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Halevi Versus Maimonides

Two authors contrast the outlooks of their subjects

Morton Landowne
April 21, 2010

Earlier this month, philosopher Moshe Halbertal and author Hillel Halkin engaged in a spirited tete-a-tete over Halkin’s new biography of Yehuda Halevi at the Moreshet Avraham Synagogue in Jerusalem. The two-hour exploration was wide-ranging, but one of the most intriguing tropes involved a comparison with another Nextbook Press series subject: Maimonides. In fact, Halbertal, a professor of Jewish thought and philosophy at the Hebrew University, and author of a recent book on Maimonides, noted that Halevi’s magnum opus, The Kuzari—which takes the form of a dialogue between the pagan king of the Khazars and a rabbi who was invited to instruct him in the tenets of Judaism—can actually be read as a riposte to Maimonides’ own best-known work. It is as if, he said, “the Kuzari was the response to Guide for the Perplexed, before it was even written.”

Maimonides, according to Halbertal, viewed Judaism as the religion of nature, while Halevi saw it as the religion of history. Halevi found inspiration in examples of the breaking of the chain of causality, like the parting of the Red Sea, while to Maimonides the natural world was the main medium of God’s message. As Halbertal put it: “Nature itself is the profoundest manifestation of the divine,” while, according to Halkin, Halevi’s Judaism was “above all, a religion of action; what a Jew thinks is secondary to how a Jew acts.” Maimonides, Halbertal asserted, would find Halevi’s Judaism to be “spectacle dependent,” while Maimonidean Judaism needs no drama. It holds that there is evidence of God in every aspect of the world: “not like the relationship of a carpenter to a table, but more like the sun and the light. The world is God’s shadow; the very existence of God sustains the world.”

From this point, Halbertal then brought up the aspect of Halevi’s philosophy that has turned him into a “darling of the Israeli settlement movement”: his belief in the intrinsic holiness of the land of Israel. In contrast, Halbertal argued, Maimonides would say that the land of Israel is no different in its essence from any other, and that “its significance comes from the events that have happened in it.”

Halkin countered that Halevi was not a racist—that he was talking about “souls, not bodies”—but agreed that, today, “the Israeli dispute about ‘the territories’ is a Maimonidean versus Halevian argument.” However, he added, “one has to understand where Halevi was coming from.” The Jewish circumstance in Halevi’s time was perhaps the lowest in its history: the first crusade had just taken place and there were massacres occurring in Spain and the Rhineland. For someone like Halevi, Halkin argued, these events were inexplicable: “What is going on here? Why are we losing adherents? Why are we under the sway of two ‘upstart’ religions?” To Halevi, Halkin said, no matter how low the Jews’ fortunes fell, they had to feel they were needed. Jews, he believed, were the link between God and humanity. In modern terms it might seem racist but he wasn’t arguing in terms of a master race, Halkin asserted, but was rather “desperately trying to salvage the fortunes of his people.”

Morton Landowne is the executive director of Nextbook Inc.

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