A poet in a poetic age

Hillel Halkin paints a rich and engaging portrait of Yehuda Halevi and his age, reconstructed from poems, correspondence and philosophical work

Yehuda Halevi By Hillel Halkin | Schocken | 353 pages | $25
Poet, philosopher, physician and pilgrim, Rabbi Yehuda ben Shmuel Halevi has long been regarded as one of the geniuses of his age. Born sometime around the year 1070 in Christian Spain, most likely in Tudela, Halevi is best known as a composer of religious poems (piyyutim) which had became part of the Sephardi liturgy, as well as a series of Songs of Zion (one of which was incorporated into the Ashkenazi liturgy for Tisha Be’av).
He also engaged in the philosophical arguments of his time, authoring The Book of Proof and Demonstration in Defense of the Despised Faith, commonly known as the Kuzari. Originally written in Judeo-Arabic, the Kuzari was translated into Hebrew by Yehuda ibn Tibbon in 1167, and, along with Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, emerged as one of the key works of medieval Jewish religious thought.
In 1140, Halevi set out on a fateful pilgrimage to the Land of Israel. The legend of his death, first published almost 150 years later by Gedalia ibn Yahya in his Shalshelet Hakabbala, avows that Halevi reached the gates of Jerusalem where, with his famous ode “Zion, Do You Wonder” on his parched lips, he was trampled to death by an Arab horseman.
Until the mid-19th century, Halevi was remembered chiefly for the Kuzari, some religious poems and the legend of his ill-fated final journey. But in 1838, a divan of his poetry was discovered in Tunis by an antiquarian book dealer, and two years later the Italian Jewish scholar S.D. Luzzatto published an edition of several dozen of these poems. In subsequent years, more than 600 of Halevi’s poems were made public, a body of work inspiring such figures as Heinrich Heine and the Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz.
Hillel Halkin’s beautiful new biography of Halevi, the latest of the Nextbook Press Jewish Encounters series, will enchant and intrigue in equal measure. Halkin, an acclaimed translator of works by S.Y. Agnon, A.B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz and Sholem Aleichem, has here deployed his formidable skills to rendering Halevi’s poetry in English and to separating out the life from the legend.
The result is a rich and engaging portrait of the man and his age, reconstructed from poems, correspondence and philosophical work, and a treasure trove of materials discovered in the Cairo Geniza and analyzed by S.D. Goitein in his magisterial five-volume work A Mediterranean Society. (The biography includes a series of appendixes discussing scholarly controversies regarding Halevi’s biography, some technical details regarding Hebrew prosody and Halkin’s approach to the translation of Hispano-Hebrew poetry.)
Halevi lived during what has become known as the convivencia, the period of relative concord between Christians, Muslims and Jews in Spain. (Halkin challenges the common misconception that this was really a “culture of tolerance,” taking care to note the often precarious position of the Jews under Muslim and Christian rule, even as they participated in it at the highest levels.)
It was, as Halkin demonstrates, truly a “poetic age,” with poetry serving as “a medium of communication and social exchange.” Spanish Jews such as Shmuel Hanagid, Shlomo ibn Gabirol, Moshe ibn Ezra and Abraham ibn Ezra forged a new Hebrew poetry modeled on Arabic forms and subject matter, singing of “the pleasures of drink; the love of women; male friendship; the splendors of nature; the trials and vicissitudes of time; travel, wandering and separation; even the gore and glory of war.”
“Never before in post-biblical times,” Halkin writes, “had Hebrew reached out to embrace the totality of human experience in this way... Along with medieval Jewish philosophy, such poems were a wedge introducing into Jewish consciousness the possibility of a non-religious perspective.”
HALKIN INTRODUCES Halevi as a young man at a drinking party in Andalusia, composing a poem on the spot and impressing his companions with his virtuosity. Halevi grew to be one of the greatest and most prolific of these poets, his vast corpus including shirat kodesh (sacred or liturgical poetry) as well as shirat hol (secular poetry). Halkin’s masterful translations capture the meaning and sensations of Halevi’s poetry in a clear, crisp English. Halkin also takes care to describe how many of these poems actually work in Hebrew, explaining their structure and meter, wordplay and scriptural quotations and allusions.
He peruses these poems like a detective hunting for clues, trying to tease out from them valuable bits of biographical information. Such work is necessarily speculative, and Halkin is careful with his inferences. He suggests, for example, that Halevi’s powerful love poem (one of the few in this genre that he composed), “Why, My Darling, Have You Barred All News,” recounts his feelings about a youthful affair, and that a series of laments over the deaths of children reflects his mourning of his own lost progeny.
Aside from providing intriguing biographical evidence, the poems disclose Halevi’s idiosyncratic religious outlook, shaped to some extent by Sufi mysticism. Halkin describes Halevi’s as a “soft” mysticism, desiring a sense of intimacy with the divine stopping short of the union of God and the human soul that the Sufis strove to achieve. Halevi’s mysticism would later influence such Jewish thinkers as Nahmanides and the author of the seminal kabbalistic text, the Zohar.
Halevi is widely known for a sequence of poems known as shirei tzion, the most famous of which Halkin translates as:
My heart in the East But the rest of me far in the West – How can I savor this life, even taste what I eat?

How, in the chains of the Moor, Zion bound to the Cross, Can I do what I’ve vowed to and must?

Yet gladly I’d leave All the best of grand Spain For one glimpse of Jerusalem’s dust.
Halkin regards these poems as “a romantic reformulation” of the place of Zion in Jewish tradition, endorsing Heine’s judgment that Halevi “was Judaizing the troubadour’s cult of devotion... by replacing its idealized woman with a divinely chosen holy land.” They reveal what would become the guiding passion of his later days, a journey to Jerusalem, at the time occupied by the Crusaders and mostly bereft of Jews.
HALKIN DEVOTES an entire chapter to the Kuzari, Halevi’s theological masterpiece. Taking a cue from a historical incident and the form of a dialogue between the king of the Khazars and a Jewish sage, Halevi’s treatise appears to be a defense of Rabbinic Judaism against its Christian, Muslim and Jewish Karaite competitors. But Halkin argues that the real challenge to Judaism was not from the other faiths but from the cultural eminence of philosophy; the treatise is a call to his brethren who had let their Jewish commitments sag due to indulgence in the Andalusian courtier life or infatuation with “Greek wisdom” to a renewed allegiance and commitment to their native faith.
Halkin provides a sensitive discussion of this influential and difficult work. Well aware of the issues regarding its composition and the philosophical and theological complexity of the book, he suggests the reader approach the book as “a work of autobiographical fiction in which the philosopher, the rabbi and the Khazar king represent different aspects of the author at different stages of his life.” At the end of the dialogue, the sage resolves to depart to the Land of Israel, presaging Halevi’s own decision.
In the early fall of 1140, Halevi set out from Spain to Egypt, the first leg of his journey to the Land of Israel. From a variety of sources, Halevi’s letters and poems and the correspondence of his friends, Halkin has woven together a fascinating portrait of Halevi’s last months – his extended stays in Alexandria and Fustat (Old Cairo), his friendships with local Jewish leaders, a legal controversy with a Jewish convert to Islam and the breakdown of relations with his son-in-law. In May 1141, he set off from the port of Alexandria to Acre, never to be heard from again.
Halkin considers the reception of Halevi’s work and the legend that surrounds his life and death, showing how his influence continued to reverberate; generations of Jews have been projecting their own needs and desires onto the bard. The Kuzari’s “use of reason to challenge an overreliance on reason” proved useful to Jews during the Renaissance and Haskala. In the 19th century, Halevi was celebrated as a romantic by Heine and as a national poet by Graetz.
But it was his writing about the Land of Israel that Halkin sees bringing forth a “new Jewish discourse about the land of Israel,” in which “the Land of Israel was holy in itself, and the punishment of exile was as much self-inflicted as God’s,” and that raises the question of how we should regard his fateful decision to leave Córdoba for Eretz Yisrael. Was this the purely personal decision of a spiritual pilgrim or the public act of a proto-Zionist?
In the 20th century, the image of Halevi was appropriated by Zionists, both secular and religious. His canonical status in the “national religious” movement in Israel has, in turn, spawned a counterreaction by thinkers such as Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who criticized the writer of the Kuzari for his “nationalist and racist chauvinism.” More recently, Yale scholar María Rosa Menocal has argued that Halevi’s assault on philosophy was a betrayal of the convivencia.
The book concludes on a personal note, as Halkin meditates on his owndecision to leave the mid-century American convivencia to take part inthe Zionist project, and the role Yehuda Halevi has played in his ownlife and self-understanding.
By making his life and his poetry accessible to new generations ofEnglish readers, Halkin has performed a great service, allowing us toexperience and to appreciate Yehuda Halevi’s unique and moving voice.
The writer is assistant professor and director of the Judaic Studies Program at Goucher College.