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Measuring The Giant That Was Yehuda Halevi

Measuring The Giant That Was Yehuda Halevi

Hillel Halkin’s new biography of the poet-philosopher does him justice.

Who was Yehuda Halevi? Generations of Jewish schoolchildren here and in the Palestine Yishuv grew up with his classic poetic line, “Libi ba-mizrach, v’anochi b’sof ma’arav” — “My heart is in the East (the Land of Israel), but I, my body, is in the furthest reaches of the West.” Living and working in the 11th and 12th centuries in Spain, he was one of the giants of Hebrew poetry. That he was a significant figure in the history of Jewish thought is unquestioned. He was a central figure as well in what came to be (to use the late-19th-century term) Zionism — and, as it emerged, in the battles over Zionism.

But as Hillel Halkin’s marvelous new book “Yehuda Halevi” (Nextbook/Schocken) cogently argues, Halevi was all of these and more.

Halkin’s biography paints a larger-than-life picture of a figure who indeed was larger than life. He posits that Halevi personified the realities and paradoxes of diaspora Jewish life. They constitute a cluster of issues familiar to Halkin, an author, translator, literary critic and political commentator who himself confronted the contradictions inherent in diaspora life and chose some four decades ago to live in Israel.

Halevi and Halkin are in fact two sides of the same coin. Hebrew literature, Zionism, Israel, the diaspora and its discontents, Jewish thought, the very essence of Jewishness itself — they all come together, over a span of 1,000 years, in the poet/philosopher and in his biographer. And the shidduch works very well.

But the reader ought not be gulled; this is a serious and extremely well researched book. In it Halkin superbly places Halevi in three separate but related contexts: the social and political history of both Spain and Muslim lands at the beginning of the High Middle Ages; the history of Hebrew literature; and the history of Jewish thought.

In 11th-century Spain, Jews, Christians and Muslims lived in relative harmony; it was not one of the tolerance or acceptance found in open pluralistic societies. Jews threaded their way between the Scylla of Muslim hegemony and the Charybdis of encroaching Christians. But the harmony was real: Halkin nicely lays out the history of the period — crucial for understanding Halevi’s work — demonstrating why the harmony was rarely tinged with religious extremism. Notwithstanding the conflicts, rooted in political realities, which did arise between the religions, the atmosphere was one in which Muslim poetry (to take one important example) could inform the Jewish poetic enterprise and literary creativity was nurtured.

Here “Yehuda Halevi” truly excels. Halkin, whom many of us know as a leading translator of Hebrew prose fiction, now walks the reader deftly through the complex forms of Medieval Arabic poetry — crucial to understanding how the Hebrew poetry of Halevi and his circle came to be. And, in a virtuoso performance, he renders into English the complex metrical patterns and rhythms of a number of Halevi’s exemplary poems, always retaining the scansion — even the rhymes — of the original. Halkin, unlike other Halevi biographers, neatly answers the question of where Halevi’s poetry fits in the sweep of Hebrew literature.

Many readers, however, know Halevi as wearing a different yarmulke, that of “philosopher,” as the author of the magisterial “The Kuzari,” in large measure a response to 11th-century Christian polemics against Judaism. Halkin’s comprehensive discussion of “The Kuzari” tells us as much about Halevi’s artistry (after all, a poet was at work here) as it does about the place of the book in classical Jewish thought.

Finally, there is Halevi as “Zionist.” In the eyes of many, Halevi was a nationalist figure, a Zionist before there was a Zionism. The debates over Halevi-as-nationalist/Zionist have been going on since he disappeared on his way to Eretz Yisrael. (The stories of the poet’s dramatic and romantic end — having finally reached Palestine, he is said to have been trampled to death by an Arab horseman as he prayed by the Western Wall — have achieved mythopoeic status, and are well-rehearsed by Halkin.)

One of the best parts of Halkin’s biography is his thoughtful review of the historiography and literary analysis of the issue of Zionism as invoked by Halevi (including some lovely pages on the messianist Chief Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Ha-Cohen Kook). The discussion culminates with the moment in the Six-Day War “when Yehuda Halevi went from being a national poet to a fully nationalized one.”

“Yehuda Halevi” is not without its minor flaws. There are some small questions, for example, about Halkin’s approach to historical analysis. For one thing, he appears to be a tad surprised that members of a religious group in 11th-century Spain had no common identity other than their religion, or perhaps being residents of a given town. But there would be no reason for them to be identified as members of a “nation”; it was not until well into the High Middle Ages that there was any consciousness of “nationality.” This point is worth bearing in mind while reading about the interplay between Muslims, Jews and Christians in “Yehuda Halevi.”

Further, in order to make a point about historical verities, Halkin invokes the storied Rubicon, famously crossed by Julius Caesar: “The Rubicon is a real river in northern Italy that can still be seen and crossed.” But it is not clear to any number of historians of ancient Rome that anyone is yet able to cross this fabled stream — or even to know where it is!

How is Yehuda Halevi to be evaluated a millennium after his death? To be sure, he was four square in the tradition of Jewish poetry — which is to say, Arabic poetry — of the early High Middle Ages in Spain. At the same time, he was a trailblazer in any number of areas — in poetry, to be sure, and clearly in Jewish thought.

The poet-philosopher was more than a genius and a polymath. His vitality is as strong in 2010 as it was in 1210, and there is a reason for this, as Hillel Halkin teaches us. Halevi was a Jewish original. As is often the case in literature, the rebels of yesterday are the ancestors of today — and so it was with Yehuda Halevi. n

Hillel Halkin will be in conversation with professor Raymond Scheindlin Thursday, April 22 at noon, at the Mendelson Convocation Center, Jewish Theological Seminary, 3080 Broadway. Cosponsored by Columbia University

Halkin will also be in conversation with Gabriel Sanders of Tablet Magazine, Sunday, April 25 at 3 p.m., at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Pl.

Jerome A. Chanes is the author of “A Dark Side of History: Antisemitism through the Ages,” and editor of the forthcoming “The Future of American Judaism.”

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