Another unusual notion of Yehudah Halevi
Schocken Books, which published Yehudah Halevi’s The Kuzari in a paperback volume, wrote: “The Kuzari is one of the basic books of Jewish literature, a required text in the library of every educated Jew – and every educated Christian who would understand the religion of Israel.” Schocken does not report that The Kuzari also contains notions that are unusual and unacceptable.
Two problematical ideas that Halevi offers his readers are his notion of Jewish supremacy over non-Jews because of their biological makeup and his understanding of history. I discussed the first in a prior essay and showed that it is outrageous, perverse, and harmful. I will now show that his second teaching that Judaism is true because it is based on historical facts is illogical.
Halevi claims that there is a distinction between a religion whose foundation is historical, which he favors, and a religion that is based on faith. In his opinion, Jews know that Judaism is correct because it is based on facts. Jews choose to be Jewish because they know as a fact that the miracles recorded in the Bible actually occurred. He writes:
“[For a religion to be acceptable] it must also have taken place in the presence of great multitudes, who saw it distinctly, and did not learn of it from reports and traditions. In short, all that is written in the Torah and the records of the children of Israel cannot be disputed because they … were revealed before a vast multitude [of witnesses]. Israel … knew these things first from personal experience, and afterwards through uninterrupted tradition [the passing on of the reports through reliable witnesses], which is equal to the former.”
Halevi cites divine miracles performed for the Israelites that were seen by a multitude of witnesses and therefore cannot be doubted: the splitting of the Red Sea, the revelation of the Decalogue, the writing of the Decalogue by God, and the manna. He claims that despite these miracles having been performed over three thousand years ago, Jews know that they occurred because a “great multitude” saw the miracles, told their children about what they saw, and the report of the miracles was transmitted without error from generation to generation.
However, Halevi’s argument is illogical. Everyone knows that it is impossible to pass on a report orally from one person to the next without errors, and this is especially so when the report is transmitted hundreds of times. Very few Jews, if any, are convinced that these events occurred because they rely on the transmission of an oral report over three thousand years. Those who believe these miracles do so because they are recorded in the Bible. Other religions have their own reports of miracles performed by advocates of their faith in their Bibles. Judaism therefore cannot be set apart from other religions and shown to be true because Judaism is a historically proven religion.
What Prompted Halevi’s Extreme Ideas?
Yehudah Halevi was born in Spain around 1074 and died around 1140. He was a contemporary of the rationalistic Bible commentator Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1164). Some scholars think that the two very unalike thinkers may even have been related, Halevi being ibn Ezra’s father-in-law. Ibn Ezra mentions Halevi in one of his commentaries. The two lived during a period of Christian-Moslem wars and the persecution of Jews by both groups. Ibn Ezra and Halevi attempted to solve the difficulties Jews encountered with their Arab neighbors differently, the ibn Ezra with philosophical neo-Platonism, Halevi by espousing a view that states that Jews are biologically superior to non-Jews and Jews, and only Jews, can prove the truth of their religion by the oral transmission of the memory of miracles performed for them.
Halevi’s extreme interpretation was, in large part, a reaction to the terrible oppression inflicted on the Jews by non-Jews, both Christian and Muslim, during Halevi’s lifetime. Halevi’s expression of divine love gave his readers a sense of unique and special power and a feeling that they are chosen by God, making their daily lives more bearable.
His anti-rational “feel-good” approach to Judaism, is palatable to many synagogue attendees. His The Kuzari is easy to read. It praises Jewish values. It belittles non-Jewish teachings. It requires little previous knowledge. It is unlike Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed which requires a good secular education, a general knowledge of Jewish literature and Aristotelian philosophy, is difficult to understand, and praises non-Jewish philosophy.
Halevi’s theology of particularism helped the Jewish masses bear the cruel treatment of the non-Jews of his age and gave them a sense of superiority. But it is wrong. And it angered non-Jews who, understandably, felt insulted, and it fed anti-Semitism.