“Books without readers, for readers without books”: Nation Building and the Study of Medieval Hebrew Poetry from Spain

by sboyarin

A strange note by the publisher of the 1952 edition of Judah al-Harizi’s Tahkemoni caught my eye years ago, in graduate school. After the introduction by Yisrael Zemorah, and before the title page, on a separate page, there are two paragraphs entitled “A Few Things from the Publisher.” I translate part of the first paragraph here:

“[The Tahkemoni] deserves, as do all early works with a similar fate, to be studied by scholars who are experienced in [codicology, paleography, and philology] in order to bring back the glory of the first full version, as much as possible. However, a tragic professional rivalry, about which H. N. Bialik has already lamented in his letters, and which has not changed since, may cause detrimental delays in renewing the state of Hebrew literature and postponing the revival of works of great value, which this historical moment requires and forcefully, if not loudly, demands” (8).

I first naively assumed that the editor was referring particularly to the Tahkemoni–imagining that there was some scholarly battle over the right to study and edit its various manuscripts (ala the struggle over the Dead Sea Scrolls), and that this had already started during the time of Bialik. Further I imagined that when he was talking about the need to publish a lesser edition of the Tahkemonias soon possible, he could have been referring to a specific lesson that could be learned in the present by reading al-Harizi’s medieval work. I went looking through Bialik’s letters to try to find any answers to these questions, and of course I found none–or rather what I found made me realize that I had misunderstood the publisher’s comments.

First let me start with the easy part: “the historical moment” to which the publisher referred was the foundation of the State of Israel; it demanded a national literature, and a national literature need to have roots. This need required immediate publication of even flawed editions of ‘works of high value” from the past.

Now to the “professional rivalry” that, according to the publisher, H. N. Bialik already lamented in his letters. I believe he is referring to the following idea, expressed in Bialik’s introduction to the first volume of the collected poetry of Shlomo Ibn Gabirol, which he edited with Ravnitski 1914/15: “It is now two decades since the research and study of the [Hebrew] poetry of Spain has begun, and we have not received in this area even one complete thing. Not one single begging has been brought to its end” (Bialik 219). He goes on to list several different projects, all of which are not yet complete, and whose literature remains “outside,” that is, outside of the canon of Hebrew literature. Other projects are “incomplete, flawed, and otherwise literarily blemished” or found only in limited expensive editions. This reason he gives for this situation is revealing: there is, according to Bialik, an “iron barrier” between scholarship which takes place in the “West” (that is, in Europe) and the “creation of Hebrew, which is living and continuous in the East.” In her book, Poetic Tresspass: Writing Between Hebrew and Arabic in Israel/Palestine, Lital Levi devotes a whole chapter to Bialik’s role in founding modern Hebrew literature. There she discusses this piece by Bialik and deftly shows the complicated way that he nods to this continuous literary tradition even as he works to cut off contemporary authors working within its tradition from modern Hebrew literature—and the response from those authors working within that tradition.

What I want to focus on is a specific aspect of his argument. Bialik argues that what is needed is to “uproot the poetry of Spain from the private sphere of scholarship and place it in the public sphere of literature of the current generation,” for it is needed to fill the “blank space between the poetry of the Bible and the poetry of our times.” This seems to me to be the “scholarly rivalry” to which the publisher refers, a philosophical rift between those who view studying and editing medieval Hebrew poetry from Spain as a tool in creating the national literary canon and those who see it as part of the broader project of Jewish Studies and notas part of the project of nation building. As Lital points out, of course, just as the “land without a people” in the early Zionist maxim erases the people who were living there, Bialik’s dichotomy erases Eastern Jews who maintained a living relationship with the literary heritage of Muslim Spain. And Bialik’s impact was such that for a long time the editing, publishing, and studying of medieval literature was viewed in the terms he dictated. For example, it wasn’t until 2010 that a modern scholarly edition of the Tahkemoniwas published, so scholars studying it had to work with an edition made in service of the nation-building agenda.

I will end by looking at an excerpt from another introduction, this time to the collected works of Judah HaLevipublished in 1946, edited with an introduction by Yisrael Zemorah. After sections contextualizing HaLevi’s place among the Hebrew poets of Spain, a summary of his biography, a list of the themes of his poems, and a short discussion of his poetics, Zemorah concludes by talking about his trip to the Holy Land: “Judah HaLevi’s journey  to Israel should not be viewed as merely an episode”; he argues that “one can almost not imagine his poetry without this  journey, which is his final great poem” (10). Zemorah says that generations of Jews in various diasporas recognized this aspect of his work, even those who foolishly denied any connection to idea behind it, that is, even Jews who did not believe in the need to return to the Holy Land. “Therefore it should be easy for us,” says Zemorah, “to picture for ourselves, that now, especially now, the star of Judah HaLevi arises anew among us, and that we are the first generation to discover its full brilliance, to reach his souring spirit, to learn from how to do great things in poetry, to attain for ourselves his spiritual perfection, the lofty harmony of his soul” (10). According to Zemorah, not only is HaLevi’s poetry an important component of nation building, it (and his entire corpus) can only truly be appreciated by the nation’s citizens.

Obviously it is not possible to cover in this forum the full range of ways people have conceived of the study medieval Hebrew literature in the modern era, and certainly there are many who do not come to its study from the ideological space expressed by the people I have quoted. It is important to know that this strand exists, however, and to critique its influence on the field—just as we so (and should) when thinking about the nationalist roots of medieval studies in Europe and, mutatis mutandis, North America.


Bialik, Hayim Nahman. Complete Writings(Tel Aviv, 1938), pp. 219-220.

Levi, Lital, Poetic Trespass: Writing Between Hebrew and Arabic in Israel/Palestine (New Jersey, 2014),Chapter 2: “Bialik and the Sephardim: The Ethnic Encoding of Modern Hebrew Literature.”

Al-Harizi, Judah. Tahkemoni, ed. Toporofsky, with an introduction by Yisrael Zemorah (Tel Aviv, 1952).

HaLevi, Judah.Complete Poetry, ed. and with an introduction by Yisrael Zemorah (Tel Aviv, 1946).