Judah Halevi

Judah Halevi
(Yehuda Halevy)
(ca. 1071–ca. 1141)
   Judah Halevi was probably the most celebrated Hebrew poet of the Middle Ages. He was also a philosopher and theologian famous for his Book of the Kuzari in Arabic prose. A Spanish Jew by birth, Halevi planned a pilgrimage to the Holy Land late in his life, probably dying in Egypt without ever seeing Palestine.
   Halevi was born either in the Muslim city of Tudela on the border of Christian Spain, or in Muslim Toledo just before the so-called Reconquest of that city by Christians in 1071. In his youth, Halevi traveled to the various scholarly centers maintained among Andalusian Jews. He formed a close friendship with fellow poet Moses ibn Ezra in Granada, and a friendly exchange of poems between the two has survived. Ultimately, Halevi settled in Christian Toledo, capital of Alfonso VI’s Castile. He worked as a physician in Toledo, apparently under the direct patronage of the king. But when ill-feeling toward the Jews erupted into violence in 1108–09, violence that claimed the life of his close friend Solomon ibn Ferrizuel, Halevi elected to return to Muslim Spain, settling in Córdoba.
   It was here that Halevi wrote what he called his Book of Argument and Proof in Defence of the Despised Faith, which was to become known as The Book of the Kuzari, because it is inspired by the historical conversion of the king of the Kazars to Judaism in the eighth century. Composed as a dialogue between a rabbi and the Kavar king, Halevi’s treatise is the only important Jewish classic presented in the form of a Platonic dialogue. The book was translated from Arabic into Hebrew during the 12th century. Unlike other medieval Jewish philosophers such as MAIMONIDES, Halevi is not interested in reconciling Judaism with Aristotelian philosophy. He is chiefly interested in asserting the superiority of revealed truth to philosophical arguments, though he does employ philosophy to demonstrate the truth of revelation. The God of Abraham, for Halevi, is not the same as the God of Aristotle. His existence is shown through his working in Jewish history, and the Jews therefore are spiritually superior to the rest of humankind, and their prophetic mission is to bring God’s word to the world.
   It was shortly after his completion of the Book of the Kuzari that Halevi made his decision to emigrate. His experiences among Christians and Muslims in Spain and his philosophical explorations of his faith led him to the determination to live in Israel’s promised land. He left Spain in 1140 bound for Egypt. According to legend, Halevi’s literary reputation preceded him to Alexandria, where he was welcomed with great acclamation. Legend says he visited Damascus and Tyre before arriving in Palestine—where an Arab horseman trampled him to death as he recited his poem “Elegy for Zion” before the gates of Jerusalem. Documents recently discovered in Egypt, however, suggest that in fact Halevi died there and never reached Jerusalem. Judah Halevi’s poetry, like that of his friend Moses ibn Ezra, takes many of the forms and conventions of contemporary Spanish Arabic poetry such as meter and rhyme, and adapts them to classical Hebrew verse. Nearly 1,000 extant poems are attributed to Halevi, and they generally fall into three categories: The first is secular poetry, focusing on love or on friendship or sometimes even on wine; a second category is religious poetry, characterized by an intense love of God; and the third is national poetry, closely related to his religious poetry since for him the nation is the locus of God’s interaction in the history of his people. One of his poems, editorially entitled “To Israel, in exile,” demonstrates this, using the voice of God speaking to his people:
   O sleeper, whose heart is awake, burning
   and raging, now wake
   and go forth, and walk in the light of My
   presence. . . . Let them not
   exalt, those who sayZion is desolate!for
   My heart is in Zion and
   My eyes are there. I reveal Myself and I
   conceal Myself, now I
   rage, now I consentbut who has more
   compassion than I have
   for My children?
   (Carmi 1981, 334–335)
   It is only in Zion that the Jew can be completely united with God. Halevi’s “Songs of Zion” are his best-known poems, and his realization of the theme of passionate love and longing for the Holy Land is the most effective since the Psalms themselves.
   ■ Carmi, T. The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1981.
   ■ Silman, Yochanan. Philosopher and Prophet: Judah Halevi, the Kuzari, and the Evolution of His Thought. Translated by Lenn F. Schramm. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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