HaLevi’s Philosophic Jewel Polished to New Gloss

April 2, 2009

“The Kuzari: In Defense of the Despised Faith” by Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi, translated and annotated by Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin (Feldheim, 2009).

When “King Lear” was presented in the Yiddish Theater, the old joke has it, the sign read “translated and improved.” Well, no one would say that the Kuzari, written in the early 12th century by Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi, needs to be improved, but this new translation and commentary certainly makes one of the most readable classical works of Jewish philosophy even more accessible. With this new translation in hand, we can hope that a new generation of Jews will learn about one of the most remarkable individuals that Judaism has given to the world.

HaLevi was a poet as well as a philosopher. A product of the “Golden Age” of Spanish Jewish culture, he was also witness to the beginning of its decline. HaLevi wrote imperishable verse; his words adorn our prayer books. Some of his verse, in accord with the temper of the times, was secular in tone — poems of love, wedding poems and even drinking songs. HaLevi had a wide circle of friends, including some of the most eminent scholars of the time. He was distinguished by a love for the land of Israel — not an abstract love, but a passionate, unquenchable love. His lines are not only known to us from their intrinsic power (“My heart is in the East/ While I am in the uttermost West”), but because they have been transmuted into some of modern Israel’s most memorable songs (“I am a harp for your songs” — used by Naomi Shemer in “Yerushalayim shel Zahav”). 

HaLevi’s philosophical masterpiece, the Kuzari, is undoubtedly his greatest contribution to Jewish learning. It is a work of philosophy that attacks philosophy, and despite the often-technical arguments and philosophical terminology, it is the lyrical work of a poet, one whose heart is moved by the plight and promise of the Jewish people.

As with many famous works of philosophy, from Plato to Hume, the Kuzari is a dialogue. It is founded on a historical event: the conversion to Judaism by the king of the medieval Khazar Kingdom. There is not much known about the circumstances, but those who are interested can find out what is known from Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin’s lucid essay for his book. (Rabbi Korobkin is spiritual leader of Yavneh Academy and director of community and synagogue services for the West Coast Orthodox Union.) The conversion rippled through the Jewish world. For a minority, to have an entire kingdom choose Judaism was a phenomenal boon. (Rabbi Korobkin does not mention that some modern scholars believe one of the king’s motivations was to keep his land’s balance between Christian and Muslim forces without too radically offending either one! But it seems clear that genuine conviction obtained, and the book capitalizes on that idea.)

HaLevi takes this singular event as his inspiration. The king is visited by a dream in which God tells him that God is pleased with his intentions but not his actions. The king, unable to shake off the dream, decides to explore other avenues of living. In the process he summons a philosopher, a Christian, a Muslim and a Jew to defend their approach to faith.

Without reviewing all the many and interesting facets of the book, we can highlight two arguments in the rabbi’s arsenal. The philosopher proposes a very Aristotelian God. His God is perfect, can neither gain nor lose, be affected by anything, change or even have intentions or will. The God of HaLevi is, as Pascal later glossed it, not the God of the philosophers, but the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. HaLevi’s God begins not with argument but with experience. God is one to whom we can pray, from whom we can derive hope. The philosopher’s God in this recounting is bloodless, abstract. (The rabbi is too polite to point out that the God of the philosopher could not have sent a dream in the first place.)

HaLevi also leads the king to realize that the Muslim and Christian protagonists accept the authority of the Jewish scripture. On that single point, all three agree. So why not place faith in the same source that they do? 

Naturally, these comments just touch the surface of a book meant not merely to be read, but to be studied. All the great religious questions, of revelation, of immortality, or Israel’s history and destiny, here find expression and interpretation. HaLevi himself is a venerated figure who has also endured some disparagement among modern readers. The veneration arises from his actually seeking to journey to the Holy Land, one of very few Jews (and even fewer eminent Jews) who embarked on that perilous journey throughout the Middle Ages and beyond. Whether he arrived at the land of Israel is unclear (there is a legend that he arrived at the Western Wall, where he was trampled to death), but his passionate Zionism was not theoretical. HaLevi lived his words.

The disparagement arises from HaLevi’s positing a different sort of soul for Jews, claiming that Jews alone have souls capable of prophecy. Here elementary historical understanding requires we acknowledge that the words or ideas of all human beings, even the greatest, cannot be divorced from the age in which they live. Those who today argue for the essential difference of the Jewish soul are engaging in what has been called “metaphysical racism” — a practice both foolish and dangerous. But we live more than half a millennium after the author of the Kuzari. Recall that the subtitle of the book is “In Defense of a Despised Faith.” HaLevi was a rare spirit who transcended his time in many ways; to seek out flaws in his theological armor is to show ourselves small without diminishing him.

Rabbi Korobkin does not shrink from examining this question, and readers will benefit from his treatment of it. There are many editions of the Kuzari and numerous books about HaLevi, both from an Orthodox perspective such as Rabbi Korobkin’s, as well as other Jewish and secular perspectives. HaLevi is a major figure; Jews should know his work, his poetry, his passionate defense of our faith. In this beautifully produced, fluidly translated, clearly annotated edition, we have the easiest entrée to HaLevi’s thought. Rabbi Korobkin has honored an extraordinary spirit and done the Jewish world a service with this work.

David Wolpe is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple. His column on books appears frequently in The Journal.

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