Yehudah HaLevi, Rabbi

June 15, 2006

As a strong candidate for the position of “poet laureate” of Jewish History, Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi of course had to have been a great “Talmid Chacham,” a Torah Scholar, as well. And indeed he was, having been, for example, on friendly terms with the successor of the Rif, Rabbi Yoseph ibn Migash, a teacher of the Rambam. Rabbi Yehudah was born in the year 1075 in Tudela, in northern Spain, but there is some controversy as to where he died. Legend has it that he was slain by a Muslim on horseback, as he knelt to kiss the ground at one of the gates of Jerusalem. Probably a more authoritative version locates the place of his death as Egypt, where he was visiting and being honored by the Egyptian Jewish community, on his way to the Holy Land. He was one of the earliest figures in the period of the “Rishonim” (Torah scholars of the early-to-late Middle Ages) to have attempted to return to Zion.

About 1,000 poems of his are known, divided into three categories: religious poems, poems of the sea, and poems of love. Probably the most famous of his poems is used in the “Kinot,” or Lamentations, recited on Tishah B’Av, when the world Jewish Community mourns the destruction of its two Holy Temples. It begins:

“Zion, it would be fitting of you to ask concerning
Those imprisoned in the Exile,
Who seek your welfare,
As the only remnant of your flocks.”

His “magnum opus” is “The Kuzari – In Defense of the Despised Faith.” It is based on the historical event of the conversion to Judaism of King Bulan and the majority of his people, the Khazars. The righteous King Bulan had a recurring dream in which he was informed by an angel that his intentions were desirable to the Creator, but his deeds were not. In order to extract himself from that untenable position, the King summons a Greek philosopher, a Christian priest, an Islamic mullah, and an outstanding rabbi to his palace. After refuting each of the non-Jewish spokesmen, he calls upon the rabbi to explain the principles of the Jewish faith. The rabbi successfully explains, among many, many others, Jewish ideas on Creation, the Shabbat and the relationship of HaShem to the world.

The King is drawn by the beauty and consistency of Judaism, and convinces his People that it is the true faith, resulting in a singular event in history (after the Revelation at Sinai); namely, the mass conversion of nearly an entire People to Judaism.