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Is Judah Halevi's Kuzari Racist?

Often enough, you can judge where people stand in the cultural geography of contemporary Israeli society by their attitude toward Judah Halevi's Kuzari.  This popular medieval philosophic treatise, which espouses a theory of Jewish superiority, is a favorite text of many in the religious Zionist sector.  Secular liberals, by contrast, who oppose its ethnocentric conception of Judaism, frequently accuse it of being a racist work.  Yet the most articulate and vociferous Israeli critic of Halevi's Kuzari was not a secularist all but a religious Jew, albeit a rather idiosyncratic one.   Yeshayahu Leibowitz, whose 110th birthday is currently being marked in Israel, often denounced the Kuzari as the most influential and pernicious version of the theory that the Jewish people possess inherent holiness. 

In explicit response to Leibowitz's indictment, Micah Goodman's book, The Dream of the Kuzari, newly published in Hebrew (Or Yehudah: Dvir, 2012) offers a fresh new understanding of Judah Halevi's approach to the nature of Jewish peoplehood and chosenness.  Goodman, a popular scholar and charismatic educator who recently authored a bestseller on Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed, challenges the previously undisputed reading of the Kuzari as an argument for a qualitative distinction between Jews and other human beings. 

Halevi places this argument in the mouth of the book’s principal figure, the Jewish sage whose dialogue with the King of Khazar forms the backbone of the work.   According to this unnamed sage, the difference between Jew and non-Jew parallels the distinction between human being and animal, and Jews consequentially have a kind of access to God that is beyond the capacity of other men.  Goodman, however, like Leo Strauss, warns against the straightforward identification of Halevi's own views with those of the sage, and provides solid textual justification for avoiding it. He maintains that the Kuzari should be read as a Platonic dialogue in which the truth emerges not from one speaker alone but from the parry and thrust between the dialogue’s participants.  Goodman describes how the King of Khazars and the Jewish sage articulate conflicting attitudes toward the non-Jew.  While the Jewish sage claims that the non-Jew can never receive revelation, the King of Khazar is living counter-testimony to the sage's view.  From the very beginning of the book, after all, he acts in obedience to a divine communication that has been vouchsafed to him.  This constitutes dramatic evidence that Judah Halevi is not simply adopting the particularistic view of the Jewish sage.  Instead, as an accomplished poet, he believes that the truth belies philosophic argumentation and can best be represented by a literary work in which opposing worldviews collide and interact. 

Nevertheless, despite Goodman's creative reading, one is still left with the impression that the Kuzari is not truly dialogical.  It lacks the give and take of Plato's dialogues, as the king dutifully absorbs the teaching of the Jewish sage, rarely asking a searching question or contradicting his teacher.  Indeed, the sage's discourse often goes on at length without any interruption from the king.  I would also note that as Goodman himself reminds us, the Kuzari has always been understood to advocate the view that Jews possess inherent superiority to non-Jews.  If we accept Goodman's explanation of Halevi's actual intentions, we must conclude that the work was a resounding failure.  That is, although Halevi crafted the work meticulously over an extended period of time, his readers throughout the generations failed to understand it properly.

Goodman suggests that this was an outcome Judah Halevi himself had foreseen when he concealed his true view from the reader regarding Jewish chosenness.  But Goodman does not develop this idea sufficiently.  As far as appears, he does not provide a convincing explanation for Halevi's efforts to conceal the truth from most readers.  Nor does he make clear enough the distinction between the readers from whom Halevi wants to hide his true view and those to whom he actually wishes to transmit, however covertly, his authentic opinion. 

I do not wish to leave the impression, however, that Goodman's book focuses exclusively on this issue. Rather, it provides a wide-ranging analysis of the Kuzari.  Goodman divides his work into four primary sections.  The first and longest section provides an overview of the main topics that Halevi explores: his famous proof for the veracity of the revealed Torah, the contrast between the God of Abraham and the God of the philosophers, a phenomenological analysis of religious experience, a conception of God and prayer, and the nature of human perfection, religious asceticism and ta'amei hamitzvot (the reasons for the commandments).  The final section of Goodman’s book is equally ambitious in its scope.  It attempts to highlight the main differences between the two most important alternatives developed by medieval Jewish philosophy: the rationalistic and universalistic orientation of Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed  and the fideistic and particularistic approach of Judah Halevi's Kuzari.  This section also examines the history of the reception of Judah Halevi's immensely popular work, with particular emphasis on its unique position within the cultural configuration of the Jewish people in contemporary Israel and the United States. 

Goodman is an eloquent and lucid writer.  His entire book is replete with fresh readings of particular passages of the Kuzari that exhibit his uncanny ability to relate medieval Jewish philosophical texts to vexing problems of contemporary Jewish existence.  Goodman is clearly concerned with the fact that Halevi's Kuzari has become a divisive work engendering dissension among different segments of the Jewish people. Attempting to repair the cultural rupture, he provides a universalistic interpretation of the Kuzari that will better equip it to become part of the shared discourse of Jewish education.  In truth, however, there is no need to reinterpret Jewish texts so that they accord with the modern or post-modern sensibilities of the contemporary Jewish student.  It would be better for today’s Jewish students to be exposed to the multiple voices of the Jewish tradition, including dissonant ones. In doing so, they will come to understand the complexity and plurality of their own multifarious tradition. 

Dr. Ari Ackerman is a lecturer in Jewish Education and Jewish Thought at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

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DF on February 13, 2013 at 11:42 am (Reply)
The way the word "racist" is tossed around today, everyone is a racist. Show me someone who says he's not a racist, and I'll show you either a liar or a fool or both.
Empress Trudy on February 13, 2013 at 12:02 pm (Reply)
Is good not superior to evil? Are not the Judaic values upon which western societies are built superior to all the values they've already themselves discarded? After all the post-Jewish secular liberals themselves who've devolved Judaism into nothing but a squishy "it's nice to be nice" ethos....well where do they think that last 1% of Judaism they still retain comes from?
Stephan Borowski Pickering / Chofetz Chayim benAvraham on February 13, 2013 at 6:08 pm (Reply)
Shalom & Boker interesting discussion...the phenomenological dialectic inherent in R. Halevi's text proved nearly unsurmountable for Leibowitz and Goodman. They created a 'problem' where none exists. Since ca. 1312 BCE, Yehudim ('Jews' for the Greeks and subsequent goyim) have, indeed, possessed an inherent holiness, which is not without singular importance: the haKodesh Barukh hu, the Holy ONEness, blessed be She through the revelatory silence of the letters of creation (the quantum holographic string 'big bang', as it were, repeated with controlled multidimensionality at Sinai) propogated the holiness. As a post-Auschwitz Jew, I find the arguments about 'superiority' and 'chosen-ness' rather opaque. The crucificionists attempted to exterminate all of us...and yet: they have never had a covenant...there was no parthenogensis, no Gol Goatha, no disciples, no 'resurrection'. Why? Because 'Yeshua benMiriam' / 'Iesous Christos' was a fabrication of a late 2nd century CE / early 3rd century CE Graeco-Roman-Egyptian revelatory death cult. As a post-Auschwitz Jew, I do not need apologetics from Leibowitz or Goodman to approve of my existence.
STEPHAN BOROWSKI PICKERING / Chofetz Chayim benAvraham
Torah G-ddess Yehudi Apikores Ishi / Philosophia Kabbalistica Speculativa Researcher
Mr. Cohen on February 13, 2013 at 7:46 pm (Reply)
Should Jews Feel Ashamed of Being Chosen?

written by the moderator of:

Shevet Mussar, Chapter 32, paragraph 9:
"Every nation and race believes that
nobody equals them in wisdom or greatness."

Shevet Mussar was written about 300 years ago,
but since then, people have not changed:

* Japanese people who never left Japan and have no non-Japanese ancestors believe that they are purer and better than non-pure Japanese.

* Japanese people also believe that they alone are direct descendants of Jimmu (the first man).

* Even here in America, most Chinese parents are VERY upset if their children date people who are not Chinese.

* For thousands of years, Chinese people believed that their country was the center of the universe and outsiders were considered barbarians.

The symbol for China in the Chinese written language is a rectangle with a vertical line going through it, which symbolizes that China is the center of the world.

* For many centuries, traditional Chinese arts, such as Kung Fu, were only taught to people of pure Chinese ancestry. Even today, any person of Chinese ancestry who does not speak his ancestral language is ridiculed by his fellow Chinese.

* For thousands of years, Chinese people believe that they alone were descendants of dragons:

“In Asia, dragons are positive creatures, the mythical ancestors of the Chinese, symbolizing: divinity, nobility, wisdom, boldness and heroism.”

SOURCE: Myth and Middle Earth (chapter 10, page 124) by Leslie Ellen Jones, 2002, Cold Spring Press, Cold Spring Harbor, NY 11724, ISBN 1-892975-81-5

* In the South Pacific Ocean, inhabitants of the tiny and isolated Easter Islands refer to their homeland as the center of the world.

* People from India believe they alone are descended from Lord Krishna and Lord Ram (two of India’s most important gods.) Even today, any person of Indian ancestry who does not speak his ancestral language is ridiculed by his fellow Indians. Indian-Americans often visited India to find marriage partners instead of marrying non-Indian Americans.

* Arabs believe that they are the greatest people on Earth because Mohammed was one of them, and because the Koran was written in their language.

* Muslims are taught that they are the best people. When they see Jews surpassing them in agriculture, architecture, technology and combat, it makes them hysterical with rage because it makes them realize that they were taught lies.

* The French, especially in Paris, are militant about the purity of their language. They resist the addition of non-French words to their language.
If you speak to them, they will not answer you unless you spoke to them in perfect French. Furthermore, the French believe that their food, wine and overall culture are the greatest on Earth.

* Greek people are bursting with feelings of superiority.
They feel that they are heirs to the oldest language and culture,
and that they are superior to non-Greeks.

* The Greek word BARBARIAN originally meant a person who was not Greek.
(According to

* During the Nazi Era, non-Germans were officially considered to be inferior to Germans. People who were found to be not of pure German ancestry were downgraded or brutally murdered.

* People from Spain have told me with emphasis that Spaniards are superior to South Americans and Central Americans and Mexicans.

* Justo Sierra said:

Just as the Spanish people had inherited from the Jews the belief that they were God’s chosen people, the Mexicans also believed that they were a chosen people, having received the seed of divine predilection to the mineral wealth of their soil.

SOURCE: The Life and Times of Mexico (chapter 9, page 110) by Earl Shorris, year 2004, W. W. Norton and Co, New York, London, ISBN 0-393-05926-X

* Hispanic Americans also believe that they are superior:

“I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life,” said Judge Sotomayor, who is now considered to be near the top of President Obama’s list of potential Supreme Court nominees.

SOURCE: A Judge’s View of Judging is on the Record by Charlie Savage, The New York Times, 2009 May 14

* Among Italians during the Renaissance, BARBARIAN meant a non-Italian person.
(According to

* In the USA, my Italian-American friends often publicly expressed their belief that people of Italian ancestry were superior in physical attractiveness and strength.

* For centuries, many Europeans and their descendants believed themselves to be superior to all people of darker coloring.

* African-Americans often believe that “400 years of slavery” has made them faster, stronger, and even smarter than other people. African-Americans also often believe that “400 years of slavery” has made them the “true Israelites.” (Actually, slavery lasted more than 1,000 years in Africa, but 400 years of slavery sounds Biblical).

* “...the Masai migrated into present-day Kenya…
...their beliefs included the understanding that ALL of the world’s cattle belonged to them ...”

SOURCE: Page 31 of: Africa 1500-1900, by Constance Jones,
1993, Facts On File, New York City, ISBN 0-8160-2774-9

* In the pre-Hispanic period, the people who spoke Nahuatl considered themselves superior, in part because of their language.

SOURCE: The Life and Times of Mexico (chapter 1, page 7) by Earl Shorris, 2004, W. W. Norton and Co, New York, London, ISBN 0-393-05926-X

* In Africa, there is a primitive tribe that calls themselves “The True People.” (Heard from Rabbi Avigdor Miller, ZTL, ZYA)

* Many men believe that men are more intelligent and logical than women,
and many women believe that women are better people than men.

* Senior citizens consider themselves to be wiser than teenagers,
but teenagers believe that they are smarter than senior citizens,
who they consider to be obsolete.

CONCLUSION: What makes the Jews truly unique is not their
belief that they are chosen, but that they feel guilty about it.
Kenny on February 13, 2013 at 8:23 pm (Reply)
See C.S. Lewis' "arrogance of chronology"when viewing the past.
Michael Lerman on February 15, 2013 at 3:23 pm (Reply)
Zecharia Sitchin, who read the Sumerian texts, has shown that The Sumerian People were created by the Anunnaki/Elohim and the Jews are modern day Sumerians (Shomron, the land of little Sumer); the Jewish People are modern day Sumerian; the concept that the Jews are Semites is nonsense (now proven by DNA analysis).
    Stephan Borowski Pickering / Chofetz Chayim ben-Avraham on February 15, 2013 at 11:46 pm (Reply)
    Shalom & Erev do not know what you are talking about, and your psuedo-extrapolations are unnecessary fargoyisht stains on silence and no-thing-ness. Historian Michael Heiser has devastated the hypotheses of Mr Sitchin at some length. Moreover, you are using racial categories of Jews which have no foundation in scientific fact, viz. there is no such category as a 'Jewish race'. The discussion of truth stops prudently with you, Mr Lerman, before the parallelism draws close enough to yield logical and probable conclusions.
    STEPHAN BOROWSKI PICKERING / Chofetz Chayim benAvraham
    Philosophia Kabbalistica Speculativa Researcher
TXJew on February 15, 2013 at 6:56 pm (Reply)
It's remarkable how many of these posts prove the point of the author, that Halevy's chauvinism about the the superiority of the JEWISH PEOPLE (not the superiority of good vs. evil - read the Kuzari)invites a moral rot of its own in the minds of the Jewish people. The opposite, no doubt, of what Halevy intended - but such is the law of unintended consequences

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