Friday, July 22, 2011

"Yehuda Halevi" by Hillel Halkin

Hillel Halkin's portrait of medieval poet Yehuda Halevi* depicts a deeply religious man. Halkin offers religious motives (as well as others) for his own interest in Halevi as well. Halkin presents an introduction to Halevi's poetry in his connection with the autobiography of the poet. He describes the situation of Jews in Muslim Spain in Halevi's lifetime. He gives an interpretation of Halevi's famous work The Kuzari -- "a defense of Judaism written in the form of a dialogue between a Khazar king and the rabbi who converts him." Altogether, I found the book challenging but very interesting, especially the study of the end of the poet's life.

Halevi's extraordinary commitment to traveling to Jerusalem, Halkin points out, was one of the signs of Halevi's faith. In around 1140, at close to 70 years old, Halevi left a safe life as a highly admired poet in the most sophisticated and luxurious environment available in his time. He chose to make the pilgrimage about which he had written. The long sea voyage to the east was arduous even if the traveler avoided pirates and storms. As he traveled, Halevi wrote a number of poems about his sea voyage.

Jerusalem, Halevi's destination, was ruled by brutal Crusaders, making the final steps of the voyage totally dangerous for a Jewish pilgrim. Halkin uses letters and documents from the Cairo Geniza to detail the final days and the death of Halevi in or near Jerusalem, as well as explaining Halevi's interpretation of Jewish tradition and law to show why he felt that he and his fellow Jews had an obligation to go there. Halkin also presents a brief overview of the influence Halevi had on subsequent Jewish writers down to our own day and to modern Zionism.

Halevi's poetry, Halkin points out, included both secular and religious poetry. While some authors stress the secular side of Jewish life in medieval Spain, Halkin stresses the dualism of this era. He writes:
"On the whole, secularism did not mean to Hebrew poets of Halevi's age... what it menas today. It implied not a rejection of religion, but the acceptance of another, parallel domanin of experience and an exploration of the tensions between the two. These tensions were considered natural because the human life was viewed dualistically, as the union of a mortal body and an immortal soul that collaborated at times and were in conflict at others. Each had its claims and responsibilities, and a poet cold, at different moments, take the side of either or both." (p. 101)
Halevi innovated poetic forms, introducing certain elements and themes from Arab poetry into both his religious and his secular works. Religious poetry was intended to be integrated into worship and the synagogue liturgy; secular poetry, whatever its subject matter, was not so intended. Dualism went further than that. The contrast to modern views is made most vividly.

*Hillel Halkin, Yehuda Halevi, Nextbook/Schocken, 2010

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