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Yehuda Halevi, by Hillel Halkin. New York: Schocken Nextbook, 2010. 353 pp. $25.00.
Hillel Halkin is an Israeli Jew, a Diaspora Jew, a Zionist, and a self-identified secular Jew. One of his previous books, Letters to an American Jewish Friend, makes a powerful argument that Israel is the place of the Jewish future. Halkin’s own journey led him from the poetry of Whitman and civil rights work in Alabama to eventually leaving America for Israel and, having refused service in Vietnam, choosing to join the Israeli army where he was wounded in the Lebanon War. Halkin’s muse and inspiration in this journey was Yehuda Halevi, the eleventh-century Spanish-Jewish poet, philosopher, and lover of Zion. Halevi’s Spain, like Halkin’s America, was a land distinguished by its convivencia, a place where, at least as the story is told, Jews, Christians, and Moslems shared the country harmoniously. Halevi wrote romantic, passionate poetry, reminiscent to Halkin of Whitman, as connected to the beauty of this world as to any sacred hope beyond it. Halevi’s classic work of polemic, the Kuzari, has as its protagonist a Gentile, and Halevi chose, despite all the dangers, to journey at the end of his life to Zion. In his emotionally powerful, evocative biography, Halkin gives us a Halevi who is very human and very much of his own time, but whose struggles between religious and secular passions, between a tolerant Diaspora and a difficult journey to Israel, reflect Halkin’s own twentieth-century dilemmas.
Halkin’s Halevi is a hard-drinking poet with an eye for beautiful women who bears little resemblence to the sainted rabbi of tradition. Halkin’s translations of Halevi’s poems are masterful, and through these poems Halkin builds a plausible if somewhat speculative life history of Halevi. Halkin begins in a tavern, where a youthful Halevi complains poetically that he is far too young to stop drinking once he has begun:
And how can I give up the kad [jug]
When my years have not yet reached kad [twenty-four]?
The poem is many stanzas long, composed in intricate rhyme, and seems to have been dashed off spontaneously in the tavern. As Halkin shows, Halevi never stopped writing worldly poems, and at the end of his life stopping in Egypt on the final leg of his journey from Spain to Jerusalem, Halevi still is able to write:
Let’s have more lutes
For the lovely girls.
Is it their fault,
Unwitting archers they are,
That their arrows have pierced hearts
Though their bare arms
Never sought to lift a sword?
Halevi also composed poems for his patron and friend, Moshe Ibn Ezra:
Is that a lute behind the lattice,
Doves in the branches,
The sweet flight of swifts?
Or has, with its eminence,
The name of Moshe
Filled my thoughts
With all these
To earth’s ends?
Halkin uses these lines, and others, to build a story of their relationship. Perhaps, Halkin imagines, Halevi stayed with Moshe Ibn Ezra and wrote poetry in his lush gardens. Perhaps he was Moshe Ibn Ezra’s personal secretary, as other poets were for other patrons, or perhaps he wrote poems for household events. This sort of imaginative reconstruction is typical of the book and lends it emotional power, although it takes some attention from the reader (especially in the absence of footnotes) to distinguish between Halkin’s research and his imagination. Halkin’s imaginary recreation even finds for Halevi a lover, a woman about whom the following lines could have been written:
Then all I ask of Time’s vast hoard is this:
Your girdled waist, the red thread of those lips
That were my honeycomb, and your two breasts
In which are hidden myrrh and all good scents.
Although no evidence is left of her identity, Halkin suspects that she was someone, almost certainly not Halevi’s wife, who was Halevi’s lover for a brief time and then left him to go on a journey. Halkin finds similarly in another of Halevi’s poems grief over another kind of loss:
O daughter torn
From her mother’s rooms!
What life have I left when,
Shaped from my soul,
She makes my tears flow
Like a spring for a split stone?
As in this poem, Halkin concludes, Halevi grieves the death of his daughter, in another Halevi grieves the death of his son:
Whenever I think of him—which is at all times
In my depths—in my heart—heart of hearts!
My heart is as dead as my boy.
From these poems and others Halkin surmises the existence of Halevi’s two children, who died in childhood, perhaps from an incurable disease that led to Halevi’s suspicion of medicine.
Halkin finds sources for Halevi’s life and family from nonpoetic texts as well. Based on Cairo Geniza documents, Halkin concludes that Halevi was involved in ransoming a Jewish girl from a colorful Spanish queen, and that his other daughter (the one who survived childhood) married the son of Abraham Ibn Ezra. The latter claim Halkin substantiates with careful textual work in an appendix.
In the second half of the book, Halkin grapples with Halevi’s philosophical struggles in the Kuzari, Halevi’s classic, influential, and controversial work of Jewish thought and polemic. The Kuzari is loosely based on the story of the king of the Khazars who may have converted to Judaism. In Halevi’s work, the king becomes a virtuous seeker after truth who entertains and refutes the claims of philosophers, Christians, and Moslems before becoming persuaded of the truth of Judaism by a learned Rabbi. In Halkin’s literary reading of the Kuzari it is an autobiographical text in which both the Rabbi and the King represent different aspects of Halevi himself, and in which neither the King nor the Rabbi is always right. The disagreements between the Rabbi and the King, which, as Halkin shows, persist through the end, represent Halevi’s own inner conflicts. Is it better, Halevi asks through this dialogue, to go to Israel or to stay in exile and ingather souls? Both the Rabbi and the King are in the end transformed by their encounter. The king has learned about Judaism. The Rabbi has learned that if deeds matter more than intentions, this applies, as well, to his own longing for Zion. The intention is meaningless without the act. Though this internal dialogue, as Halkin reads it, Halevi made his decision to leave Spain for Jerusalem.
The book ends with two chapters which are in tone much like epilogues. The first traces the enduring influence of Yehuda Halevi from his immediate medieval successors to current debates in Israel, Europe, and America. Halkin gives us a sense of the broad range of ways that Halevi has been understood, from the medieval reception of Halevi as a philosopher in dialogue with Maimonides to Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who saw Halevi in a chain of xenophobic and particularist Jewish thinkers who must be rejected by liberal Jews in favor of a more rationalist and pluralistic approach. The final chapter tells Halkin’s own story with regard to Halevi, which turns the book into a personal meditation on what Halevi might mean for our time. Halkin’s Halevi is a Zionist and a Diaspora Jew, profoundly immersed in secular culture and yet grappling with the philosophical complexities of his tradition.
Loyola University Chicago