Halevi, Judah

Halevi, Judah
(c. 1075–c. 1141)
   Spanish Hebrew poet. Judah Halevi was born in Toledo (or perhaps Tudela) in Spain, into a wealthy and influential family, members of the circle of gifted Jews who were employed by the caliph and his court and rose to positions of eminence; but this golden period was already in decline. In Halevi’s early years, the Moslem Almoravid, rivals of the caliphate, were attacking the south of Spain from North Africa, while in the north of the country the Christian armies were engaged in the reconquest of the land for Christendom. As they took over parts of Moslem Spain, the Christian conquerers slaughtered the Arab rulers, while allowing the peasants to remain. The Jews were also permitted to stay because of their economic value, but their situation became perilous and they were in constant danger of being accused of conspiring with their former rulers.
   Judah left his home town around 1090 and moved south, visiting talmudic academies and meeting other Jewish scholars and poets. It was during this journey he wrote his early love poems. When he returned home to Toledo, then in Christian hands, he took up the profession of physician and also traded with merchants in Egypt. Most of his wealthy patients were Christian and of them he says, ‘Thus we heal Babylon, but it cannot be healed.’ He viewed with sorrow the position of his people in the battles raging in Spain, writing in one of his poems, ‘Between the armies of Seir and Kedar [i.e. Christian and Moslem] my army is lost. Wherever they fight their fight, it is we who fall.’ The upheavals everywhere apparently renewed popular belief in the advent of the Messiah, a fervour reflected in Judah’s poems. While lamenting conditions in Spain and the Holy Land (where Christians and Moslems were also warring for control), his verses interpreted these contemporary struggles as the wars between Gog and Magog which presage the coming of the Messiah. The return to Zion is seen as the only remedy for the plight of the Jews: ‘the Jews will return to their historic land and Jerusalem will indeed be rebuilt.’
   In all, Judah Halevi wrote about 800 poems, 80 love poems in conventional Hebrew-Arabic style, about 180 eulogies and laments, 350 ‘poems of the Diaspora’, some lyrical verses and 35 ‘songs of Zion’. Between 1130 and 1140 he composed his prose work, the Kuzari, subtitled The Book of Argument and Proof in Defence of the Despised Faith. Written in Arabic, the Kuzari is a response to the unwilling apostasy of some Jews who accepted an alien faith rather than be forced to leave their homes. It is centred around the conversion of Bulan, the king of the Khazars (see Joseph), who is seen as seeking guidance from a philosopher, a Christian, a Moslem, and finally a Jew whose arguments he accepts. The central point of the work is the antiquity of the world and the basis of Judaism in historical fact. The Kuzari is an anti-rationalist work, demonstrating that religious experience is superior to philosophic understanding. Towards the end of his life, Judah Halevi decided to emigrate to the Land of Israel. He travelled to Egypt and boarded a ship for the Holy Land in Alexandria. The sailing was delayed, however, and in all probability he died in Egypt in 1141. There is a legend that he did in fact reach the Holy Land and on his arrival knelt to the ground in prayer. Enraged at the sight of a Jew singing his elegy to Zion, a Saracen riding by trampled him to death.

Who’s Who in Jewish History after the period of the Old Testament. . 2012.

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