenomena of life, not devoting itself to any
subject unless it be with an ulterior purpose, but seeing all things in
their relation to itself, and subordinating them to its own boldly
asserted _ego_, the Jewish race is not inclined to apply its powers to
the solution of intricate philosophic problems, or to abstruse
metaphysical speculations. It is, therefore, not a philosophic race, and
its participation in the philosophic work of the world dates only from
its contact with the Greeks." The same author, on the other hand,
emphasizes the liberality, the broad sympathies, of the Jewish race, in
his statement that the Jewish mind, at its first meeting with Arabic
philosophy, absorbed it as a leaven into its intellectual life. The
product of the assimilation was--as early as the twelfth century, mark
you--a philosophic conception of life, whose broad liberality culminates
in the sentiment expressed by two most eminent thinkers: Christianity
and Islam are the precursors of a world-religion, the preliminary
conditions for the great religious system satisfying all men. Yehuda
Halevi and Moses Maimonides were the philosophers bold enough to utter
this thought of far-reaching significance.
The second efflorescence of Jewish poetry brings forth exotic romances,
satires, verbose hymns, and humorous narrative poems.
certainly do not justify the application of the epithet
Jewish literature. Solomon ben Sakbel composes a satiric romance in the
Makamat form, describing the varied adventures of Asher ben Yehuda,
another Don Quixote; Berachya Hanakdan puts into Hebrew the fables of
Æsop and Lokman, furnishing La Fontaine with some of his material;
Abraham ibn Sahl receives from the Arabs, certainly not noted for
liberality, ten goldpieces for each of his love-songs; Santob de Carrion
is a beloved Spanish bard, bold enough to tell unpleasant truths unto a
king; Joseph ibn Sabara writes a humorous romance; Yehuda Sabbataï, epic
satires, "The War of Wealth and Wisdom," and "A Gift from a Misogynist,"
and unnamed authors, "Truth's Campaign," and "Praise of Women."
A satirist of more than ordinary gifts was the Italian Kalonymos, whose
"Touchstone," like Ibn Chasdaï's Makamat, "The Prince and the Dervish,"
has been translated into German. Contemporaneous with them was Süsskind
von Trimberg, the Suabian minnesinger, and Samson Pnie, of Strasburg,
who helped the German poets continue _Parzival_, while later on, in
Italy, Moses Rieti composed "The Paradise" in Hebrew _terza-rima_.
In the decadence of Jewish literature, the most prominent figure is
Immanuel ben Solomon, or Manoello, as the Italians call him. Critics
think him the precursor of Boccaccio, and history knows him as the
friend of Dante, whose _Divina Commedia_ he travestied in Hebrew. The
author of the first Hebrew sonnet and of the first Hebrew novel, he was
a talented writer, but as frivolous as talented.
This is the development of Jewish poetry during its great period. In
other departments of literature, in philosophy, in theology, in ethics,
in Bible exegesis, the race is equally prolific in minds of the first
order. Glancing back for a moment, our eye is arrested by Moses
Maimonides, the great systematizer of the Jewish Law, and the connecting
link between scholasticism and the Greek-Arabic development of the
Aristotelian system. Before his time Bechaï ibn Pakuda and Joseph ibn
Zadik had entered upon theosophic speculations with the object of
harmonizing Arabic and Greek philosophy, and in the age immediately
preceding that of Maimonides, Abraham ibn Daud, a writer of surprisingly
liberal views, had undertaken, in "The Highest Faith,"
the task of
reconciling faith with philosophy. At the same time rationalistic Bible
exegesis was begun by Abraham ibn Ezra, an acute but reckless
controversialist. Orthodox interpretations of the Bible had, before him,
been taught in France by Rashi (Solomon Yitschaki) and Samuel ben Meïr,
and continued by German rabbis, who, at the same time, were preachers of
morality--a noteworthy phenomenon in a persecuted tribe.
"How pure and
strong its ethical principles were is shown by its religious poetry as
well as by its practical Law. What pervades the poetry as a high ideal,
in the application of the Law becomes demonstrable reality. The wrapt
enthusiasm in the hymns of Samuel the Pious and other poets is embodied,
lives, in the rulings of Yehuda Hakohen, Solomon Yitschaki, and Jacob
ben Meïr; in the legal opinions of Isaac ben Abraham, Eliezer ha-Levi,
Isaac ben Moses, Meïr ben Baruch, and their successors, and in the
codices of Eliezer of Metz and Moses de Coucy. A German professor of
a hundred years ago, after glancing through some few Jewish writings,
exclaimed, in a tone of condescending approval:
'Christians of that time
could scarcely have been expected to enjoin such high moral principles
as this Jew wrote down and bequeathed to his brethren in faith!'"
Jewish literature in this and the next period consists largely of
theological discussions and of commentaries on the Talmud produced by
the hundred. It would be idle to name even the most prominent authors;
their works belong to the history of theologic science, and rarely had a
determining influence upon the development of genuine literature.
We must also pass over in silence the numerous Jewish physicians and
medical writers; but it must be remembered that they, too, belong to
Jewish literature. The most marvellous characteristic of this literature
is that in it the Jewish race has registered each step of its
development. "All things learned, gathered, obtained, on its journeyings
hither and thither--Greek philosophy and Arabic, as well as Latin
scholasticism--all deposited themselves in layers about the Bible, so
stamping later Jewish literature with an individuality that gave it an
unique place among the literatures of the world."
The travellers, however, must be mentioned by name.
were wholly dedicated to the interests of their co-religionists. The
first of the line is Eldad, the narrator of a sort of Hebrew Odyssey.
Benjamin of Tudela and Petachya of Ratisbon are deserving of more
confidence as veracious chroniclers, and their descriptions, together
with Charisi's, complete the Jewish library of travels of those early
days, unless, with Steinschneider, we consider, as we truly may, the
majority of Jewish authors under this head. For Jewish writers a hard,
necessitous lot has ever been a storm wind, tossing them hither and
thither, and blowing the seeds of knowledge over all lands. Withal
learning proved an enveloping, protecting cloak to these mendicant and
pilgrim authors. The dispersion of the Jews, their international
commerce, and the desire to maintain their academies, stimulated a love
for travel, made frequent journeyings a necessity, indeed. In this way
only can we account for the extraordinarily rapid spread of Jewish
literature in the middle ages. The student of those times often chances
across a rabbi, who this day teaches, lectures, writes in Candia,