On May 7, in the year 1141, the Hispano-Hebrew poet Yehuda Halevi boarded a ship belonging to the sultan of Mahdiyya, bound for Palestine from the port of Alexandria. He was one of the most admired Jewish writers of his age – a poet, a philosopher, and at around seventy years old, no longer a young man. Yet he had left behind his family in Córdoba, his friends in Egypt and his life of respect and responsibility, and had set sail for a place where life would be hard, lonely, and dangerous. What happened to him next, nobody knows.
According to an apocryphal tale published in Venice more than four centuries later, Halevi reached Palestine and made his way to the gates of Jerusalem. There, he tore his clothes in mourning for the destruction of the Temple, whereupon “an Arab horseman stricken with envy of his religious passion charged at him and trampled him to death.” The story is probably false, or at least exaggerated, but according to modern historians, Halevi did reach Palestine, thus fulfilling his last and most ardent wish. As he had written some time earlier, in what is perhaps his most famous poem,
My heart in the East
But the rest of me far in the West –
How can I savor this life, even taste what I eat?
How, in the chains of the Moor,
Zion bound to the Cross,
Can I do what I’ve vowed to and must?
Yet gladly I’d leave
All the best of grand Spain
For one glimpse of Jerusalem’s dust.
The exact year of this poem’s composition is unknown. But as Hillel Halkin writes in his elegant and erudite biography of Halevi, the appropriately titled Yehuda Halevi, it was clearly a declaration of the author’s final intent: “the last moment of equipoise in a man tensing his muscles to jump and to take Jewish history with him.”
Halevi’s journey to Palestine, along with his writings extolling the holiness of the land of Israel, have caused him to be taken as a proto-Zionist thinker, and his works still inspire Israel’s modern-day National Religious movement. This is not wrong, but as Halkin is quick to point out, neither is it entirely just. While he acknowledges the political implications and historical influences of Halevi’s thought, Halkin is not willing to let a medieval poet – and magnificent one, at that – be co-opted as a contemporary political propagandist. Indeed, for centuries Halevi has been one of the most beloved literary figures in Jewish history – Ein Liebling aller Meschen, or “everyone’s darling,” as Heinrich Heine put it. Like most cultured Jews of his day, Halevi was religious, but not a zealot. His poetry – offered by Halkin in beautiful translations – expresses yearning for God and for Israel, but it also celebrates friendship, laments lost love, and mourns the untimely deaths of his children. In Halkin’s hands Halevi regains this sense of living warmth, and his life – beset by more than its fair share of tragedy – seems near at hand, despite the passage of almost nine hundred years.
Halevi was most likely born between 1070 and 1075 in the city of Tudela, located in the northern, Christian half of Spain. While still in his adolescence, Halevi left home for the more cultured, Muslim-ruled south, setting down in the city of Granada at the behest of Moshe ibn Ezra, the leading Hebrew poet of the day. For a time Halevi flourished under the older writer’s mentorship, but only a few years after his arrival the invasion of the Moroccan Almoravids forced many of the city’s Jews into exile. Halevi repaired back north to Toledo, where he reluctantly sought a living as a physician for more than two decades. In 1130 he moved south once again, settling in Córdoba. It was there that he wrote his great philosophical work, The Kuzari, before departing for Egypt, and eventually, Palestine.
Though these are the bare facts of Halevi’s life, they provide no real knowledge of the man. But there is much to be gleaned from Halevi’s work, and Halkin manages to extract autobiographical nuggets embedded in several remarkable poems. While these inferences are speculative, they are, on the whole, convincing. One of the earliest such pieces is addressed to a former lover. “It constitutes a major enigma,” Halkin writes, “for the same poet who showed relatively little interest in love poetry has left us its greatest exemplar, not only for his own age, or even from the Hispano-Hebrew period as a whole, but in all of post-biblical Hebrew literature.” It reads, in part:
God knows if there’s a heart caged in these ribs
Or it has fled to join you in your journeys.
O swear by Love that you remember days of embraces
As I remember nights crammed with your kisses,
And that, as through my dreams your likeness passes,
So does mine through yours!
Between us lies a sea of tears I cannot cross,
Yet should you but approach its moaning waves,
They’d part beneath your steps,
And if, though dead, I heard the golden bells
Making music on your skirt, or your voice asking how I was,
I’d send my love to you from the grave’s depths.
The notes of anguish sounded in these lines certainly support Halkin’s proposition that they were directed to Halevi’s own lover. “These are the words of a man who knows what it is like to sit by an open window, waiting for a sound that never comes. They are different from anything else that Halevi ever wrote,” Halkin observes. Who this woman was, however, is completely unknown.
Aside from Halevi’s own writing, Halkin relies on the larger Jewish history of 11th and 12th century Spain – a period whose great production of Hebrew literature has caused it to be termed the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry. While Jewish writers worked in many genres, they were particularly prolific poets. Hebrew verse, which had changed little since the time of the Bible, took radical steps forward by adopting the forms and subjects of Arabic poetry. Previously taboo topics such as “the pleasures of drink; the love of women; male friendship; the splendors of nature; the trials and vicissitudes of time; travel, wandering, and separation; even the gore and glory of war,” quickly became the norm. “Never before in post-biblical times,” Halkin writes, “had Hebrew reached out to embrace the totality of human experience in this way.”
In part, this cultural outpouring was a result of a period of tolerance between Christians, Muslims and Jews that has become known as the convivencia. But Halkin is quick to debunk the supposed integration of different groups within Medieval Spain, arguing that all three religions kept mainly to themselves. He also protests the romantic portrayal of the age as an uninterrupted string of wine parties and poetry contests. In 1066, a few years prior to Halevi’s birth, three thousand Jews were massacred in Granada and in 1146 the Golden Age came crashing to its end with the invasion of the North African Almohads. On a visit to Córdoba, Halkin describes a statue of Maimonides, who was born eight years after Halevi arrived in the city. “The tourist would never guess that in 1148, when Maimonides was ten years old, he and his family had enjoyed the privilege of fleeing from Córdoba, and soon after from Spain, as a new wave of Islamic intolerance swept in from North Africa,” he acidly remarks.
It was circumstances such as these, Halkin contends, that gave rise to many of the views espoused by Halevi in The Kuzari. The book takes the form of a dialogue between an unnamed rabbi and the king of the Khazars, a Turkic people of the northern Caucasus who converted to Judaism in the eighth century. At the beginning of the book, the king has a dream in which an angel tells him that while his intentions are good, his actions are not. Seeking answers, the king turns to a Christian, a Muslim and a philosopher. When none of their responses satisfy him, he summons a rabbi, who proceeds to offer a defense of Judaism based on its presumably unbroken tradition reaching back to the revelation at Sinai – a line of reasoning still in vogue amongst religious apologists today.
It is not this idea, however, that rankles Halevi’s critics. Rather, it is his insistence on the holiness of the Jewish people, who he puts on an ontological rung of their own, as well as on the intrinsic holiness of the land of Israel. The former claim has been characterized as racist chauvinism – “religious faith and national arrogance fused,” as the left-wing religious philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz put it. While Halkin does not seek to justify Halevi’s views (indeed, it would be absurd for a thinker of his sophistication to do so), he does defend the poet based on his historical context. “The ‘despised faith’ was at a nadir,” he writes. “By making the Jewish people a discrete building block of the universe whose removal would compromise the entire structure, he was seeking to anchor it to a metaphysical reality that could withstand the buffeting of history.”
Halevi’s ideas regarding the return of the Jews to Israel are more difficult to deal with, because they have had a more concrete effect. Departing from the prevailing notion that only the arrival of the Messiah would bring about the ingathering of exiles, Halevi proposed that the Jews’ return to Israel would not be a result of the redemption, but a cause of it. This position has been adopted and adapted by numerous thinkers over the centuries (most notably by the chief rabbi of British Mandate Palestine, Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook), and it is still a major inspiration for the religious wing of the Israeli settler movement. Here too, Halkin does not try to justify Halevi’s stance, although he does caution against holding a medieval philosopher responsible for contemporary religious or political ideologies. This is especially true in Halevi’s case, he argues, as successive generations have tended to see the poet through their own particular prisms. “For the eighteenth century, Yehuda Halevi was the model Jewish philosophe. In the nineteenth, he became the great Jewish romantic poet,” he writes. In our day, unfortunately, he is often something more sinister.
But that is not to say he can be nothing else. Halkin does not promote the proactive messianism that originated with Halevi, but he does take seriously the poet’s call for a return of the Jews to Israel, not through divine intervention, but by their own initiative. As Halkin is the first to admit, he is seeing Halevi through the lens of his own life; in the final chapter of the book, he offers a moving account of his own decision to immigrate to Israel some forty years ago, and to take part in “the great and terrible adventures” of the Jewish people, “the greatest of which had now brought it home again.” In the end, he writes, “it is one of the measures of literary greatness that we see ourselves in it. The good reader reads with his whole mind; the best reader, with his whole life. Yehuda Halevi brings out the best in us.” That may not always be the case, but with any luck, this graceful book will help make it so.
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