Like Maimonides, with whom he is often contrasted, Yehuda Halevi spanned multiple worlds. Poet, physician, and philosopher, Halevi is as well known today for poetry that is taught to schoolchildren and has become part of the Jewish liturgy, as he is for The Kuzari, one of the most important works of Jewish philosophy ever published. Hillel Halkin brilliantly evokes the fascinating world of eleventh- and twelfth-century Andalusian Spain and discusses the tangle of religious and cultural influences–Christian, Muslim, and Jewish–that formed Halevi. And he pieces together the mysterious fragments of Halevi’s last days and his final, fateful voyage to Palestine. An acclaimed writer and translator, Halkin intersperses his account of Halevi’s life and tragic death with excerpts from his poems and a magnificent analysis of them. He also places Halevi’s philosophic writings within the larger context of Jewish thought, analyzes his rediscovery by Heinrich Heine and other members of the nineteenth-century German-Jewish intelligentsia, and provides a comprehensive overview of the ongoing debate over Halevi’s legacy as a Zionist visionary.
For much of Hillel Halkin’s biography of 12th-century Jewish poet Yehuda Halevi, Halkin’s aims seem fairly straightforward: to reveal the life, celebrate the work, and ponder the philosophy of the poet laureate of the Jewish people. Nearly three-quarters of the way through, however, Halkin remarkable book opens up further as he explores what Halevi’s thoughts on Judaism should mean to us today—and what they have meant to him. The following questions are designed to help guide a discussion into the issues raised by Halkin’s book.
A Golden Age
"It’s paradise with all these trees, The starlight on the myrtle berries. The blend of spices in the breeze Is God’s and no apothecary’s." –Yehuda Halevi
"The culture of tolerance stretched only so far." –Hillel Halkin
- Halkin argues that the so-called convivencia—the Golden Age of Muslim Spain, in which adherents of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism all lived together in something described as ecumenical peace—is largely a fiction. Instead, Halkin says, Christians and Muslims fought brutal war over territory; Jews were at the whim of whichever rule or whichever city had the most benign uses for them at any given moment. What has your sense of the convivencia been? What were you taught to think of the period in the Jews’ history that gave the world Halevi, Maimonides, and many other great thinkers?
- Halkin believes that the more starry-eyed depiction of convivencia “was mobilized by Arab and pro-Arab intellectuals as supposed proof of Muslim civilization’s liberal attitude toward Otherness.” Are modern historians being fair in making that analogy? Is Halkin being fair in criticizing them for it? And, finally, what do you think?
"Always I think of you—and though your king’s away, And snakes and scorpions scuttle where once grew Your balm of Gilead, your stones and earth Would taste, when kissed, like honey in my mouth." –Yehuda Halevi "May His great name be praised by all that lives from His breath!" –Yehuda Halevi
- In contemporary times, is there cause to believe that Islamic-influenced governments can admit some compromise with non-Muslim elements in their societies? What can the Jewish experience in 12th-century Spain tell us about today’s world? Consider Iran, but also consider Turkey.
“[The Jews] are the only proof that God has given a law to mankind.”–Yehuda Halevi, The Kuzari “Every one of the 613 commandments serves to inculcate some truth, to remove some erroneous opinion, to establish proper relations to society, to diminish evil, to train in good manners, or to warn against bad habits.” -Maimonides, Guide to the Perplexed
- In many ways, Halkin notes, 12th-century Hebrew poetry adopted the conventions of contemporaneous Arabic verse. Do Jewish writers in America similarly use many different forms? In what way have they, in turn, put a Jewish spin on what is considered “mainstream”? Is it possible Halevi, in taking in Arabic forms and making them “Jewish,” may in turn have influenced contemporary Arab literature?
- Halevi wrote several odes to Zion, to which he would eventually attempt to travel. But some—including the great 19th-century German (and Jewish) poet Heinrich Heine—saw Halevi’s Zion poems as really about love. Has any place ever moved you to emotions similar to those conjured by someone you love?
- At least one of Halevi’s poems—“Tsiyyon halo tish’ali bishlom asiraykh,” or, “Zion! Do you wonder how and where your captives”—is now a part of Ashkenazic liturgy. Can you imagine a contemporary poet successfully writing actual prayers? What might be the effect on religious life of secular writers being able to compose holy liturgy? Might equivalents be prayers that various poets have written specifically for Presidential Inaugurations?
- Compare Halevi’s prayer (p. 123) with Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day”. Consider also Naphtali Herz Imber’s “Tikvateynu,” which was adopted, as “Hatikvah,” as the Israeli national anthem.
Zionism Before Zionism
“My heart in the East But the rest of me far in the West—
- Halkin devotes a whole chapter to The Kuzari, Halevi’s great work of Jewish theology. He establishes a dichotomy between Halevi, who felt that Judaism was superior to and could admit no compromise with theology, and Maimonides, who aimed to reconcile the two. Who gets the better of that argument? Are you a Halevian or a Maimonidean?
- Although The Kuzari is about a man—a king, in fact—converting to Judaism, it also unmistakably argues that those born Jewish are in some way superior to converts. While today we find it difficult to buy Halevi’s crude biological justification for this belief, it nonetheless raises the question: is there a fundamental difference between the Judaism of the born Jew and the Judaism of the convert?
- The notion that Jews were not simply chosen but possessed superior souls helped sustain Halevi, who was living as a second-class citizen under Muslim rule. How does such a belief strike you? Is it possible to believe in Jewish Chosenness without believing that Jews are morally and spiritually superior?
- Halkin reads The Kuzari as an argument that a Jew’s place—literally, not only metaphorically—is in the land of Israel. Do you agree with Halkin’s interpretation? How does it jibe with Halkin’s own life, in which he made aliyah?
How can I savor this life, even taste what I eat? … Yet gladly I’d leave All the best of grand Spain For one glimpse of Jerusalem’s dust.” –Yehuda Halevi
“My greatest hope is to head east as soon as I can, if only Providence will assist me.” –Yehuda Halevi, to Halfon ben Natanel
The Romance of Halevi
“Wander-life, you are an old friend—” –Yehuda Halevi
“Hard for the heart made vagrant are the memories Of your ambrosia on my lips—but could I mix My exhalations with their perfumed essence, I would have a way to kiss you always.” –Yehuda Halevi
- The great (and final) journey in Halevi’s life was his trip to the Promised Land. Halkin writes that, for Halevi, this was more than a personal decision: rather, he felt that all Jews were required to try to head there. Do you agree with Halkin’s political reading of Halevi’s poetry—and Halevi’s life?
- Halkin notes that in Halevi’s time, Jews—particularly Jews residing in the region—would make pilgrimages to the Holy Land, but not aliyah. Halevi, by contrast, departed Spain with the intention of living out the rest of his days in Palestine. Have you traveled to Israel? When you’ve been, does it feel more like a pilgrimage—a brief stop to pay respect—or aliyah–the beginning of a life-long commitment?
- Halkin, who was brought up religious but was on the verge of essentially giving up his Judaism altogether, instead made aliyah, believing, “if [you] are serious about being Jewish, the only honest place to be it in was Israel.” Do you agree?
- For Halkin, Halevi is one of the great romantic figures of Judaism. Why is this so? Can you think of any others who are comparable? Is a romantic soul such as Halevi’s an anomaly in Jewish history? Can you identify with Halevi’s tireless wanderlust?
- Halkin writes that Halevi’s greatest poem, “Why, my darling, have you barred all news” is “convincingly real”—in a manner unlike any of his other poems, it seems as though it simply must come out of his own experience. Do you agree? Can one tell about the provenance of a poem from the poem itself?
News and Reviews
Praise for a Poet: Yehuda Halevi
“a thoroughly researched, carefully rendered biography that evokes the vanished world of golden age Spanish Jewry” Continue reading →
Hillel Halkin admired for scholarly innovation
“A masterpiece….represents a a revolution in scholarship, a new way of doing an old task, and the innovative quality of the presentation works a wonder.” Continue reading →
Jacob Neusner (Bard College)
Yehuda Halevi a ‘remarkable achievement’
“A marvelous, gripping book…on a profound and deep subject. It is a remarkable achievement and I highly recommend it.” Continue reading →
Moshe Halbertal (NYU, Hebrew University)
Yehuda Halevi: A fitting tribute to a great Jewish poet
"This is a tour de force. Hillel Halkin's Yehuda Halevi is a complex, daring, and consistently fascinating biography of a complex and daring man, one of the great heroes of Hebrew literature and Jewish history. Halevi comes second only to King David in his fame and influence as a Hebrew poet. He was also a renowned theologian who, in his last years, abandoned life in the fast lane of medieval Spain to make the perilous journey to settle in the land of Israel...a biography to last many generations." Continue reading →
David Gelernter, The Weekly Standard, Sept. 27, 2010
Hillel Halkin’s Yehuda Halevi named Best Book of the Year
"Easily the year's best, however, is Hillel Halkin's Yehuda Halevi, which packs enough learning into one small volume for three or four scholarly studies but does so with an unrivaled lightness of touch and an unembarrassed partisan love for Jews, Jewish books, and the Jewish state." Continue reading →
Hillel Halkin’s Yehuda Halevi Forward Fives: 2010 in Non-Fiction
Hillel Halkin’s biography of the philosopher, doctor, communal leader and, arguably, the greatest Jewish poet of medieval Spain is almost a love letter. A man who also chose life in Israel, Halkin empathizes with Halevi’s extreme longing for Zion.
Continue reading →
Yehuda Halevi reviewed in Jewish Quarterly Review’s Winter issue
"Halkin’s biography, a very wide-ranging and ambitious work, is popular
in the best sense of the term. Written in a lively and informal style, the
book captures the drama and color of Halevi’s life, of the Mediterranean
societies in which he lived, and of his reputation’s vicissitudes throughout
the ages. And though it dispenses with footnotes and relegates all technical
discussions to a series of appendices, it is based on solid scholarship,
displaying a deep familiarity with the relevant primary sources and secondary
literature. In a recent interview Halkin commented, ‘‘Yehudah
Halevi is one of the perhaps few great writers that the more you know
him as a person, the more you love him as a person.’’ That love, without
dulling Halkin’s critical sensibilities, comes through in the biography." Continue reading →
Lawrence J. Kaplan, Jewish Quarterly Review