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Halevi, Judah (before 1075–1141)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-J011-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved December 03, 2023, from

Article Summary

Physician, philosopher and perhaps the greatest Hebrew poet since the Psalms, Judah Halevi studied the Neoplatonic Aristotelianism widespread in Islamic Spain, but his loyalty to Judaic traditions, love of Israel and poetic empathy for the sufferings and aspirations of his people made him a powerful critic of that philosophical tradition. His philosophical masterpiece, the Kuzari, is a fictional dialogue set at the court of the king of the Khazars, a people of the Volga basin whose leaders had converted to Judaism in the early ninth century. Reports of the Khazar realm sparked Halevi’s imagination and gave him the backdrop for this effort to celebrate and shape his ancestral faith.

Beyond heartening his fellow Jews in times of upheaval, Halevi confronted philosophical questions that conventional thinkers often begged or ignored. He found the erudite Neoplatonism of his day too confining to God, too speculative and a priori. Tellingly, he condemns Neoplatonism for cultural vacuity, moral sterility and spiritual escapism: while Christians and Muslims, with the highest spiritual intentions, earnestly set about one another’s murder, the philosophers fail to differentiate one faith from another. What is needed, Halevi reasons, is not a still more spiritual intellectualism but a historically and geographically rooted tradition concretely directed by God’s love.

Halevi did not, as romantics often suppose, simply turn his back on reason, or on philosophy generically. Rather, he used his own philosophical gifts and poetic tact to retune philosophy to the ground notes of Jewish experience. He retained but structurally adapted the Neoplatonic linkage of God to the world via emanation, replacing the elaborate hierarchy of star souls with the simple manifestation of God’s word, the ’Amr. Like Philo’s Logos, Halevi’s ’Amr was at once an attribute of God, his wisdom and a manifestation of God immanent in nature. Since the ’Amr is an imperative, it connotes power, volition and command, not just logical entailment or necessitation. Since it is immanent, it allows fuller appropriation than was possible for many philosophers and many of the pietists and mystics in their wake, of the material side of nature, including human nature: language, material culture – including agriculture and other economic activities – law and politics belong to realm of God’s expression. Particularity is not isolated from God. Poetry and works of imagination can be expressions of the divine, not just stepchildren mediating the ever more abstract and abtruse flights of the intellect. Zion could be acknowledged as the land where the divine afflatus was most clearly articulated as a way of life. Longing for Zion need no longer be sublimated in prayer; rather, Israel’s songs of longing for the robust life of the land of God’s grace would voice a spiritual imperative that demanded practical expression and historical realization.

Citing this article:
Goodman, L.E.. Halevi, Judah (before 1075–1141), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-J011-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2023 Routledge.

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