By Hillel Halkin
Nextbook, 368 pages
Yehuda Halevi was probably the finest and certainly the last poet to flourish during the Andalusian convivencia. In that golden age, from the middle of the 8th century almost to the end of the 11th, Muslims, Christians, and Jews in southern Spain are often said to have lived together in exemplary equilibrium. Under the amiable Umayyad caliphate in Cordoba, the Koran’s “People of the Book” shared a common artistic culture. The caliphs were patrons of architecture, music, and literature. Cordoba’s prosperity encouraged its finest minds to transcend religious particularity. Administratively, however, there was no doubt that the Muslims were in command.
The earliest Umayyads had come across the straits of Gibraltar from Morocco to defeat and displace the uncouth Visigoths, whose eviction has never been lamented. Although their cousins, the eastern Goths, made the churches of Ravenna and their mosaics an abiding wonder of the world, the western Goths left no handsome mark on Spanish soil. There were, history reminds us, Goths and Goths; so too are there Arabs and Arabs; and Jews and Jews.
The caliph Abd al-Rahman, who took Andalusia from the Goths, and his successors were blessed with longevity. In Europe’s Dark Ages, they had time to open a wide, bright window looking onto the Mediterranean. Their copiouslibraries matched those of the Ptolemies in Egypt, which ardent Muslim invaders had torched not many years before. Their great mosque, now known as the Mezquita, proved that they were the masters of Iberia, but—as Hillel Halkin notes with admirable, and typical, precision in his new book on Yehuda Halevi—that great monument was oriented not toward Mecca but southward, as if it were in Damascus, whence the Umayyad Arabs claimed to have sprung. Nostalgia is the badge of all our tribes.
Halkin’s illuminating and unhurried account of Halevi’s life and times combines several strands, including the author’s own sometimes halting progress on the pilgrimage that took him from American to Israeli citizenship. He tells us enough (but not too much) about himself to explain the urgent admiration with which he deals with a poet whose verses he translates with—as far as a linguistic ignoramus can judge—accurate ingenuity, not least in finding unforced metrical and verbal equivalences. He spices what might have been a dry text with piquant anecdotes—as when he describes how Ala’llahi Al Mu’tamid, the poet king of Sevilla, was crossing the Guadalquivir and exclaimed that “the wind has spun a coat-of-mail from the water.” A beautiful slave girl, at the water’s edge, called out, “What armor for a battle if it stiffened!” The king bought and married her and, we are promised, loved her ever after. What prettier illustration could there be of wit as a social solvent?
Halevi’s versatility as a poet and, later, as a polemic defender of Judaism testifies both to his creative zest and to the cultivated climate to which he gained access when, in the late 1080s c.e., he achieved entry to the highest literary circles. In the late 11th century, they were dominated by the polymath thinker and writer Moshe ibn Ezra, the foremost resident of “Granada of the Jews”—a nickname that testifies to the power that his co-religionists, notably Grand Vizier Shmuel Hanagid and his son Yosef (builder of the glorious palace we know as the Alhambra), once wielded. In 1066, however, 3,000 of Granada’s Jews, Yosef among them, were massacred in riots before order was restored and all, apparently, continued as before. Mutual respect between the religions at the top was a mask for suspicion and resentment below.
Ibn Ezra at first ignoredYehuda’s request for a meeting, but when the young poet had the chance to ghostwrite a reply to another poet’s versified invitation, the newcomer’s wit trumped the Master’s elegance. With Halevi’s identity revealed, Granada’s grandest door opened to him. The Arabic “girdle song,” in which the young man had proved himself so proficient, was accompanied by music (on lute, drum, and guitar), which left traces, Jewish and Arab, in the raw flamenco that, 50 years ago, I first heard gypsies sing in the caves of Granada’s Sacromonte.
Yehuda was born in the early 1070s, either in Toledo or, as Halkin suggests, in the small town of Tuleda, further north in Castile. From early youth, he was fluent in Hebrew, Arabic (the secular mother tongue), and Spanish. Verse and versatility went together. As Halevi’s life journey demonstrated, literature is as often a means of social advancement as of self-expression, with the outsider commending himself to the powerful by the ostentation of his ingenuity. He excites, he instructs, and he had better entertain.
Combining innovation with respect for tradition, Halevi was by turns lyric poet and, later, the anti-philosophical advocate of an uncompromising version of Judaism. As the author of a long prose dialogue called The Kuzari, he has been construed both as a prototypical Zionist and as a mystic chauvinist. Like so many Jews, he advocated unity and provoked dispute: as Halkin puts it,
every Jewish intellectual might be called a Maimonidean or a Halevian. He either believes that Judaism can and needs to be harmonized with the advanced thought of his age, or he doesn’t. He considers the highest level of Jewish self-realization to lie either in the inward or the outward life. He regards the notion that one can be born with a Jewish soul as either fanciful nonsense or an intuitive truth. He thinks of himself as belonging first to the species of Jew and then to the genus of man or vice versa.
There is, of course, a third class that holds to both views, onecapable of dialogue, ambiguity, and imagination. The variety of Halevi’s workillustrates just such creative tensions. His critics have responded by seeing him in a variety of lights, lights that they not infrequently supply themselves. Did some kind of midlife crisis, prompted by the increasing fragility of the convivencia or by some inner turmoil—or by an apprehension of what was in store for the Sephardic communities three centuries in the future—kindleHalevi’s late, but fervent, yearning for Jerusalem? His spiritual appetite, for the Zion he hadnever seen, matched the passion that, in younger days, he spent on the anonymous love of his life. She was evidently a beauty who was not the woman he married. The unattainable was the thing he mostdesired.
An elegy Halevi wrote for a dead girl, perhaps his own daughter, must be among his finest work. Halkin does it justice:
Unseal your bonds
And heal your sleep
With angels’ song,
And not be wroth
With His own flock
And stop the plague
That He sent forth,
And comfort every heart,
For what it lost!
And may you wake
On the Last Day,
To light like dew,
And rise in the arms
of His mercy,
For death has become you
Pain tempts the poet to treat God as both supreme and not wholly beyond reproach. One can hardly miss Halevi’s underlying charge that the Jews are visited with anguish beyond what their sins deserve. His light touch rarely hides the burden of his sorrows. When insecurity led Halevi to return north, to Toledo, he longed for the lost arcadia of the South:
A dove weeps in the treetops
And her sobs make my
For its pangs are as her pain is
And my fate is shared by her.
I cry for kin and country,
She for old nesting grounds;
I for my lost dear ones,
She for scattered friends;
I for days long vanished,
She for youth now fled.
Now as then, Andalusiafosters nostalgia. I recall how, in 1961, while living there, we saw and heard Segovia play in the Court of the Lions of the Alhambra. It was impossible not to imagine a ghostly Sultan enjoying the precise plangency of the maestro. Theroyal dining alcove opened onto thepatio and its fountain. An entire family of treacherous courtiers was once strangled there, as if for the royal dessert. Southern Spain has now become a place of golf courses, high-rise hotels, expatriates’ villas, and pleasure domes (not least of dissolute Arab plutocrats). The arts of vulgarity may now have the richest patrons, but it remains possible to summon the ghosts of vanished refinement.
In the blanched back streets, sprigged with orange trees, of Cordoba’s Jewish quarter, I always head for the small white synagogue where Maimonides, who was born just a few years before Halevi’s death, prayed. In my view, if not in Halkin’s, its modesty is in happy contrast with the grandeur of the Mezquitamosque. Halkin chooses to puncture the sugared myth that so delights my palate by recalling that the author of The Guide for the Perplexed, although honored in today’s Cordoba as a “Spanish” sage, had—like many Jews—to run for his life later on, after being threatened by the fundamentalist Arab successors of the Caliphate.
This contentious and many-sided study regards the harmony of even the best years of the convivencia with discordant scepticism. The three communities may have agreed to differ, but Halkin insists that the differences (and for Jews, the dangers) were, in the modern cant, endemic. In 1099,Urban II, the godfather of the First Crusade, put an end to a period in which interfaith argument and mutual respect were still conceivable. Men such as Petrus Alfonsi (a Spanish Catholic convert from Judaism) and Peter Abelard, whose idea of Christianity was less dogmatic than the pope’s, had written pious dialogues that, while insisting that Christianity was superior to Judaism, still showed conspicuous respect for Jewish sources. In response to them, Halevi wrote his dialogue, The Kuzari—which took on both Christian polemics and Jewish waverers.
The Kuzari is more than a tract. Halevi was an artist as well as a thinker; his certainties arise, one guesses, from his doubts and his fears. His dialogue questions almost as much as it answers. Its inspiration springs from Halevi’s fascination with the Khazars, whose kingdom dominated the northern Caucacus in the centuries immediately before his birth. Having elected—from whatever spiritual or geo-pragmatic motive—to adopt a distinct monotheistic faith, the Khazar king is said, at the opening of The Kuzari, to have consulted Christian and Muslim divines before deigning to quiz a rabbi, whose despised faith had, at first, little appeal for him. However, he comes to see that, since both Christianity and Islam have based the authenticity of their theology on the books of the Jews, their “truth” must, logically, be parasitic on the ultimate truth—Judaism.
At once lively and solemn, the dialogue ranges well beyond interfaith disputation. Just as Plato’s dialogues quizzed the Sophists, whose self-advancing pragmatism he considered specious, so Halevi’s challenges philosophers who propose rational explanations for matters beyond human understanding. Of these, the most significant in Jewish history had yet to be born: Moses Maimonides was only a baby when Yehuda Halevi left Cordoba for the last time, in 1140. Yet the great libraries in that city were already replete with translations of, in particular, Aristotle, whose notion of a universal and impersonal Unmoved Mover is said, by Maimonides’ enemies, to have corrupted The Guide for the Perplexed. Maimonides’ own perplexity was caused, not least, by the difficulty of reconciling the intervening, if not overweening, God of the Jews with Aristotle’s aloof, self-contemplating deity.
Halevi’s fictional rabbi confronts the issue of determinism five centuries before Baruch Spinoza’s bleak assertion of human bondage to forces beyond our control. The rabbi’s defense of free will is strikingly modern and defiantly mundane: “We are free to choose,” he tells the king, “because we instinctively feel that we are and act in accordance with our feeling. This is not something that can or needs to be proved by philosophy. It is an empirical reality, the denial of which would be as foolish as denying the existence of our bodies or of the world around us.”
Halkin declares that “from the perspective of philosophy. . .the rabbi’s approach is disappointingly naïve.” In truth, it is in line with Samuel Johnson’s delightful response to the “idealism” of Bishop George Berkeley, who had declared physical objects to be insubstantial figments of our senses. Asked how he would disprove Berkeley’s contention, Johnson kicked a stone and said, “Thus I refute him.” Since, as Halkin goes on to say, the rabbi is “rejecting philosophy” itself, it is hard to imagine what response would be more appropriate than the common sense to which he makes appeal. It is a commonplace, even among philosophers, that no sane person ever acts in normal life as if he or she were embargoed, by the nature of things, from exercising free will.
If there is something obstinately “of this world” in Halevi’s defense of human liberty and the empiricism it encourages, it is also true that his rabbi holds the smallest demand of ritual obedience to be unquestionable: “There is no room in the worship of God for guesswork, logic or considered judgment. If there were, the philosophers would have achieved by means of their intellect twice as much as the Israelites.”
In the end, Halevi regards the claims of other religions to the Truth as akin to “medical mountebankery”—something with which he was familiar, since he, like Maimonides (and not a few other Jews), was a practicing physician. Halkin reminds us that Halevi “qualified” as the result of reading Greek medical texts, in Arabic translations, rather than from any clinical training (Salerno, south of Naples in Italy, was the only practical medical school in Europe). However, since medicine was largely a matter of prescribing herbal remedies, combined with a soothing bedside manner, it rarely did serious damage. Jews were much in demand as doctors, partly because of their unusual literacy, perhaps also because of a dreadful hope that they might have secret powers.
Maimonides’ medicine was hardly more “scientific” than Halevi’s had been, but its practice may have encouraged him in his view that “any human being can be a prophet,” depending only on God’s will. The accusation still attaches to him that he dismantled the chosenness of the Jews by his willingness to admit converts. Here he may have been responding to Halevi’s insistence, in The Kuzari, that only a born Jew is biologically capable of prophecy: “Its influence can be bestowed only on those high enough on the ladder of Being to receive it.” Halkin claims, rightly I think, that this “unprecedented” chauvinism derives less from conceit than from intimations of despair over the morale of the Jews. Having for centuries been useful civil (and sometimes military) servants to both Christians and Muslims, the Jews were increasingly marginalized as religion scored deeper dividing lines between once compatible communities.
Halevi’s reckless, perhaps desperate, defense of Jewish priority in God’s scheme was almost certainly excited by the massacre, in 1099 c.e., by the first Crusaders, of Jews (and Muslims) in Jerusalem. He implored God to “roast them in coals made from their Cross,” an imprecation that sorts ill with the tradition, common in the later Diaspora, of Jewsnever entertaining feelings of vindictive hostility toward those who persecute them. Even Maimonides, for all his aloof intelligence, refers to Muhammad as “the Madman” and hopes that the bones of Jesus will be “ground to dust.”
Halevi’s artful effervescence, revealed in his love poetry and in his spirited use of other typically Arabic themes, had ceased to sustain him. After going back, in middle age, to Toledo, his thoughts turned to the fate of his soul. He made the decision to abandon the comforts of literary renown and set off, alone, for Zion. In a final and graceful poem, he praises the favorable wind that, he prays, will carry him there from Egypt. The last, brief stage of his journey was from the Crusaders’ port of Acre, north of Haifa, to the gates of Jerusalem, where, as he prayed at the Wailing Wall, tradition says that he was almost immediately trampled to death by an Arab horseman.
The poet’s history is brought pretty well up to date when we are told that in Israel at the conclusion of the Six-Day War, in 1967, “wet-eyed paratroopers sang [Halevi’s] ‘Jerusalem of God’ at the wailing wall. . .mark[ing] the moment when Yehuda Halevi went from being a national poet to a fully nationalized one.” The variety of modern readings of a poet who lived a thousand years ago testifies to his undimmed vitality. In Hillel Halkin, his genius has found the polyvalent biographer it deserves.