There is something odd about our perception of Yehuda Halevi (1075-1141). After all, he composed some of the most sublime poetry written in the Hebrew language. Yet he also wrote the Kuzari, a work regularly seen as advocating a very narrow, particularistic view of what Judaism means. For example, there are comments in the Kuzari to the effect that to be Jewish is something to which you are born – ‘innate in your genes’ as we moderns might put it. Such an argument contradicts the most basic halachic principle that a person is permitted to convert to Judaism. In other words, the argument is palpable nonsense, not worthy of the great Yehuda Halevi. How, then, can such an idea appear in the Kuzari?
We assume that writers believe what they write. Often that is entirely reasonable; an author reflects his/her own belief system within the work. But that is not the case with the Kuzari, and Plato is to blame for the fact that we think that it is. The structure of the Kuzari is a dialogue between two people. The first is the ‘Kuzari’ of the title, the king of the Khazars. He is not Jewish and, having rejected all other religious or philosophical positions at the beginning of the text, is now looking into the possibility of converting to Judaism. He does so in dialogue with a Rabbi who answers the questions which the Kuzari king poses.
Dialogue was introduced into our way of thinking by Greek philosophers. Plato’s Socratic dialogues form the linchpin of Western philosophical thought. In many of these, Plato introduces us to Socrates, who discusses philosophical ideas with various antagonists and invariably comes out the winner of such discussions. Yet this is not ‘dialogue’ in the modern sense of the word. Socrates’ interlocutors are not there to provide meaningful argument much of the time; rather their role is to highlight the wisdom and intellectual dexterity of Socrates. We therefore identify Socrates’ view with that of Plato – as Plato no doubt intended.
And therein lies the problem. Generations of critics have made the parallel to Socratic dialogues and have understood the views of the ‘wise’ Rabbi in the Kuzari to be identical to those of his creator, Yehuda Halevi. They thereby ignore the comments of the ‘ignorant’ king.
As the contemporary Israeli philosopher Micha Goodman points out, that entirely misses the point of the Kuzari. We need to take the views expressed by both the king and the Rabbi seriously. Halevi intends something much closer to what we understand by genuine dialogue than the Platonic version. Within the process of discussion between the king and the Rabbi, both protagonists receive wisdom through the intellectual dexterity of the other. This is not a one-way show.
At one point, for example, the Rabbi bemoans the foreign influence on Jewish poetry. If this genuinely represented the view of Yehuda Halevi, it would be odd indeed. Halevi’s poetry uses metre derived from Arabic poetry and some of his work is what we would now term secular. The reality is that the dialogue in the Kuzari probably reflects the ‘dialogue’ in Halevi’s own mind; in other words, Halevi was torn between two competing views and in dialogue he wrote down the tension bursting forth from within him.
Far from being the simplistic, extreme nationalist tract which some have sought to describe, the Kuzari is an extremely sophisticated, philosophical work examining the complexities inherent in Judaism. We need to wrestle our understanding of it away from both Plato and the fundamentalists.
Andrew Levy is a member of New North London Synagogue and a founder of its Assif minyan