About Judah ben Shmuel HaLevi, יהודה בן שמואל הלוי , (Abū ʾl-Ḥasan)
Judah Halevi (also Yehuda Halevi; Hebrew: יהודה הלוי; Arabic: يهوذا هاليفي; c. 1075–1141) was a Spanish Jewish physician, poet and philosopher. He was born in Spain, either in Toledo or Tudela, in 1075 or 1086, and died shortly after arriving in Palestine in 1141. Halevi is considered one of the greatest Hebrew poets, celebrated both for his religious and secular poems, many of which appear in present-day liturgy. His greatest philosophical work was The Kuzari
My Heart Is in the East, and I Am at the Ends of the West
The medieval poet Yehuda Halevi was a man consumed by yearnings, for women, for love, for the divine. All these found expression in Halevi’s prose and poetry. But perhaps none plagued the poet so much as his longing for Israel, a desire that would remain unsatisfied until the very end of a life filled with extraordinary accomplishments — as a philosopher, doctor, communal leader and, arguably, the greatest Jewish poet of medieval Spain — when he finally set out for Palestine.
Judah (Abū ʾl-Ḥasan) ben Samuel ha-Levi
Judah (Abū 'l-Ḥasan) ben Samuel ha-Levi (d. 1141) was a poet, religious thinker, and physician. Born in Toledo or Tudela between 1075 and 1080, he went as a youth to Granada, where he joined the circle of Jewish public figures and intellectuals around Moses ibn Ezra, among whom he distinguished himself as a Hebrew poet and wit. His writings show him to have been knowledgeable in Hebrew grammar, the Hebrew literary tradition, Bible, rabbinic traditions, Arabic literature, Sufism, philosophy, and medicine. He practiced as a physician in both Castile and al-Andalus, and was active in Jewish communal affairs, donating to and raising funds for communal causes and employing his literary skills on behalf of Joseph ibn Migash, the head of the rabbinic academy in Lucena. As an adult, Ha-Levi exchanged panegyric poetry on a basis of equality with distinguished figures of Muslim and Christian Spain. Of his family, we are aware only of a daughter and of his grandson by her, also named Judah. Conjectures about the identity of the daughter’s husband appear to be unfounded. He visited Morocco together with Abraham ibn Ezra. For most of his life he was a sought-after physician and a prominent, well-connected, and well-adjusted member of the Andalusi Jewish aristocracy.
In later life, Judah ha-Levi underwent a religious conversion, as a result of which he left Spain and sailed for Egypt in the summer of 1140 with the intention of dying in Palestine. Shortly before leaving, he completed his treatise Kitāb al-Radd wa 'l-Dalīl fī 'l-Dīn al-Dhalīl (The Book of Rejoinder and Proof in Support of the Neglected Religion), commonly known as the Kuzari, and an essay on Hebrew versification, his only known prose works, both in Arabic. Arriving in Alexandria on September 9, 1140, with two Andalusi companions, Abū 'l-Rabīʿ Solomon ibn Gabbay and Abū Saiʿd Isaac Ibn Ezra (the son of the famous poet and Bible commentator), he spent over three months there as the guest of, or in company with, a prominent leader of the local Jewish community, Aaron Ibn al-ʿAmmānī. Later, in Fustat, he was hosted by a wealthy businessman, Ḥalfon Abu Saʿīd ben Nethaniel ha-Levi; there Ha-Levi met such dignitaries as Samuel ben Ḥananiah the Nagid, and Samuel’s secretary, Nathan ben Samuel. Returning to Alexandria in the spring, Ha-Levi was denounced and sued by an apostate for attempting to compel his return to Judaism by withholding funds belonging to him. Ha-Levi was acquitted thanks to his connections and to a legal subterfuge. His ship sailed on May 14, 1141, and he died during the summer of that year. It may be reasonably assumed that he succeeded in reaching Palestine. According to a legend that first appeared in the sixteenth century, he died as a martyr while reciting his Ode to Zion before the gates of Jerusalem; but the story appears to be a late fiction.
Four of Judah ha-Levi’s personal letters, written in Arabic, are extant (and two others have been attributed to him), all addressed to Ḥalfon ben Nethaniel ha-Levi of Fustat. They refer to a fund-raising project to redeem a captive woman, his intention to travel eastward (whether from al-Andalus or from Egypt is not specified), the Kuzari, his desire to minimize his social life while in Egypt, and business matters.
Judah ha-Levi was renowned in his lifetime as a poet, scholar, and pietist. His poems were collected into a dīwān soon after his death, apparently in Egypt, partly on the basis of smaller collections that were already in circulation. The fame of his secular poetry may be seen in the extent to which it was imitated by later Hebrew poets; and that of his religious poetry, by its incorporation into the prayer rites of various communities. His theological work, the Kuzari, was translated into Hebrew in Provence by Judah ibn Tibbon in 1167 and in this form has had great influence ever since. The legend of his martyrdom, combined with the prominence of the Land of Israel in his life and works, invested his image with a mystique that had an important afterlife in Zionist literature.
2. As a Poet
Judah ha-Levi wrote prolifically in all the standard genres of Hebrew poetry, including panegyrics, laments for the dead, love poetry, wine poetry, descriptions of objects, epigrams, riddles, and occasional poems to fulfill such social duties as expressing thanks for a gift, regret at missing a visit, and apologies for a misunderstanding. He seems to have invented the Hebrew epithalamium by writing strophic poems (Heb. shire ezor; Ar. muwashshaḥāt) to be sung at weddings (earlier poems dealing with weddings are either standard qaṣīdas [odes] or piyyuṭim [liturgical poems]). Ha-Levi’s poetry displays a high degree of prosodic and rhetorical polish, much wit, and particular attention to the effect of sound. His secular poetry consists mostly of monorhymed poems in classical quantitative meters, but he was also the most prolific poet of the Hebrew Golden Age in the muwashshaḥ form. He also wrote epistles to various dignitaries in rhymed prose accompanied by panegyric qaṣīdas.
Ha-Levi was also a prolific liturgical poet. He continued the tradition of liturgical poetry of Iraq as developed by his Andalusi predecessors, composing both yoṣer and qedushta cycles and individual poems belonging to these cycles, as well as many seliḥot (penitential poems). He also wrote numerous short monorhymed liturgical poems in quantitative meters addressing God in the voice of an individual worshiper, a genre invented by Andalusi payyeṭanim; some of his poems of this type are among the finest of their kind. He wrote a lengthy penitential prayer in prose for individual recitation. Themes on which Ha-Levi wrote liturgical poetry of particular force are Israel’s exile and hope for redemption, the individual’s quest for intimacy with God, and visions of the angelic host praising God, including one that contains a short cosmography.
It is especially in poems that belong to no specific genre—dealing with his personal spiritual life, his thoughts about the Land of Israel, his decision to go there to die as a pilgrim—that Judah ha-Levi’s poetic genius emerges. In these poems, all the technical resources of Hebrew versification are brought to bear on themes that set him apart from his contemporaries—contempt for the worldly satisfactions of money and power, for passive religious conformity, for the pretension that philosophical speculation is the source of religious truth—and thus the poetry argues against the conventions of the very society that created the form. Ha-Levi expresses a yearning to take seriously religion’s demand that one lead a life of sincere devotion to God’s will, rejecting both power and position. As against the speculative theorizing of religious philosophers of a universalist bent, he demands concrete expression of devotion to God through adherence to specifically Jewish traditions. He seeks God not as the object of philosophical speculation but as revealed corporeally to the prophets. Given the cessation of prophecy, the Land of Israel provides the nearest approach to God’s presence; it is, therefore, in the stones and soil of the land that Ha-Levi hopes to find religious fulfillment—all the more, as the bones of the prophets, the Temple’s ruins, and its sacred implements, such as the Ark and the golden cherubim, are mingled with the land. He alludes repeatedly to Psalms 102:15: “For your servants delight in its stones and yearn for its soil.” Some of these themes find expression in his famous Ode to Jerusalem (beginning “Zion, will you not send greetings to your prisoners”), which was later incorporated into the liturgy of many Jewish communities.
3. The Kuzari
The Kuzari is framed in a fictional narrative setting based on the story of the conversion of the king of the Khazars to Judaism, an historical event that occurred around 800. Ha-Levi’s narrative posits that the King is impelled to investigate various intellectual systems because of a dream in which he is told that his intentions are pleasing to God but not his specific religious activities. The King asks a Philosopher, a Christian, and a Muslim to expound their systems of belief; dissatisfied with all three, he seeks out a rabbinic scholar. The conversations between the King and the Rabbi—which induce the King to convert to Judaism—occupy the bulk of the book’s five parts. At the end, the Rabbi announces his determination to leave the land of the Khazars and settle in the Land of Israel. True religion, he says, demands not only good intentions but action whenever that is possible. Since, as expounded in the book, the divine presence can only be fully experienced and the divine will only completely fulfilled in the Land of Israel, the Rabbi’s move to the Land of Israel is depicted as the only possible outcome of the discussion. Thus the King’s investigation of religion, which initiates the dialogue, and the Rabbi’s departure, which ends it, frame the entire book in terms of the theme of right intentions versus right actions.
Insistence on specific actions is part-and-parcel of Ha-Levi’s attempt to revise the balance between philosophy and religion, specifically Judaism. The larger conflict between philosophy and religion was a problem for Islam no less than for Judaism. Although Ha-Levi’s critique of philosophy did not go as far as that of the Muslim theologian Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad al-Ghazālī (d. 1111), it reflects some of al-Ghazālī’s arguments and perhaps even the form of one of his works. (The drama of al-Ghazālī’s pilgrimage may also have had an impact on Ha-Levi’s biography.)
But Judah ha-Levi had not only to defend revelation as such; he had to defend a particular revelation— Judaism—a religion viewed by both Islam and Christianity as discredited by the Jewish people’s exile and their life as a minority community threatened with the attrition of its own elite class. This threat arose from the material opportunities available to the Jewish elite among Muslims and Christians just at a time when the prestige of philosophy was loosening the intellectual underpinnings of the religious system and when communities were increasingly destabilized by political conditions. Ha-Levi does not attempt to discredit philosophy to these sophisticated intellectuals but instead demonstrates that it is a limited and less reliable guide than the word of God as revealed on Mount Sinai and as reported infallibly by a reliable chain of tradition maintained intact by the Jewish community.
For Judah ha-Levi, philosophy proposes valuable ways of understanding the workings of the world, but it cannot provide certainty about all questions even in its own sphere; for example, whether the world is created or eternal. Furthermore, it does not permit us either to grasp God in His essence or to experience His presence. Mental effort can take man only so far; to know God with the kind of certainty we take for granted in everyday life (in recognizing another person, for example), one has to come into contact with Him. Revelation provides the means to do this by shaping every detail of man’s life in accordance with God’s will. Ha-Levi attacks both the problem of revelation vs. reason and the problem of the status of the Jews by shifting attention from metaphysics to revelation. His starting point is the authenticity of the revelation on Mount Sinai, which, he argues, is not a matter of opinion or the product of a series of rational arguments but an irrefutable historical fact. From this revelation he develops the claim that the Jews are heirs to a divine faculty (designated by the elusive Arabic term al-amr al-ilāhī) that enables them to receive prophecy, a faculty that distinguishes them categorically from mankind as a whole. Similarly, the Land of Israel, the Hebrew language, the Temple and its rites, and the commandments of the Torah (especially the nonrational commandments) have a separate ontological status vis-à-vis other lands, languages, cults, and legal systems. The present debased status of the Jews is merely their punishment for collective sins committed during earlier stages of their history, as taught by rabbinic tradition; their vindication in history will come at a time of God’s choosing. In the meantime, man’s duty is to strive to do His will by adhering to His commandments and entering sincerely into their spirit.
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Even Shmuel, Yehuda (trans.). Sefer ha-Kuzari le-Rabbi Yehuda ha-Levi (Jerusalem: Dvir, 1972/73).
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Lobel, Diana. Between Mysticism and Philosophy: Sufi Language of Religious Experience in Judah Ha-Levi’s Kuzari (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000).
Scheindlin, Raymond P. The Song of the Distant Dove: Judah Ha-Levi’s Pilgrimage (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)
Schirmann, Ḥayyim. The History of Hebrew Poetry in Muslim Spain, ed., suppl., and annot. Ezra Fleischer (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1995) [Hebrew].
Silman, Yochanan. Philosopher and Prophet: Judah Halevi, the Kuzari, and the Evolution of His Thought, trans. Lenn J. Schramm (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995).
Citation Raymond Scheindlin. " Judah (Abū ʾl-Ḥasan) ben Samuel ha-Levi." Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World. Executive Editor Norman A. Stillman. Brill Online , 2013. Reference. Jim Harlow. 15 January 2013 <http://referenceworks.brillonline.com/entries/encyclopedia-of-jews-in-the-islamic-world/judah-abu-l-hasan-ben-samuel-ha-levi-COM_0012230>