This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

The Vice-President of Granada*

News Item:

August 2000. Al Gore chooses Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, a traditionally observant Jews, to be the Democratic candidate for the vice-presidency of the United States.

With the selection of Senator Joseph Lieberman as the Democratic candidate for the American Vice Presidency, a lot of rhetoric has been appearing in the news media about how radically unprecedented this development is.

Looking at the matter from a broader historical perspective, we actually find that several traditional Jews have held similar, or higher, positions of authority.

The best-known of these figures were probably the Biblical heroes Joseph and Mordecai who served their respective monarchs with efficiency and loyalty.

In later times, the most extraordinary Jew to hold the equivalent of a vice-presidential office was Rabbi Samuel Ibn Nagrila; and it is to his outstanding achievements that I wish to devote this article.

A native of Cordoba, Spain, Rabbi Samuel (993-1056) was forced to flee to Granada when inter-factional fighting among the local Muslim groups brought about the destruction of his birthplace. After a brief spell in business, the young refugee rose rapidly in the Granadan civil service. He attributed this success in large measure to his elegant Arabic literary style and calligraphy, which were considered the keys to advancement in the governmental hierarchy (Young readers, take note!). Samuel's political prominence also caused him to be recognized as the official head of Granada's large and established Jewish community, conferring upon him the Hebrew title of Nagid.

Throughout his life, Samuel felt a special identification with the Biblical Joseph, whose personal ambition and self-assurance had been fuelled by youthful dreams. Samuel related that he too had been reassured by a prophetic dream that appeared to him in his youth, promising that he would forever be delivered from the perils of fire and water. He would have many occasions to recall that pledge in the course of the intrigues, travels and battles that would fill his life. Samuel's writings express his constant awareness that his personal success was being guided by a divine hand.

When a dispute arose over the succession to the throne, Samuel found himself in a minority faction that supported the claims of one of the deceased king's sons, Badis, against his brother Boluggin. As it turns out, Badis prevailed, and the new king acknowledged Samuel's support and political acumen by appointing him Vizier, an office that was roughly the equivalent of a Vice-President or Prime Minister. In several respects, Samuel was emulating the accomplishments of Hasdai Ibn Shaprut, a Jew who, a generation earlier, had achieved prominence in the court of the Caliph Abdur-Rahman III, and had used his power to enhance Jewish learning and culture.

Unfortunately, after an initial period of active partnership with his Vizier, Badis withdrew from active politics and left the day-to-day administration almost entirely in Samuel's hands.

Predictably, some of Samuel's fiercest opponents came from the established Jewish community, members of which were uneasy about one of their coreligionists (and an outsider to boot!) rising to such prominence. In the most extreme displays of antagonism, they had him imprisoned, and hired thugs to assassinate one of his allies. However, Samuel had a knack for landing on his feet in times of adversity.

Samuel's responsibilities extended to the command of the royal army, requiring him to lead his forces into battle against hostile kingdoms. This role, unprecedented among medieval Jewish leaders, was celebrated by the Nagid in a unique corpus of epic Hebrew war poems.

Throughout Samuel's career, the Berber kingdom of Granada was involved in unceasing rivalry with the Arab kingdom of Seville. Each of these states was trying to tip the fragile balance of power in its own favour by making inroads into the smaller districts in the region, whether through alliances or conquest. The upshot of this was that Samuel was almost continually out in the battlefield at the head of the Granadan forces. In the vast majority of his campaigns he emerged victorious, but his few defeats produced some extremely close calls. Once, when he was caught in a surprise ambush, he fled on his horse across a river, evading his attackers whose own steeds were too weighed down by armour to make the crossing. On another occasion, he was actually taken prisoner by his foes, and rescued by the Granadan forces only moments before he would have been executed.

In medieval Arab society, the political and military leaders were also expected to excel in the artistic, literary and scholarly realms. In the case of Samuel Ha-Nagid, this expressed itself in a dazzling variety of endeavours of which the most famous was his immense output of Hebrew poetry. He was, after all, a contemporary of the "Golden Age" of Spanish Jewish civilization, where great importance was attached to humanistic education. A significant feature of the social and intellectual life was the custom of gathering in salons to exchange philosophical ideas or to show off one's latest literary masterworks (which were often improvised on the spot).

Samuel's oeuvre encompassed all of the standard poetic themes of the time, including romance, wine, farewells, satire and more, all composed according to the demanding formal strictures of Arabic poetry, which included precise rules for scanning patterns of long and short vowels. He was the only poet in his circle who was capable of writing war poetry, based on his personal experiences in the battlefield. As a deeply religious individual, he used these poems as an opportunity to express his gratitude to the Almighty who had delivered him from the enemy armies. His positive self-image moved him on several occasions to compare himself favourably with that earlier warrior-poet King David! When dealing with more conventional themes, Samuel found frequent opportunities to dwell on the fleetingness of life and the need to enjoy whatever small pleasures the moment might offer. His personal success was diminished by the deaths of several close relatives, including his beloved brother and two of his young children.

Samuel also distinguished himself in more conventional genres of Jewish religious literature. During his childhood in Cordoba he had studied with some of Spain's most celebrated rabbis, and he later composed his own influential works on Hebrew philology, Biblical grammar and Talmudic law. His halakhic encyclopedia, from which only fragments have survived, was considered a masterpieces of its genre. Samuel even composed a polemical work criticizing the Qur'an--something he could get away with thanks to his powerful political position. At one point in his career, he became the moving force in the appointment of a new Caliph (the Muslim equivalent of a Pope) who was to serve as a rallying point for a new political alliance of Berber tribes.

Throughout his distinguished career in the service of a gentile state, Samuel Ha-Nagid remained conscious of his Jewish spiritual roots, which he always cultivated with pride and diligence. He found time to pursue his own religious scholarship, and took an active role in the religious education of his children, even when this took the form of sending them homework assignments from the battle front. The Nagid of Grenada was always a generous supporter of Jewish scholarship and culture at home and abroad.

Indeed, Rabbi Samuel Ibn Nagrila set formidably high standards for any latter-day Jews who might set their sights on high political office.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Ask Now of the Days that Are PastAsk Now of the Days that Are Past


University of Calgary Press

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, August 31 2000, pp. 10-11.

  • Bibliography:
    • Ashtor, Eliyahu. The Jews of Moslem Spain. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1973.
    • Margalioth, Mordecai, ed. Hilkhot Hannagid: A Collection of the Extant Halakhic Writings of R. Shmuel Hannagid. Jerusalem: American Academy for Jewish Research, 1962.
    • Scheindlin, Raymond P. Wine, women, & death : medieval Hebrew poems on the good life. 1st -- ed. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1986.
    • Schirmann, Jefim. Ha-Shirah ha-'ivrit bi-Sefarad ube-Provans. Yerushalayim: Mosad Byalik, 1960.
    • Weinberger, Leon J. Jewish Prince in Moslem Spai: Selected Poems of Samuel Ibn Nagrela. Judaic Studies. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1973.