Shiur #10: Rejection of Christianity

  • Rav Itamar Eldar

     In the next two lectures, we shall see how R. YehudaHalevi rejects Christianity and Islam.  It should be noted that, as opposed to his discussion of philosophy, Rihal devotes only a very small section of his book to Christianity and Islam.  This is true in the presentations of the respective religions by the Christian and the Moslem sages, but primarily in their rejection by the Khazar king.


     The manner in which the Khazar king rebuffs the Christian and the Moslem raises doubts about the objectivity and validity of Rihal's arguments against the other religions.  Rihal seems to mention the Christian and the Moslem only in order to fulfill some perceived obligation and to "clear the table" before spreading Judaism out upon it.


     On closer examination, however, it seems to me that there are reasons, both factual and conceptual, for the brevity and conciseness of the Khazar king's words to the representatives of the other religions.


     First of all, it should be remembered that the primary threat against Judaism perceived by the medieval thinkers was philosophy.  RavSa'adya's Emunot Ve-de'ot, and Rambam's Moreh Nevukhim is directed against philosophy, and, most importantly, Rihal's work, the Kuzari, is directed against it.[1]


     The danger of apostasy with which the medieval thinkers were concerned was apostasy to philosophy, which presented its fundamental and comprehensive outlook as a sparkling alternative to Judaism, which from many perspectives was at a low point.


     Furthermore, philosophy's primary arguments against Judaism placed all three religions in the same boat.


The issue of the personification of God, which was one of the most important issues for philosophy, undermined the foundations not only of Judaism, but primarily those of Christianity, and to a certain degree also those of Islam.


The question of God addressing man threatened all three religions in equal manner.  The ideas of the creation of the world, reward and punishment, the World-To-Come, and the like, are common, in one way or another, to all three religions; any attempt to undermine these ideas therefore puts the three religions on the same side of the barricade.


In general, the very seeking of God and His service distinguished the religionists from the philosophers.  Rihal notes this point later in the book:


The Khazar king: But the followers of other religions approach you more nearly than the philosophers?

The Rabbi: Indeed, far removed are the followers of a religion from a philosopher.  The former seek God not only for the sake of knowing Him, but also for other great benefits which they derive therefrom.  The philosopher, however, only seeks Him that he may be able to describe Him accurately in detail.  (IV, 12-13)[2]


     Therefore, when Rihal sets out in defense of the ideas mentioned above, the differences between Judaism, on the one hand, and Christianity and Islam, on the other, are temporarily set aside.


     There is, however, another point to be stressed in addition to the historical situation.


     As will find expression in the Khazar king's summary of the dialogue with the representatives of the other religions, R. Yehuda Halevi feels that Christianity and Islam are conceptually inferior to Judaism.  From a historical perspective, Christianity and Islam were indeed flourishing during Rihal's time, and even fighting a battle of Titans between themselves, while Judaism remained withered, despised, and trampled beneath them.  But this is merely an illusion; the historical facts do not correctly reflect the conceptual balance of powers between the religions.  Rihal puts the following words into the mouth of the Khazar king:


The Khazar king: I will not use this as an argument, as I see two antagonistic religions prevailing, although it is impossible that the truth should be on two opposite sides.  It can only be on one or on neither.  I have explained to you in connection with the verse: "Behold My servant shall prosper" (Yeshayahu 52: 13), that humility and meekness are evidently nearer to the Divine Influence than glory and eminence.  The same is visible in these two religions.  Christians do not glory in kings, heroes and rich people, but in those who followed Jesus all the time, before His faith had taken firm root among them.  They wandered away, or hid themselves, or were killed wherever one of them was found, suffered disgrace and slaughter for the sake of their belief.  These are the people in whom they glory, whose ministers they revere, and in whose names they build churches.  In the same way did the 'Helpers,' and friends of Islam bear much poverty, until they found assistance.  In these, their humility and martyrdom do they glory; not in the princes who boasted of their wealth and power, but rather in those clad in rags and fed scantily on barley bread.  (IV, 22)[3]


     Rihal acknowledges that Christianity and Islam should be seen as daughters with respect to their mother religion – Judaism.


     As stated at the beginning of the first lecture, the narrative of the book is based on a tradition that describes the Khazar king's conversion to Judaism.  The king underwent a lengthy process, at the climax of which he asked the sages of each of the three revealed religions (a Christian, a Moslem, and a Jew) which religion he would choose among the other two.  When the Christian and the Moslem each stated that he would pick Judaism, and not the other, the king became convinced of the truth of Judaism.


     This story is not necessarily a historical fact, but it reflects, perhaps, the most important argument of Judaism against the other religions.  This can be formulated in two ways:


1)      The only point about which the three religions agree is the truth of Judaism, until the point that the other religions split off, from which time there was disagreement.  That is to say, the only certainty (if we define certainty as the product of universal agreement) is about the truth of Judaism.

2)      Since the other religions were born out of Judaism and since they parted from it and instituted changes, the burden of proof falls upon them.  It thus follows that the level of proof that will be demanded from the representatives of the other religions will be greater than the level of proof that will be demanded of Judaism, which all three religions accept.


An allusion to this idea may be found in the following words of the Rabbi:


All who came after these philosophers could not detach themselves from their principles, so that today the whole civilized world acknowledges that God is eternal, and that the world was created.  They look upon the Israelites and all that befell them as a proof of this.  (II, 54)


     In light of all that has been said, Rihal has little interest in defending Judaism against Christianity and Islam and his few words relating to them are primarily directed at the aforementioned ideas, as we shall see below.


Rejection of Christianity


     After the Christian was asked about his creed and about his actions, he presents the fundamentals of his religion:


1)      Creation of the world by God, the stories of Bereishit (Adam, Noach), providence and connection to mankind, Divine will, anger, and compassion, revelation to the prophets, and the resting of His Presence among Israel.  He summarizes this list as follows:


In short [I believe] in all that is written in the Torah and the records of the Children of Israel, which are undisputed, because they are generally known as lasting, and have been revealed before a vast multitude.  (I, 4)


2)      The embodiment of God in a human body who was the Messiah and called the son of God, and the belief in the Holy Trinity (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit).

3)      The transfer of the Divine Influence from among Israel who rebelled against Jesus and crucified him, to those individuals who followed in his path (first the twelve apostles, afterwards groups of people, and finally nations).

4)      The fact that Christianity is open to all nations and ready to admit them all to its ranks.

5)      The laws and commandments that obligate the Christian believer.


In the Christian's words, we find the first principle mentioned above - the admission of the truth of the Torah and the Jewish tradition until the point of the split in belief; this was a very dramatic point, as it involved the claim of the incarnation of God in a body of flesh and blood.  Here we are dealing with a qualitative leap in the degree of personification.  This is not another revelation, not the word of God with special contents or an unusual vision, but rather the total transformation of God – the embodiment of God in a human form.


The Khazar king responds to the Christian as follows:


Then said the Khazar king: I see here no logical conclusion; nay, logic rejects most of what you say.  If both appearance and experience are so palpable that they take hold of the whole heart, compelling belief in a thing of which one is not convinced, they render the matter more feasible by a semblance of logic.  This is how natural philosophers deal with strange phenomena which come upon them unawares, and which they would not believe if they only heard of them without seeing them.  When they have examined them, they discuss them, and ascribe them to the influence of stars or spirits without disproving ocular evidence.  As for me, I cannot accept these things, because they come upon me suddenly, not having grown up in them.  My duty is to investigate further.  (I, 5)


     The first sentence that Rihal puts into the mouth of the Khazar king – "I see here no logical conclusion; nay, logic rejects most of what you say" – is quite astonishing, especially in light of what we saw in previous lectures.


     R. Yehuda Halevi had made every effort to distinguish between religion and the intellect, not because the two are contradictory, but because the intellect cannot make any clear statements on the issues dealt with by religion.  And now Rihal comes to reject Christianity because "I see here no logical conclusion; nay, logic rejects most of what you say."[4]


     The continuation, however, clarifies what the Khazar king means.  First of all, we already saw that while Rihal tries to remove the use of rational speculation from theological discussion, regarding the issue of the personification of God, Rihal maintains that we are dealing with rational speculation that has the status of proof.  Thus, the conflict that the Khazar king points out between Christianity and logic is a conflict between religion and a solid value at the level of rational proof and not merely rational speculation.  The value that cries out from the Christian's words is that of personification.  The point of Christianity's departure from Judaism, as we have seen, carries the gap between religion and the intellect to the extreme.  As was stated, we are not dealing with just another revelation, or another vision, but rather with the embodiment of God in a body of flesh and blood!


     Second, despite the fact that Christianity takes the clash to the extremes, Rihal is not alarmed, and he does not try immediately to reject Christianity on this account.


     We have already seen that Rihal has a method of dealing with rational speculation that appears in two forms.


     First, when the rational thought is speculative, as it usually appears in the context of theological issues, there is no reason or need to deal with the proposed position, because an opposing position could be proposed against it.  In such a case, there is no need to resolve the conflict, since it does not really exist.[5]


     Second, when the rational speculation is indeed speculative  but at some point receives the backing of certainty from some other certain source, such as visual perception or rational proof (or in our case, the Torah), Rihal asserts that there cannot be a contradiction between the rational speculation and the Torah.  This was the case with the philosophical position regarding the personification of God at the outset, and as we saw, this was the prevalent position among Israel in Egypt, prior to the revelation.  It then it falls upon a person to try to bridge the two truths of the Torah and the specific rational speculation.  This bridge is not certain, but speculative, but it is like a healing salve for the believer who was exposed to philosophy and thereby lost his innocence.[6]


     R. Yehuda Halevi puts these words into the mouth of the Khazar king against the Christian.  But this model of religion's dealing with "proven" rational speculation is not appropriate for Christianity.  In many places in his book, Rihal alludes to the difference between Christianity (and Islam) and Judaism.  The idea of the absence of personification, which Rihal wholeheartedly adopts, threatens all three revealed religions.  Rihal, however, is not afraid of this threat, provided that against this threat there stands a belief anchored in rational proof or visual perception.  This can be said about the Jewish religion, the foundation of which is a revelation that was clearly perceived by the masses and is thus irrefutable (as was presented at length in Lecture no. 6).  However, in the case of religions founded on a revelation to an individual, there will always be doubt as to whether this revelation was true or perhaps merely an illusion, and we might even be dealing with a conspiracy and invention.  This revelation, when confronted with logic regarding the personification of God (and all the more so in the case of Christianity, owing to the extremes which it takes the embodiment of God), cannot remain firmly in place, in the absence of a proven foundation for its existence.


     As stated, in many places in the book, Rihal alludes to the difference between Christianity and Islam, on the one hand, and Judaism,[7] on the other.  In a surprising and unexpected way, however, Rihal deviates from this line of thought at the end of the Khazar king's words to the Christian, and shifts the focus of the rejection to an entirely different plane:


As for me, I cannot accept these things, because they come upon me suddenly, not having grown up in them.  My duty is to investigate further.  (I, 5)


     We might have expected that the Khazar king would end his words saying that in the absence of proof (or clear perception) for what is described by Christianity, we are exempt from trying to bridge between it and logic, and the contradiction remains in place.  The Khazar king, however, adopts a personal approach, which focuses the problem on his motivation to accept the Christian's words as true.  The problem does not appear to be an objective one, and there is no fundamental rejection as we formulated it thus far.


     It seems to me that it was not by accident that Rihal pushes off the fundamental, objective argument to a later discussion, and here he chooses to shift the focus to an entirely different realm.


     As was stated in the first lecture, the methodic form of the book – focusing on two figures, the early conversion of the king, opening the discussion with something similar to revelation (a dream) – teaches that Rihal's words are directed at Jews.  He has no pretensions of presenting universal arguments that will persuade any thinking person of their truth (as do Rav Sa'adya Gaon and the Rambam), and therefore he does not present a systematic and fundamental outlook, but merely the story of the Khazar king's life.


     This argument is strengthened by the fact that throughout the book Rihal emphasized the inherent uniqueness of the Jewish people; he does not encourage the members of the other nations to join it.  He writes things that would stir up any non-Jew reading it, as indeed happens in the case of the Khazar king, but as stated earlier, it is only on the surface that the Khazar king remains on the outside.  From the first moment, when God's messenger appears to him in a nocturnal dream, the Khazar king belongs to the people of the revelation.  He is already on the inside!


     When he turns to his own people, R. Yehuda Halevi does not focus, at least at the beginning, on giving objective answers as he surveys the other religions (as he will do in the continuation with respect to Islam).  The intellectual contradiction, at least in this passage, is only mentioned by Rihal in order to sharpen the lack of logic in forsaking Judaism for Christianity.


     Rihal does not focus on the lack of a solid foundation for the Christian religion that would justify confronting the contradictions between it and logic, but on the lack of motivation on the part of the Khazar king to engage in such a confrontation.


     The motivation to fight against logic, or at least to deal with it, is only found in one who has seen something that contradicts knowledge with his own two eyes, or one who has at least received it by way of a tradition that is similar to visual perception.  Why would someone who has not had such a vision go out in battle over something the truth about which he is not certain? As Rihal proves later, even the Christian himself cannot be certain about his religion.  Why would a Jew leave his religion, turn to a creed that has no foundation, and fight its battles?


The Khazar king himself, even though he is not yet a Jew, does not remain in the objective field that points out the illogic in the Christian religion, but rather points to the existential illogic in joining that religion.  If this is true about one who has his doubts, all the more so must it be true about a Jew himself!


It is true that Judaism must also deal with the critique of the outlook that denies the personification of God.  But besides for the fact that, as opposed to Christianity, Judaism has a solid and proven visual perception to go against this outlook,[8] a Jew has no reason to abandon his house in favor of a religion that is strange to him, to which he has no obligations, to which he has no connections, and to stand before the very same difficulties and even greater ones.


The lack of a connection to Christianity and what follows from this, namely, the connection to Judaism, is what stands at the heart of the Khazar king's pushing away of the Christian.


(Translated by DavidStrauss)


[1] Even when Rihal confronts Islam, he only confronts those Islamic sages who adopted various Greek philosophical beliefs.

[2] In the continuation of the Rabbi's words, Rihal is careful not to portray the two other religions as overly close to Judaism:

"These [speculative] religions are as far removed now as they were formerly near.  If this were not so, Jeroboam and his party would be nearer to us, although they worshipped idols, as they were Israelites, inasmuch as they practiced circumcision, observed the Sabbath, and other regulations" (IV, 3).

And then he once again draws them near (I will discuss the ramifications of this in the next lecture):

"The former class is at best superior to the latter inasmuch as they prohibited images.  Since, however, they altered the Kibla, and sought Divine Influence where it is not to be found, altering at the same time the majority of ceremonial laws, they wandered far from the straight path" (ibid.).

[3] Israel's exile and the success of the other religions  not only does not undermine the belief in Israel being in possession of the true faith, it even fits in with the Divine process, which, according to Rihal, involves bringing the religion of Israel to fame and perfection:

"Besides this, God has a secret and wise design concerning us, which should be compared to the wisdom hidden in the seed which falls into the ground, where it undergoes an external transformation into earth, water and dirt, without leaving a trace for him who looks down upon it.  It is, however, the seed itself which transforms earth and water into its own substance, carries it from one stage to another, until it refines the elements and transfers them into something like itself, casting off husks, leaves, etc., and allowing the pure core to appear, capable of bearing the Divine Influence.  The original seed produced the tree bearing fruit resembling that from which it had been produced.  In the same manner the law of Moses transforms each one who honestly follows it, though it may externally repel him.  The nations merely serve to introduce and pave the way for the expected Messiah, who is the fruition, and they will all become His fruit.  Then, if they acknowledge Him, they will become one tree.  Then they will revere the origin which they formerly dispersed, as we have observed concerning the words: "Behold My servant prospers" (IV, 23).

Similar ideas are found in the writings of Rav Kook.  See, for example, Orot, p. 109.

[4] On the face of it, it might be argued that Rihal has not yet presented his understanding of the relationship between science and religion, and therefore he does use this argument here, for he cannot put an argument into the mouth of the Khazar king that the Rabbi will only later explain to him at great length.  There are two reasons, however, that this is unacceptable:

1)      Rihal does not relate specifically to Christianity later in the book; if we make the above claim, it will turn out that for a methodological reason, Rihal leaves his treatment of Christianity missing the main point, and this is untenable.

2)      Rihal uses the characters that he has created to present his own outlook; at times he puts questions or statements into the mouth of the Khazar king that appear to be innocent, but in fact reflect Jewish principles or values.  Therefore, it cannot be that Rihal could not have presented already now in the words of the Khazar king his own fundamental outlook, even though it will be explicitly developed only later by the Rabbi.  Indeed, we shall immediately see that this is the way to read the words of the Khazar king. 

[5] An example: the creation of the world and Rihal's attitude toward Aristitotle's idea of the eternity of the world (I, 67).

[6] Rihal also notes that the philosophers themselves followed in this path of "bridging" between visual perception and rational speculation, and that they, too, did not deny what they saw with their own eyes because of a philosophical idea, solid or otherwise. 

[7] A clear example of this may be found in the following: "The first leader, Moses, made the people stand by Mount Sinai, that they might see the light which he himself had seen, should they be able to see it in the same way… By these means all evil suspicion was removed from the people, lest they opine that prophecy was only the privilege of the few who claimed to possess it.  For no common compact is possible among so many people" (IV, 11).

These words appear in the course of the discussion of the two other religions, and distinguish between Moshe and his prophecy and the prophets of the other religions and their prophecies.

[8] As we shall see, Rihal chooses to relate to this argument with respect to the Moslem.