- "The Starling's Caw":Judah Halevi as Philosopher, Poet, and Pilgrim
Already in his lifetime, Judah Halevi (ca. 1075-1141) was acclaimed by his Andalusian contemporaries as "the quintessence and embodiment of our country, our refuge and leader, an illustrious scholar of unique and perfect piety." As the late Geniza scholar Shlomo Dov Goitein noted, even in an age noted for its effusively hyperbolic encomiums, such praise was exceptional. Goitein, who cites this description twice in the fifth and final volume of his magisterial Mediterranean Society, comments, "In the combination of his perfection in form and the elementary power of religious conviction Halevi appears to have been unique."1 Indeed, over the course of generations, this sense of Halevi's uniqueness, of the greatness of both his person and his literary output, has only grown stronger. The author of a dazzling variety of both secular and religious poetry of singular beauty and technical virtuosity, certainly the most celebrated and feted Jewish poet of his day, Halevi is widely considered the greatest [End Page 97] Hebrew poet of all time. Moreover, Halevi's philosophical work, the Kuzari, written, or at least completed, in the late 1130s, has attained classic status, and, among medieval Jewish philosophical works, its popularity has been exceeded only by Maimonides' Guide of Perplexed, and perhaps Bahya ibn Pakuda's earlier Duties of the Heart.
Turning from Halevi's work to his life, what has particularly captured the popular imagination and transformed Halevi into a genuine cultural hero is his dramatic decision late in life (1140), to abandon his enviable and secure position—poet, physician, merchant, religious scholar, and theologian—at the very apex of Andalusia's Jewish aristocracy in order to settle in the Land of Israel, then quite desolate after the First Crusade, and end his days there. The inherent drama of this journey was further enhanced by the sixteenth-century legend that as Halevi reached the gates of Jerusalem he tore his clothes and crawled on the ground, reciting his later famous ode "Zion! Have you no greeting for your captive hearts?"—whereupon he was trampled to death by an Arab horseman.
Yet there is something deeply elusive about both Halevi's life and thought. Both his person and writing escape easy classification. We are confronted with a complex blend of rationalism and antirationalism, the personal and the communal, the timeless desire for God's closeness and the messianic yearning for national redemption, an almost entirely passive trust in divine action and a demand for human initiative.
How, for example, is the Kuzari to be described? Is it a philosophic or an antiphilosophic classic? In this work Halevi skillfully argues for the superiority of revelation and religious experience over abstract speculative philosophy and passionately places the doctrine of Israel's uniqueness at the very heart of his worldview; yet he can exclaim equally passionately "God forbid me from [accepting] . . . anything the intellect denies and posits as impossible" (1:89).2 In a particularly famous statement, Halevi explicitly contrasts the God of Abraham with the God of Aristotle (4:16). But, as Howard Kreisel has recently forcefully argued, "Halevi's God of Abraham ultimately wears a visage reminiscent of the God of Aristotle."3 [End Page 98] In a similar vein, how are we to understand Halevi's motivation for journeying to the land of Israel: a political or, perhaps better, religious rejection of the exile; a messianic or, at least, redemptive venture; a religio-cultural critique of Andalusian Jewish society; or a pious personal quest for atonement and closeness to the divine? Must we, indeed, choose between these competing explanations?
Thus the key question with regard to the Kuzari concerns its blend of rationalism and antirationalism, while the key question with regard to Halevi's motivation for journeying to the Land of Israel is how to...