Shiur #01: Rabbi Yehuda Halevi and the Kuzari

  • Rav Itamar Eldar



Rabbi Yehuda ben Shemuel Halevi was born in 1075 (and not in 1085, as is often claimed) in Toledo, Spain.  Shortly before he was born, Spain was conquered by the kingdom of Castile, and gradually passed over from Arab-Islamic control and culture to Christian control and culture.  R. Halevi received a broad education in Scripture, Talmud, Arabic poetry and philosophy.  He was even slightly influenced by Christian Castilian culture, and was familiar with the popular Andalusian dialect.


While still a young man, R. Halevi uprooted himself and moved to the Torah center in the south of Spain, where he studied with R. Yitzchak Alfasi and befriended R. Yitzchak ibn Migash.  His talent as a poet drew him into the intellectual circles that combined Torah and high office.  In one such gathering, he won a competition for his mimicking the poetry of Moshe ibn Ezra; in the wake of this success, he grew closer to Moshe ibn Ezra and moved to Granada.  R. Halevi studied medicine, which provided him with both a livelihood and inspiration.  He married and had one daughter (who, according to legend, married R. Avraham ibn Ezra).


On the one hand, R. Halevi was familiar with the "good life," which finds expression in his poems about love, wine, desire, and friendship.  On the other hand, he saw the misfortune of his people, who suffered under the yoke of Christianity and Islam – the Crusades and Arab persecution.  This found expression in R. Halevi's nationalistic poetry about his people and about Zion.[1]


Toward the end of his life, R. Halevi was overcome by sadness, which found expression in his consciousness of sin (sparked, perhaps, by the life of luxury that he had enjoyed in his early years) and his aspiration to devote himself to "purity of the soul and thought." His yearnings for Zion, which brought him to write his many odes to Zion (including the celebrated "Tzion halo tish'ali"), did not give him rest.  He therefore decided to leave his daughter (his wife had already died), his grandson and all his wealth and move to Eretz Israel.


R. Halevi's journey to Eretz Yisrael left us with many sea-related poems.  He made many stops along the way; in every community that he visited, he was received with great honor and swamped with repeated requests to stay.  The last stop of which we have firm knowledge was in Fostat, near Cairo.  R. Halevi appears to have set out from there for Eretz Israel, though it is unclear whether or not he ever reached his final destination.  Legend relates that when he nestled against the stones of Eretz Israel and proclaimed his lamentation, "Tzion halo tish'ali," he was trampled by an Arab horseman (Gedaliya ibn Yachya, Shalshelet ha-Kabbala).  Other traditions report that R. Halevi's grave is found in Kavul in the Lower Galilee, near the grave of R. Avraham ibn Ezra (Avraham Zakut, Iggeret Yuchasei Avot and Sefer Yuchasin).


R. Halevi's literary output was exceedingly great.  Close to one thousand of R. Halevi's poems and piyyutim have survived (although not in a single collection), as well as a number of letters.  In the realm of Jewish thought, we have the Kuzari,which is highly original in its anti-rationalist approach, as we shall see below. 




Before we begin to deal with the book itself, several general comments are necessary.


The most readily available translation of the Kuzari is that by Hartwig Hirschfeld (NY, 1905).  It is available online here ( and here (  Since this translation is in the public domain, we will use it here, with occasional modifications.  Note that, like many prominent Jewish thinkers both before and after him (such as R.  Sa'adya Gaon and Maimonides), R. Halevi composed his philosophical work in Arabic, the language spoken by most Sefaradic Jews of his time.


The lectures will not follow the order of the book, but will instead be arranged topically.  Anyone who has time is strongly advised to read through the book in order.


These lectures will contain many citations from the Kuzari, and it is suggested that one open the book and see the passage in its context, something that will not always be done in the lectures themselves.


When I base remarks in one lecture upon ideas that were developed in an earlier lecture, I will try to include a reference to the lecture in question.


In my opinion, the Kuzari is one of the most important works in the history of Jewish thought, and although close to a thousand years have passed since its composition, it is still very relevant in many areas.  Over the course of these lectures, beyond the study of the book itself, I will try to comment on its contemporary relevance.




The account that is related in the Kuzari is based on a story that reached Spain in the tenth century, many years after it purportedly took place (approximately in the eighth century).  The Khazar people lived on the shores of the Caspian Sea.  The story revolves around a king who dreamt the same dream as his general, a dispute between the representatives of Byzantium and Arabia who tried to convert the king to Christianity or to Islam, respectively, the confession secretly made by each of them (the Christian and the Moslem) about Judaism's superiority over the faith of his disputant, and the mass conversion of the Khazar kingdom to Judaism. 


In his book, R. Halevi contends with the claims of Christianity, Islam, and philosophy, his historical circumstances having placed him at the intersection where Christianity and Islam met, with Greek philosophy lurking all the while in the background. 


The dialogue form that R. Halevi utilizes in the Kuzari, whereby an author presents his teachings in the framework of a discussion between two or more characters, and where he puts questions and answers into the mouths of the parties to the discussion, is not new.  Many centuries earlier, Plato had written a large number of dialogues through which he presented his views on a broad array of philosophical issues.


In his discussion of Plato's Dialogues, Alexander Kore mentions one of the reasons for using this literary form:


The dialogue, at least the true dialogue, like the Socratic dialogue of Plato, the dialogue as a living literary form, and not merely as a means of expressing ideas… is a dramatic work… What emerges from this is that in every dialogue, in addition to the two actors who are clearly evident - the two characters who conduct the dialogue - there is a third actor, hidden from the eye, whose presence is no less critical: the reader, the hearer.  (Aplaton Ki-feshuto, Tel Aviv 1979, pp. 22-23)


     It seems to me that this goal of drawing the reader into the story and involving him in the discussion was one of R. Halevi's primary objectives when he adopted this form.  He had two main reasons for doing this.


First, the dialogue found in the Kuzari reflects the real circumstances of the author's time.  The full title of the work commonly known as the Kuzari is "The Book of Arguments and Proofs in Defense of the Despised Religion." And indeed, the period during which the Kuzari was written was a period during which the other religions – and especially philosophy – were seen as more universal, more relevant, and most importantly, more respectable than Judaism; they also appeared to provide better answers to theological problems.  Thus writes Yehuda Even Shemuel in the introduction to his contemporary Hebrew translation of the book:


The dazzling new philosophy of this period – the period of Avicenna and Al-Ghazali – attracted the hearts [of Jews] more than all the words of the Prophets and the dicta of the Sages; the historical consciousness of the people of Israel as "the nation of God" had dimmed in their hearts; the people's connection to hopes of redemption had weakened – and while few of the masses had been drawn after the philosophers, confusion has been cast into their hearts. 


     The literary form of dialogue used in the Kuzari well reflects this reality.  The book was not written in a vacuum or in laboratory conditions.  We are dealing with a period that was rich in dialogue and discussion, at times even aggressive disputes, between the various religions.  The questions and challenges issuing forth from the mouth of the Khazar king to the Jewish Rabbiare not theoretical, theological matters, but rather issues with which Jews – the book's intended audience – were familiar.  The dialogue form gives the reader the feeling that the book is addressed specifically to him, and that the real-life dispute that he himself had witnessed just a day before is the very same dispute found in the book between the king and the Rabbi


     The second reason R. Halevi used the dialogue form was because it suited the main message of his work.  R. Halevi's point of departure is not rational ideas, but rather tradition, the living encounter that cannot be denied.  R. Halevi tries to convince the reader - who has been blinded by the flashy pretentiousness of philosophy that purports to put forward "absolute truths" - that he will not reach faith and trust by a purely rational process, but rather through a living encounter with a living tradition, which provides immeasurably stronger testimony and proof than any logical argument.  The Rabbi presents his faith in the God of Avraham who took Israel out of Egypt, rather than in the God of Adam who created the world.  With respect to the creation of the world, one can only talk about logical arguments and rational persuasion, but with regard to the exodus from Egypt there is living testimony that has been passed down from generation to generation.  In order to connect with the exodus from Egypt, the foundation of the Jewish faith, I must go to my grandfather, rather than to the library. 


The book's literary method, in addition to other aspects of the work, is amazingly well suited for this approach.  The reader of the Kuzari encounters not only an idea, but a person with whom to identify, whose outlook on the world is interwoven into the dialogues.  At the climax of the discussion, in the middle of the book, one character converts to Judaism, and at the end of the book another character moves to Eretz Israel.  These would seem to be extraneous details that are irrelevant and unnecessary for the philosophical discussion, but they are indeed necessary if the author wishes to attract not only to the reader's intellect, but his heart as well.[2]




     The book's narrative brings all the questions regarding the Jewish faith in the context of the Khazar king's search for the true religion.  From the very outset, it is clear that the king – in the wake of his dream, which we shall discuss below - is looking for the correct path that he himself should follow.


Not having been satisfied with the answers provided by the Christian and the Moslem, the king turns to the Rabbi and begins a series of questions.  The discussion of these questions continues until the end of the fifth section of the book, and logic would dictate that only at the end of this discussion, after he receives satisfying answers, would the king choose and adopt the path of Judaism.  R. Halevi, however, chooses to have the king convert at the end of the first section.


It turns out, then, that the dialogue in the last four sections of the book is not between a Jew and a non-Jew who raises objections and attacks from without, but rather between two Jews – "within the family." One of them is only at the beginning of his journey, but he is a Jew, and he now "comes to study the Torah and the books of the Prophets" (II, 1).


If we assume that the narrative that accompanies the ideas is not arbitrary and that there is significance to the fact that the king converts at the beginning of the second section, it behooves us to try and understand what R. Halevi had in mind when he structured the narrative as he did.[3] It seems that we may proceed in one of two directions.


     The first possibility is that R. Halevi distinguishes between a) topics of discussion that are acute and decisive for a person choosing his path in life and religion, and b) topics that are important in shaping and developing a religious decision, but are not critically necessary in order to come to such a decision.  The first section of the Kuzari deals with issues that are critical when coming to choose one's religion; when the king is satisfied with the answers he received, he chooses to convert.  He is then free to raise important questions in order to know, understand, and apply the true religion, but these questions had no impact on his previous decision. 


This approach is difficult to accept; while it is true that the first section deals with fundamental questions, most of the issues discussed therein come up again in later sections of the book.  It seems, then, that the aforementioned distinction will not stand up to a textual test.


     The second possibility is that R. Halevi wants to distinguish not between issues but between perspectives.  R.  Halevi wishes to emphasize for his readers that these questions are legitimate not only for those who attack Judaism from without, but also for those who are found within the fold.  A Jew's asking these questions does not place him beyond the pale.  These questions might set him back to the starting point, but his questions are still legitimate and acceptable, just as the Khazar king continues to ask questions precisely out of a desire to draw near even when he has already decided that he is part of the family.


It seems to me that this last point is also connected to what was said above.  R. Sa'adya Ga'on wrote a book, Emunot ve-De'ot, with the same objective as R. Halevi, namely, to defend the despised and attacked religion.  R. Sa'adya tries as much as possible to provide the work with an air of objectivity; any thinking person making proper use of his rational faculties will reach the same truths as he does.  The power of R. Sa'adya's book, according to the author himself, lies in its "universal" nature.  R. Sa'adya attempts to prove the true religion from a universal perspective, and his book is therefore written in the way that it is.


This is not the case with R. Halevi.  We encounter the Rabbi in the first section of the book; the person who defends the despised religion is a Jew, who cannot be objective – he is prejudiced and an interested party.  However, R. Halevi does not try to draw his strength from objectivity.  He tries to create in the reader identification and to stir up his religious and nationalistic sentiments.  These sentiments grow stronger and stronger from paragraph to paragraph and from section to section, as the king of the Khazars' empathy for the Rabbigrows to the point that he adopts his religion.  The dialogue deepens between the two Jews – one newly converted, the other a Jew from birth – until we reach the Rabbi's move to Eretz Israel; in parallel, the reader's sense of being at home grows, and all his lost feelings return to him.  He feels pride, identification, and faith in the righteousness of his path, and suddenly he finds in himself everything that the Rabbiand the Khazar king embody.[4]


Once again, R. Halevi prefers the unmediated human encounter with an authoritative figure who can provide the reader with a sense of certitude and trust over the rational process that is filled with uncertainty.




     The beginning of the story, the "trigger" that brings the Khazar king to ask his questions and begin his search, also teaches us about R. Halevi's outlook.


It begins with the king having a recurring dream of an angel appearing to him and telling him, "Your intentions are pleasing to the Creator, but not your deeds"… But despite all he did to observe the rituals [of the Khazar religion], the angel would appear to him night after night and say to him, "Your intentions are pleasing, but not your deeds." This prompted the king to explore and investigate different beliefs and religions.  Finally the king converted to Judaism together with many other Khazars.  (I, introduction)


All because of a recurring dream, the king will ultimately abandon his own religion, turn to a different one, and bring his people to adopt that religion.[5] Even a person who is religiously devout and a mighty ruler can be troubled by a little dream that denies him rest.


Many tend to understand R. Halevi's use of a dream as part of his shifting of the focus from the intellect to the experience.  It seems to me, however, that this is not the case.  When R. Halevi speaks of tradition and of the revelation at Mount Sinai, he does not focus on the emotional aspect of the experience, but on the fact that it contains more logical certainty that any other logical process.  R. Halevi is not an existentialist; he rather speaks of experience, tradition, and encounter as certainties – certainties that parallel intellectual proof, but are stronger than any logical process, in which one can always find some failing.


It seems to me that this is the way to understand the dream.  Chazal have already asserted: "A dream is one-sixtieth of prophecy" (Berakhot 57b).  The angel turns to the king and says to him in the name of God: "Your intentions are pleasing to the Creator, but not your deeds." And from that very moment, nothing will set the Khazar king at ease.  No logical persuasion will undermine the certainty of his encounter with God that outlined for him the direction that he must follow.


The Khazar king's doubts did not begin with intellectual analysis, which in these areas, according to R. Halevi, is highly dubious, but rather with the certainty of his encounter.  Already here R. Halevi alludes to what he has to offer us in the name of Judaism.


Judaism is not just another philosophical teaching, but rather the certainty of encounter.  The response to the Khazar king's encounter with God that undermined his world is another encounter with God – the exodus from Egypt, the revelation at Mount Sinai, the holy spirit, and prophecy.  These are the key concepts that run through the entire teaching of Judaism, according to R. Halevi, and they provide a fitting answer to the Khazar king's distress.


A second point of importance is the content of the dream: "Your intentions are pleasing to the Creator, but not your deeds." Here, too, R. Halevi lays the foundations for the polemic that he will conduct with the philosophers.  One of the striking differences between philosophy and Judaism is the importance that Judaism attaches to human action, as opposed to the scorn with which philosophy relates to it.  Thus says the philosopher to the king of the Khazars:


If you have reached such disposition of belief, be not concerned about the specific set of rituals with which you worship God, or how you offer prayer or praise, or which words or language or actions you employ.  If you wish, you could even fabricate your own religion, for worship and praise and correcting your traits… Or fashion your religion according to the laws of reason set up by philosophers, and strive after purity of soul… (I, 1)


     The Khazar king agrees that the philosophical idea is logical and beautiful, but it does not relieve his distress, as he says to the philosopher:


Your words are convincing, yet they do not correspond to what I wish to find.  I know already that my soul is pure and that my entire desire is to gain the favor of God.  But nonetheless I was told that my deeds are not pleasing, though my intentions are.  There must no doubt be a way of acting that is intrinsically pleasing, and not just through the intentions attached to them.  (I, 2)


     All this constitutes the background for Judaism's outlook, as explained by R. Halevi, which attaches great importance to action.  It is in action and in the fulfillment of the mitzvot that one finds the embodiment of religious service.  This itself, as R. Halevi calls it, is "the root of faith and the root of heresy" (I, 77).  The Khazar king himself understands this:


After what you have said, I should not think so.  Only according to the philosophers can one be pious without deciding how to draw near to God: through Judaism, through Christianity, or through some other religion, or through a religion that he fabricates for himself.  But with this outlook, we are relying on reasoning, speculation and dialectics.  According to this everyone might endeavor to belong to a creed dictated by his own speculation, a thing which would be absurd.  (II, 49)


     We noted above that the king converts to Judaism already at the end of the first section, but the problem of the dream that triggered the entire discussion is only resolved at the end of the book in the final exchange:


The Khazar king: Since you believe in everything that you have said, God already knows your inner feelings, for everything is revealed to Him, and He knows all hidden things.

The Rabbi: This is only true when one is prevented from acting.  But man is [generally] free both in the realm of will and in the realm of action.  One can therefore argue against one who seeks visible reward without visible action.  Thus it says: "You shall blow the trumpets and you shall be remembered before the Lord your God… and they shall act as a reminder of you" (Bamidbar 10:9-10)… [And it says:] "A remembering of blowing" (Vayikra 23:24).  This does not mean that God needs a reminder or rousing; however, one's actions require perfection, in order to be worthy of reward.  In a similar vein, in order for one's prayers to be accepted, they must be expressed verbally in the form of supplication and request, both the intention and the action complete.  It seems to people, however, as if the blowing of the trumpets involves reminding – and the Torah spoke in the language of man.  If, however, the action lacks the proper intention, or if the intention is not accompanied by the proper action, there is no hope for reward.  Only when action is impossible, is there small benefit if a person confesses his intention and apologizes to God for his inability to act… (V, 26-27)


This seemingly innocent question of the Khazar king reveals itself as being entirely non-innocent when we recall his initial dream.  On the level of narrative, the king's query may be seen as a "trick question." The king already converted to Judaism, he was convinced that the Jewish religion is the true religion, but his dream continues to trouble him.  Did this spiritual quest only reveal to him the true path, or did it perhaps also resolve his personal distress? The answer to this question will now be given by the Rabbiwhen he answers the king's question: Does mere intention suffice?


The Rabbidoes not disappoint us: "If, however, the action lacks the proper intention, or if the intention is not accompanied by the proper action, there is no hope for reward." Indeed the God of Israel demands of man not only intention but action as well.


It seems to me that it is not only R. Halevi's literary and artistic sense that brings him to conclude his book precisely on this point, thus closing the circle and connecting the end of the book with its beginning.  The central point through which R. Halevi chooses to present the faith of the Jews and their commitment to that faith is the certainty of revelation.  This revelation, according to R. Halevi, is so real on the historic level that it weakens the connection of converts – those who were not partners to this revelation – to Judaism.  We shall deal with this issue later in the course.


The Rabbi's final words about the God of Israel provide the Khazar king with an answer about how to deal with his dream, but they also provide him with solid proof that the God whose angel appeared to him in a nocturnal dream was the God of Avraham, and not the god of Aristotle, for only the God of Israel desires not only intention but action as well.


From this point on, the Khazar king is a partner to the God of Israel's revelation to His people.  His faith springs not only from, and perhaps not primarily from, logical persuasion, something that the Rabbi speaks about throughout the book, but rather from his commitment to the certitude that grew out of the living and unmediated encounter with the God of Israel in that very dream.[6]


Only now, at the end of the book, does the true role of the dream become apparent.  It serves not only to stimulate the Khazar king to search and investigate, but it is also the backdrop and foundation of the unmediated revelation of the new faith of the Khazar king – the faith in "the God of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, who brought the children of Israel out of Egypt with signs and wonders."


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] Regarding Rabbi Halevi's poetry as a reaction to historical events, see Shelomo Weisblit, "Teguvot Le-mashber Ha-dor Be-mishnat Rihal," in Mishnato He-hagutit shel Rabbi Yehuda Halevi (Jerusalem, 1978), pp.  123-125.

[2] This also finds expression in the very frequent use of parables in the Kuzari.  See Eliezer Schweid, "He-chaver Ke-mechanekh Be-sefer Ha-Kuzari," in Mishnato He-hagutit shel Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, where he notes the many didactic principles that Rabbi Halevi employs in his book.

[3] Schweid relates to the fact that some of the issues discussed in the first section reappear later, and he attributes this phenomenon to Rabbi Halevi's didactic intentions.  For example, God's revelation to His people at Mount Sinai is briefly mentioned in the first section, and a detailed description is given later after the Khazar king himself says: "Now go on and tell me." This stems from the Rabbi's(= the teacher) desire to expose the Khazar king (= the student) to the truth in a gradual manner and only when he is ripe for it.  Alternatively, the concise response to the philosopher's arguments in the first section as opposed to the lengthy discussion in the fifth section stems from the level of the student and from the Rabbi'sdesire to draw him first into the world of experiential faith (Eliezer Schweid, "He-Chaver ke-Mechanekh be-Sefer ha-Kuzari," pp.  36-37).

[4] It would be an interesting challenge to examine whether these two perspectives – prior to conversion and following it – influence the Rabbi'spositions regarding the theological questions in the first section as opposed to the other sections. 

[5] Indeed, archeological finds testify to mass conversions among the Khazar community.  A documentary film was made by Ehud Ya'ari on the topic, "Mamlekhet ha-Kuzarim."

[6] In this context, let me cite the words of Prof.  Shalom Rosenberg about the balance required according to Judaism between the supernatural and the natural.  He brings as proof the gemara in Yevamot 24b regarding the problematic nature of "converts because of dreams;" Rashi explains the phenomenon: "A master of dreams told them to convert." Rosenberg summarizes the matter by saying that Judaism demands that "The supernatural light must pass through the prism of the intellect, which in turn is influenced by Halakha" (Shalom Rosenberg, Be-ikvot Ha-Kuzari, Sifriyat Ma'ale, p.  46; translated on the VBM as “Jewish Philosophy Confronts the Modern World,”, lecture #9).  It is not my intention to argue that R.  Halevi teaches us here that a dream is the ultimate source of conversion.  Rather, just as one should see in the Khazar king and in his approach to Judaism a parable for each individual in the Jewish people as he draws near to Judaism, so, too, one should see the king's dream, which constitutes the point of departure for his spiritual quest, as a parable for God's revelation to Israel at Mount Sinai, the starting point for the people's spiritual quest.