Judah Halevi

A Spanish poet, philosopher, and proto-Zionist.

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Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Judah Halevi’s poems, secular and religious, are recognized as belonging to the foremost examples of Hebrew poetry. His Songs of Zion, giving expression to the poets yearning for the land of Israel, are still used in synagogues during the Ninth of Av service to introduce a note of consolation after the recital of the dirges on this day of mourning for the destruction of the Temple and for other calamities of the Jewish past. Obedient to the call of the Holy Land, Halevi, at the age of 60, resolved to leave Spain in order to settle in the country of his dreams. Legend has it that he did arrive in the Holy Land only to be murdered there, but recent research has established that, in fact, on his way he stayed in Egypt, where he died.

A Tribe of Converts

In addition to his poems, Halevi (d.1141) is renowned for his very influential philosophical treatise, the Kuzari, originally written in Arabic but later translated into Hebrew. Halevi structured this work around the accounts of a heathen tribe, the Khazars, whose king and people converted to Judaism; the Kuzari consists of a dialogue between a Jewish sage and the king of the Khazars. The book opens with a dream in which the king is told that while his intentions are admirable his deeds fall short of what God demands of him. Perturbed by the dream, the king first consults a philosopher but the latter tells him that God is so far above all human thought that He can be concerned neither with the king’s intentions nor with his deeds.

The king receives a similar dusty answer when he consults a Christian and then a Muslim sage. In despair, the king consults the Jew who then embarks on a reasoned defense of Judaism. The Kuzari is thus a work of Jewish apologetics, a defense of the Jewish religion against the challenges of Greek philosophy, Christianity, and Islam from without, and against those presented by the Karaites from within.

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Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.

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