Jewish Journal

New “Yehuda Halevi” bio captures poetry of the 12th century

by Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin

Posted on Apr. 8, 2010 at 3:37 pm

“Hopeless romantic” would probably be the last description on your mind were you to conjure the image of a twelfth-century rabbi. But Hillel Halkin’s “Yehuda Halevi” (2010, Schocken Books, 368 pgs.), the latest in Schocken’s “Jewish Encounters” series, provides just that image. And what a beautiful portrait it is, of a deeply religious man enthralled with poetic expression and esthetics, who spent his life enriching Jewish thought and literature with his inspiring poetry and philosophy. One of the reasons why Rabbi Yehuda Halevi remains such a fascination through the ages is that he is an inspiration to those Jews who view their religious lives as much more than just doing things by the Book.

The so-called “Golden Age of Spanish Jewry,” a period from roughly the 10th to 12th centuries, was far from idyllic. It was, however, a time of unprecedented religious tolerance for Jews and Christians in the Islamic world. It was also a time when the parent culture was steeped in haute philosophy, art, and poetry. The Jews of Andalusia (the Islamic name for the Iberian peninsula) absorbed this culture and developed a form of literary expression that imitated the Arabic genre that germinated it. All this is connoted in the word convivencia, a term coined to idolize (sometimes falsely) the peace and commingling of ideas among the three great religions in medieval Spain.

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Halkin’s book really should have been titled, “The Times, Influences, and Legacy of Yehuda Halevi,” since so little is known about the man himself. We know that he was a great poet, having composed hundreds of poems of both secular and religious themes, spanning such subjects as love, romance, male friendship, melancholy, and religious yearnings. Since the discoveries of old correspondences in the Cairo Geniza at the beginning of the 20th century, more has been discovered about Halevi, but mostly about the last few months of his life, when he had set out from Spain to the land of Israel.

It would be as presumptuous to think we know Yehuda Halevi from his poetry as it would be to think we know Bob Dylan from his lyrics. Still, Halevi’s voluminous poetry – some of which has been preserved in our prayer liturgy –indicates that he was a complex individual with far more than Torah texts on his mind. He loved God, but he also loved wine and women. He was fond of the Spanish sunsets, but he also pined for the holy sand grains of the land of Israel.

Using the scant information we do possess about Halevi’s life, Halkin has done an admirable job of illumination, using select poems, as well as passages from Halevi’s masterwork on Jewish theology, “The Kuzari.” Halkin masterfully translates Halevi’s prose and poetry, cleverly recapturing in English the meter and rhyme of the original Hebrew. Halkin’s success, however, is also his failure, in that at times he overextends his extrapolations of the man through his poetry and writings by putting emotions and motivations in Halevi’s heart that he may never have harbored. But of course, this is the occupational hazard of any biographer of a figure whose personal life is largely a mystery.

The two great religious thinkers of the medieval Spanish world were Maimonides and Halevi, yet the two were extremely different. Maimonides was the great intellectual rationalist and codifier of Judaism. He loved Aristotle almost as much as Moses and felt that Judaism and philosophy were completely compatible. Halevi, on the other hand, was an anti-rationalist, believing that philosophy would only corrupt Judaism. Philosophy is cold and calculating, while Judaism is a mystical way of life whose mitzvot transcend the intellect. Applying philosophy to Judaism is as stultifying as trying to scientifically analyze the Mona Lisa.

There’s no question that Maimonides’ contribution to Judaism was greater than Yehuda Halevi’s. Had there been no Maimonides, there might never have been a formal codified version of Jewish law, and religious practice would have therefore suffered over the centuries. Halevi’s contribution, on the other hand, was that of poetry, literary fervor, and Jewish pride. He may not have contributed as much to the fabric of Jewish tradition, but his passionate palette added so much color to a religion which, had it been consigned to Maimonides alone, would have been much colder and monochromatic.

Halevi’s view of Judaism and the Jewish people was also quite different from Maimonides’. For Halevi there is a supernatural power within the breast of every Jew that makes him or her part of the “Chosen People.” This moniker was more than just a slogan for Halevi; it described an ontological, essential specialness that makes the Jew primed for an intimate prophetic experience with God, something no other human being can ever accomplish. Maimonides, on the other hand, was a universalist who viewed all people as essentially the same. It was only the covenant at Sinai that endowed the Jewish people with greater privileges and responsibilities.

Halevi’s particularist and mystical worldview is certainly controversial, but it provided him with a unique pride for and emphasis upon the land of Israel, the only place in the world imbued with a magical Divine aura that enables the Jew to achieve his or her prophetic destiny. Halevi’s life was an embodiment of that theology, since he spent his life pining for Israel, and eventually gave up all of his communal prestige in Spain in order to undertake the perilous journey to the Promised Land. In our modern-day world of Zionists and post-Zionists, Halevi has become an icon of ideas that you either love or hate.

It’s been said that every great Jewish thinker since those medieval times is either a Maimonidean or a Halevian in his outlook on Judaism and the world. Maimonides is admired and emulated for his masterful intellect. But Halevi is regarded as a “renaissance man” who had his feet firmly planted in both Jewish and secular worlds, but at the same time transcended this world as a poet, dreamer and lover.

By his own admission, Halkin considers himself a Halevian, and this is why he takes the liberty at the end of the book to insert his own autobiography, comparing and contrasting his own life to the life of Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, especially in regard to Halkin’s love of Zion and his eventual aliyah to Israel. Like Halevi, Halkin is both a hopeless romantic and a brilliant scholar, and this is why he writes about his kindred spirit with such affection and care.

My criticisms of Halkin’s work are not trivial; in one place, he fails to grasp a basic logical argument that Halevi puts forth in the “Kuzari” to prove that the Bible’s account of the revelation at Sinai is historically accurate. In another, he misses the literary allusion in one of Halevi’s poems, which causes him to misinterpret the poem’s message. But these flaws do not detract from the overall beauty of Halkin’s work and the great contribution he has provided to us. He has, through much research and effort, gleaned and anthologized from dozens of scholarly sources and woven a beautiful tapestry of medieval Jewish Spain and of the sights and sounds of Andalusia.

“Yehuda Halevi” is a powerful read that unsheathes the passions of both Yehuda Halevi and his biographer. It left me, and, I suspect, other readers, with an inspiration and model for how one can be both profoundly devout and a man of the world; a lover of God and a lover of people; a scholar and a hopeless romantic.

N. Daniel Korobkin is the author of a modern translation of “Yehuda Halevi’s Kuzari: In Defense of the Despised Faith” (Feldheim Publishers, 2009). He is also Rosh Kehilla of Yavneh Hebew Academy in Los Angeles and provides synagogue services for the Orthodox Union. He is a doctoral candidate at UCLA in medieval Jewish thought.

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