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As a youth ha-Levi lived a life of pleasure, mixing pleasure with learning. It is possible that Judah's father, Samuel "the Castilian," sent Judah, who was his only son, to Lucena to be educated in the various branches of Jewish learning at the school of Isaac Alfasi. On the death of his master, Judah composed an elegy (Brody, "Diwan des Abul-Ḥasan Jehuda ha-Levi," ii., No. 14, p. 100). It was probably in Lucena, too, that Judah won the friendship of Alfasi's most prominent pupils, Joseph ibn Migas and Baruch Albalia.
Judah chose medicine as his profession; but he early evinced a love for poetry and showed marked poetic talent. The early ripening of his poetic talent aroused the admiration of his friend and senior, the poet Moses ibn Ezra, who accorded him enthusiastic praise.
He was well acquainted with the productions of the Arabic and the Castilian poets; yet the muse spoke to him in the old and sacred language of the Bible (Hebrew), in which "he sang for all times and places, soon becoming the favorite of the people". His earliest writing followed the structures of Arabic poetry, and dealt with popular Arabic themes: wine, women, and song. He became versed in Greco-Arabic philosophy also. His personal style was characterized by wit, irony, humor and inventiveness with language. It is astonishing to consider that Hebrew was not his native spoken language. The fluid and lively style of his verse reads as if Hebrew was a living language (which was not the case in the middle ages).
After completing his studies, which he, being in easy circumstances, had been able to pursue deliberately, Judah returned to Toledo, where he soon acquired so large a practice that he complained in a letter to his friend David Narboni (Brody, l.c. i. 224, 225) of a lack of tranquility and leisure. He married in Toledo; and from allusions in some of his poems it is evident that his only child was a daughter, through whom he had a grandson, also named Judah.
Journey to the Holy Land
Judah ha-Levi does not seem to have been contented in Toledo; for he removed to the Muslim city of Cordova. Even here he did not feel at ease. Though personally he occupied an honored position as a physician, he felt the intolerance of the Almoravid fanatics toward his coreligionists. He had long yearned for a new, or rather for the old, home—for the Holy Land. This yearning was deepened by his intense application to his religio-philosophical work and by his resulting clearer insight into Judaism; and at length he decided to set out on a journey to Land of Israel. For himself at least, he wished "to do away with the contradiction of daily confessing a longing and of never attempting to realize it" (Kaufmann, "Jehuda Halevi"); and therefore, on the death of his wife, he bade farewell to daughter, grandson, pupils, friends, rank, and affluence.
After a stormy passage he arrived in Alexandria, where he was enthusiastically greeted by friends and admirers. At Damietta he had to struggle against the promptings of his own heart and the pleadings of his friend Ḥalfon ha-Levi that he remain in Egypt, which also was Jewish soil and free from intolerant oppression. He, however, resisted the temptation to remain there, and started on the tedious land route trodden of old by the Israelitish wanderers in the desert. Again he is met with, worn out, with broken heart and whitened hair, in Tyre and Damascus. Here authentic records fail; but Jewish legend has taken up the broken threads of history and woven them further. It is related that as he came near Jerusalem, overpowered by the sight of the Holy City, he sang his most beautiful elegy, the celebrated "Zionide," "Zion ha-lo Tish'ali." At that instant he was ridden down and killed by an Arab, who dashed forth from a gate (Gedaliah ibn Yaḥya, "Shalshelet ha-Kabbalah," ed. Venice, p. 40b).
The life-work of Judah ha-Levi was devoted to poetry and philosophy. His poetry is usually classified under the heads of secular and religious, or, as in Brody's new edition of the "Diwan," under liturgical and non-liturgical. Such a division, however, can be only external; for the essential characteristic of Judah's poems which are the expression of a deeply religious soul is the lofty key to which they are attuned. Even in his drinking- and love-songs an attentive reader may hear the vibrations of religion's overtones.
The first place in his secular or non-liturgical poetry is occupied by poems of friendship and eulogy. Judah must have possessed an attractive personality; for there gathered about him as friends, even in his earliest youth, a large number of illustrious men, like Levi al-Ṭabban of Saragossa, the aged poet Judah ben Abun, Judah ibn Ghayyat of Granada, Moses ibn Ezra and his brothers Judah, Joseph, and Isaac, the vizier Abu al-Ḥasan, MeÔr ibn Kamnial, the physician and poet Solomon ben Mu'allam of Seville, and Samuel ha-Nagid of Malaga, besides his schoolmates Joseph ibn Migas and Baruch Albalia.
He was associated also with the grammarian Abraham ibn Ezra. In Cordova Judah addressed a touching farewell poem to Joseph ibn Ẓaddiḳ, the philosopher and poet. In Egypt, where the most celebrated men vied with one another in entertaining him, his reception was a veritable triumph. Here his particular friends were Aaron ben Jeshua Alamani in Alexandria, the nagid Samuel ben Hananiah in Cairo ("Monatsschrift," xl. 417 et seq.), Ḥalfon ha-Levi in Damietta, and an unknown man in Tyre, probably his last friend. In their sorrow and joy, in the creative spirit and all that moved the souls of these men, Judah sympathetically shared; as he says in the beginning of a short poem (Brody, l.c. i., No. 45): "My heart belongs to you, ye noble souls, who draw me to you with bonds of love"
Especially tender and plaintive is Judah's tone in his elegies (Brody, l.c. ii. 67 et seq.). Many of them are dedicated to friends. Besides those composed on the deaths of the brothers Judah (ib. Nos. 19, 20), Isaac (ib. No. 21), and Moses ibn Ezra (ib. No. 16), R. Baruch (ib. Nos. 23, 28), MeÔr ibn Migas (ib. No. 27), his teacher Isaac Aifasi (ib. No. 14), and others, one of the most affecting is that on Solomon ibn Farissol, who was murdered on May 3, 1108. The news of this friend's death suddenly changed Judah's poem of eulogy (Nos. 11, 22) into one of lamentation (ib. Nos. 12, 13, 93 et seq.), which for grandeur and loftiness of tone has been compared to David's lament over Jonathan.
Joyous, careless youth, and merry, happy delight in life find their expression in his love-songs). Many of these are epithalamia, and are characterized by a brilliant near-eastern coloring as well as by a chaste reserve. In Egypt, where the muse of his youth found a glorious Indian summer in the circle of his friends, he wrote his swan-song:(Geiger, l.c. p. 168.)
"Wondrous is this land to see, With perfume its meadows laden, But more fair than all to me Is yon slender, gentle maiden. Ah, Time's swift flight I fain would stay, Forgetting that my locks are gray."
Drinking-songs and enigmas in rime by Judah have also been preserved.
After living a life devoted to worldly pleasures, ha-Levi was to experience a kind of awakening, a shock, that changed his outlook on the world. Like a type of conversion experience, he turned from the frivolous life of pleasure, and his poetry turned to religious themes.
It seems that his profound experience was the consequence of his sensitivity to the events of history that were unfolding around him. He lived during the first crusade and other wars. There was a new kind of religio-political fanaticism emerging in the Christian and Muslim worlds. Holy wars were brewing, and ha-Levi may have recognized that such trends had never been good for the Jews. At the time life was relatively good in Spain for the Jewish community. He may have suspected things were about to change for the worse, however.
If one may speak of religious geniuses then Judah ha-Levi must certainly be regarded among the greatest produced by medieval Judaism. No other writer, it would seem, drew so near to God as Judah; none else knew how to cling to Him so closely, or felt so safe in His shadow. At times the body is too narrow for him: the soul yearns for its Father in heaven, and would break through the earthly shell (S. D. Luzzatto, "Diwan," No. 14; Heller, "Die Echten Melodien," p. 227). Without God his soul would wither away; nor is it well with him except he prays (Luzzatto, l.c. No. 57; Heller, l.c. p. 135). The thought of God allows him no rest; early and late He is his best beloved, and is his dearest concern (Heller, l.c. p. 82; "Ṭal Orot," No. 12). He occupies the mind of the poet waking and sleeping; and the thought of Him, the impulse to praise Him, rouse Judah from his couch by night (Luzzatto, l.c. No. 81; Heller, l.c. p. 229).
Next to God, the Jewish people stands nearest to his heart: their sufferings and hopes are his. Like the authors of the Psalms, he gladly sinks his own identity in the wider one of the people of Israel; so that it is not always easy to distinguish the personality of the speaker.
Often Judah's poetic fancy finds joy in the thought of the return of his people. The period of political agitation about 1130, when Islam (so intensely hated by the poet) was gradually losing ground before the victorious arms of the Christians, gave Judah reason to hope for such a return in the near future. The vision of the night, in which this was revealed to him (Geiger, l.c. p. 154), remained indeed but a dream; yet Judah never lost faith in the eventual deliverance of Israel and in the eternity of his people. On this subject he has expressed himself in the poem:(Luzzatto, l.c. No. 61; transl. by Nina Davis in "Songs of Exile," p. 49.)
"Lo! Sun and moon, these minister for aye; The laws of day and night cease nevermore: Given for signs to Jacob's seed that they Shall ever be a nation—till these be o'er. If with His left hand He should thrust away, Lo! with His right hand He shall draw them nigh."
Analysis of his poetry
The remarkable and apparently indissoluble union of religion, nationalism, and patriotism characteristic of post-exilic Judaism reached its acme in Judah ha-Levi and his poetry. Yet this very union in one so consistent as Judah demanded the fulfillment of the supreme politico-religious ideal of medieval Judaism—the return to Jerusalem. Though his impassioned call to his contemporaries to return to Zion might be received with indifference or even with mockery (Luzzatto, l.c. No. 86), his own decision to go to Jerusalem never wavered. "Can we hope for any other refuge either in the East or in the West where we may dwell in safety?" he exclaims to one of his opponents (ib.). The songs that accompany his pilgrimage (Brody, l.c. ii. 153) sound like one great symphony wherein the "Zionides"—the single motive ever varied—voice the deepest soul-life alike of the Jewish people and of each individual Jew.
The most celebrated of these "Zionides," with its remarkable monotony, is found in every Jewish liturgy, and is usually repeated in the synagogue on the Ninth of Ab (Brody, l.c. ii. 155). The following is the English translation by Nina Davis (l.c. p. 37) of the opening lines:
"Zion, wilt thou not ask if peace's wing Shadows the captives that ensue thy peace, Left lonely from thine ancient shepherding?
"Lo! west and east and north and south—world-wide—All those from far and near, without surcease, Salute thee: Peace and Peace from every side."
The poems of Judah ha-Levi which have been adopted into the liturgy number in all more than 300. The longest and most comprehensive poem is a "Kedushshah," which summons all the universe to praise God with rejoicing, and which terminates, curiously enough, in Ps. ciii. These poems were carried to all lands, even as far as India (Zunz, "Ritus," p. 57); and they influenced the rituals of the most distant countries. Even the Karaites incorporated some of them into their prayer-book; so that there is scarcely a synagogue in which Judah's songs are not sung in the course of the service (Zunz, "S. P." p. 231). The following criticism of Judah's synagogal poems is made by Zunz (ib.): "As the perfume and beauty of a rose are within it, and do not come from without, so with Judah word and Bible passage, meter and rime, are one with the soul of the poem; as in true works of art, and always in nature, one is never disturbed by anything external, arbitrary, or extraneous."
Judah by his verses has also beautified the religious life of the home. His Sabbath hymns should be mentioned here, one of the most beautiful of which ends with the words:
"On Friday doth my cup o'erflow, What blissful rest the night shall know, When, in thine arms, my toil and woe Are all forgot, Sabbath my love!
"'Tis dusk, with sudden light, distilled From one sweet face, the world is filled; The tumult of my heart is stilled—For thou art come, Sabbath my love!
"Bring fruits and wine and sing a gladsome lay, Cry, 'Come in peace, O restful Seventh day!'"
Judah used complicated Arabic meters in his poems with much good taste (for further details see H. Brody, "Studien zu den Dichtungen Jehuda ha-Levi's," Berlin, 1895). A later critic, applying a Talmudic witticism to Judah, has said: "It is hard for the dough when the baker himself calls it bad." Although these forms came to him naturally and without effort, unlike the mechanical versifiers of his time (see "Cuzari," v. 16), he would not except himself from the number of those he had blamed. His pupil Solomon Parḥon, who wrote at Salerno in 1160, relates that Judah repented having used the new metrical methods, and had declared he would not again employ them. That Judah felt them to be out of place, and that he opposed their use at the very time when they were in vogue, plainly shows his desire for a national Jewish art independent in form as well as in matter.
Judah was recognized by his contemporaries as the great Jewish national poet, and in succeeding generations by all the great scholars and writers in Israel.
As a philosopher
The position of Judah ha-Levi in the domain of Jewish philosophy is parallel to that occupied in Islam by Ghazali, by whom he was influenced. Like Ghazali, Judah endeavored to liberate religion from the bondage of the various philosophical systems in which it had been held by his predecessors, Saadia, David ben Marwan al-Mekamez, Gabirol, and Bahya. In a work written in Arabic and entitled "Kitab al-Ḥujjah wal-Dalil fi Nuṣr al-Din al-Dhalil" (known in the Hebrew translation of Judah ibn Tibbon by the title "Sefer ha-Kuzari," Judah ha-Levi expounded his views upon the teachings of Judaism, which he defended against the attacks of non-Jewish philosophers, Karaites, and those he viewed as heretics.
For a discussion of ha-Levi's philosophical work, see Kuzari.
There are three elements of his thought that have been influential and have lead to ha-Levi being widely read, particularly in Kabbalist circles:
- 1) the Hebrew language contains mysterious divine attributes, the words themselves help connect to God
- 2) the Torah has a supernatural character, it is a kind of gift from God, containing not just words or laws or teachings but the presence of God (this is naturally significant in exile)
- 3) there is a special function of the Jewish people in Godís plan to help to bring about the Messianic kingdom, and redemption of the whole world
More than any other Jewish philosopher, he is the most widely accepted, and is considered representative of Ďtrueí Jewish teachings.
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