The extant writing of the medieval Jewish poet, philosopher, and theologian Judah Halevi (c. 1075–1141) includes personal letters, as many as a thousand Hebrew poems, and the Kuzari, a seminal philosophical and theological treatise on Judaism written in dialogue form. Halevi is widely considered the greatest poet of the Jewish Middle Ages, and, alongside Moses Maimonides (c. 1138–1204), one of the two central instances of the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry. About three hundred of his religious poems have been adopted into the Jewish liturgy, and his theological principals have exerted a continuous and varied influence on the subsequent Jewish tradition. He is also regarded as a pioneering Jewish nationalist and an important commentator on the conflicts of religion and philosophy.

Religious and National Poetry

The important role of poetry in elite Spanish Muslim society inspired an influential school of Hebrew poetry among Spanish Jews. The Hebrew poets borrowed from Arabic sources and transformed them, so that by Halevi’s time an extensive national literature was already established. The many poems ascribed to Halevi reflect a wide range of genres. His secular poetry, written for the most part in his early life, includes eulogies, drinking songs, wedding odes, love and friendship poems. It is, however, the nationally oriented poetry of Halevi’s mature years that has exercised a more direct influence on the history of ideas.

In 1093, the First Crusade had sown destruction in the Jewish communities of Christian Europe and Halevi experienced first-hand the precariousness of Jewish life in Spain. His most celebrated poems address his longing to escape Spanish exile and settle in the land of Israel. As is true of many Jewish thinkers before him, he described the afflictions of Jewish exile in religious terms, but, departing from prevalent traditions, he also came to regard physical return to the promised land as a spiritual imperative. Jerusalem was then in Crusader hands and inhospitable to Jews, who, collectively weak and scattered, could hardly have hoped to conquer it by force. Undeterred in his religious passion, however, Halevi nevertheless wondered, “Shall we be captives forever in a strange land?” and, “When shall the morn of freedom dawn for Israel?” In another poem, he councils, “Prepare to return to the land of the gazelle / And blight the fields of Edom [Christendom] and Arabia / your purger’s house in wrath purge / and a house of love for your lover enlarge.”

As both the military threat and religious zeal of the North African Almohades radiated in the 1130s into Muslim Spain, Halevi responded with a call to Jewish piety, asking rhetorically if it were not shameful to sleep late, “While in your ears the cries of people resound / Praying to God with a sound heart, / If they serve him who know him not / How can they who know him turn away?” One of his best known piyyutim or religious poems adopted into the synagogue liturgy, is a “Zionide,” or song of longing directed to the Land of Israel. It begins plaintively, “Zion, will you not ask if peace is with your captives?,” and concludes with a vision of Jewish restoration in Jerusalem: “Blessed is he that waits, approaching and seeing the rising / Of your light, while on him your dawn breaks — / That he may see your chosen flourish, and rejoice/ In your joy, as you return to immemorial youth.

The sense of religious mission and even messianic fervor pervading Halevi’s national poetry won him both support and mockery in his own lifetime. Halevi’s national sentiment also worked, beginning shortly after his death, to inspire others to consider emigration to Palestine. The near mystical longing “to taste God” reflected in Halevi’s devotional poetry, as well as his doctrines celebrating prophecy, also influenced the writers of foundational texts of Kabbalistic mysticism, believed by scholars to have emerged in 13th century Spain, though ascribed by Jewish tradition to 2nd century CE Palestine. In the late 19th century Halevi was a chief inspiration of the Eastern European literary groups known as “the lovers of Zion” on which the Zionist movement drew heavily in the 20th century. Sometimes described with the epitaph “poet of Zion,” Halevi’s mysterious death in 1141, while he was attempting the voyage to Jerusalem, crowned his legacy as a figure of reverence for later generations of Jewish political thinkers and Zionists.

The Kuzari

Halevi’s theological and philosophical masterwork, the Kuzari [Kitab al Khazari], presents an original account of the fundamental tenets of Judaism; he completed it over the last decade of his life (c. 1130-1140).  Originally written in Arabic and soon translated into Hebrew, the Kuzari is set in the form of a dialogue and is subtitled “The book of refutation and proof on behalf of the most despised religion.” Its drama borrows from the historical (although by Halevi’s time, also legendary) episode of the 8th century conversion to Judaism of the king and nobility of the pagan Khazar kingdom, located in the western portion of the Turkish empire. In Halevi’s retelling, the king of the Khazars is perturbed by a dream in which he is informed that “your intention is pleasing to God, but your actions are not pleasing.” He questions in turn a philosopher, a Christian, a Muslim, and a Jewish sage regarding his duties to God. Ultimately the king wishes to know how best to live as a ruler, whether according to philosophy, or some particular religion.

The five-part dialogue traces the argument presented by the Jewish sage, which swayed the king toward divine law and Judaism. At the close of the first part, the king is convinced to convert to Judaism. Over the remaining four parts, which occasionally digress and often revisit central themes, the Jewish sage instructs the king in the faith and responds to his doubts. As is true of the Muslim theologian Al-Ghazali (c. 1058–1111) by whom he was influenced, Halevi sought to insulate his religion from the influences of prevalent Neoplatonist and Aristotelian systems; he did so by broadly accepting the philosophical science of his age while emphasizing its radical limitations. In general, the Kuzari is concerned to show Judaism’s superiority to Christianity, Islam, and philosophy, despite Judaism’s being “a despised religion” in the eyes of the majority. In its celebration of Judaism, the Kuzari develops a notion of religious truth based in the immediate experience and historical tradition of prophecy, while at the same time criticizing Greco-Arabic philosophical systems as spiritually limiting, amoral, and anti-social.

In the introduction to the Kuzari, Halevi writes that the work’s purpose is to defend Judaism “against the attacks of philosophers and followers of other religions, and also against Jewish sectarians who attacked the rest of Israel.” The device of a fictional dialogue serves, however, to distance Halevi from the Jewish sage he presents, and has suggested to modern commentators, most notably Leo Strauss, that Halevi’s aim in the work was multifaceted and partly esoteric. According to Strauss, “In defending Judaism… against the philosophers, [Halevi] was conscious of defending morality itself and therewith the cause, not only of Judaism, but of mankind at large.” On this view, Halevi intended the work to reinforce traditional Jews in their faith, while more philosophically-minded readers would simultaneously be offered subtle insight into the necessary relationship between philosophy, revealed religion, and public morality. The Kuzari, under any interpretation, develops an influential theology of Judaism.

Judaism as Evidence of Divine Law

The Khazar king’s quest to discover the actions pleasing to God leads him at first to question a philosopher. The philosopher states his view that the unchanging God is beyond all knowledge of individuals, that the philosopher’s duty is to perfect his own intellect, and that public actions – ritual, social and political – are essentially arbitrary from the perspective of philosophy. Because the king nevertheless gives credence to his dream, and still hopes to learn which actions please God, these answers leave him unsatisfied. The king further objects that history is replete with struggles concerning political and religious deeds, so that, by implication, the merely intellectual perfections of the philosopher cannot suffice to direct political and social life. The philosopher’s response that philosophy enjoins pacifism fails to win the king over. Convinced both of the prophetic quality of his dream and the inability of philosophy to explain it, the king turns next to a Christian and a Muslim. In conversation with them, however, he discovers that their justifications of revealed religion draw on a tradition originating with the Hebrew Scriptures. The king therefore speedily reaches the conclusion, also perhaps one of the Kuzari’s central theses, that the Jews “constitute in themselves the evidence of the divine law on earth.”

Throughout the Kuzari the king is perturbed by the status of Judaism as a “despised religion.” The Jewish sage is sometimes inclined to blame this on the sins of Jews. He says, for example, that only sin prevents Israel from reclaiming its land. Yet, he notes that suffering for one’s religion is recognized as a mark of honor in all religions, even if partly involuntary. As Israel is both burdened and blessed by its exalted prophetic tradition and worldly humiliation, the whole nation experiences the human condition in a concentrated and intensified form: “Israel amidst the nations is like the heart amidst the organs of the body; it is at one and the same time the most sick and the most healthy of them.”

Prophecy and Tradition

Since Israel’s existence is ascribed to prophetic revelation, the status and nature of prophecy forms another central theme of the Kuzari. The Jewish sage discusses the Biblical narrative of the divine revelation at Sinai witnessed by whole nation of Israel, and the miracles wrought by God in uniting the Israelite nation under divine law. He explains to the king that the revealed law is known to Jews “first from personal experience, and afterwards through uninterrupted tradition.” Having established or suggested the reliability of the initial revelation and its transmission, the dialogue is in various places still concerned to allay the King’s persistent doubt that God could have revealed his truth to only one nation, a nation, moreover, that is scattered and humiliated.

The Jewish sage emphasizes that prophecy represents the highest degree of  “divine influence,” a gift that cannot be achieved without both active preparation and divine election. Only specific people are able to achieve prophecy, but this is no less strange or unjust, he argues, than the fact of natural difference between humans and animals. The Jews have privileged access to prophecy on account of their ancestry and traditions, the unique virtues of the Hebrew language, and the special qualities of the land of Israel. Prophecy, the sage further argues, reaches truths inaccessible and incommunicable through mere reason. The inspired prophet possesses an “inner eye” capable of grasping the true essence of things, representing it in material form, and communicating it to the many.

Having proposed prophecy as the highest form of knowledge, the Jewish sage must also defend the status of oral tradition and refute the position of the heretical Karaite sect of Judaism, which accepted the original biblical revelation of divine law, but denied the extensive oral law tradition of Rabbinical Judaism. Against this, the Jewish sage argues that the very ability to read and comprehend the Biblical text, transmitted without vowels, is only possible within an oral tradition. Similarly the correct understanding of the revealed law requires a tradition that interprets and completes it. True tradition, therefore, must also fall under “divine influence” and exist in a continuum with prophecy. The Karaite position ultimately enjoins, according to the sage’s logic, a recourse to individual reason in interpreting revelation, and therefore suffers from the same arbitrariness in political and religious matters as philosophy. The sage holds that the “divine influence” expressed in prophecy and true tradition is the exclusive path to an indispensable realm of social, political, and spiritual truths; truths ennobling, communicable and efficacious in the life of the nation, but unavailable to philosophical reason.

Philosophy and Morality

Aside from its aim of demonstrating the superiority of Judaism to all competing systems of belief, the Kuzari advances a bold and subtle argument regarding the challenge posed by philosophy to traditional religion more generally. In part one of the dialogue, the philosopher expounds an asocial and apolitical morality of self-improvement to the Khazar king, and counsels indifference to the “forms of your humility or religion or worship, or the word or language or actions you employ.” This social indifference on the part of philosophers, rooted in the nature of philosophy as the pursuit of intellectual self-perfection, convinces the king to seek his moral guidance rather in religion. In parts three and four of the dialogue, the Jewish sage expands on this point by accusing the philosophers of devoting their lives “to research and continual reflection, which is incompatible with worldly occupations.” The sage suggests that philosophers necessarily relate to society in a narrow spirit of self-preservation. And, even if some philosophers aim at the social good, they are in no better position than pagan superstition to determine correct religious and political deeds, because practical action by its nature cannot be directed by pure philosophical reason.

In part two of the dialogue, the Jewish sage nevertheless speaks approvingly of certain innate “rational laws” that are said to be “the basis and preamble of the divine law, preceding it in character and time, and being indispensable in the administration of every human society […] even a gang of robbers.” The “rational laws,” might include such basic imperatives as honoring your word, temperance, or mutual aid. They indeed precede divine law, yet they are not so much the fruits of philosophical inquiry as the natural perfections of human character. As such, the sage approves of them and even argues that “the divine law cannot become complete till the social and rational laws are perfected.”

Yet, if the “rational laws” appear as the foundation and support of divine or revealed law, this relationship turns out to be more complicated. In part three of the dialogue, the Jewish sage argues that the “social and rational laws are not quite known,” and that while certain basic moral directives may be apparent to practical reason, “the limitation of these things to the amount of general usefulness is God’s.” In other words, only prophecy can determine suitable forms of the rational laws in specific circumstances. Because the “rational laws” must therefore remain unformed and incomplete in the absence of prophetic specification, and because philosophy denies prophecy, Halevi might be understood to accuse the philosophers of threatening not only Judaism, but the realization of “social and rational laws” in general.

For further introductory reading, see also:

Leo Strauss, “The Law of Reason in the Kuzari,” Persecution and the Art of Writing, University of Chicago Press, 1988

Yochanan Silman, Philosopher and Prophet: Judah Halevi, the Kuzari, and the Evolution of His Thought, trans. Lenn J. Schramm, SUNY Press, 1995