Domin­ion Built of Praise: Pan­e­gyric and Legit­i­ma­cy Among Jews in the Medieval Mediterranean

Jonathan Decter

December 18, 2018

A con­stant fea­ture of Jew­ish cul­ture in the medieval Mediter­ranean was the ded­i­ca­tion of pan­e­gyric texts in Hebrew, Judeo-Ara­bic, and oth­er lan­guages to men of sev­er­al ranks: schol­ars, com­mu­nal lead­ers, courtiers, mer­chants, patrons, and poets. Although the imagery of nature and eroti­cism in the pre­ludes to these poems is often stud­ied, the sub­stance of what fol­lows is gen­er­al­ly neglect­ed, as it is per­ceived to be repet­i­tive, obse­quious, and less aes­thet­i­cal­ly inter­est­ing than oth­er types of poet­ry from the peri­od. In Domin­ion Built of Praise, Jonathan Decter demurs. As is the case with visu­al por­traits, pan­e­gyrics oper­ate accord­ing to a code of cul­tur­al norms that tell us at least as much about the soci­ety that pro­duced them as the indi­vid­u­als they por­tray. Look­ing at the phe­nom­e­non of pan­e­gyric in Mediter­ranean Jew­ish cul­ture from sev­er­al over­lap­ping per­spec­tives — social, his­tor­i­cal, eth­i­cal, poet­ic, polit­i­cal, and the­o­log­i­cal — he finds that they offer rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Jew­ish polit­i­cal lead­er­ship as it var­ied across geo­graph­ic area and evolved over time.

Decter focus­es his analy­sis pri­mar­i­ly on Jew­ish cen­ters in the Islam­ic Mediter­ranean between the tenth and thir­teenth cen­turies and also includes a chap­ter on Jews in the Chris­t­ian Mediter­ranean through the fif­teenth cen­tu­ry. He exam­ines the hun­dreds of pan­e­gyrics that have sur­vived: some copied repeat­ed­ly in lux­u­ri­ous antholo­gies, oth­ers dis­card­ed hap­haz­ard­ly in the Cairo Geniza. Accord­ing to Decter, the poems extolled con­ven­tion­al char­ac­ter traits ascribed to lead­ers not only diachron­i­cal­ly with­in the Jew­ish polit­i­cal tra­di­tion but also syn­chron­i­cal­ly with­in Islam­ic and, to a less­er extent, Chris­t­ian civ­i­liza­tion and polit­i­cal cul­ture. Domin­ion Built of Praise reveals more than a super­fi­cial and func­tion­al par­al­lel between Mus­lim and Jew­ish forms of state­craft and demon­strates how ideas of Islam­ic polit­i­cal legit­i­ma­cy pro­found­ly shaped the ways in which Jews con­cep­tu­al­ized and por­trayed their own leadership.

    Discussion Questions

    Jonathan Decter’s Domin­ion Built of Praise: Pan­e­gyric and Legit­i­ma­cy Among Jews in the Medieval Mediter­ranean explores the tenth through thir­teenth-cen­tu­ry Islam­ic Mediter­ranean world through the lens of the pan­e­gyric — that is, ded­i­ca­tions to poets, patrons, mer­chants, com­mu­nal lead­ers, and schol­ars. Pre­vi­ous­ly, these poems, which intro­duced texts in Hebrew and Judeo-Ara­bic (and oth­er lan­guages), have been dis­missed as for­mu­la­ic forms of lion­iza­tion of men of pow­er. In Decter’s telling, pan­e­gyrics are rich, pris­mat­ic sources that illu­mi­nate the nature of Jew­ish and Mus­lim state­craft, and the very mean­ing of polit­i­cal legit­i­ma­cy, in the medieval world. Ele­gant­ly writ­ten and prodi­gious­ly researched, Domin­ion Built of Praise opens a win­dow on the cul­tur­al norms and polit­i­cal ambi­tions of the medieval Mediter­ranean, and the place of Jews and Mus­lims — and poet­ry — in this vibrant and cul­tur­al­ly rich context.