The First Post-Ancient Jew
Sometime around the middle of the 10th century, writes Robert Alter in his introduction to Dan Pagis’s Hebrew Poetry of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (1991),
a momentous revolution occurred. A gifted, brash young man named Dunash ibn Labrat arrived in Córdoba, then the great center of Andalusian culture, after having served as secretary in Baghdad to Saadia Gaon, the leading talmudic and philosophical authority of the age. Dunash proceeded to do something shockingly iconoclastic: to compose secular Hebrew poems, using the Arab quantitative meters and following the Arabic conventions of genre, rhetorical ornamentation, and subject matter. Though many Jews were scandalized, and protests against the secular literary movement would continue for generations, the new poetry caught on like wildfire.
About the Author
Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.