In the year 1140, medieval Hebrew poet and thinker Judah Halevi, introduced the most important defense of Judaism ever written. “A Book in Defense of the Despised and Humiliated Faith,” known popularly as “The Kuzari,” was originally written in Arabic and later translated into many Hebrew versions. It earned its popular name because Halevi’s defense of Judaism was crafted as a dialogue between the king of the Khazars—a tribe living in Russia whose elite indeed converted to Judaism in the 9th century—and a rabbi. The poet lived in a turbulent time in which Crusaders and Muslims mustered great armies in battle and the Jews seemed to be irrelevant and hated in a world that was indifferent to them. This lack of Jewish honor troubled Halevi greatly. He set out to prove that Judaism was no fossil but the true revelation of the God of Israel and a living faith, not a relic. Halevi was alarmed by the spread of Aristotelian philosophy among Muslim Spain’s Jewish elite and he attempted vigorously to defend Judaism as a religion of revelation that did not need to be reconciled with thought that he believed weakened Jewish faith considerably.
Judah Halevi’s polemic—polemic meaning a controversial argument against an idea or doctrine—resonates today. Judaism is no longer a “despised faith” but it quickly is becoming an “irrelevant faith,” especially in
America. There is a great need for a new polemic that will resurrect Judaism and Jewish history’s importance and displays once again that Jewish identity is a way of being and not an ethnic food, ethnic humor or a folk dance. The need for a polemic is great right now, as assimilation rapidly erodes American Jewry. My argument is not a fundamentalist rejection of all of modernity. Rather it is a defense of a Judaism that can both defend tradition yet confront the world around us in a meaningful way. It is a Judaism rooted in the vocabulary of the great works of Jewish thought and life that is, at the same time, engaged with the world.
While Halevi believed that Aristotelian philosophy was weakening Jewish faith in his own time, I believe the challenge today is that the politicization of Jewish life is weakening American Jewry. Liberal politics and secular Zionism constitute a “civil religion” among American Jews that cannot be passed down from generation to generation. “Jewish Pride” in a multicultural society is an empty shell that cannot sustain American Jewry. Human-centered politics cannot be an authentic substitute for a God-centered faith. Obviously, the embrace of politics reinvigorated Jewish life and provided a substitute for lost faith. But I do not know if politics alone will ensure the continuity of Jewish life, especially outside a Jewish State. We need a Kuzari for today that will defend the depth and grandeur of Jewish history and a polemic that will defend the integrity of Jewish faith. We must battle to restore Jewish life and thought as vibrant and vigorous, not calcified or ossified. We need a Judah Halevi and a Kuzari for our own time.