By Hillel Halkin
Nextbook Schocken, (2010), 353 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - April 2, 2010
The twelfth century Spanish poet Yehuda Halevi was well-respected during his lifetime, but is better known today for his poetical defense of Judaism called The Kuzari, a book that is admired by so many Jews that numerous rabbis give classes and lectures on it, as if it is a holy book. Unfortunately, neither these rabbis nor their congregants delve deeply enough into the volume to understand it, as Halkin does.
Hillel Halkin, an expert on Hebrew literature, is an excellent choice to write about Halevi. Halkin states that very little is known about Halevi's personal life, including when he was born and died, who he married and about his children. The noun "Halevi" was not his name; it was applied to all Jews who are Levites, putative descendant of Jacob's son Levi, and means "The Levite." Virtually all that is known about him is drawn from brief often somewhat obscure personal references contained in his poems and some letters, including letters found in 1896 in the Cairo Genizah in Egypt. We know that he was not only a successful poet, but also a physician with a medical practice; but he wrote that he did not like being a doctor and felt that he was not good at it.
Halkin spends most of his book discussing Halevi's poetry. He gives many examples of Halevi's non-religious poems on wine, women, and song (such as, "O swear by Love that you remember days of embraces / As I remember nights crammed with your kisses"), his religious poems, and his poems about Israel, including his famous poem, whose opening words Halkin translates as, "My heart in the east, but the rest of me far in the west." The well-known line of the famous Israeli song of the 1967 war "Jerusalem of gold, of copper, and of light, / To all your songs I am a lute" was taken from Halevi's "Zion! Do You Wonder?" Halkin analyses many of the poems and shows how they are constructed. Readers will learn much about poetry from these discussions.
Halkin also writes about Spain during Halevi's lifetime, and this will interest people who want to know about this unusual, often turbulent period of Jewish history, the time and place when and where Judaism's greatest philosopher Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) was born.
But, Halevi's present-day renown is based on his Kuzari, a fictional account of a rabbi explaining Judaism to a non-Jewish Kuzar king. Halevi subtitled his Kuzari "The Book of Proof and Demonstration in Defense of the Despised Faith." Like his negative opinion about his medical practice, Halevi repudiated his Kuzari in a letter as "foolishness." Halkin suggests that Halevi may have been referring to an early version of this classic, but this is by no means certain because many of the ideas that Halevi offers his readers are difficult if not impossible to accept.
Halevi argues in a circular fashion, for example, that Judaism is not based on faith but on historical experience. We know, he insists, that there were six hundred thousand Israelites at Sinai because the Bible tells us so – and we know that the Bible is telling us the truth because six hundred thousand Israelites could not have been wrong. Halkin comments, "Wasn't Halevi aware, one wonders, of the faultiness of such logic? How could it have failed to occur to him that the biblical account of Sinai…might have been written long after the supposed events took place and been imagined, not by a multitude of Israelites, but by a small number of biblical authors?"
Halevi "proves" that free will exists by arguing that we know it exists because we feel that it exists. Halkin states that this "approach is disappointingly naïve."
But his most radical and outrageous notion, an idea never previously presented by anyone, is that Jews are biologically superior to non-Jews. Non-Jews, he insists, are incapable of fully developing spiritually, even converts to Judaism cannot develop because their biology remains unchanged. Thus, no non-Jew can become a prophet.
Halevi took an extremely conservative approach to the divine commandments. Whereas Moses Maimonides, for example, explained that all of the Torah's commands are rational, Halevi insisted that humans are incapable of understanding the divine commandments and they must be obeyed simply because God said so.
The Kuzari contains curious discrepancies, For example, Halevi rails against philosophy as being harmful to Judaism, yet he goes to great length to attempt to prove that an ancient Jewish book that he respected Sefer ha-Yetsirah is a philosophical book. Halkin suggests that Halevi extolled philosophy in an early version of the Kuzari, changed his mind, and forgot to edit this part of his volume.
Probably the only redeeming factor in the Kuzari is Halevi's argument that Jews should stop waiting for God to restore Israel to the Jewish people; Jews should take matters into their own hands.
Harkin compares Halevi's Kuzari to Maimonides' rational Guide of the Perplexed. "The reader attracted to Maimonides will find The Kuzari irrational in its assumptions, careless in its logic, dismissive of scientific thinking, presumptuously ethnocentric."
In short, this is an excellent presentation of Halevi's poetry and his radical ideas about Judaism.