Remarkably, although Yehuda Halevi’s well-known book is filled with illogical ideas, many Jews call the poet a philosopher and rabbi, although he was neither, and praise his book. I will show some of the illogical matters.
The twelfth century Spanish poet Yehuda Halevi (1075 or 1086 to 1141) was well-respected during his lifetime. He is better known today for his poetical defense of Judaism called The Kuzari, a book that is admired by so many Jews that numerous rabbis give classes and lectures on it, as if it is a holy book. Unfortunately, neither these rabbis nor their congregants delve deeply enough into the volume to understand it.
Little is known about Halevi’s personal life, including when he was born and died, who he married and about his children. The noun “Halevi” was not his name; it was applied to all Jews who are Levites, putative descendant of Jacob’s son Levi, and means “The Levite.” Virtually all that is known about him is drawn from brief often somewhat obscure personal references contained in his poems and some letters, including letters found in 1896 in the Cairo Genizah in Egypt. We know that he was not only a successful poet, but also a physician with a medical practice; but he wrote that he did not like being a doctor and felt that he was not good at it.
Much of his poetry is very good. He wrote non-religious and religious poetry. An example of his non-religious poems on wine, women, and song are: “O swear by love that you remember days of embraces / As I remember nights crammed with your kisses.” An example of his religious poems, a poem about Israel, is famous: “My heart in the east, but I live in the west.”
But, Halevi’s present-day renown is based on his Kuzari, a fictional account of a rabbi explaining Judaism to a non-Jewish Kuzar king. Halevi subtitled his Kuzari “The Book of Proof and Demonstration in Defense of the Despised Faith.” Like his negative opinion about his medical practice, Halevi repudiated his Kuzari in a letter as “foolishness.”
Halevi argues in a circular fashion, for example, that Judaism is not based on faith but on historical experience. We know, he insists, that there were six hundred thousand Israelites at Sinai because the Bible tells us so – and we know that the Bible is telling us the truth because six hundred thousand Israelites could not have been wrong. This is illogical. Surely the biblical account of Sinai could have been written long after the days of Moses. It is like an affidavit brought to a court allegedly proving an incident that occurred a hundred years ago written by people who were not present. And if the event occurred it may not have been before a multitude of Israelites, but by a small number of people.
Halevi “proves” that free will exists by arguing that we know it exists because we feel that it exists. This is a second illogical argument.
But his most radical and outrageous notion, an idea never previously presented by any thinker, is that Jews are biologically superior to non-Jews. Non-Jews, he insists, are incapable of fully developing spiritually, even converts to Judaism cannot develop because their biology remains unchanged. Thus, no non-Jew can become a prophet.
Amazingly, he writes that the Kuzar king liked Judaism and converted. It is hard to believe that a rational person would convert to a religion that demeaned him
Halevi also took an extremely conservative approach to the divine commandments. Whereas Maimonides, for example, explained that all of the Torah’s commands are rational, Halevi insisted that humans are incapable of understanding the divine commandments and they must be obeyed simply because God said so. All? Isn’t do not kill or rob or commit adultery rational?
The Kuzari contains curious discrepancies, For example, Halevi rails against philosophy as being harmful to Judaism, yet he goes to great length to attempt to prove that an ancient Jewish mystical book that he respected Sefer ha-Yetzirah is a philosophical book. This is inconsistent. Either Jewish philosophical books are harmful or not.
Probably the only redeeming factor in the Kuzari is Halevi’s argument that Jews should stop waiting for God to restore Israel to the Jewish people; Jews should take matters into their own hands.