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The world, words of an essential medieval poet
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The world, words of an essential medieval poet

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Yehuda Halevi

by Hillel Halkin
Nextbook/Schocken, 368 pages, $25

A life of Yehuda Halevi is constrained by the dearth of documented information. He lived in Spain and briefly in Egypt roughly between 1070 and 1141. He was acclaimed both at the time and now as a great poet, rabbi, and philosopher whose longing for Eretz Yisrael he famously expressed as (in author Hillel Halkin’s translation), ”My heart [is] in the East/ But the rest of me far in the West.”

Nearly all biographers agree that he was an assimilated Jew, using the term both as compliment and criticism. He certainly was a cultured individual who fit into the zeitgeist in which he lived. He wrote in Arabic, Spanish, and significantly in biblical Hebrew, at a time that has been controversially termed convivenzia, a fleeting period in which Muslim, Christian, and Jew maintained a tolerance that enabled all to prosper in commerce, science, and the arts.

Halkin’s book is a part of a significant series of some 30 titles in Nextbook Press’ “Jewish Encounters” series, which features similarly concise biographies of Disraeli, Spinoza, and Emma Lazarus. Through this biography, we become reacquainted with the poetry, philosophy, and life of this great medieval Jew, a contemporary of Shmuel Hanagid, Shlomo Ibn Gibriol, Moses Ibn Ezra, and Rashi (who receives scant mention), as well as his younger Spanish rival and successor, Maimonides.

Both Halevi and Maimonides were rabbis, doctors of medicine, and people of the book; both lived in Cordoba in the late 1130’s. But Halkin emphasizes the differences. Maimonides pointed the way toward a Torah-observant Judaism imbued with medieval logical rationalism and mysticism, while Halevi was a religious, albeit secular, and romantic Jew, imbued with the worldly culture of the time.

Almost 24, he would write a love verse: “I shall sing your praise all my days/ For the nectar you sent for my lips … [while] Brother Jug joins in my lays … when my years are not yet two and four.” Halkin notes the pun on the Hebrew kad, which means jug and has the numerical values of kaf and dalet.

As an older man, perhaps in his sixties, he still would extemporize a prose letter: “I’ve all but gone back to my old carousing, as once when every woman was arousing, and I could have loved a thousand, had any loved me back.” And then looking forward to the 15th century French genius poet Francois Villon: “How lovely were those days that never come back!”

Halkin connects Halevi with the Arabic tradition of love poetry, which would evolve into the troubadour and the “new sweet style” (dolce stil nuovo) that would define writers as different as Dante in the 14th century and John Donne in the 17th century, who similarly wrote love poems that contained both erotic and allegorical imagery.

For Halevi, the allegory is not of the divine Beatrice but of Jerusalem, the bride, drawing on the Biblical Song of Songs and presenting it in a medieval context. Halevi’s main philosophical work was The Kuzari, which he wrote (and dismissed as “foolishness”) to persuade Muslims and Christians of Judaism’s great worth, and which no doubt influenced Maimonides’ superior philosophical tract, Guide for the Perplexed.

Perhaps Halevi’s most familiar legacy has been his contribution to the Jewish prayer service: his piyyutim, or liturgical poems (the word Halkin traces to the Greek poetis). Halkin notes that two of his best-known prayers, Nishmat kol chai (the breath of all life) and Barchu, derive from what he terms the “soft mysticism” of Halevi’s poetry. His piyyut on the destruction of the temple — “Tziyon al tish’ali — Zion! Do you wonder at the well-being of your children?” has found its way into Shir Kodesh of the Tisha Ba’av service; and provided the principal trope for Naomi Shemer’s lilting 1967 anthem, “Jerusalem of Gold.”

Halkin, an American who made aliya in 1970, brings to his study of Halevi his own trajectory and his unique sensibility as a poet. The question of Halevi’s trajectory, however, remains a mystery. Again his writing offers the only specific evidence. “Let me travel to my Lord,” he writes, before a journey to Eretz Yisrael that would be his last. “For I will have no peace until/ I make my home in his abode.” He is well received in Egypt and pressed to remain there, but wonders: “Can Egypt hold me/ When my soul’s thoughts pull me/ To Zion’s mount?” And then silence.

Halkin speculates “nervous exhaustion.” There is no conclusive proof of his life in Palestine after he left Egypt; all we know is he died in very short order, and legend and speculation rather than information obscures the matter.

Halkin concludes with an update on the status of Halevi studies by Israeli and Western scholars. You can find much to think about and much to enjoy, including Halkin’s tender translations of Halevi’s poetry, in this fine contribution to furthering our appreciation of our great heritage.

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