‘Zion, Shall You Not Beseech’

Two New Books on Judah Halevi Revisit His Legacy

By Allan Nadler

Published July 22, 2009, issue of July 31, 2009.
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The Song of the Distant Dove: Judah Halevi’s Pilgrimage
By Raymond P. Scheindlin
Oxford University Press, 328 pages, $45.00.

The Kuzari and the Shaping of Jewish Identity, 1167 – 1900
By Adam Shear
Cambridge University Press, 400 pages, $90.00.

A heady era of student activism permeated my undergraduate years at McGill University in the early 1970s. Jewish university students across North America were passionately involved on numerous political fronts, none evoking more ardor than the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry. At SSSJ rallies in front of the Montreal Consulate of the Soviet Union, we would defiantly chant our unofficial anthem, a single line from the vast Diwan (collected works) of Judah Halevi (1075–1141), the most prolific Hebrew poet of the medieval Islamic world. Centuries on, his zeal for the exiles of Israel still resonated powerfully with those championing the liberation of the 20th century’s longest-suffering asirey tsiyon (“prisoners of Zion”):

Kuzari From Khazars? Some say Khazars were absorbed into Eastern European Jewry. This 1833 reprint is from Sudylkiv (Volhynia) in Ukraine.
BY PERMISSION OF THE GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY
Kuzari From Khazars? Some say Khazars were absorbed into Eastern European Jewry. This 1833 reprint is from Sudylkiv (Volhynia) in Ukraine.
Tsiyon, ha-lo tish’ali l-ishlom asirayich? Zion, shall you not beseech the welfare of your prisoners?

The same song has since been drafted to serve a variety of other “Jewish prisoner” causes, among them members of the Makhteret (the “underground” wing of the Gush Emunim settler movement), jailed by Israel for its terrorist acts against Palestinians.

Regardless of their various political uses, the lyrics are familiar to traditional Jews from the Tisha B’Av liturgy. The poem from which they are derived is an integral part of the kinot (dirges) chanted on that saddest day of the Jewish year.

It is questionable, however, how many of those who today continue to intone “Tsiyon ha-lo Tish’ali,” whether at rallies or in synagogue, are aware that its author was the prolific medieval Hebrew poet and theologian, Judah Halevi, best known for his masterful theological defense of Judaism, “The Kuzari,” a religious polemic most of which takes the form of an imagined theological exchange between the mythical King of the Khazars and a rabbi that is alleged to have ultimately led to the ninth-century conversion of the Khazar kingdom to Judaism. Still, the Kuzari has long enjoyed an almost canonical status among conservatively inclined Jewish thinkers.

Modern critical Jewish studies scholars have used the nationalist, bordering on chauvinist, bent and anti-rationalist orientation of Halevi’s classic as a counterpoint to the universalism and thorough rationalism of Maimonides’s “Guide for the Perplexed.” Indeed, the towering scholar of medieval Jewish philosophy, Harvard’s Harry Austryn Wolfson, set up a widely accepted paradigm based on the Halevi-Maimonides dichotomy. In this scheme, Halevi emerges as the champion of Jewish national distinctiveness and spiritual superiority, for whom the unique historical and religious experience of the Jews, rather than any universal dictates of human reason, serves as the only reliable proof of Judaism’s essential doctrines.

Combined with Halevi’s dramatic biography, culminating in his unprecedented decision to leave Spain, where the Jews were still enjoying the last gasps of the“Golden Age,” and to end his life among the holy ruins of Jerusalem, Halevi has become in our age a powerful political symbol: a harbinger of religious Zionism. Moreover, the common belief about how Halevi’s life actually ended — a martyr’s tale perpetuated by the 16th-century Hebrew chronicler Gedalya Ibn Yachya — has lent additional pathos to Halevi’s almost mythic status among religious Zionists to this day. Precisely because it has long been universally accepted among traditional Jews, despite having no basis in historical sources, Ibn Yachya’s account is worth citing:

When Halevi reached the gates of Jerusalem, he tore his clothes and walked on his knees on the ground to fulfill the Scripture: ‘For your servants take pleasure in her stones and treasure her soil’ (Psalms, 102:15). He was reciting this lament he composed, ‘Zion, shall you not beseech’ (Tziyon ha-lo tish’ali) when an Arab, observing his fervor, was overcome with religious zeal against him. He then bore down on him with his horse, trampling and killing him.

That Muslims had been expelled from Jerusalem after the Crusaders’ conquest renders this tale historically impossible, part of the vast apocryphal legacy surrounding Halevi. It is therefore especially welcome that two superb studies regarding Halevi have recently appeared. Taken together, they challenge many of the accepted wisdoms about Judah Halevi’s life, thought and influence.

Raymond Scheindlin’s “The Song of the Distant Dove” — based largely on original translations and on close, sensitive readings of 30 of Halevi’s late-life poems — seriously complicates the regnant view of Halevi’s life, in particular the deep reasons for its final act: his legendary “Zionist” pilgrimage. By contrast, Adam Shear’s “The Kuzari and the Shaping of Jewish Identity, 1167–1900,” an exhaustive and impeccably researched history of the reception of Halevi’s theological chef d’oeuvre, explores the many and varied ways the Kuzari has been interpreted over the course of eight centuries of Jewish thought. Shear exhaustively records and explores every edition of — and every commentary to — the Kuzari, brilliantly analyzing its uses by a wide array of Jewish thinkers, from conservative medieval anti-rationalist mystics to the modern champions of both Jewish enlightenment and Jewish nationalism.

In probing Halevi’s late-life poems so deeply and psychoanalytically, Scheindlin is intent on exposing their author’s soul, reading his spirit through his verse. On the other hand, Shear makes very clear from the outset that his subject has nothing to do with the “historical” Halevi, or the original intent of his Kuzari. Rather, he proposes to use the long history of the book’s editions and commentaries as prisms through which to present myriad trends in Jewish intellectual history. In writing his “reception history” of the Kuzari, Shear is so disinterested in Halevi’s own thought system that he almost apologizes for prefacing it with a very brief summary of the book:

It may be the case that this reading of the Kuzari is closest to the author’s intentions, but such a determination is besides the point here, as I am concerned with using the Kuzari’s reception to tell us something about Jewish culture in various historical contexts other than the one in which Halevi’s lived.

Among Scheindlin’s most intriguing and original insights is his claim about the powerful influence of Islamic theology — Sufi mysticism in particular — on Halevi’s religious psyche. Although he is not the first scholar to note this influence, what Scheindlin endeavors to demonstrate is that it was the particular doctrine of passive acquiescence to the will of God (tawakkul, in Islamic theology), and not some nationalist ideology or messianic delusion, that induced Halevi to fulfill the longing for the stones, graves and desecrated holy places of the Land of Israel which permeates his earlier poetry. Reading Halevi’s so-called “Zionist” poetry not as a political rallying cry for an immediate, collective Jewish national return to the Land of Israel but rather as the consequence of a deeply personal and mystically passive posture toward the divine will that reflects heavy Islamic theological influences, is, I believe, the most stunning and counterintuitive contribution of Schendlin’s book.

Scheindlin convincingly demonstrates that, far from advocating a messianic, or nationalistic, program for an end to the Jewish exile, Halevi accepted the conventional rabbinic theology of passively awaiting the final miraculous apocalypse. His pilgrimage to Israel was not intended by Halevi to be emulated by others, and was ultimately a purely personal, mystical, act, best understood in the larger context of the Islamic world in which Halevi spent his formative years. While it is easy to understand how the national chauvinism reflected in the Kuzari, in tandem with the powerful yearning for Zion expressed in his poetry, has led many to see in Halevi an ideologue championing a medieval precursor to political Zionism, Scheindlin makes a very convincing case that this was not at all the case.

A consideration of the revived modern interest in Halevi’s vast poetic oeuvre (first discovered and published by European Jewish scholars in the mid-19th century), especially in Zionist circles, citing “Tsiyon Ha-lo Tish’ali” in particular, comes only at the very end of Shear’s erudite “reception history” of the Kuzari, but his discussion serves only to buttress Scheindlin’s startling thesis.

Shear’s meticulously researched book is a scholarly tour de force whose major achievement is to demonstrate the protean nature of Halevi’s writing. Regardless of Halevi’s original intent, the Kuzari has been enlisted to serve the interests of a kaleidoscopic gallery of Jewish thinkers: anti-Maimonidean mystics in medieval Spain and Provence; eclectic Jewish intellectuals in Renaissance Italy; European champions of Jewish Enlightenment, such as Moses Mendelssohn; early Zionists, such as Achad Ha-am, and, of course, today’s right-wing Jewish nationalists. What Shear convincingly demonstrates is that all of these, and many more, had their own distinctive motives for publishing, commenting on and teaching the Kuzari and, consequently, had widely divergent understandings of its core message:

Just as Jewish intellectuals of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries have created a “Renaissance Kuzari” that programmatically served their cultural agenda, the Berlin maskilim created an “Enlightenment Kuzari” that emphasized both the status of Jewish revelation as a historically valid religious tradition for a particular group along with the possibility of broad engagement with modern learning.

That the Kuzari — despite its chauvinistic championship of the inherent superiority of Jews, Judaism and the Hebrew language — was written in Arabic and opens with theological exchanges involving a rabbi, priest, imam, Aristotelian philosopher and pagan king, helped to allow for the remarkable proliferation of versions and understandings of the book that Shear has so diligently chronicled.

The concurrent appearance of these two superb studies forever changes the old, simplistic stereotypes and dichotomies regarding Halevi’s thought, life and legacy, certainly among scholars. Still, for most Jews who continue to chant his verse, whether in prayer or protest, Halevi will, I suspect, remain most closely associated with the tragedy of Tisha B’Av — the long Jewish exile — and its grand Zionist “correction” with the emergence of the State of Israel.

Allan Nadler, a frequent Forward contributor, is professor of religious studies and director of the Program in Jewish Studies at Drew University.


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