Yehuda Halevi Street in Jerusalem's Old City. (Rachel Lyra Hospodar/Flickr)

Judah (Yehuda) Halevi

A Spanish poet, philosopher and proto-Zionist.

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.

Halevi’s thrust throughout the book, as well as in his poems, is particularistic. It is no accident that, at the beginning of the Kuzari, the king dismisses the philosopher in dissatisfaction with the notion that God has no concern with the particular. Halevi had a good knowledge of Greek philosophy in its Arab garb and knew how alluring this universalistic trend could be for thinking Jews. But he refuses to yield to what he considers to be a superficiality that never penetrates to the depths of human existence.

In one of his poems, Halevi urges that a Jew should not be enticed by Greek wisdom “which has only flowers and produces no fruit.” Further in the particularistic mode is Halevi’s contention that both the land of Israel and the people of Israel are intrinsically holy and set apart by God to fulfill His special purpose. On the Holy Land, Halevi’s “Ode to Zion” declares: “Thine air is life for the souls, like myrrh are the grains of thy dust, and thy streams are like the honeycomb. It would be pleasant for me to walk naked and barefoot among thy desolate ruins, where once thy temples stood, where the ark was hidden, and where thy Cherubim dwelled in thy innermost shrines.” As for the Jewish people, they are endowed, through their righteous ancestors, with a special spiritual nature that marks them off from the rest of mankind as different not only in mere degree but in kind. Following this line, Halevi denies that a non-Jew, no matter how morally and intellectually gifted, can never be a prophet.

Defending Judaism

On revelation, Halevi remarks that Judaism, unlike Christianity and Islam, affirms that God revealed himself not to a single person but to the 600,000 Israelites who came out of Egypt. He implies that an event witnessed by so many people must be true, whereas a claim by an individual to have received a divine revelation can easily be the result of sheer delusion. That Halevi did not see that he was begging the question, since we are informed that the 600,000 were present only in the Torah itself, is to be explained on the grounds that Christianity and Islam, Judaism’s rivals, admitted that the original revelation to Israel took place, but, they claimed, it had been superseded by the revelation to Jesus or Muhammad.

Halevi’s basic point here is that the onus of proof, that the original revelation has been superseded, rests on those who make the claim not on those who cling fast to the faith of their fathers, since God does not change his mind. By the Torah Halevi understands both the Written and the Oral Torah, the latter found now in the Rabbinic literature. A considerable portion of the Kuzari is devoted to a defense of the Talmud and with it the whole doctrine of the Oral Torah. Obviously influenced by Muslim claims for the Koran, Halevi goes so far as to say that the Mishnah must have been inspired by God since no unaided human mind could have produced a work compiled in such exquisite style.

Some moderns have seen Halevi’s particularism as racist in that it sees the doctrine of the Chosen People in qualitative terms. It has to be appreciated, however, that Halevi never suggests that God is unconcerned with the rest of mankind. On the contrary, in Halevi’s view, Israel is the “heart of mankind.” When the heart is healthy the whole body is sound. When the heart is sick the whole body is affected adversely. And while Halevi does see the Jews as endowed with a superior spiritual nature, he adds that just as a dead plant is more repulsive that stagnant water, a dead animal more than a dead plant, and a human corpse more than a dead animal, so a Jewish sinner can be far worse and far more repulsive than a non-Jew who falls from grace. It can be put in this way. For Halevi, no adherent of another religion can ever be as good as a Jew but, by the same token, none can ever be as bad as a bad Jew.

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


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