Judah Halevi

The Spanish Hebrew poet and religious thinker Judah Halevi (ca. 1085-ca. 1150) taught that God had revealed Himself primarily through the people of Israel.

Few definite facts are known about Judah Halevi. He was born in Toledo, Castile, to a family of means. A gifted youth, he received his Jewish training in the school of the famous Talmudist Isaac Alfasi. He also had a secular education in Greek and Arabic philosophy, the poetic arts, and medicine. Halevi was not happy in the medical profession; he found fulfillment, however, in his poetry, in which he expressed his true genius and gift. He employed the forms and structure of Arabic poetry in his Hebrew verse. Halevi's verse is replete with graphic symbolism and simile, embroidered with biblical idioms and allusions. It may be divided in three main classes: secular, religious, and national.

The first half of his life Halevi seems to have spent in lightheartedness and gaiety, the enjoyment of nature, friends, love, and wine. This is reflected in the mood of his earlier secular verse. As he grew older, however, and he saw the destruction of the Spanish Jewish communities in the reconquista, the struggle for the reconquest of Spain by the Christians from the Moslems, his outlook became more somber. His people's suffering in the course of the Crusades, when entire Jewish communities were completely destroyed, also contributed to his change of mood.

Aside from the physical extermination Halevi's people suffered, there were ravages from within. Jewish intellectuals in his day were falling prey to Greek rationalism and philosophy, which challenged and weakened their faith. These conditions are reflected in his religious poetry, which is characterized by a deep and often mystic yearning and love of God. The tragedy of his people, too, is given voice in his national poems, in which he depicts the past glory of Zion and his pain and sorrow at its desolation, as well as his hopes for its restoration. Many of Halevi's religious and national poems have been preserved in the Jewish liturgy.

To counter the influence of philosophy on his generation, Halevi wrote Kitab al-Khazari in Arabic to reach a wide audience, particularly among the enlightened. It was translated by Judah ibn Tibbon into Hebrew. The Sefer ha-Kuzari (or the Kuzari), as it is called in Hebrew, is still one of the most popular classics in Judaism. It is written in dialogue and employs the historical and romantic theme of the conversion to Judaism early in the 8th century of the heathen king of the Khazars, a Tatar tribe on the Volga. Before his conversion, the King called in a rabbi, a Christian theologian, a Moslem scholar, and an Aristotelian philosopher, who expounded the merits of their respective religious beliefs.

Unlike earlier Jewish philosophers, Halevi was not concerned in demonstrating that Judaism conforms to the tenets of rationalism, but rather in proving its excellency and its superiority over its two daughter religions, Christianity and Islam. Halevi argues that the God of Judaism requires no rational proof of His existence since He has manifested Himself in history through the people of Israel. Israel is therefore "the heart of the nations," for like the heart, which sends blood to other parts of the body, Israel supplies the world with ethical and spiritual nourishment. In Messianic times, however, all nations will attain Israel's spiritual level.

The language of Jewish prophecy is Hebrew, and its most favored site is the Holy Land. Halevi therefore left his only daughter and grandchild, his family, friends, and possessions, to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. According to legend, he was kneeling at the Wailing Wall when a galloping Arab horseman rode him down and crushed him to death.


Further Reading on Judah Halevi

The Selected Poems of Judah Halevi comprises Halevi's original Hebrew verses, well translated and annotated by Nina Salaman (1946). A translation of the Kuzari, with an introduction by Henry Slonimsky (1964), is available in paperback. Rudolf Kayser, The Life and Time of Jehudah Halevi, was translated from the German by Frank Gaynor (1949). An article entitled "Judah Halevi," written by Jacob S. Minkin, is included in Simon Noveck, ed., Great Jewish Personalities in Ancient and Medieval Times (1959).

Additional Biography Sources

Silman, Yochanan, Philosopher and prophet: Judah Halevi, the Kuzari, and the evolution of his thought, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.