SACRED BOOKS AND EARLY LITERATURE
HOW FROM RELIGION THE HEBREW THOUGHT BRED MYSTERY, PHILOSOPHY, AND POETRY
THE Hebrew writings after the fifth century of our present era include no such transcendently important religious works as the Bible and the Talmud. Yet the Hebraic race had lost neither their wonderful genius for religious thought, nor their strong instinct for formalism, for the embodiment of religion in a mass of minute rules. Hebrew tradition was still to give to the world two remarkable works bearing upon religion. Neither of these is a single book; each, like the Bible itself, is a collection of many works, brief books carrying the complete thought of many generations. One of these collections is commonly called the "Midrash," and the other the "Kabbalah."
To appreciate these two earnest and strange and mystic labors of medieval thinkers, we must realize that from the time of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans (A.D. 70) there was no longer a Hebrew nation living in its own land. There was only a mournful race, wide-scattered over all the world. At first the chief remaining center of Hebrew thought and teaching was in Babylon, the foster-home from which sprang the main bulk of the Talmud. But after, the fifth century A.D. the lands of Babylonia were plunged also into destruction; and more than ever the Jews became hapless wanderers. They were welcomed, indeed, in some lands, because their habits of peace and industry and obedience
made them profitable servitors; but more often they were met with savage persecution. Hence to the medieval Jew the usual conditions of life were strangely reversed. The people among whom he dwelt were not his "neighbors," but were strangers and enemies; while his true "neighbors," those who would feel with him and help and value him, dwelt in all the widest distances of the world.
Because of this scattered life of the medieval Jews, their literary men were much more apt to write in the language of the land wherein they dwelt than in the very ancient Hebrew, which was known only to their very learned brethren, or in the common Jewish speech, or Aramaic, which had long supplanted the older Hebrew, even in Jerusalem itself. From the time of Jerusalem's fall, when Josephus, that wise and crafty Hebrew general, wrote his "Wars of the Jews" not in his native tongue but in Latin, so that the Roman conquerors could read it, down to the day when the poet Heine penned his passionate Jewish laments in German, writers of Hebrew birth and spirit have enriched the literature of every language in the world. Only when the thinker had something to say directly to other Jews, something personal or dealing with their religion, would he probably write in Hebrew or Aramaic. Hence the later Hebraic books are almost wholly religious, or, to employ the usual word, "rabbinical."
To this class belongs the medieval Midrash. The word "Midrash" means "explanation," and so in a sense all Hebraic religious works since the Bible are included in the Midrash. But the name is generally limited to the commentaries, which always remained mere human "explanations," and were never accepted, as was the Talmud, as being inspired, and hence as forming part of the official and unalterable religion. The medieval Midrash thus includes a considerable bulk of writings, some of which may be as old as the fifth century A.D., but the fullest and best of which date from the ninth to the thirteenth century. They furnish
us, like the Talmud, with a further mass of homely or poetic details about all the older Biblical characters, and of subtle analysis of Bible doctrines. Some of the statements are undoubtedly based on very ancient tradition. Many Hebrews look upon the Midrash as the mere putting into writing of facts always known to their race, and they hence accept its teachings as equally valuable with those of the Talmud.
With the Kabbalah we turn to another field, to what is perhaps the latest, and certainly the most mysterious, product of Hebrew religious thought. When the chief books of the Kabbalah were presented to the European world in the fourteenth century they created so profound an interest that their appearance may well be noted as forming one of the most important events of the Renaissance. They were said to be as holy as the Bible, and as old, or even older; and many learned men accepted them at this valuation. A leading Italian scholar, Pico di Mirandola, urged upon Pope Sixtus (A.D. 1490) that the doctrines of the Kabbalah should be accepted as part of the Christian doctrine. Indeed, many Jews found in these so-called sacred Hebrew books such a similarity to Christian teaching that they became converted to the Christian faith.
Soon, however, eager scholars began to search the books of the Kabbalah for what these could tell of magic, rather than of religion. Doubts were cast upon the genuineness of their proclaimed antiquity; and their teachings were relegated to that borderland of fantasy and mystery which pervades their highly spiritual religious ideal. To some critics of to-day, the books of the Kabbalah are merely mechanical riddles and mathematical word-games, to others they are dark and brooding pits of evil; to some they are petty frauds, to others they are still the most ancient, deep, and holy books of all the world. To every one of us they must have some living interest as the subtlest and most mysterious product of a subtle and mysterious age.
The Midrash reviews the past, the Kabbalah explores eternity. The present volume, therefore, is given first to the most noted books of the Midrash, with their harvest of added details for the Bible story, and then to those of the Kabbalah, with their searching of unknown deeps.
THE SPANISH HEBREWS
Beyond these come the Hebrew writings held less sacred, though only perhaps because they are less ancient, or at least have never been invested with a claim or pretense to remote antiquity. During the eleventh and twelfth centuries of our era the gorgeous Arabic, or Moorish, civilization of Spain was the center of the world's intellectual activity; and as the Moors were tolerant toward the Jews, we find among them great Hebrew philosophers who wrote in Arabic. We find also some who used the ancient Hebrew, or whose Arabic works were by their admiring brethren translated promptly into Hebrew. The more worldly or Arabian of these writers we must look for in our Arab volume; but we give here the most noted works of the distinctly Hebraic style. First among these in point of time comes the religious poetry. There is a considerable bulk of medieval Hebraic verse of this sort, much of it rising to a high level of poetic vision and an even higher level of philosophical thought. We begin here with the hymns of Avicebron, who was a noted Arabic teacher and philosopher of the eleventh century, but had not forgotten his Jewish faith and people. Our book then turns to Jehudah hal-Levi, commonly called Judah Halevi, the most renowned of Hebrew religious poets. His "Ode to Zion" is usually accounted the high-water mark of such poetry; and his proudly boastful prose work, "The Book Cusari," is equally typical of his day and of his people.
From the poets we turn to the prose philosophers. Chief of these, from the Hebraic viewpoint, were Ibn Ezra of the twelfth century and Maimonides of the thirteenth. Ibn Ezra has been made known to English readers by Browning's great poem, which takes him for its philosophic interpreter of the worth of life. Maimonides, more accurately to be
called Moses ben Maimon, was so famed among his own people for his work in codifying and expounding their faith, that even to-day they speak of their religious teaching as extending "from Moses to Moses." That is, the teaching began with Moses of the Bible and receiving the Law upon Mount Sinai, and it was finally fixed, closed, and established beyond any further change, by Moses, ben Maimon.
Having thus traced the whole outline of Jewish religious development, our book closes with the most notable Hebrew medieval work not touching on religion--that is, so far as anything Hebraic could reach outside of the tremendous all-pervading religious faith. This is the book of the travels of Benjamin of Tudela, the most noted of Jewish travelers. Doubtless other Jews in other ages have seen even more of the world than he, but from no other have we preserved so full and thoughtful a record of what he saw. Even Benjamin of Tudela is more Jew than traveler. He notes chiefly how many Jews he finds in each new place, how many "neighbors," that is, for him, mid how they stand with regard to upholding the ancient faith. His work is thus well fitted to form the closing picture of medieval Hebrew literature and life.