Zionism’s Favorite Poet

Yehuda Halevi

Yehuda Halevi

by Allan Nadler

Every aspect of the life and legacy of the great Hebrew poet Yehuda Halevi (1075–1141), ardent defender of his “despised faith” and the Jews’ most celebrated pilgrim, is plagued by paradoxes, riddled with both historical ambiguities and political arguments that rage even now.

Offering more than a masterful biography, Hillel Halkin – prolific author, essayist and a skilled translator of Yiddish and Hebrew – includes many eloquent English renderings of Halevi’s poems, no mean achievement as these were written in an Arab­-influenced Hebrew style, meter and idiom that confounds even the most literate Israeli readers. (Halkin’s rendering of the poet’s achingly gorgeous love song “Why My Darling Have You Barred All News?” is alone worth the price of the work.)

But Halkin’s greatest contribution is his nimble navigation of the twists and turns of Halevi’s turbulent life and the controversies that punctuate the many interpretations of his thought. The latter has been caricatured all too often as expressing a narrow religious essentialism, typically contrasted to Maimonides’ more universalist and rationalist elucidation of Judaism – a simplistic dichotomy that Halkin successfully demolishes through forceful, fair analysis.

Halevi’s most famous poem, “Zion Shall You Not Ask After the Welfare of Your Captives,” is popularly viewed as expressing a form of medieval proto-Zionism. The famous refrain of the most celebrated song in modern Israel’s history, the post-1967 war classic “Jerusalem of Gold,” is borrowed from this poem and forms an integral part of the liturgy of Tisha B’Av. Yet this same poem has been recited by Jews for centuries as they penitently lament the destruction of Jerusalem, while seated on the ground, passively awaiting their miraculous redemption – a distinctly un-Zionist posture.

Halevi’s classic theological defense of Judaism, the Kuzari, is largely structured as a fictional exchange between a rabbi and the mythical gentile King of Khazaria, a nation whose historical embrace of Judaism in the eighth or ninth century remains hopelessly obscure and mired in a continuing argument over Halevi’s work. The internal contradictions of the Kuzari become apparent when one considers that the book’s literary conceit – presented as a record of interfaith dialogues conducted by a gentile king inspired by dreams in which God spoke to him and whose final result is the conversion of an entire kingdom of Crimean pagans to Judaism – is fatally at odds with its controversial core doctrine: the inherent divinity of the Jewish nation and its exclusive claim to prophecy.

Yet another Halevi paradox: the poet has inspired religious Zionism since its inception in the thought of Rabbi Abraham Kook (1865–1935), whose distant disciples – today’s ultra-­right Orthodox West Bank settlers – claim the Kuzari as the authority for their claims regarding the intrinsic superiority of Jews to gentiles, and Israel to all other lands. And yet, the same supposed national-chauvinist hero profoundly inspired the apostate Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, whose loving 1851 biographical ballad “Jehudah ben Halevy” reflects his adoration of Halevi as “Ein Liebling aller Menschen” – a darling of all humankind.

Historians are divided about the legends surrounding Halevi’s famous pilgrimage to Israel in 1141 and his martyr’s death in Jerusalem. According to a widely accepted 16th century account, he was trampled by an Arab horseman as he was making his way on bended knees to the Western Wall while reciting “Zion Shall You Not Ask,” his own great poem, and on Tisha B’Av no less! Arguments abound not only about the veracity of this hagiographical account, but also about the place of his birth in Spain (was it Toledo or Tudela?) and death (was it indeed Jerusalem or Acre or Tiberias? Cairo? Or back in Spain, a broken man following his pilgrimage?) and even about whether he ever completed the journey.

Yet with all that remains uncertain about Halevi, our knowledge of his work and life has grown immensely in recent times. Before the mid-19th century discovery and publication of Halevi’s massive Hebrew Diwan (collected poetic oeuvre), filled with all the forms of secular poetry that characterized Spanish Jewry’s “Golden Age,” from the 9th through the 12th centuries, he was thought to be a purely religious liturgical poet. A century later, a team of scholars mining the treasure trove of documents from the Cairo Genizah discovered an abundance of new biographical information, especially about Halevi’s final year in Egypt.

And just last year, two important scholarly books concerning Halevi appeared. Adam Shear (Kuzari and the Shaping of Jewish Identity, 1167–1900) demonstrated the dizzying array of often conflicting interpretations and uses of the Kuzari for almost eight centuries; and Raymond Scheindlin (The Song of the Distant Dove: Judah Halevi’s Pilgrimage) enriched the story of Halevi’s final pilgrimage with new translations and analyses of his last 30 poems, including those written on the ship that took him to Israel. He also reignited an enduring disagreement between German, and later Israeli, scholars over the intent and effect of Halevi’s voyage to Israel. These recent studies, while immensely informative, have also magnified the paradoxes plaguing their protean subject.

Finally, we now have this much anticipated biography of Halevi. Given that the mountain of literature about him has produced as much confusion as information, Halkin’s broad, yet deeply learned, synthesis of his subject’s life and works is particularly welcome. If one were in search of evidence to support the Kabbalistic belief in the transmigration of souls of the dead into the bodies of the living, it would be a big help to read this fine, full account of Halevi’s life. One need not agree with all of Halkin’s perspectives and Zionist-inflected treatment of the many heated debates about Halevi to appreciate the biographer’s passion for, and deep personal identification with, his subject.

In the book’s closing, and its most original two chapters, Halkin abandons the careful neutrality that characterizes most of the work and takes on Halevi’s modern and contemporary critics who have damned him as the progenitor in Israel of nationalist and racist chauvinism. He also challenges scholars, including Scheindlin, who cast Halevi’s final pilgrimage to Zion in the light of Muslim mystical influences, as an act of personal piety, not prescriptive for all Jews, thereby denying that he was a forerunner of Zionism, religious or otherwise.

Halkin is particularly impatient with what he scorns as the romanticism of historians such as Yale’s Maria Rosa Menocal, who has denounced Halevi as a narrow national chauvinist who turned his back on the magnificent Iberian “culture of tolerance,” known as convivencia, an act that Menocal views as portending the decline of Iberia’s Golden Age. Halkin rejects what he calls her idyllic rendering of relations between medieval Spain’s Muslims, Christians and Jews.

Halkin similarly evinces little sympathy for reductive political uses of Halevi and other polemics that the poet’s life and works continue to foment. He laments how the poet’s mystical passion for Zion has not only been misappropriated by West Bank settlers but absurdly denounced by several prominent, liberal Israeli public intellectuals.

The movingly personal final chapter reflects how deeply Halevi resonates with Halkin (who left America for Israel in 1975), responding to a sense of shared destiny with the poet’s conflicts but without ever coming across as grandiose.

“So like Yehuda Halevi,” Halkin writes, “I grew up with convivencia. It was just that the con didn’t go with the vivencia. Like wrong pieces of the puzzle, the two sides of me refused to fit together. The Jew and the American were barely on speaking terms… I could imagine life as an American in America, and I could imagine life as a Jew in Israel, but I couldn’t imagine life as an American Jew… How do you accommodate what is tearing you apart?”

And as Halkin powerfully argues, for all its paradoxes, uncertainties and contradictions, Halevi’s story—much like his own—finally is best appreciated as a life resolutely devoted to resolving that agonizing existential question.

Allan Nadler is the Wallerstein Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Jewish Studies Program at Drew University.

from Moment Magazine

The original text of the article may be found here.

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