The Ornament of the World

by María Rosa Menocal
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Sailing Away, Riding Away Summary

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Last Updated on April 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 502

Menocal opens this chapter with the Jewish Judah Halevi sailing into Egypt’s port of Alexandria in 1140. He had voluntarily exiled himself from Sefarad and had written about his fears before the journey. As a famous poet, he was well received in Egypt, but his goal was Jerusalem, a place that, unlike Alexandria, was completely inhospitable to Jews. Historically, it is unclear where he finally died, but all accounts suggest he never made it to his destination.

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Halevi represents the end of a Jewish golden age, an age which Menocal attributes to the fact that Andalusian Jewish writers were able to use languages other than Hebrew—as well as applying conventions of other languages to Hebrew—to express a gamut of religious, erotic, and passionate emotions. In essence, Hebrew was allowed to leave its hiding place and be celebrated as a vibrant and poetic language. This is why it is so surprising that Halevi would ultimately renounce this approach to Hebrew and exile himself to the east, insisting that any true believer of Judaism would leave behind Andalusia and Arabic culture.

Halevi was born in 1075 in the Pyrenees city of Tudela, which was under Muslim control but heavily influenced by Christianity. He would later emigrate to the Christian Toledo, which was under Alfonso’s control, and continue to move from city to city, even as the cities were regularly changing hands from the Berber Almoravids, the Muslims, the Cid, and Alfonso. Halevi was invited by the preeminent Jewish poet Ibn Ezra to join him in Granada, which had a thriving Jewish community, despite anti-Jewish riots in 1066. However, as Almoravid and Christian forces clashed over Granada, Ibn Ezra fled, apparently leaving Halevi.

Over the course of this time, Halevi began to detest Arabic Andalusian influences on Hebrew writing, and he began writing on the subject. In The Book of Khazars, Halevi takes his inspiration from an older story about a Christian, a Jew, and a Muslim attempting to convince a king to adopt their religion. In Halevi’s version, however, it is a rabbi arguing with a philosopher, trying to reconcile faith and reason. Menocal suggests that this story shows how philosophy itself was being seen as another form of competing faith. Previously, there had been no concern that Jewish faith was incommensurate with secular Greco-Islamic philosophical beliefs.

The final section of this chapter opens with a poem about the Cid, exiled from court by his brother Alfonso, around 1091. While the poem portrays the Cid as a loyal military expert who eventually wins Valencia for his brother, the truth is that their relationship was shaky at best, and alliances against each other were common. Unlike a similar military epic, the Song of Roland, which is written like a kind of past mythology, the Cid epic takes contemporary events and valorizes them. Menocal suggests that such nationalistic epics need to be taken with a grain of salt and wonders if Halevi’s and the Cid’s paths ever crossed, possibly in Toledo or Granada.

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