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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2012
Number 77
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

A Golden Poet of Spain's Golden Age

A review essay by Matthew Schwartz

Yehudah Halevi, by Hillel Halkin. New York: Schocken

Living in a highly literary age of culture and great poets, Yehudah Halevi’s name will certainly be inscribed near the top of every list. His liturgical poems grace the Jewish prayer books, and his poems about society and love are read today with pleasure. His Kuzari strongly influenced many important Jewish thinkers.

Hillel Halkin’s biography of this great thinker and poet is itself a sort of poem but of a different nature. He presents good material, much of it recently turned up in the Cairo Genizah, and his translations of Halevi are lively and readable. Yet the book neglects to include an introduction, preface, bibliography, footnotes, chapter titles, table of contents, and index. No page numbers appear on even numbered pages nor on the last and first pages of chapters. Hebrew originals of the translated poems are not supplied. A reader might like to see how closely the translation follows the original or compares to other translators’ work. The very title, Yehudah Halevi, seems terse and uninformative. What about Yehudah Halevi? The book seems to flow in a stream of consciousness mode perhaps more amenable to a public lecture than to a bound volume. It is not till late in the book that the reader is told that Yehudah Halevi became a sort of role model for Mr. Halkin himself, who like his subject made aliyah after a period of some uncertainty.

Despite these minor complaints, the book offers much of interest. Eight appendices and a chronological chart are helpful. Yehudah Halevi’s name was always esteemed, but most of his poems were lost for centuries until in 1838, a book dealer discovered a collection of over six hundred of his poems in Tunis and bought it for the Italian Jewish scholar, Shmuel David Luzzatto, who published them gradually over the following years. Fewer than eighty had been known previously. This divan or collection seems to have been assembled from a twelfth century edition, edited by a Hiyya al-Da’udi.

Yehuda Halevi lived in the Arabic speaking Jewish society of Andalusia, in which poetry was a highly essential medium of interaction both for Moslems and for Jews, whose daily speech was Arabic and who adapted Arabic patterns into Hebrew verse. Mr. Halkin argues that the main impulse went back to the preliterate Bedouin life of the Arabian Desert. Let it be added that Jews too had a poetic tradition going back at least to as far as Eliezer Hakalir and Yose ben Yose and why not to the biblical songs of Moses and Deborah, and the Hebrew prayer books contain poems be R. Gershom of Mainz and Shimon ben Abun, who were more or less contemporary to the earliest known Andalusian Hebrew poets.

Yet in Spain, Jews wrote poems on matters fat beyond the religious. Prowess in poetry was greatly admired. It is told of the brilliant Shmuel Hanagid that he once had quoted to him a couplet on the topic of biting an apple. He responded by composing one after another fifteen short but well-constructed poems on that same theme. It was an age that used poetry for all sorts of communications: sending invitations and responding to them, sending thank-you notes, praising friends, deriding enemies and, of course, wooing. Parties or get-togethers would be venues to produce beautiful poems. Popular poetry tournaments were held at commercial fairs. Mr. Halkin opens the book describing a scene in which a young Yehuda Halevi acknowledges in verse the gift of a jug of wine from an admirer at a nearby table in a tavern.

Poetry was not in free or blank verse like today’s norm, but it followed established rules of meter and rhyme. A gifted poet would become a sought-after figure supported by wealthy patrons.

Yehuda Halevi was born probably in Tudela (or perhaps Toledo) between 10701075. He studied Torah as a boy and later spent time in the great yeshiva of Lucena with R. Yitzchak Alfasi and R. Yosef Ibn Megas. Contemporary documents refer to him as Ravan (Rabbi), and he was obviously a scholar of biblical and rabbinic literature. He was anxious to meet the great poet Moshe Ibn Ezra of Granada, but his rhymed letters to the famous man brought no invitation. Then Yehuda Halevi was once drinking with friends, probably in Cordoba, who were struggling to form a poetic response to a complex, tricky poem, in the new muwashah style, which Ibn Ezra himself had written. As Yehuda Halevi described it himself in a latter rhymed prose letter, it was he who formed a virtuoso response to the master’s poem. Moshe Ibn Ezra was sufficiently impressed with the young man’s writing to send him the longed for invitation, given of course itself in a beautiful poem. Moshe Ibn Ezra would become mentor to the young Yehuda.

The more or less stable years of Umayyad rule over Muslim Spain had ended long before, and Yehuda Halevi’s life, ca. 10701141, saw many disruptions in Spain, Christians conquering from the north and fanatical Berbers from North Africa invading the south. Jewish life was often precarious. We know today little enough of Yehuda Halevi’s biography or his family. He married and begat several children. One daughter may have married a son of Abraham Ibn Ezra. At one point Yehuda practiced medicine.

Yehuda Halevi’s classic Kuzari has influenced many lines of Jewish thinking Zionist, Musarist, historical.

Kuzari developed through several stages and rewrites. Perhaps starting as a response to Karaitism, it became largely an opposition to philosophy and less so to Islam and Christianity. Our earliest known reference comes in a letter of Yehuda Halevi to Halfon ben Netanel in which he mentions the Kuzari and thanks a certain Yosef ben Bargl for praising “whatever foolishness comes from my pen.” The rabbi in the Kuzari presents many arguments regarding Judaism. Central to the case for Judaism are the revelation of Torah and the course of Jewish history.

Mr. Halkin focuses especially on the discussion between king and rabbi of the importance of Eretz Israel, and the rabbi’s ultimate decision to make aliya reflects a point in Yehuda Halevi’s own life and in Mr. Halkin’s as well, for he too went through a period of indecision before settling in Israel shortly after the Six Day War.

Recently an important cache of letters of Halfon ben Netanel was found in the Cairo Geniza. An Egyptian Jew, Halfon traveled widely on business and formed a friendship with Yehuda Halevi. The cache included five letters from Yehuda Halevi and several more that mention him, and they supply important new information on the final act of Yehuda’s life, his famous journey to Israel. Yehuda became the great poet of the Jews’ longing for Zion, and Mr. Halkin refers to his “My Heart is in the East” as the perfect poem. Nevertheless, Yehuda was no longer young, and a journey from Spain to Israel would be both difficult and dangerous. Parting from family and friends and a lifetime of memories was not easy, and Yehuda reflects this in some of his poems. A poem about storms at sea seems to reflect his inner turmoil.

The rabbi’s discussion with the Khazar king in Kuzari about making aliyah probably also reflects the author’s own inner storm. He may have looked to the Patriarch Abraham and his journey to Israel at age seventy-five as a role model. In 1140, he finally did depart from Andalusia, sailing toward Egypt. Geniza documents allow us to reconstruct an account of Yehuda Halevi’s stay of some months in Alexandria and a shorter visit to Fustat (Cairo). The presence of the well-known poet caused a stir in Egypt’s Jewish community, and Yehuda Halevi was under constant pressure to accept invitations and to prolong his stay. He remained 2 months in Alexandria then traveled by pack animal to Fustat arriving before Hanukah. He was very moved by scenes of the Israelites’ experience under the pharaohs. The Jews of Egypt were at the time fairly secure under Fatimid rule. Yehuda participated in a number of get-togethers which centered around poetry. Some of the poems were about women. Others praise local dignitaries or Eretz Israel.

There are hints that Yehuda quarreled with his son-in-law, who was probably a son of the famed Abraham Ibn Ezra. A legend tells that Yitzchak Ibn Ezra, who had accompanied Yehuda from Spain to Egypt, may have then proceeded to Baghdad, where he converted to Islam. Yehuda Halevi returned to Alexandria and boarded ship in early May 1141, for the journey to Israel. Contrary winds delayed the departure for a number of days, so that the ship actually left port on Shavuot. A poem about sailing was probably written earlier since the day was actually the holiday. It appears that his young grandson may have already been en route from Spain to join him in Israel.

The last poem of Yehuda’s that we know comes from this time and expresses his friendship for a certain Shlomo Ibn Gabbai. The Geniza provides the latest known contemporary reference to Yehuda Halevi. A letter of May 11, 1141 from Abu Nasr ben Avraham to Halfon ben Netanel mentions the harassment of Yehuda by “that apostate dog” Ben Albasri, who complained to the police about some complicated affair. Yehuda was brought to the local qadi and set free upon swearing to his innocence. Ben Albasri, nevertheless, continued to slander the poet publicly. The letter ends “How is it possible for such mental cases to drag strangers through the gutter without being prevented by you?”

Mr. Halkin argues that the famous legend of Yehuda Halevi being trampled by an Arab horseman in Jerusalem may be essentially true. A letter of November 1141 to Halfon refers to Yehuda Halevi as “May the memory of the righteous be a blessing.” The letter goes on to mention the deaths of three important Jews that year. The one whose name is not mentioned is likely Yehuda Halevi. No other reference to the story appears in a Jewish source until publication of Shalshelet Hakabbala in 1586, which tells of Yehuda being murdered by the Arab horseman as as he bowed in the dust of Jerusalem. Heinrich Graetz and many others thought the story pure legend. The Geniza has recently supplied another letter, much of it indecipherable which, however, refers to Yehuda as gone and says “at the gate of Jerusalem.” A further complication is that Benjamin of Tudela reported seeing Yehuda Halevi’s grave in Tiberias during his visit less than thirty years later.

Yehuda’s Kuzari made a lasting impression on Jewish literature and on Jewish love of Zion, probably influencing some of the people who returned to Israel long before modern Zionism. Although most of his poems were lost over the years, his story and his poetry also influenced such writers as Heinrich Heine who wrote a poem about him. Judah Al-Harizi, thirteenth century author of Tahkemoni, praised him highly. Some modern Israeli thinkers have criticized Yehuda Halevi as abusively nationalistic; e.g., Yeshaya Leibowitz and Avraham Burg. The historian Maria Rosa Menocal sees Kuzari as ethnocentric, an intellectual assault on her concept of the convivencia, the relative harmony of Islam, Christianity and Judaism in early Mediaeval Spain. Mr. Halkin correctly warns moderns not to read too much of their own isms into Yehuda Halevi, whose search was personal and not a political ideology.

Perhaps the truest word on Yehuda Halevi as a poet and thinker and as a Jew is Heine’s opinion of Yehuda’s writings of Zion as love poems. Mr. Halkin also tells a wonderful story that Rabbi Avraham Kook once, during a sleepless night in London, copied down from memory Yehuda Halevi’s beautiful poem, “Waked by my thoughts and driven to profess God’s praise in song and plead my neediness, I from my eyes brush midnight’s sleepiness to seek the pleasance of the Lord’s palace…”


Matthew Schwartz is a professor in the history department of Wayne State University and a contributing editor.

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