Halevi, Judah

(c. 1075–1141)
   The greatest of Islamic Spain’s Hebrew poets, Judah Halevi was also arguably the most important critic of Aristotelian-Neoplatonic philosophy in the Jewish intellectual tradition. Like al-Ghazali, his traditionalism was informed by a deep familiarity with the doctrines and methods of the philosophers, as well as a stringent commitment to the claims of reason. His one and only theologico-philosophical text, written in Arabic, was A Defense and Argument on Behalf of the Despised Religion (Kitab al-radd wa al-dalil fi al-din al-dhalil), or as it is better known, the Kuzari. The book takes the form of a fictional dialogue between the pagan king of the Khazars (a historical people who converted to Judaism in the ninth century) and a rabbi, with cameo appearances by a representative philosopher, a Christian and aMuslim. Through the course of the conversation, the limitations and inadequacies of Aristotelian-Neoplatonic philosophy are made clear. The God of the philosophers is a sterile, distant, overly intellectualized being (the perfect and changeless First Cause) who does not actively or freely will anything (inasmuch as the world arises automatically and necessarily from His self-knowledge), experiences no emotions, and has no knowledge or concern about the temporal particulars of human history. Theworld is not created – except perhaps in a metaphorical sense – but rather is an eternal, elaborate hierarchical system of emanated intellects and spheres. Prophecy is explicable in essentially naturalistic terms, as a conjunction of the human mind with the active intellect. The philosophers recognize no noteworthy distinction between the various monotheistic religions, despite the fact that Christians and Muslims are constantly at each others’ throats; indeed, they view religion as a popularization of philosophy and a malleable tool in the hands of the intellectual elite. Against this ostensibly reductive picture, Halevi eloquently and persuasively defends the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – and by extension, the value of a historically and geographically rooted tradition informed by His presence via revelation and miracles. The gist of Halevi’s philosophy-critique is two-fold. First, despite its claims to exhaustive theoretical knowledge, philosophy is ultimately incapable of providing any actual praxis, and at the end of the day, practices are more important than beliefs. Contrasted with the rich, concrete particularities of Judaism’s historical experience, the practical counsels of philosophy are vacuous. Second, despite their ostentatious claims to certitude, the philosophers’ claims concerning God and His relation to the world cannot in fact be logically demonstrated; they are the product not of reason, but of overzealous, undisciplined speculation rooted in the specious intellectual inclinations of the Greeks’ own cultural particularism. Halevi on the other hand repeatedly shows the humane reasonableness of Judaism and celebrates its particularism without attempting to universalize it (particularly in his discussion of prophecy, which he confines to Jews and the land of Israel). The dialogue ends with the rabbi praising, and yearning to return to, his ancestral homeland, a sentiment shared by Halevi as well. Living at a time when the once peaceful Andalusia was increasingly becoming a place of interreligious warfare, he journeyed home to Palestine before he died.
   See Aristotle; God; Ibn Gabirol; Ibn Maymun; Levi ben Gerson; Neoplatonism; rationalism; traditionalism
   Further reading: Frank and Leaman 1997; Halevi 1964; Silman 1995; Sirat 1985

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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