CHRIS BARTHEL: Good evening. My name is Chris Barthel. I'm Director of Academic Programs here at the Center for Jewish History, and I'd like to welcome you to tonight's program. We'll hear a lecture from Professor Ross Brann titled "An Intimate Rivalry, the Jews and Classical Islam." And of course, tonight's program is in collaboration with the Cornell University Jewish Studies Program. We're very happy to be working together on that.
Many of you may already know the Center for many public programs on Jewish history and culture, and also the Center is home to the five partner organizations that are here, American Jewish Historical Society, American Sephardi Federation, Leo Baeck Institute, Yeshiva University Museum, and YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, and we're pleased to have American Sephardi Federation join us in co-sponsoring tonight's event.
And of course, the collections housed at the Center are so important to so much of what happens here. The collections document more than 500 years of Jewish history. Together, they comprise the largest archive in the world, outside of Israel, of the modern Jewish experience, and they're an indispensable resource to scholars, journalists, genealogists, all kinds of researchers interested in the questions that these sources can help them answer, including the fellows who are supported through the Center's fellowship program.
The research fellows who are undergraduates, graduate students, post-doctoral, and senior scholars, they draw on these collections housed here, and they produce new scholarship that helps to shape our understanding of Jewish history and culture. And the Center supports other academic initiatives as well, including Jewish Studies Scholarship through symposia, conferences, and scholars working groups, and so tonight's program fits right in, hearing about some scholarship that should be very interesting.
We're pleased that you're here for the first in a series of lectures in collaboration with the Cornell University Jewish Studies Program, a series that is generously supported by Bruce Slovin, chair emeritus of the board of directors and founder of the Center for Jewish History. And we're grateful for his support. I'd also like to point out that the next two lectures that we have will be in the spring, the first on March 20, a lecture by Professor Lauren Monroe, titled "The Evolution of the Joseph Traditions and the Emergence of Ancient Israel," and on May 1, we'll hear from Professor Battig von Wittelsbach for a talk titled, "Jewish-Italian Literature and the Long 20th Century." And please join us after the program tonight for a reception in the Great Hall.
I'd now like to invite to the podium Professor Jonathan Boyarin, Mann Professor of Modern Jewish Studies, Professor of Near Eastern Studies, and Director of the Cornell University Jewish Studies Program.
JONATHAN BOYARIN: I'm honored to spend a few moments at the podium of this hall in this Center, which houses-- along with four other extraordinary treasures-- the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, where I had the privilege of receiving much of my own graduate training. The Center for Jewish History remains well positioned in the greatest Jewish city in the world, cheek by jowl, with so many other research and academic centers. And the range of heritages and perspectives joined under this roof well represents the breadth and depth of research expertise and teaching resources to which Cornell Jewish Studies aspires.
Tonight's lecture-- as Chris Barthel mentioned-- represents something of a first date between the Center and Cornell's Jewish Studies Program, and we are most grateful indeed to Mr. Slovin, for his role as shadchan. We've got two more talks scheduled for what we euphemistically call in Ithaca the "spring semester," with further collaborations still to come.
It is auspicious that this initiative coincides with Interim Cornell President Hunter Rawlings' ongoing theme of One Cornell, seeking to strengthen the links between Cornell's presence upstate and in the New York City area. And we couldn't think of a better way to make the first impression than giving the floor to our distinguished colleague, Ross Brann, Milton R. Konvitz Professor of Judeo-Islamic Studies, and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow in Near-Eastern Studies.
Ross has been at Cornell for 30 years and can boast a record of extraordinary scholarship, combined with what seems inexhaustible service to the university and the community. His commitment to what is most truly humane about the humanities animates his sustained research and writing about the literatures of medieval Andalus, as well as his extremely popular course on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. He served as chair of Cornell's Near-Eastern Studies department for 17 years-- which is way above and beyond the call-- as well as being the faculty co-chair of the West Campus House System Council for six.
I am personally astonished at the number of appearances he gives before student and community groups. Ross's current research will culminate in a volume to be titled Andalusi Moorings, Al-Andalus and Sefarad as Tropes of Muslim and Jewish Culture.
I'm so grateful to him for joining us this evening that I am now going to promptly cede the floor and let all of us listen to his talk titled, "An Intimate Rivalry, the Jews and Classical Islam."
ROSS BRANN: Who knew after last night that we would be gathered here together to do something very, very serious and remote and I--
Thank you to my dear colleague Jonathan Boyarin, to Dr. Barthels and chair emeritus Bruce Slovin, who very wisely decided to go to his meeting and then depart from the premises when he found out who was speaking this evening.
This is not the first time that I've spoken here, and it's wonderful to see so many friends, many from the Cornell community, but who live in the New York area. There are even a few people here who were my former students when I was teaching in an afternoon high school here in New York City, many, many moons ago. It's really quite remarkable.
So to introduce myself and just talk about my history with the Center, which is now getting long in the tooth, as I am, I've spoken here--
--twice, I think, on behalf of the American Sephardi Federation. I once spoke here on behalf of the University of Pennsylvania Center for Advanced Judaic Studies. And this is now the first time that I'm here speaking on behalf of Cornell University.
So that's my introduction. These are my credentials that I'm showing you. And the last one was just on the slim chance that one of my former students, who saw me dressed like this when I taught a course called Greet the Greats would be in attendance, and, indeed, he is here this evening.
So I'm going to talk about the Jews in the Islamic Mediterranean during the classical Middle Ages. A really important subject for the humanities writ large, an important subject in Jewish history, something that profoundly animated and catalyzed the curiosity of the most educated group of German-Jewish scholars during the 19th and into the early part of the 20th century, because of a sense that there was something very interesting, dynamic, creative happening to the Jewish communities living in the world of Islam during the Middle Ages, especially in Iberia, that we call Al-Andalus, and that in Hebrew is called Sepharad.
When we talk about this today, as we talk about any academic subject, we have to think about our terms of reference, and we have to avoid the pitfalls of what we call in the academy essentializing, trying to reduce an interaction between the minority Jewish community and the majority Muslim community over thousands of miles of expanse and over 100 years of encounter to a couple of basic ideas of persecution or tolerance or something like that.
We can't do it. We have to look and ask ourselves about specific times and specific places and specific kinds of interactions that were sustained and others that we would characterize as on-again and off-again.
So our terms of reference will help us accomplish this, because if we're talking about the Jews of the Islamic Mediterranean, we will speak differently if we talk about Jewish attitudes and reactions to Islam, a religion-- a great monotheistic religion, 1.6 billion Muslims living in the world today-- Islamdom, which is another way of saying the Islamic polity, the state, the empire, the society, and then finally Islamic civilization.
And what I'm going to take you on is kind of a quick mini tour of how Jewish responses to, and reactions with, and intimacy with each of those differed from one another, not only over time and across place, but in terms of the nature, the dynamic of reaction with Muslims in each of these separate domains of what we usually just lump together as Islam.
So our questions for the evening, what is the place of the Jews in relation to each of those notions, Islam the religion; Islamdom, the Islamic polity; and Islamic civilization? What's the place of the Jews in relation to each?
And we will need to keep in mind something that today in the academy we're always careful to consider, which is the way in which the past informs the present, differs from the present, and avoiding one of the trip wires that all of us engage in in our daily life, which is to try to predict the present on the basis of the past, or to assert that somehow the present is over-determined by things that happened in the past, that we are all prisoners of our history and of our memories of the past, and we cannot escape them. From an academic point of view, we just can't accept that kind of thinking.
So we look backwards, and I want to begin with Islam. And what better place to begin to talk about it than the third holiest city in Islam, Jerusalem. This building-- which is magnificent, and I assume many of you have either visited, if you were lucky enough to go there before say 10 or 15 years ago, or at least seen from the outside-- was not constructed by Palestinian nationalists or Islamic movement activists after 1948, during the period of the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
It's a structure that has existed in Jerusalem on a particular site, going back to the 7th century, marking a site that is sacred not only to Jews and Christians, but also to Muslims. Many of you will have heard of or encountered the phrase "children of Abraham." It's predicated on what I'm going to talk about for the next couple of minutes.
And it's the idea that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, when studied by historians of religion-- as opposed to the way in which these things might be studied in some yeshivot, in some seminaries, in some madrasas-- but the way in which we study it in the university, we are not interested in demanding of our students or ourselves that we see these three great religious traditions as identical. They are not, but they intersect profoundly. And one of the places that they intersect is in the Holy Land and in Jerusalem.
So the message in the Arabic calligraphy on the top of this building-- I won't read it for you. It's difficult calligraphy-- is a polemic against Christianity, taken from some of the verses of the Quran, saying that God is one, that God does not beget, nor is He begotten. And it is an announcement to the primarily Christian-- the crumbling Byzantine Empire that Islam superseded in the 7th century in the Holy Land-- that Islam had arrived, and was built, literally building on the structure of Christianity, which itself had been built upon the structure of Judaism and the Jewish tradition.
Nowhere is this clearer than the rock over which that dome stands. It's called the Dome of the Rock. It's not a mosque, but it is a sacred place, and this is the rock on the Temple Mount, where Jewish tradition and Christian tradition and Islamic tradition all believe-- whether it happened there or somewhere else or 15 meters in another direction, we don't know-- but monotheistic tradition asserts that this is where Abraham prepared to sacrifice one of his sons. The traditions differ on which son that was in the main, but they agree that it was at this place.
And so, the sacrality of that place is shared between the three religious traditions, because they are so interconnected in what religionists will call a shared sacred history. If we opened up virtually any page of the Arabic Quran, we would see-- we had it in English translation-- we would see Moses and the children of Israel referenced all over the place.
In fact, no single individual is spoken of, mentioned more often in the Arabic Quran than Moses, the prophet of ancient Israel. No single individual. Over 100 times in that text of the Arabic Quran.
So this is shared sacred history, the story of how humankind, under God's providence, came to discover the verity of the belief in one God, sovereign over all of creation. The specifics, of course, differ.
So how does Islam put this? Just a few examples. And I'll give you contrary examples, because with every religious tradition, including the Jewish religious tradition, there are open-- there are words of openness and embrace of people living outside the community, and a certain wariness in other utterances about people who are outside the borders of that particular community.
Say, "We believe in God and that which is revealed to us, in what was revealed to Abraham, Isaac-- Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the tribes, to Moses and Jesus, and the other prophets by their Lord. We make no distinction among any of them, and to God we have surrendered ourselves." Believers-- meaning Muslims-- Jews, Christians, and Sabeans, whoever believes in God and the Last Day and does what is right shall be rewarded by their Lord; they have nothing to fear or regret.
And although I've selected these purposefully for this evening, I could give you hundreds more like-minded passages in the Quran. But I can give you other passages as well, passages that you're probably a bit more familiar with from the popular press and some, I'll call them unmentionable, television stations. I'll just leave it at that.
Abraham was neither Jew nor Christian. He was an upright man, one who surrendered himself to God. Here you see the tension of a shared sacred history. On the one hand, in the earlier text, an assertion that Jews, Christians, and Muslims are of one piece in their belief in a single deity. On the other hand, a polemic directed against Jews and Christians, for each of them in their own way-- and they contradict one another-- claiming Abraham as the spiritual forefather of both Judaism and Christianity. That's Islam, the religion, in brief.
Jews and the Islamic polity. So Jews in the Islamic polity are called by two names. In Islamic lore, literature, and law, the People of the Book-- a status that they share with Christians-- that affords them, admittedly and assuredly, second-class status in the lands of pre-modern Islam, but with rights and privileges because of their shared sacred history and because of their monotheistic belief.
And this status is also captured by the term "protected peoples," [NON-ENGLISH], by which, as long as they evince respect for Islam and Muslims and don't cause trouble in the streets, they are free to administer all of their communal affairs, all of their communal institutions, their own courts, their own religious law. There are no barriers for their conduct of commerce. There are no barriers for them of worship.
This is enshrined in Islamic law, and Jews, who had a long history of how to make due with being a small minority in other people's empires, found these conditions to be liberating and catalyzing for their well-being and their prosperity in the lands of the Mediterranean and medieval Islam. And when we talk about Jews in the Islamic polity I have news for you.
The news is that the Jews then, as now, were a tiny people, by any comparison. They have never been a large people. And maybe the best way, when I lead study tours for Cornell University-- that's an ad, by the way. You don't have to be a Cornellian-- when we go to Spain, we walk through, and I talk about the architecture and the beauty and the sanctity of the Great Mosque of Cordoba, which thankfully the Catholics did not destroy. They just erected a very ornate Gothic cathedral in the very center of the mosque, and they left the rest of this incredible building, which dates in part back to the 800s. They left it intact.
So you go there, and you get a sense, because of just the expanse of Cordoba at its height, as a capital of one of the great segments of the Islamic polity during the Middle Ages, and how many Muslims that place accommodated, had to accommodate, because it's a cathedral mosque.
And then maybe seven-minute walk away, you can go and visit an admittedly slightly later medieval Jewish synagogue, decorated in a demonstrably Islamic style. And maybe, I think we could get the whole two front rows in that synagogue before there's no more room. And when I leave my groups there-- I've done this for synagogues, but also non-denominational tours for Cornell University-- and you experience architecturally the drama of what it meant to be of a small but prosperous, successful, creative minority in this one Islamic country.
Frankly, I could duplicate this any place in the Islamic world where there's still synagogues or synagogue museums, but this is a particularly apt place to do it because they're so close to one another. So the Jews were a small people, taking advantage of what was made possible to them by the Islamic conquests.
And remarkably, because Islam superseded the Byzantines-- a Christian empire-- that persecuted its Jewish minority in a way that Islam was not interested in doing, Jewish texts from the Middle Ages and this region, from the 7th century through the 13th century, are full of references to how liberating it was for the Jews when the Muslims came. I'll give you one, a brief passage from probably an 11th or 12th century text called The Secrets of Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai.
"Do not fear, Ben Yochai. The Holy One, blessed be He, does not bring the kingdom of Ishmael except to deliver you from the evil one. And He will set up a prophet for them, by His will, and He will conquer the land for them, and they will rebuild ruined cities, clear the roads. They will plant gardens and vineyards, and they will return them to you.
And the second king will be set up from Ishmael, and he will conquer all the kingdoms, and he will come to Jerusalem and will prostrate there. He will make war with the Edomites--" meaning the Christians-- "and they will flee before him, and he will have taken the kingdom by force. He will become a lover of Israel and repair the fences, and guard the temple, and carve out of the Temple Mount, and make all of it a plain, and call to Israel for building buildings there."
It's a remarkable text, almost unimaginable today, given tensions in the Holy City, but one of scores of texts that I read in the original languages with my students at Cornell.
Give you a few more. They get more remarkable as I go along. A text, an Arabic text. Some of these texts are authored by Jews, but Arabic texts authored by and for Muslims, tell maybe a slightly less messianic kind of tale, in a down-to-earth way, but much of the same resonance is to be found in these texts.
"It's a well known fact that the Temple Mount was under Roman rule for 500 years, and that the Jews could not enter Jerusalem during that period." That's true. Under parts of Byzantine rule, Jews were prohibited from even entering into the Holy City. "Anyone who did enter and whose identity was discovered was put to death.
However, with the departure of the Romans, thanks to God's abundant grace, and with the victory of the Ishmaelites' kingdom, the Jews were once more to enter the city and reside therein.
So every Muslim who came was in town or valley, and there came at them a group of Jews. Then he, the caliph Omar, ordered them to sweep the holy place, the temple site, and to cleanse it. Omar himself oversaw them at all times. And each time something was uncovered, he would ask the Jewish elders about the rock, which was the foundation stone of the temple.
Finally, one of their scholars indicated the precise boundaries of the place, as a result of which, it was uncovered." And so on. He the caliph Omar, coming to Jerusalem-- some of the facts are a little wrong, but the text exists nevertheless and was passed down-- utilizes Jewish local knowledge of the place as expert informants. Where are the holy sites? Where's the proper orientation of the building that once stood here?
Under the Byzantines, the whole Temple Mount was a garbage heap, as if to demonstrate how Christianity had-- this particular way in which Christianity had superseded Judaism.
Even more remarkable. If Jerusalem is a flashpoint in our world, Hebron is probably even worse. This is a text describing Jewish-Muslim cooperation in Hebron from 638.
"But when they, the Arabs, came to Hebron, they marveled at the strong and beautiful construction of its walls, and that there was no opening by which they could enter. Meanwhile, some Jews, who had remained under the Greeks in that region, came over to them and said, grant us security so that we would have a similar status amongst you, and may we be conceded the right to build a synagogue in front of the entrance to the Cave of Machpelah--" the site of the tomb of the patriarchs.
"If you will do this, we will show you where you should make your gateway, and thus it was done. Hebron."
Finally, Spain. I'm going to skip Spain. It's not on my page. I don't have it by memory. So I will give you two additional contrasting views from two very different kinds of texts about life in an Islamic polity. And they highlight the importance of asking our question of when and where that utterances such as we've seen may apply locally in a particular century, and then maybe somethings happened of a particularly local nature, or drought, or famine, or intercommunal discord of one sort or another, involving the Jews or not, that was disruptive to this kind of status quo.
So we have one text by a very famous Spanish Jew from the 10th century, Hasdai ibn Shaprut, who was called a nasi, a prince of Israel, and had the authority of representing the entire community of Jews of Al-Andalus to the Umayyad caliph at his court in Cordoba. This is how he explains what's going on there and how he rose to power and influence as a Jew living in an Islamic polity.
He wrote, "When God saw the Jews affliction and toil, He exerted His influence and put me before the king, and was graceful to me, so that he drew his attention to me because of his kindness and for the sake of his alliance, and not because of my merit. We indeed, who are the remnant of the captive Israelites, servants of my Lord the King, are dwelling peacefully in the land of our sojourning." 10th century Islamic Spain.
A more famous text tells a very different story, by Moses Maimonides, is written in 1172 in response to reports he received in Cairo, where he was the leader of the Egyptian Jewish community, a court physician, along with his rabbinical research, and more things than you could imagine, even for a polymath.
He wrote, to the Jews of Yemen, who were under severe straights, "You know, my brethren, that on account of our sins, God has cast us into the midst of this people, who persecute us severely. No nation has ever done more harm to Israel. None has matched it in debasing and humiliating us."
Were I so inclined to cut and paste, I could take text of one voice or another and lead you through them, and because you're not going to go to Cornell for a PhD and learn these crazy languages and the rest of it-- especially after you've taken a look at me and having listened to me already for a half hour-- so you'll take my word for it. Or you'll go and find some other source.
And you can find people, you can even find academics, who will line up a kind of a case to make good for the Jews, bad for the Jews. It was more complex, much more complex.
Generally, during this period, these kinds of persecution, such as Maimonides was responding to, were the exception rather than the rule, but they did exist. One cannot pretend that they're not there, and that they're not both recorded in history or recorded in Jewish memory.
Come to the last piece of the puzzle, Jews and Islamic civilization. And here, it's all on the up and up. Only wonderful things to report. Probably not since the Jews' encounter with Greek civilization, and then not until the Jews in Germany of the 19th century, and then the great feats of the Jews of the United States, of which this institution is surely one, not until these other times or accepting these other times, one of the pinnacles of Jewish creativity, industriousness, economic prosperity, taking care of the community, the poor, the middle class, everyone in between, all took place during this remarkable moment of efflorescence, which we date roughly from 800 to 1200, sometimes even to 1300, all in the Islamic Mediterranean, from Iberia in the west to Iraq and Baghdad in the east, from Turkey in the north, to Yemen in the south.
Some of this is captured. The ethos of this civilizational encounter is captured in a napkin poem, a ditty, by a poet named Dunash ben Labrat. From his name, we know he was a Berber Jew, originally from a Moroccan family in the southern part of Morocco, who lived for a time in Fes, then went to Baghdad, where he became a student of the very famous rabbinical scholar Saadia Gaon, and then heard that opportunity awaited the best and the brightest in Iberia, and so he hightailed it back across North Africa and landed in Cordoba, where he became a court poet for the aforementioned Hasdai ibn Shaprut.
But he captured and this-- he wasn't a great poet-- but he captured in this little ditty "Let Scripture be your Eden, and the Arabs' poets' books your paradise grove." In a two-liner-- really one line in the Hebrew-- he's captured this duality of living in two worlds at once, of being immersed in Arabo-Islamic civilization.
Arabic was his native tongue, as it was for all of the Jews of the realm that I've been talking about. The educated knew Arabic and Hebrew. And in places like Islamic Spain, they would also speak some Romance.
So Jews made themselves useful far beyond their numbers in an international trade that I'm going to talk a little bit about in a minute, and became deeply immersed, enmeshed in, inextricably connected to Islamic civilization through the Arabic language. And it came to inform all of the great structures of medieval Judaism, without which modern Judaism, even in its European incarnations-- apologies to my colleague Jonathan and to Mr. Slovin-- would not, could not have taken the form and the shape that they did.
So this transformation of Jewish life under Islam in the Middle Ages, complete Arabization of all of the Jews of the world west of the Iranian Plateau. And keep in mind that the Jews did not become a people, half of whom even lived in European lands, until some time after 1000. So I'm talking about a period in Jewish history when an overwhelming majority of Jews in the world lived in the Islamic Mediterranean. Later, migration took Jews to other shores and other lands.
Urbanization, along with Arabization, the economic opportunity and freedom of movement afforded Jews and other minorities meant a movement of people from the countryside to the great cities of Islam, to Baghdad, to Fes, to Damascus, to Beirut, to Cordoba, to Kairouan in North Africa, and Cairo, where Jewish commerce and interaction with Jews and Christians and Jews from other lands and merchants from other shores, Jewish or otherwise, from places like Venice, leading to a capacity of a community to be confident in who it was and in its religious traditions and practice, but also open to what was beneficial and meaningful and beautiful in its contact with the world outside. All occasioned by urbanization, economic freedom.
Centralization of institutions, the [INAUDIBLE] in Baghdad got the idea it might be good if Jews everywhere used the same prayer book and followed the same kinds of rituals, that the situation prior to 900 was quite chaotic. Maybe sounds familiar to some people. And they had the idea that maybe something ought to be made more uniform. That eventually failed, but it was an important impetus for several centuries during this period. Finally, their attempt to systematize Jewish practice and belief, as well, something that had never been done before in Jewish history.
So the forms in which all of this creative activity took place-- and I'm only going to list a few, just give a few little tidbits of each. For the very first time in Jewish history, Jewish scholars engaged in scientific, systematic study of the language of the Hebrew Bible on the model of how Arabs and Muslims studied the language of the Quran, word by word, an intimate flexing and experimenting with the structures of Hebrew syntax in the Bible and Hebrew grammar.
No one had ever done this before. No one. It was the encounter with Islam and the Arabic language that gave Jews the tools and the impetus that catalyzed this incredible period of creativity, without which today we would not have some of the tools that we count on to talk about these things and to teach them, together with the study of biblical grammar and lexicography, dictionaries and books of grammar, biblical exegesis, and commentary.
Now, of course, Jewish history and Jewish texts before this period are intersecting, interacting with the text of the Hebrew Bible in a myriad of ways, but those can all be subsumed under the category of Midrash. This was different. This was a line by line, linear study of a sentence, and explicating it, first and foremost, its literal sense, its literal sense, its literal significance. No one had ever done this before.
And together with this effort, and with the grammarians, and with the lexicographers, translating the Bible into the Arabic language, something that had not been done for Jewish purposes, since the translation of the Hebrew Bible into the Septuagint Greek, back in late antiquity.
Legal monographs on particular, you know, corners of Jewish law, how do you erect an eruv, or to be able to carry something within a particular space on days when carrying is otherwise prohibited beyond certain boundaries. So legal monographs on virtually every topic of Jewish law. It's just-- it's incredible.
And finally, law codes, a systematic putting together, first in small books for little corners of Jewish law, but eventually culminating in Moses Maimonides' comprehensive code of Jewish law, so that lesser educated Jews would be able to go to one book and look up what the halakha was on any question of Jewish life. Period.
This was a revolution in Jewish life that not all Jewish authorities particularly appreciated. It was going to put some rabbinical authorities out of business, and so they did not take kindly to it. But you can get the idea. It was a way of democratizing and systematizing Jewish life for that time and place.
Responsa. Jews with questions, writing to rabbinical authorities maybe outside of their towns and cities, looking for a particular answer or perhaps the expertise where they resided was not available. So we have thousands of these back and forth correspondences that we call responsa, that first and foremost date from this period. There is an analog in Islamic tradition that the Jews were learning from.
Systematic theological writings. The Hebrew Bible and both the Jerusalem and the Babylonian Talmud are full of theology. God is on every page, but it's not systematic. It nowhere tells you basic things, like how is God one? And what does that mean? And how do we live in a world in which there is manifest good but palpable evil at the same time? How does God tolerate this?
So every manner of theological question people began to reflect upon, systematically, parallel to what Muslims and Christians were doing. This is the first systematic Jewish theology ever, and all of subsequent Jewish theological effort is predicated on what these thinkers did during this period under Islam.
Finally, Hebrew poetry, which many think is kind of the crown jewel of the creativity of this period. I do love it very much. I live in that world. Well, I live in this whole world. You see, you didn't know it, but I'm really a 10th century individual masquerading as someone living in the 21st century.
But what I'd like to show you, just to sort of wrap this up, is different forms of Hebrew literary pleasure. And I'm going to go out on a limb and say some of you probably are familiar with some of the religious poetry from a frequent or occasional trip to a synagogue. So I'm going to talk about the social poetry, and what we could call wit, whimsy, and wonderment.
Here's a remarkable poem written by someone born in Toledo, who ended up dying in Aleppo, in the Hebrew language, in perfectly pure biblical Hebrew.
"If Moses had seen my friend drinking his wine when the flush came on, his beauty and curls would have compelled him to cancel the Torah's law about lying with men." This is both wit and whimsy, by the way.
Let me give you a little bit more wit and whimsy of a different sort, two other sorts. First, really quickly, a short poem by-- well, this is also a little bit of wonderment-- by Samuel the Nagid, who died in Granada in 1056, a fabulously great Hebrew poet. I hope this doesn't touch any nerves.
"Your loved ones depress you--"
"--with debt and transgression. And all your friends remind you of your flaws. So think of the sins you hold within, as each destroys your worthiest cause. Your soul will struggle forever. Take care, and don't entice it in secret. The Lord sees all."
It's a brilliant poem, which I'd love to teach you, but I don't have time. But you can see how he takes us in what is maybe four verses, from what is amusing and very familiar and very human, to another side of the human experience, the Jewish experience in both cases. It's very characteristic of the poetry.
And in its own way, it mirrors what we saw at the beginning with Dunash ben Labrat, that these were complicated individuals living 1,000 years ago, but living in a world as complex and rich culturally as the world we inhabit today.
Let me go to one last snippet of a poem by Abraham ibn Ezra, also a little bit of wit and whimsy, not so much wonderment.
"The dice player is like an open wound. He'll come to ruin and be despised in the city." Think Trump Taj Mahal.
"He squanders his money and adds to his burden. He rebels against his Maker by telling lies. He hopes to profit and never succeeds. There is no bloom to his years. His days are mostly frustration. He wanders from city to city, never recognizing any one place. He is poor and immature, trying to reach the heights. His hair is unkempt--
"--and his clothes are tattered. He persists in harming himself and others. He eats in haste without giving thanks, but he is not slim from any fasting on Yom Kippur."
Want to conclude with one note and two slides. Moses Maimonides captured this, what I've been talking about, in a very different way, because it all was predicated on the Arabic language and the openness of Islamic society and civilization and the freedoms that the Jews enjoyed, even as second-class citizens.
Maimonides observed, "And as for the Arabic and Hebrew languages, all who know both of them are agreed that they are one language without a doubt." This from a comparative Semiticist, who understood that the lexicon and the grammatical structures of these two languages make them very close sisters, like Spanish and Italian, or, you know, you pick any two languages from a family linguistic family group.
And so he asserts this as a different way of articulating his existence in these two domains, one specific to the minority that were the Jews, the other that were shared by all people living in the lands of classical Islam, the spoken Arabic language and, for the educated, the incredible library that was the Arabic text. And of course, I haven't had time to discuss it, but most-- although not all-- of Jewish writings during this period were written in what we call Judeo-Arabic, which is a form of middle Arabic, written in the Hebrew script, a kind of an Arabic-like Ladino or Yiddish. It's comparable phenomenologically, I guess we would say that way.
So let's end on a most optimistic note. And I like to do this--
We're in the time of the year when students at Cornell and other elite institutions are facing their midterms and writing papers, and I try, wherever I can, to try to calm them down and tell them it's going to be fine, do their work, get enough sleep, eat properly, you know watch your P's and Q's.
And thankfully, some graduate of Cornell entrepreneur last year or two years ago came up with this brilliant idea to make Ithaca hummus without additives. So it runs off your supermarket shelves very quickly, because there's only real stuff in it. And although it's not like my bubbe used to make, or my wife and I make together, it's probably about as good as you can get out of a package. And so I try to tempt my students there, take it easy, go have some pita and some hummus, and all will be well. Thank you very much.
CHRIS BARTHEL: We can take some questions. I would just ask that you please keep your questions brief and wait until I bring the microphone to you, so that everyone can hear.
AUDIENCE: I have to reference a theology professor that I once knew, Houston P. Smith. He was at MIT and Syracuse. You might have known him.
ROSS BRANN: I know his works.
AUDIENCE: Really? Well, years ago, he was on television in St. Louis, and I was a producer. And Houston was doing-- he was one of the first to do educational television. This was in the 1950s. And he did a series on the world's religions, which was his field.
And he said he really loved doing the history of Christianity, the history of Judaism, but he had a problem with Islam, theologically. He felt it was a flawed religion. And I'm just wondering, in this history of yours, which stops 1,000 years ago or so, where did Islam go wrong? And is it really just a minor, minuscule percentage of Muslims who embrace those theories and concepts that lead to strapping on suicide vests and killing innocent people?
ROSS BRANN: Thank you. An important question, to be sure. I wouldn't put it that way. I would say Islam never went wrong. Islam is Islam. The way I would prefer to answer this with two-- I'll try to do it very, very briefly. I teach a course called-- I'll be doing it in the spring of 2018-- I teach a course called Holy War, Crusade, and Jihad, and I trace for students the history, and we engage in texts and study and historical inquiry, that war in the name of God, as far as we can tell from the monotheistic traditions, begins in the Hebrew Bible.
Sampson, in some ways, you could say, was the first suicide bomber. So granted that that's way back in the past, but we follow this through, first with the Hebrew Bible, then the Crusades and then ending with the history of this kind of jihad in Islam.
And what we try to learn is it goes back to an insight that I was offering before, which you don't have to accept, and that is when we historicize things that we find difficult to understand or comprehend, or behaviors that are unacceptable and inhumane, when we historicize them and when we isolate them to a particular moment, we give ourselves the tools to try to understand them better.
So suicide bombing did not exist 40 years ago. There was no such thing. It was invented-- the first suicide bomb, and especially the first suicide bomb attacking Westerners-- was in a truck driven onto the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, I think it was. Might have been 1981. That was the first.
So what that tells a historian, looking at this in a much longer view, is that it's telling me, it's crying out for me to realize that there's something about this particular historical moment, this particular period, that place in this particular period, that's occasioning a form of behavior that is not normative, that didn't exist in the past, certainly not in the ways it's manifested itself now. That gives me the wherewithal to dig deeper and to ask other kinds of questions. And I'll just leave it at that.
By the way, the Cornell students here, you will be getting a little assignment, and you can have credit, if you want it.
AUDIENCE: At our age, they'd rather have our donations.
ROSS BRANN: OK.
AUDIENCE: For how many more years after the period you talked about did this good relationship between Judaism and Islam occur? And was it the Crusades that brought it to an end? Or had it been gone before then?
ROSS BRANN: No. It passed through the period of the Crusades. A lot of those texts were Jewish responses to realizing the benefits of living in Islamic lands as opposed to Crusader territories or the lands of Christendom. So it went well into the 13th century.
And then you could say it never fully disappeared, because you can go to some of the exhibits here that are on display and study how it was replicated during the Ottoman period for Jews fleeing from the persecution in Spain and Portugal, where Jewish communities all throughout the eastern Mediterranean were welcomed by the Ottoman sultans, and given all kinds of encouragements and inducements to bring their capital, if they had it, but minimally bring their know-how and their languages and their citizenship into Ottoman lands. And so in some sense, the scene shifted, but it never ended.
AUDIENCE: You began your talk with an image of the Dome of the Rock. A number of years ago, an Iraqi architect wrote a book about the origins of the Dome of the Rock, and he said that it was when, I believe, Omar entered Jerusalem, and he had in this company an elderly Jewish man, perhaps a former rabbi who had converted, who told him about the temple. And that when the temple was first constructed, there were on the facade image-- excuse me, when the Dome of the Rock was first constructed, there were images of the temple, but that that tradition lasted only one century, and then it was eliminated from Islamic tradition.
I have a second question. I remember reading--
ROSS BRANN: How long are we going to stay here tonight?
AUDIENCE: Not long.
I remember reading an excerpt from a memoir of a young Jewish man, son of a rabbi, after his father died, he converted to Islam, and he went to the university. And the university in Arab land incorporated the curriculum of the Greek university. So I'm curious also to know to what extent was Islamic civilization and the Judeo-Arab civilization in that world also influenced by the remnants of Hellenistic civilization.
ROSS BRANN: Oh, OK. So the last one is very, very easy and really important, because beginning in, say, the 8th century, maybe even-- I would say the 8th century-- in the Islamic east, there is-- Islam is now in the process of becoming an urban civilization, establishing great places of learning, encouraging people's curiosity. And everything of a scientific or, you could say, humanistic nature is open for inquiry under Islam.
And through encounters with Syriac Christian churchmen who were the repositories in a version of the Aramaic language of the legacy of ancient Greece and Rome, especially the scientific and philosophical legacy, all of that material ended up being translated into Arabic, and through Arabic made available to the Jews, as well as to the Islamic world.
And this was an important moment that enabled Muslims and Christians and Jews living in those places at that time to harness the structures of thought in, particularly, ancient Greece, philosophical and scientific, and to recreate it for medieval life. So all of the advances in medieval medicine and pharmacology, and all of the advances in medieval astronomy and biological study and optics and mathematics, of which Jews were a tremendously important part, all of that could not have happened, would not have happened had Greco-Roman learning not been opened to the Arabs and the Jews and the Christians under the auspices of Islamic civilization.
So you're absolutely right. That's the easy question.
The hard one, I think what you're referencing is a set of Islamic traditions-- There are many of them. I don't know about the images-- but a set of traditions which document in Islamic history, that Muslims know about and still study of, very prominent Jewish converts in the early decades and centuries of Islam, who did serve as native informants about what I'll call monotheistic lore.
What can you tell us about Jacob? What can you tell us about Moses? What can you tell us about the tribes and ancient Israel and these holy places?
We're coming into Palestine from the Arabian Peninsula. We've not been here. Show us around. Teach us what we need to know about the history of monotheism. And so I think all of these accounts capture a period of interaction in which Jewish voices were being heard and incorporated into Islamic tradition. I focused mostly on the reverse, where Jews were engaged with Islamic sources and were incorporating what they learned from that in their Jewish enterprises. But you pointed us to something very, very significant.
AUDIENCE: I know you're a historian, not a prophet--
--but how do we-- can we see a revival in the Islamic world, or where are they going? I mean, can we-- have they reached the bottom, and are they going to go up again or what?
ROSS BRANN: Well, I don't think they've reached the bottom at all. Again, I'm more interested in time and place, and there are tremendous things happening in Islam, a tremendous ferment, a tremendous grappling with modernity. With the legacy still, unfortunately, a hundred years later, we've just passed through the anniversary of Sykes-Picot from 1916, and we're coming up on the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration next year. So there's a lot of soul searching going on.
I can tell you that in the great universities of the Islamic world, at Cairo University and elsewhere, there are Hebrew departments, and not all of the students studying in those places are being primed for the Egyptian equivalent of the CIA or the Mossad.
They're learning about world civilization, and there is in various places in North Africa and throughout the Islamic world-- which is admittedly in the throes of a really, really difficult period in most places-- soul searching and some nostalgia for when the Jewish minority was around and living next door, and there was interaction with Jews. So I see a tremendous amount of intellectual ferment and yearning, capable of going in various directions in the Islamic world.
And I would not dare say when and how, I think Islam will work this out over the course of the next 50 to 100 years of how to accommodate modernity while embracing what is inherently Islamic. This was not an easy thing for the Christians to accomplish. It caused a great many wars, religious wars in Europe. It was not so easy for the Jews to accomplish, and tore Jewish communities asunder at various times and places, dating back to the period after Moses Mendelssohn.
And Islam will work this out, I have no doubt, but I don't know when, and I don't know how. But there will be people monitoring it, studying it, and trying to encourage it along.
Is there any hummus outside, by the way?
AUDIENCE: Hi. I have two questions, but they're very closely related. The first one is, for example, there was a riot in Grenada in 1044 against the nasi at that time, but previously, his father had also been the nasi, and he was very well received. So I'd like you to talk a little about the tenuousness of the rights that you ascribe to the Jews under the [? halakhah. ?]
And the second question that I had was, did Jews fare better when there was a different sect in power, whether there were the Mutazilites or the Shiites or the Sunnis, or they were more orthodox, or maybe they were [? Hoedish, ?] or any of these different sects, does that change the rights and permissions that Jews have under [? halakhah. ?]
ROSS BRANN: Great question. You actually want the graduate seminar.
So did I get it right? So he wants to know-- he cited some-- he gave some specific details using names of manifestations of Islamic rule and practice. And he wanted me to get more specific about whether certain forms of Islam, certain manifestations of Islam-- because Islam, like Judaism and Christianity-- is not one thing even as a religion.
The one thing that all Muslims agree upon is that there is but one god, and that Muhammad is the last messenger of that deity, and the Quran is the unadulterated word of God. Aside from that, there are wide pockets of variant understandings, shall we say, just as there are in Judaism and Christianity, over critical things, but not on the most important point, which I articulated.
So he mentioned a few very specific things. We know today, from our world, that there are these two huge blocks of Islamic belief and practice, Sunni Islam and Shia Islam. So he wants me to get more specific about that.
I like the question very much, because it seems to agree with what I was saying, which is that the historian needs to look at time and place. So the answer is really, really interesting historically. You can look at one Shia dynasty, the Fatimids in Egypt, who were very, very open in their both employ of Jews, in the place of Jews in Fatimid society at the end of the 10th century into the turn of the 12th.
But then I can go to Yemen-- the country that Maimonides was talking about-- in 1172, that was a Shia dynasty, and it probably, as best we can tell, was more hostile to its small Jewish minority than any other Islamic dynasty or state during this entire period. So I can't, even if I'm just talking about one branch of Islam, I can't essentialize and say, well, the Shia historically have been this, whereas the Sunnis have been that, because I can find plenty on both sides of that line, and on both sides of virtually any line. Unless you come to the graduate seminar, I'm afraid that's the best I can do.
AUDIENCE: Back to an earlier question you had mentioned. What do you ascribe the falling behind of Islamic society in science, mathematics, astronomy, optics, et cetera, et cetera.
ROSS BRANN: History. So there is a lesson to be learned here. I'm going to start sounding like I really ought to have been a preacher of some sort.
I won't say what denomination or what religion, but it's history, that one ought not to assume that the historical process from which Western civilization is now the-- embodies forward thinking, forward research across the sciences and the humanities, that the world was always like this, and which sector of the world community validated these practices and invested in them and treasured them and so on.
We know that this was not always the case. In the period that I study most carefully, we always like to get, sort of, students to imagine that when Cordoba, and cities like it, had streetlamps and public sanitation and public hospitals and charity plates for each of the communities, London and Paris were sewers.
So what was isn't necessarily what will always be. And what is now is not what always will be in the future. And we aren't prophets. What we can attend to are historical processes by which civilizations seem to spend themselves in a certain direction and have to undergo a revival, and the hot spots on the world for this particular kind of creativity go somewhere else.
And of course, we know in our world, American strategic planners are probably preoccupied with worries about how Chinese civilization will overtake Western civilization, because of the sheer number of Chinese, because how hard they work, how inventive and brilliant they are, and the like, and of course many are sending their young people-- one child per family until recently-- to universities like Cornell or NYU in this backyard.
And so we live in this moment, and I'm sure we all pat ourselves on the back that we live in the most advanced society the world knows now, and perhaps has ever known, but there are long periods where that was not the case, where that was somewhere else, namely the Islamic world. And we just don't know where that might be in the future. That's the best I can do.
AUDIENCE: Would you say a little bit more about the concept of jihad? Can it be carried out against other Muslims or against Christians, against Jews? Or is there still another category like [INAUDIBLE]
ROSS BRANN: The answer is yes to all of your questions, but Muslims will tell you-- particularly Muslims living here in the United States, but also the 95% of Muslims around the globe-- will tell you that jihad doesn't mean only holy war. That's one of its meanings. And most will tell you that they have been reared to understand that the most important form of jihad is the form that each individual undergoes wrestling with his or her heart. I'll put it in Jewish terms, the struggle between the evil inclination and the good inclination, as our rabbis put it.
And so Islam is attuned to the struggle within every human soul to do good as is prescribed, or to do ill, to harm others. So because there has been so much attention since 9/11, when the whole rest of the world discovered this word jihad and its practice, because of the horrific, murderous acts of a band of terrorists hiding out in the mountains of Afghanistan-- and so Islam and people who speak for Islam have been put on the defensive to explain. So even just saying what I said is taken as, you know, somehow missing the point or skirting the question, but it's how Islam is taught to most.
Now, on the other hand, we are living in a period where there are people who believe it is their duty as Muslims, or who can be manipulated into believing that it is their duty as Muslims, to engage in wholesale slaughter of Muslims who they disapprove of or Jews or Christians or anybody else. So yes. So we live in a period where both of these things are manifest, and we know that one gets a great deal of attention.
And it's painful for many Muslims to live in a world where people who don't know their tradition, what they learn about it is hatefulness and murderousness and intolerance and all of that. It's very difficult and painful for them.
Now, they want to get their house in order, but this is really very difficult, because there are social, political factors that have produced these movements. They did not exist in this form until 40 years, not even, 35 years ago. They did not exist in this form.
AUDIENCE: What about [? hashishin? ?]
ROSS BRANN: Excuse me?
AUDIENCE: [? Hashishin. ?]
ROSS BRANN: The [? hashishin? ?]
ROSS BRANN: Yes, I did.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] you spoke about assassins. [INAUDIBLE]
ROSS BRANN: There were assassin. This is where we get our English word assassin, from the Arabic word for hashish, those who peddle hashish and commit acts of sabotage and so on. And there was a movement of Shia Muslims who went about the Middle East a thousand years ago, murdering Sunni rivals in the name of Islam because of an inner Islamic issue during that particular period.
So there have been other periods where Muslims have answered the call. The Crusades were a period where Christians were fighting a holy war and Muslim, in the defense of Islamic lands, were doing the same thing, calling their defense of Islam jihad. Without a doubt.
CHRIS BARTHEL: We have time for one final question.
AUDIENCE: To follow in the footsteps of history, as you've laid it out for us, one would think that with all the great accomplishments in the Middle Ages, it would finally end in the Christian Englightenment, the Jewish Haskalah. Is there an equivalent in Islam?
ROSS BRANN: That's what this gentleman was asking about. And I think it is in the process of happening and will happen. There have been modern enlightenments in Islam. If we could transport all of ourselves back to Cairo in 1900, we would see a very modern, very light, very intellectually, you know, alive community, with everything that you would take to be a sign of high culture and sensitivity and appreciation for the humanities, and similarly with Damascus and other places. The 20th century has not been kind to the Islamic world.
CHRIS BARTHEL: We thank professor Brann for this fascinating talk.
Please join us in the great hall for a reception.
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A new collaboration between Cornell's Jewish Studies Program and the Center for Jewish History in New York City launched September, 2016 with a three-part lecture series featuring Cornell faculty members. Ross Brann, the Milton R. Konvitz Professor of Judeo-Islamic Studies and a Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow, delivered the inaugural lecture on Sept. 27.