Tuesday, January 3, 2012

"You have found the place of my shame, O King of the Kazars"

Yehudah Halevi was one of the prominent figures in Jewish history, a Rabbi, poet, philosopher and physician who lived more than nine hundred years in Christian Spain and Muslim Spain and at the end of his life in Egypt. A man who lived in the days of harsh and cruel wars between Christians and Muslims, in which the Jews were often caught between a rock and a hard place. He dreamed about the Land of lsrael and about a Jewish kingdom which would be established once upon a time. And he wrote beautiful and sad poems which centuries later would be taken up by the Zionist movement and set to music and are occasionally still heard on the radio.

Yehudah Halevi's masterpiece was "The Kuzari", a book designed to defend "the humiliated and despised religion" and to prove the superiority of Judaism over Christianity and Islam (as well as over Greek philosophy). And he wrote it originally in Arabic, which he and his millieu considered to be the language of culture in which was the appropriate language for religious and philosophical writings. Only later translated into Hebrew, it still is an important text of the Jewish religion.

It is written in the form of a dialogue between the King of the Khazars, an ancient people who lived in what is now the Ukraine, and the Jewish sage who convinced him to convert to Judaism and convert his people - an event which was already ancient history at Halevi's time.

In one of these sections (Kuzari 111 - 113) the Sage remarks that the Jews who live in poverty and misery, subject to scorn and agony and killing, are exactly therefore "closer to God than if we had reached greatness on earth".

But the King objects: "This might have been so, had your humility been voluntary. But it is involuntary, and if you get power in you hands you too would slay".

To which Halevi lets the Sage answer: ""You have found the place of my shame, O King of the Kazars".