Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash
Yeshivat Har Etzion
Shiur #1: Rabbi Yehuda Halevi and the Kuzari
THE LIFE OF RABBI YEHUDA HALEVI
ben Shemuel Halevi was born in 1075 (and not in 1085, as is often claimed) in
Toledo, Spain. Shortly before he
was born, Spain was conquered by the kingdom of Castile, and gradually passed
over from Arab-Islamic control and culture to Christian control and
culture. R. Halevi received a broad
education in Scripture, Talmud, Arabic poetry and philosophy. He was even slightly influenced by
Christian Castilian culture, and was familiar with the popular Andalusian
While still a
young man, R. Halevi uprooted himself and moved to the Torah center in the south
of Spain, where he studied with R. Yitzchak Alfasi and befriended R. Yitzchak
ibn Migash. His talent as a poet
drew him into the intellectual circles that combined Torah and high office. In one such gathering, he won a
competition for his mimicking the poetry of Moshe ibn Ezra; in the wake of this
success, he grew closer to Moshe ibn Ezra and moved to Granada. R. Halevi studied medicine, which
provided him with both a livelihood and inspiration. He married and had one daughter (who,
according to legend, married R. Avraham ibn Ezra).
On the one
hand, R. Halevi was familiar with the "good life," which finds expression in his
poems about love, wine, desire, and friendship. On the other hand, he saw the misfortune
of his people, who suffered under the yoke of Christianity and Islam – the
Crusades and Arab persecution. This
found expression in R. Halevi's nationalistic poetry about his people and about
Toward the end
of his life, R. Halevi was overcome by sadness, which found expression in his
consciousness of sin (sparked, perhaps, by the life of luxury that he had
enjoyed in his early years) and his aspiration to devote himself to "purity of
the soul and thought." His yearnings for Zion, which brought him to write his
many odes to Zion (including the celebrated "Tzion halo tish'ali"), did
not give him rest. He therefore
decided to leave his daughter (his wife had already died), his grandson and all
his wealth and move to Eretz Israel.
journey to Eretz Yisrael left us with many sea-related poems. He made many stops along the way; in
every community that he visited, he was received with great honor and swamped
with repeated requests to stay. The
last stop of which we have firm knowledge was in Fostat, near Cairo. R. Halevi appears to have set out from
there for Eretz Israel, though it is unclear whether or not he ever
reached his final destination.
Legend relates that when he nestled against the stones of Eretz
Israel and proclaimed his lamentation, "Tzion halo tish'ali," he was
trampled by an Arab horseman (Gedaliya ibn Yachya, Shalshelet
ha-Kabbala). Other traditions
report that R. Halevi's grave is found in Kavul in the Lower Galilee, near the
grave of R. Avraham ibn Ezra (Avraham Zakut, Iggeret Yuchasei Avot and
literary output was exceedingly great.
Close to one thousand of R. Halevi's poems and piyyutim have
survived (although not in a single collection), as well as a number of
letters. In the realm of Jewish
thought, we have the Kuzari, which is highly original in its
anti-rationalist approach, as we shall see below.
begin to deal with the book itself, several general comments are necessary.
readily available translation of the Kuzari is that by Hartwig Hirschfeld
(NY, 1905). It is available online
and here (http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Kitab_al_Khazari). Since this translation is in the public
domain, we will use it here, with occasional modifications. Note that, like many prominent Jewish
thinkers both before and after him (such as R. Sa'adya Gaon and Maimonides), R. Halevi
composed his philosophical work in Arabic, the language spoken by most Sefaradic
Jews of his time.
will not follow the order of the book, but will instead be arranged
topically. Anyone who has time is
strongly advised to read through the book in order.
will contain many citations from the Kuzari, and it is suggested that one
open the book and see the passage in its context, something that will not always
be done in the lectures themselves.
When I base
remarks in one lecture upon ideas that were developed in an earlier lecture, I
will try to include a reference to the lecture in question.
In my opinion,
the Kuzari is one of the most important works in the history of Jewish
thought, and although close to a thousand years have passed since its
composition, it is still very relevant in many areas. Over the course of these lectures,
beyond the study of the book itself, I will try to comment on its contemporary
KUZARI'S NARRATIVE AND ITS DIALOGUE MEHTOD
that is related in the Kuzari is based on a story that reached Spain in
the tenth century, many years after it purportedly took place (approximately in
the eighth century). The Khazar
people lived on the shores of the Caspian Sea. The story revolves around a king who
dreamt the same dream as his general, a dispute between the representatives of
Byzantium and Arabia who tried to convert the king to Christianity or to Islam,
respectively, the confession secretly made by each of them (the Christian and
the Moslem) about Judaism's superiority over the faith of his disputant, and the
mass conversion of the Khazar kingdom to Judaism.
In his book,
R. Halevi contends with the claims of Christianity, Islam, and philosophy, his
historical circumstances having placed him at the intersection where
Christianity and Islam met, with Greek philosophy lurking all the while in the
form that R. Halevi utilizes in the Kuzari, whereby an author presents
his teachings in the framework of a discussion between two or more characters,
and where he puts questions and answers into the mouths of the parties to the
discussion, is not new. Many
centuries earlier, Plato had written a large number of dialogues through which
he presented his views on a broad array of philosophical issues.
discussion of Plato's Dialogues, Alexander Kore mentions one of the
reasons for using this literary form:
dialogue, at least the true dialogue, like the Socratic dialogue of Plato, the
dialogue as a living literary form, and not merely as a means of expressing
ideas… is a dramatic work… What emerges from this is that in every dialogue, in
addition to the two actors who are clearly evident - the two characters who
conduct the dialogue - there is a third actor, hidden from the eye, whose
presence is no less critical: the reader, the hearer. (Aplaton Ki-feshuto, Tel Aviv
1979, pp. 22-23)
It seems to me that this goal of drawing the reader into the story and
involving him in the discussion was one of R. Halevi's primary objectives when
he adopted this form. He had two
main reasons for doing this.
dialogue found in the Kuzari reflects the real circumstances of the
author's time. The full title of
the work commonly known as the Kuzari is "The Book of Arguments and
Proofs in Defense of the Despised Religion." And indeed, the period during which
the Kuzari was written was a period during which the other religions –
and especially philosophy – were seen as more universal, more relevant, and most
importantly, more respectable than Judaism; they also appeared to provide better
answers to theological problems.
Thus writes Yehuda Even Shemuel in the introduction to his contemporary
Hebrew translation of the book:
dazzling new philosophy of this period – the period of Avicenna and Al-Ghazali –
attracted the hearts [of Jews] more than all the words of the Prophets and the
dicta of the Sages; the historical consciousness of the people of Israel as "the
nation of God" had dimmed in their hearts; the people's connection to hopes of
redemption had weakened – and while few of the masses had been drawn after the
philosophers, confusion has been cast into their hearts.
The literary form of dialogue used in the Kuzari well reflects
this reality. The book was not
written in a vacuum or in laboratory conditions. We are dealing with a period that was
rich in dialogue and discussion, at times even aggressive disputes, between the
various religions. The questions
and challenges issuing forth from the mouth of the Khazar king to the Jewish
Rabbi are not theoretical, theological matters, but rather issues with
which Jews – the book's intended audience – were familiar. The dialogue form gives the reader the
feeling that the book is addressed specifically to him, and that the real-life
dispute that he himself had witnessed just a day before is the very same dispute
found in the book between the king and the Rabbi.
The second reason R. Halevi used the dialogue form was because it suited
the main message of his work. R.
Halevi's point of departure is not rational ideas, but rather tradition, the
living encounter that cannot be denied.
R. Halevi tries to convince the reader - who has been blinded by the
flashy pretentiousness of philosophy that purports to put forward "absolute
truths" - that he will not reach faith and trust by a purely rational process,
but rather through a living encounter with a living tradition, which provides
immeasurably stronger testimony and proof than any logical argument. The Rabbi presents his faith in the God
of Avraham who took Israel out of Egypt, rather than in the God of Adam who
created the world. With respect to
the creation of the world, one can only talk about logical arguments and
rational persuasion, but with regard to the exodus from Egypt there is living
testimony that has been passed down from generation to generation. In order to connect with the exodus from
Egypt, the foundation of the Jewish faith, I must go to my grandfather, rather
than to the library.
literary method, in addition to other aspects of the work, is amazingly well
suited for this approach. The
reader of the Kuzari encounters not only an idea, but a person with whom
to identify, whose outlook on the world is interwoven into the dialogues. At the climax of the discussion, in the
middle of the book, one character converts to Judaism, and at the end of the
book another character moves to Eretz Israel. These would seem to be extraneous
details that are irrelevant and unnecessary for the philosophical discussion,
but they are indeed necessary if the author wishes to attract not only to the
reader's intellect, but his heart as well.
CONVERSION OF THE KING OF THE KHAZARS
The book's narrative brings all the questions regarding the Jewish faith
in the context of the Khazar king's search for the true religion. From the very outset, it is clear that
the king – in the wake of his dream, which we shall discuss below - is looking
for the correct path that he himself should follow.
been satisfied with the answers provided by the Christian and the Moslem, the
king turns to the Rabbi and begins a series of questions. The discussion of these questions
continues until the end of the fifth section of the book, and logic would
dictate that only at the end of this discussion, after he receives satisfying
answers, would the king choose and adopt the path of Judaism. R. Halevi, however, chooses to have the
king convert at the end of the first section.
It turns out,
then, that the dialogue in the last four sections of the book is not between a
Jew and a non-Jew who raises objections and attacks from without, but rather
between two Jews – "within the family." One of them is only at the beginning of
his journey, but he is a Jew, and he now "comes to study the Torah and the books
of the Prophets" (II, 1).
If we assume
that the narrative that accompanies the ideas is not arbitrary and that there is
significance to the fact that the king converts at the beginning of the second
section, it behooves us to try and understand what R. Halevi had in mind when he
structured the narrative as he did.
It seems that we may proceed in one of two directions.
The first possibility is that R. Halevi distinguishes between a) topics
of discussion that are acute and decisive for a person choosing his path in life
and religion, and b) topics that are important in shaping and developing a
religious decision, but are not critically necessary in order to come to such a
decision. The first section of the
Kuzari deals with issues that are critical when coming to choose one's
religion; when the king is satisfied with the answers he received, he chooses to
convert. He is then free to raise
important questions in order to know, understand, and apply the true religion,
but these questions had no impact on his previous decision.
is difficult to accept; while it is true that the first section deals with
fundamental questions, most of the issues discussed therein come up again in
later sections of the book. It
seems, then, that the aforementioned distinction will not stand up to a textual
The second possibility is that R. Halevi wants to distinguish not between
issues but between perspectives.
R. Halevi wishes to
emphasize for his readers that these questions are legitimate not only for those
who attack Judaism from without, but also for those who are found within the
fold. A Jew's asking these
questions does not place him beyond the pale. These questions might set him back to
the starting point, but his questions are still legitimate and acceptable, just
as the Khazar king continues to ask questions precisely out of a desire to draw
near even when he has already decided that he is part of the family.
It seems to me
that this last point is also connected to what was said above. R. Sa'adya Ga'on wrote a book, Emunot
ve-De'ot, with the same objective as R. Halevi, namely, to defend the
despised and attacked religion. R.
Sa'adya tries as much as possible to provide the work with an air of
objectivity; any thinking person making proper use of his rational faculties
will reach the same truths as he does.
The power of R. Sa'adya's book, according to the author himself, lies in
its "universal" nature. R. Sa'adya
attempts to prove the true religion from a universal perspective, and his book
is therefore written in the way that it is.
This is not
the case with R. Halevi. We
encounter the Rabbi in the first section of the book; the person who defends the
despised religion is a Jew, who cannot be objective – he is prejudiced and an
interested party. However, R.
Halevi does not try to draw his strength from objectivity. He tries to create in the reader
identification and to stir up his religious and nationalistic sentiments. These sentiments grow stronger and
stronger from paragraph to paragraph and from section to section, as the king of
the Khazars' empathy for the Rabbi grows to the point that he adopts his
religion. The dialogue deepens
between the two Jews – one newly converted, the other a Jew from birth – until
we reach the Rabbi's move to Eretz Israel; in parallel, the reader's
sense of being at home grows, and all his lost feelings return to him. He feels pride, identification, and
faith in the righteousness of his path, and suddenly he finds in himself
everything that the Rabbi and the Khazar king embody.
Once again, R.
Halevi prefers the unmediated human encounter with an authoritative figure who
can provide the reader with a sense of certitude and trust over the rational
process that is filled with uncertainty.
The beginning of the story, the "trigger" that brings the Khazar king to
ask his questions and begin his search, also teaches us about R. Halevi's
begins with the king having a recurring dream of an angel appearing to him and
telling him, "Your intentions are pleasing to the Creator, but not your deeds"…
But despite all he did to observe the rituals [of the Khazar religion], the
angel would appear to him night after night and say to him, "Your intentions are
pleasing, but not your deeds." This prompted the king to explore and investigate
different beliefs and religions.
Finally the king converted to Judaism together with many other
Khazars. (I, introduction)
All because of
a recurring dream, the king will ultimately abandon his own religion, turn to a
different one, and bring his people to adopt that religion.
Even a person who is religiously devout and a mighty ruler can be troubled by a
little dream that denies him rest.
Many tend to
understand R. Halevi's use of a dream as part of his shifting of the focus from
the intellect to the experience. It
seems to me, however, that this is not the case. When R. Halevi speaks of tradition and
of the revelation at Mount Sinai, he does not focus on the emotional aspect of
the experience, but on the fact that it contains more logical certainty that any
other logical process. R. Halevi is
not an existentialist; he rather speaks of experience, tradition, and encounter
as certainties – certainties that parallel intellectual proof, but are stronger
than any logical process, in which one can always find some failing.
It seems to me
that this is the way to understand the dream. Chazal have already asserted: "A
dream is one-sixtieth of prophecy" (Berakhot 57b). The angel turns to the king and says to
him in the name of God: "Your intentions are pleasing to the Creator, but not
your deeds." And from that very moment, nothing will set the Khazar king at
ease. No logical persuasion will
undermine the certainty of his encounter with God that outlined for him the
direction that he must follow.
king's doubts did not begin with intellectual analysis, which in these areas,
according to R. Halevi, is highly dubious, but rather with the certainty of his
encounter. Already here R. Halevi
alludes to what he has to offer us in the name of Judaism.
Judaism is not
just another philosophical teaching, but rather the certainty of encounter. The response to the Khazar king's
encounter with God that undermined his world is another encounter with God – the
exodus from Egypt, the revelation at Mount Sinai, the holy spirit, and
prophecy. These are the key
concepts that run through the entire teaching of Judaism, according to R.
Halevi, and they provide a fitting answer to the Khazar king's distress.
A second point
of importance is the content of the dream: "Your intentions are pleasing to the
Creator, but not your deeds." Here, too, R. Halevi lays the foundations for the
polemic that he will conduct with the philosophers. One of the striking differences between
philosophy and Judaism is the importance that Judaism attaches to human action,
as opposed to the scorn with which philosophy relates to it. Thus says the philosopher to the king of
you have reached such disposition of belief, be not concerned about the specific
set of rituals with which you worship God, or how you offer prayer or praise, or
which words or language or actions you employ. If you wish, you could even fabricate
your own religion, for worship and praise and correcting your traits… Or fashion
your religion according to the laws of reason set up by philosophers, and strive
after purity of soul… (I, 1)
The Khazar king agrees that the philosophical idea is logical and
beautiful, but it does not relieve his distress, as he says to the
words are convincing, yet they do not correspond to what I wish to find. I know already that my soul is pure and
that my entire desire is to gain the favor of God. But nonetheless I was told that my deeds
are not pleasing, though my intentions are. There must no doubt be a way of acting
that is intrinsically pleasing, and not just through the intentions attached to
them. (I, 2)
All this constitutes the background for Judaism's outlook, as explained
by R. Halevi, which attaches great importance to action. It is in action and in the fulfillment
of the mitzvot that one finds the embodiment of religious service. This itself, as R. Halevi calls it, is
"the root of faith and the root of heresy" (I, 77). The Khazar king himself understands
After what you have said,
I should not think so. Only
according to the philosophers can one be pious without deciding how to draw near
to God: through Judaism, through Christianity, or through some other religion,
or through a religion that he fabricates for himself. But with this outlook, we are relying on
reasoning, speculation and dialectics.
According to this everyone might endeavor to belong to a creed dictated
by his own speculation, a thing which would be absurd. (II, 49)
We noted above that the king converts to Judaism already at the end of
the first section, but the problem of the dream that triggered the entire
discussion is only resolved at the end of the book in the final exchange:
Khazar king: Since you believe in everything that you have said, God already
knows your inner feelings, for everything is revealed to Him, and He knows all
Rabbi: This is only true when one is prevented from acting. But man is [generally] free both in the
realm of will and in the realm of action.
One can therefore argue against one who seeks visible reward without
visible action. Thus it says: "You
shall blow the trumpets and you shall be remembered before the Lord your God…
and they shall act as a reminder of you" (Bamidbar 10:9-10)… [And it
says:] "A remembering of blowing" (Vayikra 23:24). This does not mean that God needs a
reminder or rousing; however, one's actions require perfection, in order to be
worthy of reward. In a similar
vein, in order for one's prayers to be accepted, they must be expressed verbally
in the form of supplication and request, both the intention and the action
complete. It seems to people,
however, as if the blowing of the trumpets involves reminding – and the Torah
spoke in the language of man. If,
however, the action lacks the proper intention, or if the intention is not
accompanied by the proper action, there is no hope for reward. Only when action is impossible, is there
small benefit if a person confesses his intention and apologizes to God for his
inability to act… (V, 26-27)
innocent question of the Khazar king reveals itself as being entirely
non-innocent when we recall his initial dream. On the level of narrative, the king's
query may be seen as a "trick question." The king already converted to Judaism,
he was convinced that the Jewish religion is the true religion, but his dream
continues to trouble him. Did this
spiritual quest only reveal to him the true path, or did it perhaps also resolve
his personal distress? The answer to this question will now be given by the
Rabbi when he answers the king's question: Does mere intention
does not disappoint us: "If, however, the action lacks the proper intention,
or if the intention is not accompanied by the proper action, there is no hope
for reward." Indeed the God of Israel
demands of man not only intention but action as well.
It seems to me
that it is not only R. Halevi's literary and artistic sense that brings him to
conclude his book precisely on this point, thus closing the circle and
connecting the end of the book with its beginning. The central point through which R.
Halevi chooses to present the faith of the Jews and their commitment to that
faith is the certainty of revelation.
This revelation, according to R. Halevi, is so real on the historic level
that it weakens the connection of converts – those who were not partners to this
revelation – to Judaism. We shall
deal with this issue later in the course.
final words about the God of Israel provide the Khazar king with an answer about
how to deal with his dream, but they also provide him with solid proof that the
God whose angel appeared to him in a nocturnal dream was the God of Avraham, and
not the god of Aristotle, for only the God of Israel desires not only intention
but action as well.
point on, the Khazar king is a partner to the God of Israel's revelation to His
people. His faith springs not only
from, and perhaps not primarily from, logical persuasion, something that the
Rabbi speaks about throughout the book, but rather from his commitment to the
certitude that grew out of the living and unmediated encounter with the God of
Israel in that very dream.
Only now, at
the end of the book, does the true role of the dream become apparent. It serves not only to stimulate the
Khazar king to search and investigate, but it is also the backdrop and
foundation of the unmediated revelation of the new faith of the Khazar king –
the faith in "the God of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, who brought the children
of Israel out of Egypt with signs and wonders."
(Translated by David Strauss)