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Final Assignment Jews in Muslim Spain

In answering these questions strive for brevity (approximately 8 pages) and clarity. The assignment is due on the
last day of reading period, and should be submitted to Elisha (fishbane@fas) as an email attachment with a copy
sent to me (septimus@fas). Feel free to contact either of us if there are questions.
A. Evaluate the following claims made in Maria Rosa Menocal’s Ornament of the World, (we read pgs. 5-49,
53-100, 112-200, 222-281) testing them (especially for 1-3) against the evidence of the primary sources:
1. Medieval Spanish culture “only sometimes included guarantees of religious freedoms comparable to
those we expect in a modern “tolerant” state.” (p. 11) Did it ever?

Maria Rosa Menocal’s assertion that medieval Spanish culture “only sometimes included

guarantees of religious freedoms comparable to those we expect in a modern ‘tolerant’ state”1

reflects how great of an impact communal leaders had on Iberian society between the seventh and

late fifteenth centuries. Although Medieval Spanish contivencia culture was so tolerant of religious

expression that Jews and Christians were offered legal protection as “dhimmi” or “people of the

book” in the eighth century, the level to which the religions continued to be protected (and

politically successful, as any modern “tolerant” state would have it) throughout medieval Spain

actually depended upon the leadership of both the dominating body politic and the less powerful


Begun by Abd al-Rahman, the Cordoban mosque served as a physical manifestation of

religious tolerance within early medieval Spain.3 Constructed between 800 and 1000, the mosque

itself showcased cultural and religious tolerance by incorporating the Christian practice of Roman

spoliation.4 After bonding over culture, the Andalusian Muslims and Jews came to a mutually

respectful understanding. As a result, a few key Muslims in power often utilized the Jewish

knowledge of traversing the political realm. The first man to break the medieval Spanish principle

Menocal, p. 11.
Maria Rosa Menocal, The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of
Tolerance in Medieval Spain (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 2002), p. 11. Maria Rosa Menocal admits that the
society’s tolerance “found expression in the often unconscious acceptance that contradictions—within oneself, as well
as within one’s culture—could be positive and productive.”
Menocal, p. 54. “The Umayyads [first Muslims to establish Spanish caliphate] had absorbed and adapted the spolia
and trappings of the civilizations they found as they spread throughout the world [resulting in their] open-hearted and
eclectic syncretism.”
Menocal, p.60.

which prohibited Jews from holding office was Abd er-Rahman III.5 While Jews and those of other

religions had always been able to retain their own religious beliefs, they had politically and

economically been subjugated until this point. When Chisdai Abu-Yusuf, the son of Ezra, serving

as Abd er-Rahman III (911-961)’s Vizier6 wrote to the renowned Hebrew kingdom of the Khozars,

he himself praised God for guiding the Jews in exile to Muslim-governed al-Andalus. Chisdai

writes, “The poor of the flock were exalted to safety, the hands of the oppressors themselves were

relaxed, they refrained from further oppression, and through the mercy of our God the yoke was

lightened.”7 The story of the Christian minority in al-Andalus was much the same. “By the middle

of the ninth century, the Church had come to rather successful terms with the Islamic polity within

which it lived.”8 This Islamic tolerance of the dhimmi continued as Samuel the Nagid was made

Kātib of King Habbūs in 1026/1027.9

Even when the city of Cordoba was sacked by the Berbers in 1013 leading to the official

dissolution of the Cordoban caliphate in 1031, the Jews fleeing Cordoba managed to “resume the

influential roles they had enjoyed in Cordoba” as they settled in the new, semi-tolerant taifas led by

relatively tolerant kings.10 In Muslim Spain, the Jews had not had an economic identity separate

from that of the Muslims; however, in Christian Spain, the Jews were encouraged to re-build and re-

populate the newly conquered cities from which the Muslims had fled.11 King-decreed charters

provided for the security and autonomy of the Jewish community, as well as a direct line of

communication between the monarch and the Jews. In an 1170 charter of the state of Navarre, the

ruling King Sancho VI released a legal document that pertained to the “Jewish rights within their
Although Abd er-Rahman III was accused of undermining his status as caliph, i.e. essentially the direct succession of
the Prophet Muhammad, Abd er-Rahman III stood his ground and effectively showed how law and reality often do not
“Hasdai ibn Shaprut to the king of the Khazars,” or “The Epistle of R. Chisdai, Son of Isaac (of Blessed Memory) to
the King of the Khozars (ca. 960),” in Jewish Travellers, ed. R. Chisdai, p. 22.
“Hasdai ibn Shaprut to the king of the Khazars.” p. 24.
Menocal, p. 71.
“Samuel and Joseph ibn Naghrela (Eleventh-century Spain),” from The Jews of Arab Lands, p. 212.
Menocal, p. 39.

new quarter.”12 In this charter, Sancho VI guaranteed the Jews protection against murder and set

himself as guardian of the Jews when he wrote, “If any Christian have a claim against a Jew, it must

not be dared to seize him. Rather he must first make his claim before the official who is master of

the Jews through royal appointment.”13 Then in 1239, after the conquest of Valencia, King James I

of Aragon also granted a charter to the Jews of that area providing for their “physical protection and

the legal status held by the Jews of Saragossa. A number of specific judicial issues are singled out

for special consideration … Jewish oaths are to be taken on the Torah.”14 James upheld Jewish

courts as the primary trial spaces for Jewish disputes, thereby tolerantly increasing the judicial

independence of the Jewish community. It was only once the taifas attained economic security that

many Christians began undertaking jobs and educations formerly held by the Jews; with this

newfound competition growing bitter, the contivencia deteriorated and intolerance grew.

In conclusion, during the beginning phases of the both the Muslim and Christian ruling

phases in medieval Spain, religious tolerance appeared to be codified, protected, and even relished

in the artistic case of Muslim Spain. As any modern state would have it, there were even cases of

political and social successes of religious minorities; however, as a testament to Menocal’s truthful

statement that this tolerance only occurred “sometimes,” historical sources like Abu Ishaq of

Elvira’s and events like religious massacres of the early 11th and mid-13th centuries reveal just how

fragile the religious tolerance of medieval Spain really was.

2. “The Jews [in the age of Hasdai ibn Shaprut] understood themselves to be Andalusians … much
as American Jews in the second half of the twentieth century … never thought twice about calling themselves
Americans.” (p. 86)

During Hasdai ibn Shaprut’s century, the Muslims of al-Andalus officially severed political

ties with Baghdad (929), thereby declaring Cordoba, and not Baghdad, the center of the Muslim

world; when the Jewish community followed suit a few decades later, it was clear that both
Sancho VI of Navarre, “The Charters of the State,” Charters of the Reconquest Period, p. 72
Sancho VI, p. 73.
Sancho VI, p. 73-74.

religious communities “had a strong sense of their own centrality in the universe.”15 In a certain

sense, the Cordoba into which Hasdai ibn Shaprut was born in 915 was one in which both the

Jewish and the Muslim cohorts were in agreement about the vibrant future of their beloved

homeland, the “visibly prosperous” al-Andalus.16 In fact, there was little that would have made the

Jews of Hasdai’s time period feel separated from mainstream Andalusian culture. Because the

ruling Umayyads had created a society where “piety and observance were not seen as inimical to an

intellectual and “secular” life and society,” the Jews were able to participate in society while

remaining both fully Jewish and fully Andalusian.17

As the dhimma stipulated, Andalusian Jews were now freely able to participate in all aspects

of civic life, including education and economics.18 Hasdai ibn Shaprut describes how he eventually

rose to an extremely high position within the caliphate. As the head of the Cordoban caliphate’s

foreign delegation, ibn Shaprut was respected for his “exemplary knowledge,” and he used his

position with the caliph to help “open for Andalusian Jewry the gates of their science of

jurisprudence, chronology, and other subjects.”19 With enthusiasm about their newfound

Arabization (i.e. cultural assimilation), the Jews of the early 10th century were able to assimilate into

the Islamo-Arabic culture of al-Andalus while still remaining a devout, religious community, with

their own religious language.20 But perhaps even more meaningful to the Jews and their newfound

Andalusian identity was their ability to fully contribute to the literary and artistic realm of

Andalusian culture. Much like the American Jews who “helped define the intellectual and literary

qualities of their time, [and who] never thought twice about calling themselves Americans,” the

Andalusian Jews also lived in a “broader culture [that] partook of their presence and contributions,
Menocal, p. 90.
Menocal, p. 84.
Menocal, p. 87.
Menocal, p. 85.
“Hasday B. Shaprut Makes Spanish Jewry Independent From the Authority of Baghdad,” from The Jews of Arab
Lands, p. 210.
Menocal, p. 86.

[with] Jews [like Hasdai adding] to the everyday-expanding Arabic library.21 As a result, the

Andalusian Jews had a similar sense of collective self during the medieval Spanish period as they

did in 20th-century America; with time and distance, both Andalusian and American Jews came to

identify with the prosperous cultures that surrounded them rather than far-off homelands like

Baghdad and Israel. And since neither medieval Spain nor modern America presented itself as

being at odds with the Hebrew culture, the Jews of Hasdai’s era and of modern America were able

to identify themselves with their newfound homeland without sacrificing their Hebrew essence.

3. Peter the Venerable arranged for the first Latin translation of the Qur’an and was among the first
Christians to cite Talmudic literature (pp. 179f, 184-187). Was Christian interest in Jewish and Muslim
literature an indication of tolerance? Compare Menocal’s views to those of Amos Funkenstein (in the
collecton of Secondary Sources).
Maria Menocal clearly posits Peter the Venerable as a tolerant warrior of knowledge, open to

the wisdom of varying sectors and religions. Menocal describes Peter as understanding “Muslims

and Jews to be “Peoples of the Book,” and thus [they were] amply [deserving of] eventually

receiving Christ’s grace.”22 This special kinship Peter supposedly felt with all the existing Children

of Abraham only added to his inherent love of learning. Menocal’s Peter viewed himself as a “man

of faith and learning” who felt himself at odds with men like Bernard of Clairvaux and the Knights

Templar who invested in the power of arms and violence while completely ignoring the power of

the classics and “all manner of rational and scientific thought.”23 According to Menocal, Peter

helmed the task of translating the Quran (and many other Islamic texts for that matter) as a means of

proving to his religious adversaries and the world that the Christian faith should always be treated

as the Church Fathers had treated it—by combining faith with philosophical “demonstration,

writing, discussion, [and] knowledge.”24 Consequently, Menocal argues that like Peter, all the other

Menocal, p. 86-87.
Menocal, p. 185.
Menocal, p. 185.
Menocal, p. 186.

Christians who were interested in Jewish and Muslim literature an immense respect for culture and

love for philosophical discourse.

It must also be said, however, that Menocal describes how Peter later used the information he

had gathered from studying a translated Quran to write a treatise detailing the reasons why

Christianity was superior to Islam.25 Just as Hasdai Crescas did in the late 1300s and Maimonides

did with his “The Light of the Lord,” Peter the Venerable eventually used philosophical methods to

criticize an opponent’s philosophy (in this case, the religious tenets of Islam). Although Crescas

and Maimonides attacked philosophical rationalism itself, the philosophical methods used by the

Jewish and Christian leaders share an inherent respect for the use of studying philosophy as a means

of arriving at one’s own religious truth.

Conversely, Amos Funkenstein emphasizes that Christian interest in Jewish and Muslim

literature did not stem from pure philosophical inquiry, but rather, from a desire to reject the values

and claims of the other religions so as to continually construct its own religious identity.26 In fact,

Funkenstein claims, “the more each culture knew of the other, the more intense were both the

rejection and the attraction of the other.”27 Therefore, Funkenstein claimed the naturally

“confrontational” Christian modus operandi was one of fascinated religious repulsion, whereby the

Christian scholars proved the veracity of their own Messianic movement by disproving the beliefs

and religious texts of other religions like the Jews and Muslims. Thus, while Menocal argued the

Christians’ motivation for religious inquiry was out of respect and curiosity for the other religions

simply gone aggressively awry in the end, Funkenstein claims that Christian motivation for

studying Judaism and Islam was undermining from the strart.

4. “The world within which Ferdinand’s tomb [with its Arabic and Hebrew inscriptions] made sense …
was eventually destroyed … The … dismantling of that universe, the hows and whys of the

Menocal, p. 187.
Funkenstein, “Polemics, Responses, and Self-Reflection,” p. 170.
Ibid., p. 172.

disappearance of this first-rate European culture is really a different history from the one that concerns
this book” (p. 47). Do you think it fruitful to treat these two as different histories?
In her postscript, Maria Menocal herself admits, “I had some weeks before finished writing this

book, an account of and tribute to the culture of tolerance brought to Europe by the Umayyads. But

the book is also necessarily an account of the forces of intolerance that were always present and that

ultimately triumphed.”28 Menocal simply described these forces, attitudes, politics, and cultural

achievements rather than attempting to posit some of them as the primary downfall of medieval

Spain’s first-rate culture. With so many religions, battles, and cultures contributing to the demise, it

would require an entire other book to argue persuasively that one or two of those directly caused the

“dismantling of that universe.” Consequently, it is not so wrong to describe the history before we

attempt to analyze it for causation. After all, in order to understand the political implications of a

place like culturally-driven medieval Spain, it is first necessary to delve deeply into the cultural

progressions that occurred before the beginning of its downfall. For instance, in order to explain the

rationale that fueled the Christian persecution of the Jews, the resultant converso movement, and the

end of medieval Spain’s religious tolerance (manifested in Ferdinand’s tomb), it is first necessary to

simply describe the existing amti-semetic ideology behind Abu Ishaq of Elvira’s “Ode Against the

Jews: A Poetical Attack on the Jews of Granada (Eleventh Century).”

The world of prospering medieval Spain contrasts so greatly with flailing, late medieval Spain,

it is only natural that one deal with the cultural and political movements rather than trying to

elucidate the complex historical reasons for just the downfall. When Menocal describes the 1212

clear victory of the Christians as the “beginning of the end,” what she is alluding to is the fact the

driving force behind Spanish culture for much of the medieval period had died. The religious

minorities of that post-1212 period soon focused the majority of their writings on dealing with the

“anti-Jewish riots in many of the Spanish cities and … the bloody sequence of persecutions which

Menocal, p. 282.

[started in the 1300s and] did not end until the final expulsion, almost a century later, in 1492.”29

lieu of writings about culture, tolerance, and burgeoning philosophical movements, there existed

more pragmatic writings (although nonetheless poetic) like Profiat Duran’s “Be not like unto thy

fathers” and responsums from men like Nahmanides and Abarbanel which dealt with Jews and the

Torah specifically. Even Christian leaders like Peter the Venerable were undertaking immense

cultural studies—in his case, Islam—but instead of building a culturally reflective, spoliated tomb

like that of Ferdinand III of Castille, these later studies were fairly one-sided and often used to

undermine the validity of other religions.

Consequently, when Maria Menocal claims the study of medieval Spain’s two histories can be

split, she is right in identifying the immense difference that remained between the first, culturally

progressive Spain that was driving toward expansion of ideas and the latter, militarily and

politically focused Spain that had severed ties with the former and was guiding itself toward


5. Tolerance in medieval Spain was made possible by a culture that “positively thrived on holding at least
two, and often many more, contrary ideas at the same time” (p. 11). Among the factors in its breakdown
was “the failure … to have the courage to cultivate a society that can live with its own flagrant
contradictions” (p. 271)
In early medieval Spain, the culture absolutely thrived on “holding at least two, and often

many more, contrary ideas at the same time.”30 There were consistent discrepancies between law

and reality in order to accommodate all the members of Spain’s heterogeneous population. For

instance, relatively early Andalusian law prohibited the construction of religious spaces other than

mosques, but due to technology, modern historians know that a good number of temples were built

after this decree was issued and continued to serve as functioning centers of worship for a while.31

Therefore, although Andalusian law prohibited worship in an entirely Jewish space, tolerance

among legal administrators prevailed and enabled Andalusian Jews to live normal lives.
“Aristotle or the Talmud,” p. 72.
Menocal, p. 11.

Antithetically, later fear of false conversos led to an intolerant, “you’re either with us, or

you’re against us” Christian mentality of governance.32 The fact that a man like Peter the

Venerable, who so beautifully represented the cultural and religious tolerance of early medieval

Spain, was somewhat ostracized by the Christian Church leaders, who would eventually determine

the direction Spain took, is quite notable. These Christian leaders were placing themselves at odds

with Abelard and Peter’s belief that the complex universe is comprised of both “yes and no,” and

that it is necessary for “contradiction [to] clearly [exist] in God’s perplexing and often difficult

universe.”33 Later, when these myopic Christian leaders attempted to attain a national purity of

blood within their heterogeneous Spanish population, it was clear that there would be no tolerance

for minorities of any kind; however, as the contrast between the early, tolerant and successful Spain

and the intolerant, sword-wielding later Spain proves, this type of autocratic rule historically fails.

a. Illustrate the use of response for the reconstruction of the internal life of the Hispano-Jewish
community. Take as a responsum any ad hoc reply by a rabbinic authority to a question
addressed to him. Sources to consider include: response by the genoim, Isaac Alfasi,
Maimonides, Meir Abulafia, Solomon ibn Adret, Isaac ben Sheshet, Simon Duran, Solomon
Having suffered under the rule of Visigoths while far away from the seat of Jewish authority

(Damascus and later Baghdad), and then experiencing a “commingling of languages, religions, and

styles of every sort” under Muslim rule, it is understandable that the Jews of medieval Spain dealt

with their community’s natural internal disconnection and discord by seeking the advice of more

knowledgeable genoim like Maimonides, Solomon ibn Adret, Isaac ben Sheshet, and Profiat Duran

throughout the years.34 The Hispano-Jews needed authority to re-connect their culture and religious

beliefs as confusion and persecution barraged them from every corner of their new homeland.

Consequently, just as the Muslim leaders like Abd al-Rahman had continued the tradition of his

Muslim homeland by constructing mosques and writing poetry similar to that of Syrian culture, so

Menocal, p. 182.
Menocal, p. 41.

too did the Jewish communal leaders, the genoim, seek to support the Hispano-Jewish tradition by

appealing to their communal ties and helping ease the minds of the faithful as they lived under

foreign, non-Hebrew rule.

In his response titled, “Are Muslims idolators?” Maimonides reaffirmed the Jewish faith

while at the same time granting Jews permission to live comfortably within the Muslim world

without fearing that by adhering to the practices of the Muslim-controlled land, they were behaving

idolatrously. Uniting the Jewish community together, Maimonides describes how every Jew,

whether or not he was a cradle Jew or a convert, is equal in the eyes of God, and also equally

understands “the ways of Israel [so] as to recognize that all the other religions have stolen from this

one, one adding, the other subtracting, one changing, the other lying and attributing to God things

that are not so.”35 In addition to uniting all Hispano-Jews by declaring their faith united and equal,

Maimonides further re-coalesces the internal community of the Hispano-Jews by absolving them of

any sins they might be accused of according to the Talmud—a holy document which “lays down

certain rules about a Jew’s dealing with idolators.”36 By declaring the Muslims to be monotheistic

and thus not idolatrous, Maimonides essentially liberates the Hispano-Jewish community from

worrying that by, say, sharing wine with a Muslim (a common occurrence in medieval Spain), they

were in some way violating the Talmudic prohibition that warned Jews not to imbibe among


Much like Maimonides, Solomon ibn Adret also strengthened the Hispano-Jewish

community’s internal ties by reaffirming the mutual responsibility that each member of that

Hispano-Jewish community owed to his Jewish brethren. In his responsa, “To What Extent Must a

Member of the Jewish community Share Communal Responsibility?”, ibn Adret disagrees with two

Jews’ claim that a special exemption granted by the Christian king freed them from having to
Maimonides, “Are Muslims Idolators?: The status of Muslms in Jewish law and the treatment of converts,” from A
Responsum of Moses Maimonides, p. 183.
Maimonides, p. 184.

contribute to the Jewish community’s tax.37 Ibn Adret cites the fact that these two men benefit from

many Jewish communal endeavors, all of which are funded by the communal Jewish taxes. Since

they benefit from the results of Jewish communal taxes, these Jews must therefore honor their

obligation to the Jewish community by paying their portion of the community’s taxes, regardless of

what an outside Christian king might say. Ibn Adret repeatedly explains why a Hispano Jew’s duty

to his Jewish community ranked equally with that Jew’s duty to obey the broader laws of the

kingdom. The leader also reaffirms the Hispano-Jewish community’s identity as a functioning, self-

governing body when he writes, “the leaders of the [Jewish] community are elected officials …

Their status is that of official administrators or agents acting in behalf of the fellow-members of the

community.”38 Just as Maimonides had re-connected the Hispano Jews’ sense of righteous and

lawful Judaism to the traditional faith, so too did Solomon ibn Adret strengthen the Hispano-Jewish

internal connection by emphasizing their communal duty toward one another.

Exiled from Spain midway through his rabbinic career in the mid-1300s, Isaac ben Sheshet

assumed the role of high rabbinic authority less than a century after Solomon ibn Adret held it, and

continued the task of reinforcing the Hispano Jews’ sense of inter-connectedness within a

disconnected world. During Somon ibn Adret’s time, the controversy concerning the role of

philosophy in Judaic faith was so highly contested within the Hispano-Jewish community that some

impassioned parties even burned piles of Maimonides’s philosophically-tainted works.39 In order to

reunite the arguing parties, Isaac ben Sheshet took a moderate approach when officially addressing

the issue of philosophy and faith. Rather than condemning or praising philosophical study, he

simply warned of the possible hazards of philosophical inquiry, thereby taking a middle ground

between the two stances.40 By highlighting how Maimonides’s “Guide to the Perplexed” was able

The Jewish community was charged a set tax, and it was left up to the Jewish citizens to each partially pay this tax.
Solomon Ibn Adret, p.220.
“Aristotle or the Talmud,” p. 73.
“Aristotle or the Talmud,” p. 73.

to use philosophy to refute claims against God’s providence and thereby reaffirm the Jewish

monotheistic faith, Isaac ben Sheshet continued in the genoimic tradition of re-connecting the

members of the Hispano-Jewish community to one another.41

Even during the years of intense Jewish persecution, when the Hispano-Jewish community

dealt with the real and immediate threat of mass apostasy, the genoim continued to write

responsums that attempted to emphasize the communal and faithful responsibility Hispano Jews

owed to one another. Writing during the Jewish massacres of 1391 in Spain and slyly attacking the

justification of Jewish apostasy committed by many conversos, Profiat Duran and his “Be not like

unto thy fathers” appealed to the sense of Jewish familial solidarity. In his description of a

converso, Duran chose to depict that man as having purposefully denounced his father and brothers

in order to convert.42 By claiming that the converso is essentially saying to his father and traditional

forefathers, “I do not know thee,” Duran cleverly appeals to the loyal, familial sensibilities of those

living under the anti-Jewish rule of 14th and 15th century Spain.

Whenever outside factors like the Arabization in Cordoba or close interactions with

Muslims threatened to separate the Jews from their perceived good standing under Talmudic law, or

when internal conflicts like the debate over Jewish converts and philosophy threatened to tear the

Hispano Jewish community apart from within, the genoim attempted to reconnect the Jews through

a sense of tradition and communal loyalty respectively. And in an ever-changing world like

medieval Spain, it was necessary for Jewish rabbinic leaders to repeatedly reconnect the Hispano

Jews to the core of their community and faith whenever the surrounding world seemed too much.

“Aristotle or the Talmud,” p. 76.
“Be not like unto thy fathers: Profiat Duran’s Polemical Letter on the Conversion of his friend David ben Goron,” p.
276. “[The converso] said to his father: ‘I do not know thee,’ and does not ask after the forefathers any more.”