Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Guide for the Perplexed, and The Incoherence of the Incoherence--The Golden Age and Beyond (March 27)

From Sevilla, we drove upstream along the Rio Guadalquivir to Cordoba.  Here, as in Toledo, Grenada, Ronda, and all of the other ancient cities we have toured, the streets are both narrow and labyrinthine.  The guidebook that I purchased aptly notes, “The streets have, from Moorish times, changed their routes according to the needs of the houses and their residents rather than imposing their will on the whole shape of the city. . . They seem to be designed especially for visitors who are in no hurry, and their twists and turns increase the pleasure of strolling and observing.”  Indeed—and what an essential lesson in urban planning, especially for Americans, as we tend to be so focused on the destination that we miss the journey.

More than any other place, Cordoba exemplifies the Golden Age in Spain.  It was already established when the Romans arrived at the height of their empire, but it blossomed under the Moors in the ninth and tenth centuries—the zenith of both Islamic and Jewish influence on the Iberian peninsula.  The Moors conquered it in 711, made it the capital of al-Andalus in 716, and in 929 it became the seat of the western caliphate and the center of the intellectual world, rivaled by only Baghdad and Constantinople. 

The most outstanding monument to that glorious age is the Great Mosque.  It was built in the late eighth century, though many additions were made over the next two hundred years.  It is a magnificent structure, with hundreds of arches, composed of white and red sandstone, illuminated by hanging lamps.  As in the Alhambra, the elegant koranic calligraphy carved into the stucco walls, geometric designs, and brilliantly colored tile add to the aesthetic, which creates an atmosphere of tranquility, rationality, and meditative contentment.

Yet the most interesting thing about touring this mosque today is that it is in the middle of a Catholic cathedral.  The Christians re-conquered Cordoba in 1236; by that time, the Golden Age had already past, since the Islamic fundamentalist Almohads had invaded and occupied Cordoba from North Africa in the mid-twelfth century.  At any rate, a few hundred years later, in 1523, the Christians began construction on the Cordoba Cathedral—literally enveloping the mosque in its center.  The cathedral itself took centuries to complete, so in addition to the juxtaposition of Islamic and Christian elements, the church alone includes gothic, renaissance, and baroque design.  It is, without a doubt, the most architecturally eclectic building that I have ever seen.  Islamic prayer niches are filled with statues of the Madonna and child.  It is mind-boggling, and expresses, in a single image, much of the history of Spain.

And to top it all off, just outside the mosque/cathedral, one enters the former Jewish quarter of Cordoba.  It looks much like its counterparts in Toledo and Sevilla, with winding streets and trendy shops and galleries.  Rosa and I ate at the Juda HaLevi restaurant on the main street of the Jewish quarter, Calle de Judios.  Interestingly, most of the menu items at this place, named after one of the most famous Jewish philosophers and poets of Spain (“My heart is in the East and I am in the uttermost West”) consisted of varieties of ham sandwiches and seafood paella.  Rosa and I enjoyed a cheese pizza.

After lunch, we explored the Jewish quarter.  Interestingly, in a time when the Jews’ political fortunes in Spain were declining, the community’s most renowned native son—Moses Maimonides—was born here, in 1135.  He would become the greatest Jewish philosopher and legal scholar of all time, known as the Rambam, an acronym for Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon.  A traditional line sums up his achievement succinctly: “From Moses to Moses, there was none like Moses.”  His Mishneh Torah was the first systematic code of Jewish law, and his Guide for the Perplexed is the pre-eminent expression of Jewish philosophy.  Its audience is the enlightened Jew, who has studied both Torah and secular science, and is distressed by the seeming dissonance between the two.  Maimonides brilliantly re-interprets Jewish wisdom in light of the neo-Aristotelian philosophy of his age—and in doing so, remains a role model for all  contemporary Jews who live in both the Jewish and secular worlds and choose not to compartmentalize the two.  As a worldly scholar, he epitomizes the Sephardi ideal.

His statue occupies the center of Tiberius Plaza, named after the town in northern Israel where he is buried.  It is a long-standing Cordoban custom to rub Maimonides’ foot while passing the statue.  This, apparently, brings good luck.  That’s a bit ironic, since Maimonides left here when he was only twelve years old, after the invasion of the Islamic fundamentalist North African Almohads sparked a wave of anti-Jewish persecution.  Their rule was also a bane to Maimonides’ Islamic counterpart, his fellow Cordoban, Averroes (Ibn Rushd), whose statue stands outside the Almodovar gate, a stone’s throw from the old Jewish quarter.  Although there is no evidence that Maimonides and Averroes knew one another, they pursued similar endeavors, and occupy similar positions in their respective religious communities.  Averroes’s magnum opus is The Incoherence of the Incoherence (there’s a good academic title!)  It is a brilliant critique of fundamentalist narrow-mindedness, and the ruling Almohads responded by banishing him from the city and burning the book.

From Cordoba, Maimonides fled with his family to Fez.  He eventually landed in Egypt, where he wrote his masterworks and served as physician to the sultan.  Interestingly, his experience under the new, reactionary Islamic regime influenced one of his essays, the Epistle on Martyrdom, in which he suggests that persecuted Jews should publicly convert to Islam while secretly practicing Judaism, rather than seeking martyrdom. He adds that one should then seek to move to a place where s/he can again live openly as a Jew.  This strikes me as solid thinking.  We, Ashkenazic Jews, tend to glorify martyrdom—but generally do so when talking about others rather than ourselves, which is rather cheap and easy.  It is important to note that the Rambam speaks of situations when the conversion is temporary.  I also recognize that publicly converting out is different from doing so privately.  There are certainly instances in which it is better to die a martyr than to break faith.  But there are, I believe, more instances when one is justified in choosing life.  Surviving isn't everything, but its significance shouldn't be underestimated.  To put this in a more contemporalry context, it is worth asking oneself: were the people who died in the German death camps  morally superior to those lucky few who were able to attain false papers, hide their identity and pass as non-Jews?  As for me, I think martyrdom is a vastly over-rated experience.  While there are, indeed, things I'd like to think I'd be willing to die for, here I’m with the Rambam.  He essentially argues that since the Almohads knew that Jewish professions of Islamic faith were insincere, they constitute the sin of making a false utterance—which is permissible for the sake of pikuach nefesh, or saving life.  Jane Gerber, the author of The Jews of Spain, notes: “This response served to counteract the wave of despair among the Jews of Morocco.”  

After passing the Maimonides statue, we toured Cordoba’s only remaining synagogue.  It is not from the Golden Age; it was built under the Catholics, in 1315.  It resembles its larger counterpart in Toledo.  It isn’t hard to see echoes of this Islamic-influenced mudejar architecture in my own synagogue in Boise, with its arabesque arches and geometric stained glass windows.  This is no coincidence; American Jews of the nineteenth century often saw the Golden Age in Spain as a pre-cursor to their own experience in the United States.  We shall see if we can enjoy as long a run as our Sephardi predecessors did.

We completed our tour of Cordoba with a walk through a typical Sephardi home of the time, built around an elegant courtyard and filled with exhibitions on Jewish literature, holy days and cuisine.  The kitchen featured a poster inscribed with Maimonides’ dietary advice; as a physician, he recommended that men avoid eggplant.  I follow his advice assiduously.

Leaving Cordoba, we took the speedy and stylish bullet train back to Madrid.  Tomorrow, we will have a free day there, then Rosa and I will depart for Israel on Sunday morning.

Alas, I have no pictures from Cordoba, as I left my camera on the bus.  I did, however, take some movies with my mini-video camera, and will post them soon.

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