The mistaken theology of Yehudah Halevi
Yehudah Halevi (1071-1141) was the foremost exponent of the notion that Jews are the chosen people, which he explained in an extremely problematical manner. He was a Spanish Jewish poet who composed a book on Jewish theology that captured the attention of many Jews. The book is taught in a host of synagogues, with weekly lectures covering most of its five parts, usually by people who do not recognize the problems existing in Halevi’s views.
Halevi explains the book’s purpose at the outset of his volume. “I was asked to state what arguments and replies I could bring to bear against the attacks of philosophers of other religions, and also against [Jewish] sectarians who attacked the rest of Israel.”
This opening sentence captures the volume’s polemical tone. The book is not a rational system of philosophy, but an apologetic theology arguing for the supremacy of the Jewish people.
Halevi: Jews are superior biologically
Halevi’s The Kuzari imagines that the king of the Kuzars decides to adopt a religion, and plans to choose between Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and philosophy. He invites a representative of each of the four groups and discusses their thoughts and teachings with them. As a result of his discussions, the king decides that he and his nation of Kuzar will convert to Judaism.
The king is persuaded, among other reasons, because the Jew tells the king that Jews are unique. Their nature is different than that of other people. Jews, the Jewish visitor insists, are genetically superior, with a perfected religious faculty incorporated in their soul. This unique faculty is activated when Jews observe Jewish rituals, and the faculty makes it possible for Jews, and only Jews, to come into contact with God and receive divine help. Non-Jews, lacking divine contact, are subject to the hazardous and brutal risks of the laws of nature.
The following are Halevi’s words:
“If the law were binding on us only because God created us [and if it would be available to all], the white and the black man would be equal, since he created them all. But the law was given to us [Jews] because He led us out of Egypt, and remained attached to us, because we are the pick of mankind. When the Israelites left Egypt they were all descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – there were no strangers among them.”
Halevi went further with his discriminatory theory. The following exchange between the king and the rabbi seems to compare non-Jews to animals:
“King: Would it not have been better or more commensurate with divine wisdom if all mankind had been guided in the true path? Rabbi: [By this reasoning] would it not have been best for all animals to have been reasonable beings?”
Because Jews are genetically superior – because of their different, more elevated body and soul – even a person who converts to Judaism cannot reach the levels of Halevi’s Jew.
Those, however, who become Jews [but are not born Jews] do not take equal rank with born Israelites, who are specially privileged to attain prophecy, whilst the former [the proselyte] can only achieve something by learning from them, and can only become pious and learned, but never prophets.
Yehudah Halevi, in short, holds the extreme view that Jews are inherently superior to non-Jews. He insists that Jews are the only people that God loves; God gives Jews special attention and even unearned assistance. Only Jews receive prophecy, which is an exclusive valuable gift from God, expressing his love for the Jews. Jews are smarter and more virtuous; they, and only they, with perhaps a few exceptions, are granted life after death. In his Kuzari 1:27, he writes: “Any gentile who joins us [as proselytes] unconditionally shares our good fortune, without, however, being quite equal to us.”
Thus, to illustrate Halevi’s view of non-Jewish converts to Judaism: one cannot convert a camel into a sheep by a conversion process of immersion and circumcision because one is left with a clean and circumcised camel, but the camel is still not a sheep.
The biblical view
At first glance, the Bible may seem to some readers to confirm Halevi’s position that Jews are chosen by God for special loving treatment. Deuteronomy 7:6, for example, assures the Jew that, “you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God: of all the people on earth the Lord your God chose you to be His treasured people.” Deuteronomy 7:7–8 reports God stating that God chose the Israelites “because the Lord loved you.”
Yet appearances are deceiving. While it is true that the Bible states that God chose and loves the Israelites, it also states that God created, chose, and loves all the divine creations. The prophet Amos teaches this important lesson. In 9:7, he quotes the deity saying that God loves and gives special attention to everyone: “Are you not like the children of the Ethiopians to Me, children of Israel? Have I not brought up Israel out of the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor, and Aram from Kir?” All nations and all people are chosen and have a divine mission and responsibility.
A Statement in the Talmud
Second-century rabbis identify single scriptural statements that they consider to be the essence of Judaism. Rabbi Akiva suggests, “Love thy neighbor as thy self.” Similarly, the talmudic sage Ben Zoma encourages respect for all humanity and emphasizes that no people is more chosen than another. He states that this fundamental teaching of the Torah is recorded at its very outset: God created all people in the divine image. We are all descendants of Adam and Eve and we are all, not only Jews, created in the tzelem Elohim, “the image of God,” (Genesis 1:27). Everyone is chosen, everyone is equally good, and everyone has the potential and duty to develop themselves.
The Kuzari is a classic; however, readers need to know that the theology of Yehudah Halevi is wrong. All people deserve respect.
It should be noted that this last Halevi claim is negated by the Bible itself, which states that the Israelites were accompanied by a “mixed multitude” when they left Egypt. It is also negated by the Bible revealing that such notable Israelites as Joseph and Moses married non-Israelites, and by King David and ultimately the messiah being descendants of a Moabite, Ruth.