Their condition across the empire worsened once Christianity became the sole legal religion in 386.
Heraclius, ruler of the eastern Roman state beginning in 608, even started physically punishing people for being Jewish. Jews were only saved from his persecution by Muslim conquerors in the late 630s and early 640s.
Relations between Jews and Muhammad, the founder of Islam, did not begin well. Muhammad understood himself to be more than simply a successor to Abraham and Moses; that is, more than one more messenger sent by God to humankind. Muhammad understand himself, and was understood by his followers, the first Muslims, to be the last and normative prophet.
This fundamentally contradicted the understanding which Jews had of Abraham and Moses.
The Jews of Medina, where Islam began in 622, faced a choice. They either had to accept Muhammad’s authority or rebel against it. They rebelled, lost, and suffered exile or death.
After Muhammad’s death in 632, and the rapid and far-reaching conquests by Muslims which followed it, relations between Muslims and Jews got much better.
In the late 630s and early 640s, Islamic armies seized control of Levantia and Egypt from Heraclius and the eastern Roman state centered in Constantinople. Heraclius had physically punished Jews for being Jewish. The new Muslim rulers didn’t.
In 711, Muslim armies began invading Iberia from Carthaginia. Iberia at that time was controlled by a Germanian Christian state established by Visigoths following the collapse of Roman rule in Iberia in the 400s. That government had also not been kind to Jews. By 718, Muslims had established their control of the province with the help of aggrieved Jews. Afterward, the well-being of Iberian Jews began to improve.
The vitality of the Jewish community in Iberia continued to develop along with that of Islamic society. Together both enjoyed a golden age between 900 and 1150. During those years, Islamic Iberia was religiously diverse, culturally united by Arabic language, philosophy, and science, intellectually brilliant, and economically prosperous.
Arab Muslim rulers were great cultivators of ancient Hellenian literature, philosophy, science, and math. They had all available books from ancient Hellenian times translated into Arabic.
During that time, the Caliphate, or Muslim rule, extended from Iberia to India. Certain Jewish families prospered greatly by trading products across this vast area.
While the financial rewards were great, so too were the sacrifices needed to gain them and risks of loss. Participants in the business sometimes had to live apart from their loved ones for years. Sometimes ships sank and all the cargo and relatives aboard were lost with them.
These sacrifices and risks could only be borne by people whose shared loyalty was made strong enough by their trust in God, participation in synagogue, and commitment to family.
These Jewish traders and their families placed their confidence in God. At the same time, that knew that God would not always intervene to save their fortunes or lives. He sometimes allowed bad things to happen even to good people.
These families of traders strengthened their local Jewish communities by financially supporting synagogues, schools, the poor, and orphans. They chose bright young rabbis as husbands for their daughters.
They also married their sons to the daughters of other families involved in the same long-distant trade but living in other major cities along their trade routes. As families they lived simply despite their wealth knowing that they might lose it all quickly.
During these years of communal vitality unknown since the Alexandrian community at its best, Jews also became important advisers to Muslim rulers. One was Hasdai ibn Shaprut (ca 915-ca 970): vizier, physician, and writer in the capital city of Cordoba.
Another was Samuel ibn Nageda (ca 993-after 1056): royal advisor, general, scholar, and poet in Granada. After he died, his son succeeded him. Tragically, in 1066 his son was murdered by envious Muslim rivals who then led a mob in the massacre of Granada’s Jews.
These court Jews, and those that followed them, were recognized by their rulers, whether Olympian, Christian, or Muslim, as men of importance because of their intelligence, skills in trade, medicine, or languages, depth of character, and family connections.
They capably served their rulers but also their synagogues. They persuaded their non-Jewish rulers to provide protection and grant favors to the Jewish community. They were often writers and supported the cultural creativity of their Jewish community.
During the golden age of Islamic rule in Iberia, state sponsorship of Hellenian studies fed the creativity of Jewish intellectuals. The peace and prosperity of the times made their intellectual focus possible.
In the 1100s, Berber Muslims from Carthaginia took control of Iberia and replaced state sponsorship of intellectual and cultural creativity with that of ethnic intolerance. They were restoratives; that is, they wanted to restore an imagined lost age of purity.
The Jewish community of Iberia met this intolerance with an inflexibility of its own. This starved creative opportunities for Jewish intellectuals who found Talmudic studies alone too sterile.
Before that happened, Jewish intellectuals had not been able to create a conceptual system that could affirm the best of Hellenian and Arab culture in terms of Jewish tradition.
Maimonides (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, 1135-1204), the greatest Jewish thinker of his age, tried to do this but failed. The leading rabbis of his time rejected his attempt to synthesize Talmudic Judaism with Aristotelian Olympianity. Instead they chose to explore the possibilities of responding creatively to difficult times by using the mystical Kabbalah.
(Today we continued to reflect on Norman Cantor’s The Sacred Chain: A History of the Jews [HarperCollins, 1994, pp. 121-51, 185-87].)