- The Song of the Distant Dove: Judah Halevi's Pilgrimage
Raymond Scheindlin's new book blends scholarship, poetry, and literary biography to trace the spiritual transformation that inspired Judah Halevi's pilgrimage to Palestine in 1141. Halevi's fabled decision to abandon the comforts of Andalusian Spain for the rigors of a trip to his beloved Zion concluded, much as the aging poet envisioned, in death. From Gedalia ibn Yaḥya, the Renaissance-era writer, we inherit the account of Halevi's murder by an Arab zealot at the gates to Jerusalem. As Scheindlin notes, the legend has no historical accuracy but retains, albeit in distorted form, the yearning for "spiritual martyrdom" articulated increasingly in the poet's writings. Marshalling historical and literary evidence, Scheindlin charts two parallel tales of pilgrimage. One follows Halevi's physical departure from home and his sojourn in Egypt en route to Palestine; the other, equally arduous, imagines his inner trek from conventional piety to a singular expression of faith.
As Scheindlin indicates in his introduction, there are three sorts of sources available to trace Halevi's pilgrimage: the poet's philosophical chef d'oeuvre, the Kuzari; his poems and literary epistles; and a remarkable corpus of letters, many still in manuscript, preserved among the holdings of the Cairo Geniza. Scheindlin's decision to engage all of these sources is rare and a delight. The book falls into three sections. Part I, "A Portrait of the Pilgrim," traces the poet's religious development and the emergence of the themes that signal his turning away from conventional religious piety toward a more personal, ascetic, and visionary mode of writing and belief. In rejecting the worldly success he enjoyed and which he associated intimately with Arab culture, Halevi drew ironically on Arabic-Islamic literary motifs. This section includes a dozen poems, in Hebrew with English translations, that illustrate Halevi's growing conviction that he must leave Spain. Part II, "Pilgrimage," follows Halevi to Alexandria, Cairo, and back to Alexandria. Relying on letters written by Halevi's hosts and handlers during his stay in Egypt, as well as poems identified with this period, Scheindlin imaginatively reconstructs Halevi's time in Egypt, [End Page 89] where Jewish notables vied for his attention. Scheindlin describes this as a transitional point in the poet's struggle between the pleasures and obligations of worldly life and the intense desire for a more austere piety and pilgrimage. Of particular interest is the incident discussed in chapter 6, reconstructed from fragmentary letters, in which Halevi was denounced by an apostate in Alexandria. Part III, "The Pilgrim Speaks," explores Halevi's motives for his pilgrimage, his debate with friends who opposed his decision, and the internal debate that parallels the outer one. Scheindlin argues that Halevi was motivated by a vision of "solitary devotion" and personal quest. Among the poems in this section we find the famous "Ode to Zion." Scheindlin reads these and other poems that focus on the physical imagery of the Land as products of "meditation." In fact, they may have been intended to facilitate meditation as well; the striking evocation of physical landmarks and space in both the dream and Zion poems suggests their potential for this kind of use. Their message, contrary to what Halevi's readers (then and now) believed, was ultimately intended for an elite audience of like-minded men. The concluding chapter presents poems of voyage, full of sailors and storms and fear of the sea; as Scheindlin cautiously notes, it is impossible to verify that these poems were in fact written on board ship. (At least part of the time, Halevi was too seasick to do much rhyming.) Nonetheless, they too chart the poet's "internal journey" in poems that are early and important expressions of "individual piety in Hebrew."
This is a wonderful book to read, especially if you love poetry, and even more especially for its evocation of the great age of Andalusian Jewish life and letters. Methodologically, Scheindlin has been duly cautious about the limits of his written sources...