Is Judah Halevi's Kuzari Racist?

By Ari Ackerman
Wednesday, February 13, 2013

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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