A map of the Mediterranean Sea from 1154 by the Andalusian cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi(Wikimedia Commons)
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The Pilgrim

The mythical journey of Yehuda Halevi, Judaism’s greatest poet—and the world’s first Zionist

Adam Kirsch
February 09, 2010
A map of the Mediterranean Sea from 1154 by the Andalusian cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi(Wikimedia Commons)

Yehuda Halevi is best known as a poet, one of the leading lights of the so-called Golden Age of Jewish Spain in the 11th and 12th centuries. But after reading Hillel Halkin’s new book Yehuda Halevi, which will be published this month as part of the Nextbook Press Jewish Encounters series, it becomes clear that Halevi is an even larger figure than his poetry suggests. In Halkin’s hands, in fact, he seems to embody all the paradoxes of Jewish life in the Diaspora.

Halevi, who was born around 1070 CE, was perhaps the best writer of Hebrew between the Bible and Bialik; yet the key to his achievement was to import Arabic and Islamic forms into a Hebrew and Jewish context. He lived in a period still remembered fondly—and, Halkin cogently argues, inaccurately—as a paradise of convivencia, when Christians, Muslims, and Jews in Spain lived together in harmony; yet his lifetime was marked by constant fighting between Christian and Muslim rulers and regular persecutions of Jews by both. His classic prose work, The Kuzari, argues for the superiority of Judaism over Christianity, Islam, and rationalist philosophy, yet it does so in a way that strikes some contemporary Jews as unforgivably chauvinist, even racist.

Finally, and for Halkin’s purposes most important, Halevi’s life and death make him a central figure in modern debates over Zionism. Indeed, if you were trying to invent a myth that would capture all the ambiguities of the Jewish people’s relationship to the Land of Israel, you couldn’t come up with anything better than Halevi’s true story.

From his youth, Halevi was famous among writers and patrons of the arts in Jewish Spain. His sacred verse was chanted in synagogues even as his erotic poems circulated among connoisseurs. Unlike most poets, then and since, Halevi was also wealthy, thanks to his second career as a successful doctor. He lived in Muslim cities like Grenada and Cordoba, and Christian cities like Toledo; his friends and family, his whole world, was contained in Sepharad. He might very well appear to be a symbol for every Jew who has ever thrived in the Diaspora, from Babylon to America.

Yet starting in middle age, Halevi was consumed by the desire to visit the Land of Israel. In several poems (which Halkin gives in his own English translations), he chastised himself for not making the journey:

Don’t pretend you have to seek to know His will,
Or wait for auguries. Will but to do it!
Be bold as a panther, swift as a deer!
Fear not the open sea, though mountains of waves crest and crash,
And hands shake like rags in a gale.

In The Kuzari, which takes the form of a dialogue between a rabbi and the pagan king of the Khazars, Halevi allows the king to reproach the rabbi for not making aliyah: “you are disobeying a commandment of your Torah by not going to that land and living and dying there…. All your genuflections [to it] in your prayers are either unthinking or hypocritical, especially since your first ancestors chose to live there above all other places and to be sojourners there rather than natives in their birthplace.” The rabbi can only plead guilty to this hard accusation: “Indeed, you have shamed me, king of the Khazars…. The prayers we utter, such as ‘Bow down to His holy mount,’ ‘He who restores His presence to Zion,’ and the like, are like the starling’s caw, since we do not mean what we say.”

No American Jew can fail to recognize the kind of cognitive dissonance that Halevi confesses to here. Every Passover we recite, “Next year in Jerusalem,” without having the slightest intention of being in Jerusalem next year—even though, for us, the journey is infinitely easier and safer than it was for Halevi in the 12th century. It is the rare individual who, like Halevi, begins to hear this promise as an existential demand. Indeed, as Halkin makes clear, Halevi’s fellow Spanish Jews were anything but supportive of his desire to go to Jerusalem. He wrote two poems rebutting their arguments that it was more sensible, and just as pious, to stay home:

Are we to haunt old wormy graves,
And turn away from life’s eternal source?
Are synagogues our sole inheritance,
And is God’s holy mount to have no heirs?
And where, in East or West, are we more safe
Than in the land whose many gates all face
The heavens?

Yet as Halevi knew, for all the dangers that the Jews faced in Spain, the dangers involved in a voyage to Palestine were much greater. There were the all the perils of sailing—the storms, the pirates, the sickness, and disease. And when he reached Palestine, he would find not a thriving Jewish community but a Crusader state, where a few decades earlier victorious Christian knights had massacred the whole Jewish population of Jerusalem.

Despite all this, however, Halevi set sail in the summer in 1140 CE. Most of the dates and even many of the facts in Halevi’s life are conjectural—Halkin argues, based on Halevi’s poetry, that he had two children who died young, but there is no way of proving it. But we know about his final journey in almost day-by-day detail, thanks to the nearly miraculous 19th-century discovery of letters from and about Halevi in the Cairo Geniza. (That medieval document dump, whose riches were discovered by Solomon Schechter in 1896, will itself be the subject of a future book in the Jewish Encounters series.)

These documents show that the poet arrived in Alexandria just before the High Holidays and decided to wait out the rainy winter in Egypt. Here, once again, he found himself the toast of a prosperous Jewish community, and it must have taken a great effort of willpower to continue on his solitary journey. Halevi exhorted himself in verse:

Can Egypt hold me
When my soul’s thoughts pull me
To Zion’s mount?
On the day I take
To her comforter’s trail,
My pilgrim’s hair uncombed,
My feet unshod,
My heart’s flame will scorch her stones,
My eyes will flood her soil.

Halevi embarked on the last leg of his journey on May 7, 1141. Did he make it to Acre, the Crusader port, or even further, to Jerusalem? Did the Promised Land live up to his poetic visions, or was he disappointed to find a ruined, depopulated country? We can only guess: for the next reference to Halevi comes in a letter to one of his Egyptian friends, dated November 1141, where the poet’s name is followed by the letters zayin, tsadik, and lamed—the Hebrew abbreviation for “may the memory of the righteous be a blessing.” From this fragment of evidence, we know that Halevi must have died either on the way to Palestine or shortly after arriving.

It is as though history wanted to leave Halevi’s pilgrimage blank, so that future generations of Jews could fill it in with their own hopes and fears. Fittingly, then, the last section of Halkin’s book is a survey of all the stories posterity has told about Halevi’s end. The earliest of those stories dates to 1586, when a book published in Venice recorded that Halevi was killed by an Arab horseman while praying at the gates of Jerusalem. As Halkin writes, the story has little chance of being true—it was published more than four centuries after the event it purports to describe—but it does seem to tell us, “if not how Halevi died, how he should have died…. It had the right proportions of fatedness and accident, fulfillment granted and denied.”

Later historians put forward other hypotheses: that Halevi never left Egypt, or that he reached Palestine and was so disillusioned that he crept back to Spain “a shattered man.” But in the late 19th century, Halevi came to be seen as a nationalist figure, whose return to Palestine prefigured the Zionist project. The great historian Heinrich Graetz called Halevi “the first to grasp the significance of Judaism as an independent historical phenomenon.” The religious Zionist thinker Abraham Kook invoked Halevi in arguing that Jewish settlement in Palestine was a pious act. In turn, critics of religious Zionism have turned their fire on Halevi—as when the philosopher and scientist Yeshayahu Leibowitz declared that “Yehuda Halevi was a divine poet, but as author of The Kuzari, he stumbled into nationalist and racist chauvinism.”

Halkin is uniquely well placed to write about the contentious afterlife of Yehuda Halevi. Not only is he a translator, who can write insightfully about the complexities of Halevi’s Hebrew poetry, he is also an American Jew who made aliyah, giving him a personal stake in the battles over Halevi’s meaning for Jews inside and outside Israel. In fact, Halkin writes, his first book—Letters to an American Jewish Friend, which explained his decision to move to Israel—was originally meant to be titled “The Starling’s Caw,” after the line from The Kuzari quoted above. (Halkin recalls that his editor vetoed that title, on the grounds that “people will think you’ve written a guidebook to birdcalls.”) With Yehuda Halevi, Halkin shows once again why we cannot think about Jewishness, Israel, and Zionism without thinking about this thousand-year-old poet.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.