Non­fic­tion

Yehu­da Halevi

Hil­lel Halkin
  • Review
By – September 13, 2011

Three great achieve­ments make Yehu­da Hale­vi an object of con­tin­u­ing fas­ci­na­tion. His poetry’s unmatched mas­tery of form and lan­guage, togeth­er with the unex­pect­ed range of its moods — amorous, satir­i­cal, flat­ter­ing, and pious — place him at the pin­na­cle of medieval Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture. His dia­logue The Book of the Kuzari is an endur­ing clas­sic of phi­los­o­phy. And his aban­don­ment of wealth and priv­i­lege in Spain for an unknown end in the Land of Israel rep­re­sents an almost Zion­ist impulse to make aliyah.

Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor Joseph Yahalom, a schol­ar of Hebrew poet­ry, reads Halevi’s life through the poems, sup­ple­ment­ed by con­tem­po­rary cor­re­spon­dence dis­cov­ered in the Cairo Geniza. Although the book includes a fair amount of tech­ni­cal analy­sis, and presents many poems in the orig­i­nal Hebrew, Yahalom’s main task is to recon­struct the poet’s life and times based on sur­viv­ing texts. In top­i­cal chap­ters arranged more or less chrono­log­i­cal­ly, Yahalom sit­u­ates Hale­vi in the con­text of the Mus­lim-Chris­t­ian con­tention over Spain and the Cru­sad­er con­quest of Jerusalem in 1099. And, like biog­ra­phers before him, he pieces togeth­er the incom­plete infor­ma­tion that is extant about Yehu­da Halevi’s final trav­els in 1140 as a pil­grim to Jerusalem. 

Hil­lel Halkin embarked on a more far-reach­ing project: an imag­i­na­tive recon­struc­tion of the poet’s life, with reflec­tions on Halevi’s times and ours. He does not slight the poet­ry, and takes some pains to explain the forms of a gir­dle song” (muwashah) and the dif­fer­ences between sec­u­lar poems and piyyu­tim. He also speaks plain­ly about the con­tent: dis­cussing lines by Shmuel Hanagid he remarks, The poem throbs with a swag­ger­ing and world­ly sex­u­al­i­ty.” He even makes leaps of insight as he relates poems to Halevi’s life: con­sid­er­ing poems about the death of a child, Halkin sug­gests what this may tell us about Halevi’s own fam­i­ly.

Impor­tant­ly, Halkin treats the pol­i­tics and soci­ol­o­gy of the time as an inte­gral part of the sto­ry, and adds his own obser­va­tions. He dis­putes con­ven­tion­al claims about the Gold­en Age of Spain as a peri­od of tol­er­ance, not­ing the mas­sacres of Jews in Grana­da in 1066 and Tole­do in 1109. In an unmis­tak­able par­al­lel with our own time Halkin describes the rise of fanat­ic Almo­had Islam in North Africa and its attacks on the mod­er­ate Almoravid Mus­lims who ruled south­ern Spain. 

Joseph Yahalom devotes a short chap­ter to a con­sid­er­a­tion of Halevi’s rela­tions with the Karaites, the sect of dis­senters from Rab­binic Judaism who fol­low only the writ­ten law of the Torah and not the Tal­mud. Yahalom finds Hale­vi sym­pa­thet­ic to the Karaites’ respect for their ances­tors and cus­toms but he makes only pass­ing ref­er­ence to the Kuzari, which began as a cri­tique of Karaism. Halkin’s biog­ra­phy by con­trast treats the Kuzari at great length, review­ing the argu­ments for Judaism to the Khaz­ar king with a com­men­tary sen­si­tive to the dialogue’s dra­ma and inter­per­son­al dynam­ics. 

One of the joys of the Jew­ish Encoun­ters series, of which Halkin’s book is a part, is the can­ny pair­ing of author with sub­ject. Halkin’s ear­ly fame came from his Let­ters to an Amer­i­can Jew­ish Friend, which made the case for Jews to live in Israel. The epi­logue of the Kuzari makes the same point: that talk­ing about the Land of Israel but stay­ing at home is not true to Judaism’s empha­sis on tak­ing action. Hil­lel Halkin, who loves lan­guage and Judaism as much as he loves Israel, finds a kin­dred spir­it in Yehu­da Hale­vi. And in Halkin, Hale­vi finds his ide­al biog­ra­ph­er.


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