Poet, philosopher, physician
1. The life of Judah ben Shmuel haLevi, as it has come down to us, is long on legend and short on established fact. He was born in Spain during what is known as the Golden Age, in Toledo probably, but possibly Tudela, in either 1075 or 1086. Reliable childhood details are slim, but it is known that he was Jewishly educated and learned Arabic literature and the Greek sciences and philosophy.
2. He lived at various times in Toledo (which was Christian) and in cities of southern (Moorish) Spain. He was a busy physician, occupying an honored position as a community leader and intellectual. Of his family life little is known, but in his poetry he refers to a daughter and her son, named Judah.
3. He wrote prose in Arabic and poetry in Hebrew and is widely considered the greatest of all medieval Hebrew poets.
4. Early on, he wrote poems of joy in friendship, love songs, drinking songs – poems full of delight in life. He wrote odes, epigrams, riddles and also religious verse. The themes and structure were common to many Hebrew poets of the time, employing complicated Arabic meters and Biblical diction. But Halevi brought special beauty to the sound of the poetry, a sparkling wit and a fine wedding of language, form and substance.
5. Here’s one brief example, translated by Robert Mezey:
Cups without wine are low things/Like a pot thrown to the ground/But brimming with the juice, they shine/Like body and soul.
6. At some point he experienced a religious awakening – possibly as a result of events in the world around him: it was the time of the first crusades. Whatever the reasons, he came to feel close to God and compelled to praise God. And for the Jewish people and their destiny, he felt a special bond. He believed that destiny lay in return to Eretz Yisrael.
7. Hundreds of his religious poems were dispersed widely, entering the liturgy of far-flung synagogues. Here’s one from the Tisha Ba’Av service:
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 – worldwide/All those from far and near, without surcease/Salute thee: Peace/ And Peace from every side.
8. He produced a treatise known as Kuzari, structured as a dialogue between a Jewish sage and the king of the Khazars, a heathen tribe which converted to Judaism. In it, he argues for the superiority of religious revelation over philosophical systems as the guide to life. He argues that the Land of Israel and the people Israel are intrinsically holy, that the people Israel have a special spiritual position, and as a nation they are, to other nations, as the heart is to the rest of the body.
9. Believing that religious fulfillment was possible only in the presence of Israel’s God – and most possible in the Land of Israel – he left Spain and sailed to Egypt in September 1140. He remained in Egypt, visiting with friends and dignitaries, until May 1141, when he boarded ship for Palestine. He died that summer. The circumstances of his death are foggy. Legend has it that, upon arriving in Jerusalem, he was run over by an Arab horseman. However, it may, in fact, be legend that he reached Palestine at all. Though there are accounts of a visit in Tyre, recent research suggests he died in Egypt.
10. Yet he did write prolifically about his journey. Poems and letters (found in the Cairo geniza) explore his religious motivations, describe storms at sea, praise his hosts, and express his doubts and anxieties. These writings have been translated and are available in Song of the Distant Dove, by Raymond Scheindlin. For a quick look at Halevi’s poetry, try http://www.poemhunter.com
Yehuda HaLevi Street runs from Neve Tzedek northeast to central Tel Aviv, where it joins Ibn Gevirol.