History of Mediaeval Jews - Maurice Harris

Jehuda Halevi.

"Er sung fur alle Zeiten und Gelegenheitcn, und zvurdc bald der Liebling seines Volkcs. — Zunz.

Jehuda Halevi was born in Toledo in Old Castile, in the very year, 1086, in which it was conquered by the Christian King Alfonso VI. So both Moor and Gentile were among his early associations.

A great poet of the Jews, Halevi deserves to be known as a great poet of mankind. For, although he laid the best product of his genius on the altar of Judaism's ideals, his interests were wide and his themes universal — characteristic of the Spanish school. Only in lands of oppression was the Jew thrown back upon himself and his interests narrowed to his own people. Halevi's education favored broad culture, for it included, as well as Hebrew literature, astronomy, medicine and all branches of mathematics. He was as cheerful as Gabirol was morose, and where the latter made foes, the winning graciousness of Halevi brought him many eminent friends. Yet eulogy did not spoil his lovable nature.

Although verse-making formed part of the broad and varied education of the Jewish youth of Spain, he was not a poet by training, but by the necessity of his nature. Every occasion in the lives of his friends was the opportunity for a poem — epithalamia [nuptial songs], on their marriages and elegies on their deaths. At the same time the Jewish community sought his pen to commemorate religious celebrations. It can be imagined how welcome he was in all literary Gircles. He sang of wine, of love, of careless youth. His wit was always ready to enliven a gathering. He turned riddles. Here is one, the answer being a pair of scissors:

"Happy lovers learn our law;

Be joined in one as we.

Aught that passes through we saw,

And again are one, you see."

Translated by Joseph Jacobs.

"What is it that's blind with an eye in its head.

And the race of mankind its use cannot spare.

Spends all its life in clothing the dead,

And always itself is naked and bare?"

A needle.

Translated by Joseph Jacobs.

He painted the glories of nature to the life — so that his readers feel the scenes he depicts, as in the following:

The Earth in Spring.

Then, day by day her broidered gown

She changes for fresh wonder;

A rich profusion of gay robes

She scatters all around her.

From day to day her flowers' tints

Change quick, like eyes that brighten,

Now white, like pearl, now ruby-red.

Now emerald-green they'll lighten.

She turns all pale; from time to time

Red blushes quick o'er cover;

She's like a fair, fond bride that pours

Warm kisses on her lover.

The beauty of her bursting spring

So far exceeds my telling,

Methinks sometimes she pales the stars

That have in heaven their dwelling.

Translated by Edward G. King.

He sent his youthful poems to Moses Ihn Ezra and received this coniphmentary response:

"How can a boy so young in years

Bear such a weight of wisdom sage?"

He became the greatest Jewish poet of the Middle Ages.

The Poetry of Religion.

His was the poetry that was akin to prophecy: with him the poetic inspiration was indeed a divine afflatus. A deeply religious man, poetry was his means of religious interpretation. As years went on he did not regard poetry as -an art for capricious gratification — but a consecration. This particularly applied to the Hebrew tongue that was for him indeed a lingua sacra (sacred tongue). So while he wrote both in Arabic and Spanish, Hebrew was the preferable medium of his muse. Through it he gave to every hope of Israel the poetic touch.

Though a physician by profession, this deeply religious nature preceded every prescription with a prayer. This characteristic rather disproved the adage, "Among three physicians will be found two sceptics." Some of his verses seem to breathe that yearning for God that we find in the Psalms, "As the heart panteth after the waterbrook, so my soul yearneth for the living God."

Some Prayer Poems.

O God! before Thee lies my whole desire.

Although it find no utterance on my lips.

Absent from Thee, my very life is death,

But could I cleave to Thee, then death were life.

What share have I in time, except Thy will?

If Thou be not my lot, what lot have I?

Spoiled of all merit, robbed and naked left,

Thy righteousness alone must cover me.

Yet why should I tell out my prayer in words?

God, before Thee lies mine whole desire.

Translated by Edward. G. King.

O that a dream might hold Him [God] in its bond,

I would not wake: nay sleep should ne'er depart.

Would I might see His face within my heart

Mine eyes would never yearn to look beyond.

Translated by Nina Davis.

Halevi then was essentially the poet of the Synagogue. Some three hundred of his poems are found in the prayer book. We append an abstract of a translation by Solomon Solis-Cohen of his Sabbath Hymn.

I greet my love with wine and gladsome lay

Welcome, thrice welcome, joyous Seventh Day.

Six slaves the week days are; I share

With them a round of toil and care.

Yet light the burdens seem, I bear

For thy sweet sake, Sabbath, my love.

The fifth day joyful tidings bring.

The morrow shall my freedom bring

At dawn a slave, at eve a king.


But while he sang of many themes, he had at heart one — Zion. Zion for him was, indeed, after a rabbinic saying, "The centre of the earth." Here alone was God's message completely revealed. For the land of Israel's past greatness and future hope was with Jehuda Halevi a passion. Israel is God's people and Canaan is God's land. Zion for him typified the Jew, his past history and his ideals for the future.

Longing for Jerusalem.

Oh, city of the world, with sacred splendor blest,

My spirit yearns to thee from out the far-ofif West,

A stream of love wells forth when I recall thy day,

Now is thy temple waste, thy glory passed away.

Had I an eagle's wings, straight would I fly to thee.

Moisten thy holy dust with wet cheeks streaming free.

Oh, how Tlong'for thee! albeit thy king has gone.

Albeit where balm once flowed,the serpent dwells alone.

Could I but kiss thy dust, so would I fain expire.

As sweet as honey then, my passion, my desire!

Translated by Emma Lazarus.

He was, then, an intense Jewish nationalist. He would have hardly understood our modern school that treats Israel's past national era as a temporary stage for the development of its religion. Still less could he accept its conclusions that the loss of Judsea and Israel's dispersion were providential, and that therefore it was not necessary to fast on the anniversary of its overthrow or pray daily for its restoration. On the contrary, he voiced the elegy of Jerusalem's fall as his personal loss. These dirges have been incorporated into the ritual for the 9th of Ab. Some Jews, of his day and ours, may have recited the daily prayer for the restoration of Israel mechanically; not he. Doubtless the wars of the Crusades of his day in which Christian and Moslem fought for the sacred capital of the Jew, but raised his love for Zion to the burning point.

Halevi the Philosopher.

Yet Halevi touched a profounder note in his intellectual nature when he gives us his conception of Judaism, For this physician and poet was also a philosopher. Both in belief and practice he belonged to the conservative school as distinct from the rationalistic (represented in his day by the Karaites), maintaining the legitimacy of the oral tradition, the authority of rabbinic law. While well read in the Greek philosophers — in their Arabic translation probably — he was not the man to endeavor to reconcile Judaism with Plato or Aristotle, He based his system on the Bible itself.

Choosing the romantic story of the conversion of the Chazars (chap, iii) he presents his religious vieWs in that setting. Hence this work is called the Chozari, (usually written Cusari), and with a subtitle, "Book or Argument and Demonstration in Aid of the Despised Faith." The cleverness of Jehuda's plan is at once apparent: for when the Chazar King Bulan called upon representatives of different religions to express their views, the opportunity was offered our author to express his opinion on each religion and to present the excellence of Judaism by contrast. This plan enabled him, too, to unfold his philosophy not in a dry treatise, but in a lively dialogue recalling Job and Plato.

Of course, he does not write objectively as a cold philosopher, but subjectively, as a believing Jew. What it loses in critical acumen it gains in warmth. We feel his heart beating and to demonstrate religion, that is better than argument. Now for a brief outline of the five essays into which the book is divided. The representative of each cult presents his claim: —

First, the philosopher (of the school of Aristotle): he makes God an unreachable abstraction and leaves the king cold and dissatisfied. Next the Christian: his mystic doctrine of the Trinity appears to King Bulan to be opposed to reason. He finds, however, the third, the Moslem doctrine of God, more logical, but the divine authority of the Koran seems unsupported by evidence. Now as both the Christian and the Moslem had referred to Judaism as their respective foundations, his confidence at the start was naturally won for that which even by its rivals was acknowledged second to their own.

When the Rabbi, the Jewish representative, comes forward he makes no statement of belief in God's existence. Why? Because this was accepted by all without question. Next, to explain our knowledge of God and His Law, he expounded the doctrine of Revelation. He therefore turns to Scripture where God is made known to the patriarchs and where He redeems Israel from Egypt. To Halevi biblical evidence is unanswerable authority. He therefore wished to bring foiward the unbroken Jewish tradition of God's revelation to Moses and the prophets. With this hypothesis he demonstrates that divine revelation as found in Scripture is more reliable than man's unaided reason; hence, the message of the prophet is superior to that of the philosopher who derives his idea of God from unaided reason. Haleyi maintained that finite reason alone cannot always discern justice in the world, not seeing the whole of the divine purpose. Having demonstrated the priority of the Jewish tradition to that of the Cross and the Crescent, he next proves the superiority of the Jewish religion by the- marvellous redemption of its followers, and by their divine choice from among all people for the reception of the Law. All associations of Israel seem exalted to this passionate advocate. The land of Israel is superior to all lands, the language of Israel (Hebrew) is superior to all tongues and the people of Israel superior to all nations. Hence his oft-quoted adage:

"Israel is among the nations as the heart among the limbs." If modern Israel believed as deeply in the exalted character of their people, that conviction alone would spur them on to great achievement.

Appreciation of Mosque and Church.

So intensely believing in his own religion — he none the less speaks appreciatively of others as the following will show:

In the course of the argument the question is asked of the Jew: "If yours is the true faith, why have not you attained great worldly triumph, such as have been reached by the Christian and the Moslem, instead of being contemptuously subjected by them?" The Jew answers: "Just as the seed in the earth seems to be changed into soil and water out of all recognition, yet has really changed the earth and water to its own nature, so the law of Moses changes those who come in contact with it, even though it seems to be cast aside by them. Christianity and Mohammedanism are preparations for Israel's Messiah."

The King and his people are now converted to Judaism. But making the rabbi instructor of the nation gives Halevi the opportunity to enter more deeply into the exposition of his Faith in the remaining books, which are briefly outlined in the notes at the close of this chapter.

On the whole, it is the man behind the book that appeals to us rather than the book itself. He was unique. For example, although he obeyed every ceremonial command, and even believed that they were needed for the perfection of the moral life, none the less he imbibed to the full the broad spirit of the prophets. Sometimes we Speak of the letter versus the spirit and point to those who obey every minute precept, but lose sight of the spirit of rehgion. Jehuda Halevi was one of those rare natures who combined in himself an appreciation of the letter and the spirit. These were not contradictories to him. Every precept of the Talmud and every sacrificial law claimed his reverence, yet his soul was thrilled by the glorious teachings of the holy prophets and by their magnificent appeals to righteousness.

Pilgrimage to the East.

This faithful lover of Zion could not at last rest until* he himself stood upon its sacred soil. This became the settled purpose of his later years — to spend the close of his life in Palestine. "To die in Jerusalem" was and is the hope of many a Jew. All lands to him were strange, even the land of his birth, though it was a kindly home. 'T am in the West, but my heart is in the East."

At no time could it be less propitious; for since the first Crusade (chap, xiii), the Christians had possession of the Holy Land and a Jew entered this home of his ancestors at the peril of his life.

It meant leaving a tolerant country, parting from friends, pupils, his daughter and his grandson. His wife was dead. Yes, like Abraham, he left "land, kindred and father's house to go to the land that God would show."

So the famous pilgrimage began about the year 1140. The sea voyage to Alexandria with accompanying storm again stirred his muse and brought out his answering faith:—

extract from Voyage to Jerusalem.

A watery waste the sinful world has grown,

With no dry spot whereon the eye can rest.

No man, no beast, no bird to gaze upon.

Can all be dead, with silent sleep possessed?

Oh, how I long the hills and vales to see,

To find myself on barren steppes were bliss.

I peer about, but nothing greeteth me,

Naught save the ships, the clouds, the waves' abyss,

The crocodile which rushes from the deeps;

The flood foams gray; the whirling waters reel,

Now like its prey whereon at last it sweeps.

The ocean swallows up the vessel's keel.

The billows rage — exult, oh soul of mine,

Soon shalt thou enter the Lord's sacred shrine.

Translated by Emma Lazarus.

A Calm Night at Sea.

And when the sun retires to the mansions of the skies,

Where all the hosts of heaven their general await.

The night comes on, an Ethiop queen, her garment all of gold.

Comes here deck'd with azure and there with pearls ornate.

And the constellations wander through the centre of the sea

Like pilgrims doomed to linger far from all that's consecrate;

Their twinkling forms and figures their likeness reproduce

In ocean's mirror and images of flaming fire create.

The visage of the ocean and of the heavens mingle here

And gather sharp and bright in a pattern complicate.

And the ocean and the firmament commingle in their hue

And form but two oceans that now communicate.

And in the very midst of them my heart another sea contains

With the echoes of its passion — the billows of its fate.

Translated by Joseph Jacobs.

The journey, on the whole, was less of a pilgrimage than a triumph. For in all the great cities, from Spain to Palestine, Halevi songs were sung and his name honored. In this friendly environment he touched his lyre again with all the old fire; thus Egypt was the home of some of his most exquisite productions.

So, his journey pleasingly prolonged by flattering attentions of admiring friends, he did not reach the Holy Land till the seventh month after his starting.

At the sight of Jerusalem — the city of his dreams — he gave voice to his greatest poem on the home of his fathers. It was practically his swan song. We quote a selection from the translation of Alice Lucas:


The glory of the Lord will ever be

My sole and perfect light;

No need hast thou, then, to illumine thee,

Of sun by day, and moon and stars by night.

I would that, where God's spirit was of yore

Poured out unto thy holy ones, I might

There too my soul outpour!

The house of kings and throne of God wert thou,

How comes it then that now

Slaves fill the throne where sat thy kings before?

O! who will lead me on

To seek the spots where, in far distant years,

The angels in their glory dawned upon

Thy messengers and seers?

O! who will give me wings

That I may fly away,

And there, at rest from all my wanderings,

The ruins of my heart among thy ruins lay?

I'll bend my face unto thy soil, and hold

Thy stones as precious gold.

And when in Hebron I have stood beside

My fathers' tombs, then will I pass in turn

Thy plains and forests wide.

Until I stand on Gilead and discern

Mount Hor and Mount Abarim, 'neatli whose crest

Thy luminaries twain, thy guides and beacons rest.

Thy air is hfe unto my soul, thy grains

Of dust are myrrh, thy streams with honey flow;

Naked and barefoot, to thy ruined fanes

How gladly would I go;

To where the ark was treasured, and in dim

Recesses dwelt the holy cherubim.

The Lord desires thee for his dwelling place

Eternally; and blest

Is he whom God has chosen for the grace

Within thy courts to rest.

Happy is he that watches, drawing near,

Until he sees thy glorious light arise,

And over whom thy dawn breaks full and clear

Set in the Orient skies.

But happiest he, who, with exultant eyes,

The bliss of thy redeemed ones shall behold,

And see thy youth renewed as in the days of old.

We next trace him to Damascus. We have only tradition to guide us as to his further steps. It is said that just as he was entering Jerusalem, an Arab slew him. Thus he fell at the very gate of Zion and his life went out in a glow of light, a willing martyr to his ideal. So he reaches the gate of Jerusalem as he enters the gate of Heaven. Both were one to him.


Halevi and Philo:—The philosophic theory of the Neo-Platonists and Philo was that the perfect absolute God could not have directly created the imperfect finite world. The gap between the spiritual God and the material world was bridged by an intermediary emanation or Logos, as explained in our last volume. Halevi criticises this and says, very plausibly, even this Logos must be ultimately traced back to the First Cause (it is only the difference between direct and indirect).

Halcvi's Poems:—Zunz divides Halevi's Divan (book or collection) into 816 poems, of which he finds 300 in the Liturgy. See Zunz's summary, LitcraturgcscJiichtc dcr Synagogalcn r'ocsic, p. 203.

English translations have already been referred to in the body of the chapter. See Heine's tribute in "Romancero," of which here are a few verses translated by Zangwill:

Ah! he was the greatest poet,

Torch and starlight to his age,

Beacon-light unto his people;

Such a mighty and a wondrousPillar of poetic fire,

Led the caravan of sorrow

Of his people Israel

Through the desert of their exile.

Pure and truthful, fair and blameless,

Was his song, and thus his soul was.

When the Lord that soul created,

With great joy His work beheld He,

And he kissed that soul of beauty.

Of His kiss the fair, faint echo

Thrills through each song of Halevi,

By the Lord's grace sanctified.

Remaining Books of the Cusari:—The second book deals with the attributes of God. He defends the use of biblical anthropomorphisms (the speaking of God in a human way), first because they are only used figuratively; secondly, they are helpful in appealing to the imagination and the emotions. Finally the most abstract qualities can only be ascribed to God in a metaphoric way.

In Book III he defends the Oral Law and Talmud as against Karaism, showing his substantial agreement with Saadyah. He also endeavors to show how the symbolism of ceremonial idealizes the daily life of the Jew.

In Book IV he explains the names applied to God and the essences of the angels and contrasts prophecy with philosophy.

In his last book he wrestles with the eternal problem of squaring divine omniscience with human freedom of will. He closes with a criticism of the Kalam, i.e., Moslem rationalism.

Revelation versus Reason:—As against the view of Halevi, we would say today that we may trust our reason and treat the knowledge it gives as a kind of revelation from God.

Theme for Discussion:—Bring out the difference between Jehuda Halevi's love of Zion and the modern movement known as Zionism.