Yehudah Ha-Levi

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YEHUDAH HA-LEVI (c. 10751141), Jewish poet, theologian, and physician. Born in either Tudela or Toledo, Spain, to a wealthy and cultured family, Yehudah ben Shemuʾel ha-Levi was well educated. He studied the Bible, rabbinic literature, Arabic poetry, philosophy, and medicine. During his early travels in southern Spain he won acclaim for his poetic talent and was warmly received by many prominent Jewish families. However, in the wake of the Almoravid invasions of the area to halt the Christian reconquista, his enjoyment of courtly life was cut short. Eventually he settled in Christian-held Toledo, supporting himself as a physician and continuing to write. But he viewed with growing alarm the disruption of Jewish life throughout Andalusia. Sometime after 1125, in response to the queries of a Karaite thinker, ha-Levi began to draft a defense of Judaism, which developed into his most famous work, the Kuzari. In the summer of 1140, various personal, political, and religious considerations prompted him to depart for Palestine. Legend claims that he was killed within sight of Jerusalem, although recent studies suggest that he died en route, in Egypt.

Ha-Levi's poetry is generally regarded as the finest Hebrew verse written in the Middle Ages. Besides addressing all the traditional secular and religious themes of his day, he also developed, in his poems of Zion, an entirely new genre expressing both his own and his people's longing for renewal in their ancestral home. This longing was intensified by the upheavals and persecution suffered by Jews on both sides of the Mediterranean following the Almoravid invasion of Andalusia and the First Crusade. As ha-Levi observes,

Between the hosts of Seʿir [Christians] and Qedar [Muslims], My host is utterly lost. When they wage their wars, we fall with their fall.

Dismayed by the upheavals within Spanish Jewish life and sensing its eventual dissolution, ha-Levi began to question the value of some of its main cultural pursuits, especially philosophic speculation about religion:

Let not the wisdom of the Greeks beguile you Which has no fruit, but only flowers. Why should I seek out crooked ways And forsake the mother of paths?

While philosophy could produce a tantalizing array of opinions, it could not satisfy the spiritual hunger of men seeking concrete guidance for their actions. This required a return to the wellsprings of traditional Jewish piety, since one could approach God only by following "the mother of paths," the Torah.

I have sought Your nearness. With all my heart have I called You; And going out to meet You I found You coming toward me.

Still, for ha-Levi, the path of return and religious renewal inevitably led to the Land of Israel as the chief site of past revelations and as the focus of God's promised redemption:

Have we either in the East or the West A place of hope wherein we may trust, Except the land that is full of gates Toward which the gates of Heaven are open?

Ha-Levi's only theological work, the Kuzari (Book of the Khazars, or Book of refutation and in defense of the despised faith), develops these and other themes in a five-part dialogue, mainly between a pagan Khazar king who is converted to Judaism and the Jewish sage who instructs him. The king's conversion was factual, but ha-Levi created this dialogue with him to answer contemporary criticism of Judaism by representatives of philosophy, Christianity, Islam, and Karaism. The philosopher is clearly the most formidable spokesman of those who leave it to human reason to determine how best to serve God. The fact that a pagan king must evaluate their competing claims aids ha-Levi in giving all the participants, and notably Judaism, a fair hearing. It also underscores, inasmuch as a king is preeminently a man of action, the importance of practice over theory.

The story opens as the king repeatedly dreams that an angel is telling him that his intention is pleasing to God but his mode of worship is not. Convinced that this vision is genuine, he invites first an Aristotelian philosopher and then scholars of Christianity and Islam to instruct him.

The philosopher, expressing views reflecting the influence of Ibn Sīnā and Ibn Bājjah, denies the presuppositions of the king's dream. God as a perfect and changeless First Cause has neither likes nor dislikes, he says, or even knowledge of the king's mutable behavior, for all these would imply deficiency and imperfection in God. Still, a human may perfect him or herself and even achieve prophecy by studying the eternal system of necessary causes that emanate from God, thus attaining union with the Active Intellect, the source of all human knowledge. Since the principal requirement for achieving that union is the purification of one's soul, it does not matter from a purely rational standpoint which religious regimen one follows.

The king finds the philosopher's argument plausible, but says it does not provide what he seeks. Nor does he find that philosophers are able to prophesy. Consequently, he turns to the Christian and Muslim scholars. Their expositions directly address his concern, but they do not provide adequate evidence for their respective claims. Still, because both scholars agree that their beliefs are based on God's well-attested revelation to Israel, the king finally consults a Jewish scholar.

The rabbi declares his faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who led the Israelites out of Egypt, miraculously sustained them, and gave them his law in the Torah of Moses. Subsequent discussion of these claims eventually convinces the king of their truth because they are supported by what he regards as compelling grounds: public, empirical, direct, and miraculous evidence. Over 600,000 initially skeptical Israelites saw and heard God personally reveal his commandments at Mount Sinai and transmitted a unanimous, reliable report of that occasion to subsequent gen-erations.

The king regards the rabbi's account as superior not only to that of the other scholars but also to that of the philosopher. The philosopher infers the existence and nature of God from some aspect of the world's order, but such speculation is tenuous and uncertain, and it evokes no reverence for its object. By contrast, there is nothing tenuous or uncertain about the veracity of a collective experience of God, transmitted by a reliable, uninterrupted tradition.

The rabbi goes on to depict those few who are able to prophesy as quite literally belonging to the divine realm. Relying heavily on conceptions current in Shiism, he argues that in relation to the traditional hierarchy of inorganic matter, plants, animals, and human beings, this elect group (afwah) constitutes an essentially separate order, manifesting extraordinary faculties and behavior. Because they are by nature conjoined with "the divine thing" (al-amr al-ilāhī) ha-Levi's multivalent term for diverse aspects of divine immanencethey alone can communicate God's will to ordinary persons, whereas human speculation and cosmic powers, like the Active Intellect, cannot. Tradition identifies Adam as the first to possess this prophetic faculty or inner eye. From him it passed to the biblical heroes until it reached the children of Israel. Prophecy flourished among them because, like choice fruit, it was cultivated in the ideal climate of the Land of Israel, through use of the Hebrew language and adherence to the regimen of God's own laws. With exile and the neglect of many commandments, prophecy ceased, yet it will reappear once the original conditions are restored.

After converting, the king learns more about these matters and also that Israel remains a living focus of divine providence in the world, despite its exile and degradation. While other nations and religions imitate its religious institutions, they are "dead" by comparison; they rise and fall according to chance and natural causes, being subject neither to miraculous deliverances nor to catastrophic defeats. Israel, however, like a seed cast upon the ground, is governed by a secret, providential wisdom, whereby it transforms its surroundings and will eventually produce a unified humanity obedient to God's will.

The pious human personifies this obedience with a faith that is natural and wholehearted, neither the product of speculation nor vulnerable to it. Ruling one's self and one's inclinations, the individual is uniquely suited to rule the city, for like Plato's philosopher-king he or she gives everything its due by exercising rational choice. The behavior of the pious human thus conforms to the rational, political laws (such as decrees of justice) that are preambles to the divine traditional laws (such as ritual rules), preceding them in nature and in time. The former constitute the indispensable prerequisite for the existence of any group, even a den of robbers. But the divine laws are more important than the rational laws, because they specify the application of the latter and also bring people to communion with God and to happiness in ways that reason cannot explain.

In their knowledge of God, both the pious and the prophets apprehend all that the philosophers do and more. They, too, recognize God generically as Elohim, the governing cause of the universe from whom the natural forms of all things emanate in regular ways, indifferent to the needs and merits of human beings. But they also experience God individually as YHVH (Adonai), who reveals himself to those suitably prepared and who overrides natural causes on their behalf at predetermined times. Only as YHVH does God evoke love and service, for in communion with him humans find their greatest happiness, and in separation from him, their greatest misery.

The rabbi's final exposition and critique of philosophy attempts to show the king that he need not be persuaded by many of its key claims, since they are untenable. Earlier he had suggested that the philosopher seeks wisdom only because he lacks a reliable tradition embracing wisdom, while Israel has received divine wisdom in a Torah that contradicts nothing truly demonstrated by philosophy. Apparently influenced by al-Ghazālī's Incoherence of the Philosophers, he now suggests that what has been so demonstrated is confined largely to mathematics and logic. In physics, he argues, the philosophers' account of the four elements is empirically unsubstantiated. In psychology, their theory of the Active Intellect entails numerous absurdities, and in metaphysics, their views on divine causation are riddled with inconsistency. The most we can know regarding metaphysics is that only God governs material things by determining their natural forms. Since philosophy offers little wisdom about matters of such importance, a turn toward the divine wisdom embodied in Israel's ancestral tradition is called for. But, as the rabbi recognizes, a wholehearted turn toward the ancestral tradition can be completed only by a return to the ancestral land. Accordingly, as the dialogue closes, he follows the logic of his position and departs for the Holy Land.

Ha-Levi was the first medieval Jewish thinker to appreciate fully the challenge posed to Judaism by Aristotelian rationalism and to address it in a philosophically literate way. Speaking as a religious empiricist and working from the sources of Judaism, he produced what has become a classic theological defense of Judaism as a suprarational religion of revealed practice.


The definitive edition of the original Judeo-Arabic text of ha-Levi's Kuzari is the Kitāb al-radd wa-al-dalīl fī al-dīn al-dhalīl, edited by David H. Baneth and prepared for publication by Haggai Ben-Shammai (Jerusalem, 1977). Hartwig Hirschfeld's The Kuzari (Khitab al-Khazari): An Argument for the Faith of Israel (1905; reprint, New York, 1964) is a complete but largely outdated English translation of his own earlier edition of this work. An abridged but far more adequate translation of Hirschfeld's edition, accompanied by a brief but useful commentary, has been provided by Isaak Heinemann in Three Jewish Philosophers, edited by Hans Lewy et al. (New York, 1960). Heinemann's translations of ha-Levi's poetry have served as the basis for some of the translations offered by me in this article.

The groundbreaking studies of ha-Levi's religious philosophy by Harry A. Wolfson, collected in volume 2 of Studies in the History of Philosophy and Religion, edited by Isadore Twersky and George H. Williams (Cambridge, Mass., 1977), remain valuable, as does Leo Strauss's classic analysis of ha-Levi as an esoteric writer in "The Law of Reason in the Kuzari," in Strauss's Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952; reprint, Westport, Conn., 1973), pp. 95141. The best recent study of the literary structure of the Kuzari is Eliezer Schweid's Hebrew article "Ummanut ha-diʾalog bi-sefer ʾha-Kuzariʾ u-mashma ʿutah ha-ʿiyyunit," in aʿam ve-haqashah (Jerusalem, 1970). Aryeh L. Motzkin's "On Halevi's Kuzari as a Platonic Dialogue," Interpretation 9 (August 1980): 111124, is a valuable study of ha-Levi's philosophical aims in employing the dialogue form. Two works focusing on ha-Levi's use of Arabic sources in connection with various issues in the Kuzari are Herbert A. Davidson's "The Active Intellect in the Cuzari and Hallevi's Theory of Causality," Revue des études juives 131 (JuneDecember 1972): 351396, and Shlomo Pines's "Shiite Terms and Conceptions in Judah Halevi's Kuzari," Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 2 (1980). A valuable resource for the study of ha-Levi's religious poetry is Matitiahu Tsevat's "An Index to the Religious Poetry of Judah Halevi," Studies in Bibliography and Booklore 13 (1980).

New Sources

Brann, Ross. "Judah Halevi, the Compunctious Poet." Prooftexts 7 (1987): 123143.

Galli, Barbara Ellen. Franz Rosenzweig and Jehuda Halevi: Translating, Translations, and Translators. With a foreword by Paul Mendes-Flohr. Montreal, 1995.

Newmyer, Stephen T. "Climate and Zion in the 'Kuzari.'" Koroth 10 (19931994): 918.

Scheindlin, Raymond P. "Contrasting Religious Experience in the Liturgical Poems of Ibn Gabirol and Judah Halevi." Proof-texts 13 (1993): 141162.

Silman, Yochanan. Philosopher and Prophet: Judah Halevi, the Kuzari, and the Evolution of His Thought. Translated by Lenn J. Schramm. Albany, N.Y., 1995.

Barry S. Kogan (1987)

Revised Bibliography