In Defense of the Despised Faith
By Yehudah Halevi
Feldheim Publishers, 2009, 724 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - August 4, 2009
Yehudah Halevi (1071-1141) was the foremost exponent of the reprehensible notion that Jews are the chosen people. He was a Spanish Jewish poet who composed a book on Jewish theology that has captured the attention of Jews more than any other volume on Jewish theology or philosophy. The book is taught in a host of synagogues, with weekly lectures covering most of its five parts. Feldheim has now issued a beautiful new edition.
Halevi explains the book's purpose at the outset of the volume. "I was asked to state what arguments and replies I could bring to bear against the attacks of philosophers of other religions, and also against [Jewish] sectarians who attacked the rest of Israel."
This opening sentence captures the volume's polemical tone. The book lacks a rational system of philosophy. It is an apologetic theology arguing for the supremacy of the Jewish people. However, Halevi's notion of Jewish supremacy is problematical.
Halevi: Jews are superior because of their biological and spiritual nature
Halevi's The Kuzari imagines that the king of the Kuzars decided to adopt a religion, planning to choose between Judaism, Christianity, Islam and philosophy. He invited a representative of each of the four groups and discussed their views with them. Needless to say, the king decided that he and the nation of Kuzar would convert to Judaism.
Halevi argues that Jews are naturally unique, genetically superior, with a perfected religious faculty incorporated in their soul. This faculty is activated when Jews observe Jewish rituals, and the faculty makes it possible for Jews, and only Jews, to come into contact with God. Non-Jews, lacking divine contact, are subject to the hazardous and brutal risks of the laws of nature.
The following are his words:
If the law were binding on us only because God created us [and if it would be available to all], the white and the black man would be equal, since he created them all. But the law was given to us [Jews] because He led us out of Egypt, and remained attached to us, because we are the pick of mankind.
When the Israelites left Egypt they were all descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – there were no strangers among them.
It should be noted that this Halevi claim is negated by the Bible itself, which states that the Israelites were accompanied by a "mixed multitude" when they left Egypt.
Halevi went further with his theory of discrimination. The following exchange between the king and the rabbi seems to compare non-Jews to animals:
King: Would it not have been better or more commensurate with divine wisdom if all mankind had been guided in the true path?
Rabbi: [By this reasoning] would it not have been best for all animals to have been reasonable beings?
Because Jews are genetically superior – because of their different, more elevated body and soul - even a person who converts to Judaism cannot reach the levels of Halevi's Jew.
Those, however, who become Jews [but are not born Jews] do not take equal rank with born Israelites, who are specially privileged to attain prophecy, whilst the former [the proselyte] can only achieve something by learning from them, and can only become pious and learned, but never prophets.
Yehudah Halevi, in short, holds the extreme view that Jews are inherently superior to non-Jews. He insists that Jews are the only people that God loves; God gives Jews special attention and even unearned assistance. Only Jews receive prophecy, which is a unique and valuable gift from God, expressing his love for the Jews. Jews are smarter and more virtuous; they, and only they, with perhaps a few exceptions, are granted life after death. In his The Kuzari 1:27, he writes: "Any gentile who joins us [as proselytes] unconditionally shares our good fortune, without, however, being quite equal to us."
Thus, to illustrate Halevi's view of non-Jewish converts to Judaism: one cannot convert a camel into a sheep by a conversion process of immersion and circumcision. One is left with a clean and circumcised camel, but it is not a sheep.
The Biblical View
The Bible seems to confirm Halevi's position that Jews are chosen by God for special loving treatment. Deuteronomy 7:6, for example, assures the Jew that, "you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God: of all the people on earth the Lord your God chose you to be His treasured people." Deuteronomy 7:7–8 reports God stating that He chose the Israelites "because the Lord loved you."
Yet appearances are deceiving. There are at least three problems with this interpretation of these and similar verses. First, while it is true that God chose and loves the Israelites, He chose/created and loves all that He created. The prophet Amos teaches this important lesson. In 9:7, he quotes God as saying that He loves and gives special attention to all nations: "Are you not like the children of the Ethiopians to Me, O children of Israel? Have I not brought up Israel out of the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor, and Aram from Kir?" All nations are chosen and have a divine mission and responsibility.
Second, this idea of God showing love to a people, whether Jew or non-Jew, is contingent upon the people obeying the law. It is part of a reciprocal covenantal relationship.
The love and caring assurances God makes to people can be compared to husbands and wives saying to each other, "I love you." These expressions of love do not require the spouse who is speaking to add, "on the condition that you act properly to me." This reciprocal love is understood. A one-sided relationship cannot exist. The relationship is severed when one party neglects the other.
This is the message that the biblical book of Judges constantly repeats. God says to the Israelites: I promised that I would protect you; however, this is conditional on you not abandoning Me and worshipping idols and on you not mixing with the Canaanites. You, God continues, breached your part of the relationship, so I am abandoning you.
This can also be seen in Genesis 18:19 where God attaches an element of responsibility to the selection of Abraham. God says of the patriarch, "For I singled him out that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right."
This anti-Halevi understanding that all people are chosen by God for a reciprocal relationship teaches that no human being should sit passively and arrogantly bask in the love of God. Nor should they act like Hitler and consider people unlike them as Untermenschen. People have a responsibility in this God-human relationship to act in a positive loving manner to all that God created.
The third problem with the Halevi concept of being uniquely chosen is that the Torah itself gives repeated examples showing how dangerous such a misconception is. Cain saw Abel's sacrifice being accepted by God, thought he was chosen, and killed him. Esau sought to kill Jacob because Rebecca chose him for Isaac's blessing. Joseph's brothers attempted to kill him because their father chose him with special love and gifts.
A Statement in the Talmud
Second-century rabbis identify single scriptural commands that they consider to be the essence of Judaism. Rabbi Akiva suggests, "Love thy neighbor as thy self." Ben Zoma, encouraging respect for all humanity and emphasizing that no people is more chosen than another, states that the fundamental teaching of the Torah is at the outset of the Torah: God created all people in His image.
The View of Maimonides
Ben Zoma's teaching is also the teaching of Maimonides (1138-1204). He bases his entire philosophy on his recognition that all humans are divinely-created creatures and inherently the same. He begins his philosophical work Guide of the Perplexed, in chapter 1, by telling his readers, as did Ben Zoma, that the Bible instructs us that humans, not only Jews, were created in the tzelem Elohim, "the image of God," (Genesis 1:27); all were created in God's image with the potential to develop themselves.
Thus, in short, the new edition of The Kuzari is welcome because the book is a classic; however, readers need to know that the theology of Yehudah Halevi is wrong. All people deserve respect.