Judah Halevi, who lived, it is thought, from 1075 to 1141, remains to this day one of the most remarkable figures in the history of Jewish literature and thought. Principally remembered as a poet, he was also a serious thinker, both within his poetry and outside of it, especially if one considers all he had to say about faith, the matter of fervency in prayer and the overriding issue of national longing as a major element of the Jewish psyche.
Halevi lived a fairly representative life for someone of his time and station. Those who know only a few details about his life will say without equivocation that he lived in Spain; but this is true only up to a point, as famed teacher and scholar Raymond P. Scheindlin points out in his beautifully sculpted new book The Song of the Distant Dove: Judah Halevi's Pilgrimage, published recently by Oxford University Press. Halevi may well have lived in the region we now know of as Spain, but it was at a time "when it was an Arabic-speaking, predominantly Muslim, territory known as Al-Andalus and was linked more tightly to North Africa and the rest of the Islamic world than it was to Europe."
As Scheindlin points out, Halevi, who was also known as Abu l-Hasan Ibn al-Lawi, was "a member of the Jewish social and intellectual aristocracy that flourished throughout the Muslim world during the age of the Islamic ascendancy (750-1300)." He was a physician, a theologian, a merchant, a religious scholar (though not a rabbi, as far as anyone can ascertain) and, of course, a beloved poet, as well as a prominent figure in the public affairs of his time. In this sense, notes the scholar, he was a prime representative "of the so-called Golden Age of Hebrew letters."
The most telling word in the title of Scheindlin's book is "pilgrimage." The scholar argues that what makes Halevi's story stand out from those of other members of the medieval Judeo-Arabic elite was the poet's decision, in his late middle age, to withdraw from the life he led in al-Andalus and spend whatever time was left to him on earth in the land of Israel. He sailed in the summer of 1140, with the intention of settling in Palestine and dying there.
But the poet arrived first in Alexandria on Sept. 8 of that crucial year, and was hailed as a celebrity by the Jewish community there. Instead of proceeding immediately on to Palestine, however, he remained in Alexandria, "hosted by friends and admirers," well into the winter. He then moved on to Cairo, Scheindlin tells us, where he spent a number of months with a prominent member of the Jewish community of Egypt, Halfon Halevi (who was not a relative), and also visited with Samuel ben Hanania, head of the Jews of Egypt. According to Scheindlin, "Halevi may have contemplated continuing his journey across the eastern desert so as to approach Palestine from the same direction as the ancient Israelites, but he returned to Alexandria, and at last boarded a ship that set sail on May 11, 1141."
Many have wondered, as does Scheindlin, whether Halevi ever made it to Jerusalem. There is a version of the story that has him arriving at the gates of the city and, as he kneeled to recite his great "Ode to Jerusalem," an Arab horseman, angered by this display of Jewish piety, charged and trampled him with his horse. Scheindlin considers the tale pure legend. The scholar writes: "All that we know is that Halevi died during the summer of 1141. But the legend of [a] violent death embodies a higher sort of truth, for the devotion to the land of Israel expressed in his poetry emits a whiff of martyrdom. Furthermore, the legend's depiction of Halevi dying in the embrace of the stones and the soil of the Holy Land echoes a particular recurring image in his poetry that expresses his principled quest for concreteness and certainty in religious experience. It was this quest, pervading his poetry and religious thought, that led him to the East."
As the scholar stresses, Halevi's pilgrimage was not typical in any sense. For the most part, a pilgrimage, both then and now, means traveling to a shrine in order to pray and offer respects, and then returning home, feeling religiously uplifted as a direct result of the experience. Halevi's journey, according to the scholar, was different. He didn't just go to the Land of Israel to visit Jerusalem and see the other holy sites and then return, "but rather to die there and mingle his body with the stones and soil … ."
The author also points out that Halevi was the first Jew we know of in the Middle Ages to travel to Palestine not as a part of a religious community or to join an existing religious community, but as "an act of individual piety," with the intent of ending his days there.
"There are plenty of references to Jewish pilgrims to the Land of Israel in the Middle Ages," writes Scheindlin, "but mostly in the form of groups that intended to establish permanent communities in Palestine, such as the Karaite Mourners of Zion movement in the 10th century and the groups led by Ashkenazic rabbis in the 13th century. Such individual pilgrims as we do hear of were already traveling, anyway, and made use of the opportunity to visit a holy site. Halevi is the first known Jew who went to the Land of Israel out of a desire to mend his worldly ways and live out his last days as what Muslims call a jar allah — a neighbor of God. His is a unique case that cries out for an explanation."
Scheindlin cites three sources that have come down to us that help make sense of the nature of Halevi's pilgrimage. While he was still in al-Andalus, the poet wrote a book explicating his religious thought, which is commonly known as the Kuzari. It's written in the form of a dialogue between a rabbi and a pagan king. The conversations between the two, which eventually convince the king to convert to Judaism, make up the bulk of the text. "In the closing episode of the frame," writes the author, "the rabbi announces his decision to leave the land of the Khazars and to settle in the Land of Israel. This conclusion suggests that Halevi's decision to make the pilgrimage emerged from the religious system propounded in the Kuzari, and implies that we can arrive at an understanding of the pilgrimage by studying that work."
The second source is his poetry. As Scheindlin informs us, during all of the age of the Islamic ascendancy, especially from the 10th century on, "Jewish intellectuals wrote and sponsored the writing of poetry in Hebrew both for liturgical and nonliturgical purposes. They had acquired their taste for nonliturgical poetry from Arabic culture, which in many ways was their own culture, and from Arabic poetry, which they knew and admired."
From a very early age, Halevi was one of the most prolific of these Hebrew poets, writing verse — and lots of it — both for liturgical functions and for pure entertainment, and, as Scheindlin notes, "exchanging complimentary poetry with some of the most important Jewish leaders of al-Andalus. In later life, he also wrote poetry of a more personal kind, exploring his religious experiences, arguing his principles with imaginary interlocutors, and exposing his doubts and fears in gorgeous Hebrew verse."
The final source in Scheindlin's quest is a group of medieval letters written in Arabic that help tell the story of the poet's pilgrimage in precise detail. These letters were found as part of the Cairo geniza, a mass of manuscripts that had been preserved in a medieval synagogue that still stands in the old city section of Cairo. According to the author, the letters "provide precious information about Halevi's life in al-Andalus and Castile, and they shed particularly bright light on the eight months that Halevi spent in Egypt on his way to the Land of Israel."
Armed with these three sources, Scheindlin works his way through Halevi's biography, his poetry (rendered in jewel-like translations by the author) and his final journey. And during his own scholarly journey, Scheindlin creates a work that, like his subject's life and writings, has a splendid resonance. In addition, in this single and singular volume, we are accorded a double treat — we have here not only a new way of interpreting the great Halevi, but it feels as if, through these elegant translations, we've also been presented with a newly discovered cache of Halevi poems. Few scholarly works provide readers with such accessible literary riches.