How I Learned to Love ‘The Kuzari’

Micah Goodman asks us to go back to Yehuda Halevy’s medieval treatise and read it in a different way: not as a book expressing Jewish supremacy, but as a continuing dialogue about universal, humanistic trends integral to Judaism.

Halomo shel Hakuzari (“The Dream of the Kuzari”), by Micah Goodman. Dvir Publishers, 370 pages, (Hebrew)

I never liked “The Kuzari.” Since the first time I was exposed to the contents of this 12th-century Jewish apologia written by Golden Age philosopher, physician and poet Rabbi Yehuda Halevy, I viewed it as a racist book whose goal was to elevate the People of Israel above others. I sensed that the book’s claims about the “chosen-ness of Israel” exempted us from basic moral constraints and caused us to close our eyes to unending acts of wrongdoing and abuse perpetrated against those who are under our control.

JIBF 2013 – Latest news and reviews from Jerusalem International Book Fair

Yehuda Halevy’s “Kuzari” was quoted over and over again during a discussion forum I once participated in, relating to the rights of foreign workers in Israel. Phrases from the book regarding how proselytes cannot be equal to a Jew by birth were used as justification for the humiliating treatment and structural exploitation to which foreign work-seekers are exposed here. This position derived from the purpose accorded by Yehuda Halevy to the book, whose full name is translated from the original Arabic as “The Book of the Khazars: In Defense of the Despised Faith.”

The main justification for Halevy’s position was that he tried to support the humiliated, which in this case meant the Jews, and not trample upon others; and his writing should be appreciated in view of the necessity to fortify a religious minority that faced conditions of persecution, humiliation and extermination. Nonetheless, I could not tolerate this immoral attitude vis-a-vis those who are not Jews, something along the lines of, “What is hateful to you, do unto your fellow man.”

After I came across Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s claim that “The Kuzari” “relegates Jewish thought to the level of unacceptable national chauvinism,” I decided once and for all to remove the text from the need-to-read pile next to my bed. Speaking as someone who identifies himself proudly as a Jew, I could not accept Halevy’s contention that God is not the father of all persons, but rather of Jews alone. I believed, and continue to believe, that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights ... and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood,” as it is phrased in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But now Micah Goodman has come along with his book “The Dream of the Kuzari” and forced me to backtrack. When I finished reading this excellent book, I found myself compelled to pull “The Kuzari” out from the back row of the bookshelf and reread it, in a spirit of modesty.

The story’s basic premise is well-known, but its main points nonetheless warrant reflection. The Khazar king sets out on a spiritual quest to find the truth and the religion that possesses it after he is told in a dream that God is satisfied with his intentions but not his deeds. He summons a philosopher, a wise Christian man and a wise Muslim one, yet none of the three succeeds in convincing the monarch of his position. Virtually without any other choice, he tries his luck with a Jewish sage. The sage successfully convinces the king that Judaism is the true religion, and the king not only converts, but also turns his large empire into a kingdom of Jews.

‘The enlightened will understand’

It’s easy to see why this storyline fired the imagination of innumerable Jews over many centuries. For a wandering, defenseless Jew, whose entire existence depended on the munificence of strangers and foreigners, the legend of the mighty Jewish kingdom perched between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea served as both inspiration and promise. It’s not hard to understand why Halevy chose these themes.

As Goodman sees it, due to the book’s semi-mythical character, it is impossible to fully decipher its messages; the text contains more than meets the eye. It has secrets that only “the enlightened will understand,” in the words of the prophet Daniel. In the ably written “Dream of the Kuzari,” Goodman, a lecturer in Jewish thought at the Hebrew University, as well as a pioneering Jewish educator, unravels these secrets in ways the layman can enjoy.

Unlike numerous thinkers who tried to reach conclusions about God’s existence by observing the wonders of nature, Halevy actually preferred to look at human history, by way of the miraculous, according to Goodman. The “miracle is not the fact that the expected came to pass, but rather that the unexpected came to fruition ... and this miracle does not bear witness to a set of laws, but rather to a set of relations,” Goodman writes. That is to say, it is miracles that interest Yehuda Halevy not the expression of the laws of nature but their suspension. Clearly this outlook fashions a different conception of the divine. A god of nature is necessarily a non-personal god, one who is distant and not involved in human action. On the other hand, “the replacement of nature by history as the object of study entails change in the religion itself”; or, stated more clearly, “changing the proof for the existence of God brings about change in God itself.”

Thus, “The Kuzari” attests to traces of the hand of God in human history as proof of the existence of God. According to Halevy, the unexpected survival of the Jewish people constitutes proof of just that. “The Kuzari” offers a theological view of history, and it promotes the conclusion that “Judaism not only survived history,” but is also the “unseen force that fashions history.”

These points make clear why Halevy chose the story of the Khazar kingdom. Written during the Middle Ages, when the Jews were beaten down by Christianity and Islam alike, “The Kuzari” supplies a different interpretation of reality, a historical story in which the Jews are actually victors. An examination of history after the fall from Eden proves to Halevy that he did not err: “It can be said with certainty that the Jewish people, relative to their size, moved humanity forward more than any other people in history. ... It is tempting to think that this unique history has metaphorical significance.” In other words, the people of Israel are unique not only because of their miraculous survival, but also because their vast contribution to civilization is disproportionate to their size.

The most blunt form of racism

“The Kuzari” appears to say that the world is comprised of different strata. On the bottom there is the somnolent world, in the middle is the animal kingdom and above is the world of man. In the somnolent stratum there is nature; in the animal layer, there are matters of spirit and emotion; and on the human level, there is rationality. In the stratum above man there is something “The Kuzari” calls “the divine matter”; in Halevy’s breakdown of the world, this stratum avails itself only to Jews. Under this system, the reason for Jewish superiority is not that Gentiles are not human beings; it derives from the fact that non-Jews are only human beings. According to Halevy, the people of Israel exist on a more elevated level, and only Jews have the ability to connect to the divine stratum.

It would be difficult to express a more blunt form of racism. The problematic nature of Halevy’s outlook is made manifest by a comparison to the views of Maimonides, who draws the exact opposite conclusion. As Maimonides sees it, God does not distinguish between his creations and thus the highest level of spirituality what is generally considered to be prophecy is available to all of mankind.

Goodman proposes a different interpretation of Halevy’s view. According to Goodman, both those who despise “The Kuzari” and those who admire it are in error because they do not understand the text’s dialogic structure: Halevy’s thoughts are represented not only by the statements attributed to the Jewish sage but also by those made by the Khazar king. Thus, writes Goodman: “‘The Kuzari’ is not the arena in which Halevy expresses absolute principles. On the contrary: The book is a public forum for internal wrestling.” Indeed, the more one examines “The Kuzari,” the more it becomes apparent that it is shedding light on a contradiction, precisely when it comes to one of the book’s most controversial elements: the issue of Jewish supremacy. After all, the prophetic dream that sparks the entire quest for understanding was dreamed by a Gentile king.

The book’s internal tension cannot be reduced to the question of divine revelation, however. It also applies to the question of conversion, which also raises issues about racism and supremacy, since those who believe that the connection between the people of Israel and their God is mainly one of blood and genetics will be hard-pressed to open the gates of heaven for non-Jews. Yet anyone who, like Maimonides, believes that the connection is a result of a human decision to observe commandments and serve as an exemplary model for others will open those gates. That’s the approach followed by the royal Khazar convert: the Jewish people’s advantage is to be found not in the blood that runs through their veins, but rather in the upholding of God’s commandments. Truth is hierarchical, but the hierarchy applies to laws, not peoples. Jewish laws, as the king sees it, are more cogent than those of other religions.

Indeed, the conversion issue provides another example of the way the book deliberately speaks in two voices. The reclusive, isolationist theology holding that Judaism, as Goodman phrases it, is a “community of blood” is undermined by the very story of the mass conversion of the subjects of the Khazar empire. Hence Goodman maintains that the book “is far more complex than the way it is studied, or rejected for study. ... ‘The Kuzari’ conceals a major dispute between the sage and the king pertaining to the virtue of the people of Israel, a dispute that ends with the victory of the king’s outlook.” As it turns out, the Jewish sage internalizes the king’s position, and it is the nation-centered outlook, not the genetic-centered one, that ultimately is the one that gets accepted.

This transformative view of “The Kuzari” as a dialogic book expressive of a number of voices suggests that Halevy did not write it as a treatise meant to offer a single standard answer to key questions, but rather presented dilemmas that reflected his own thoughts. In fact, though Goodman’s argument was refreshing for me and may represent an innovation for many readers, “The Kuzari” did not actually become a divisive text until the 20th century.

In contemporary Jewish philosophy, one school of thought identifies with the idea of national supremacy (as in the case of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who held that the difference between a Jewish soul and a Gentile soul is greater than the difference between man and beast), whereas another school upholds the humanist universalism represented by Judaism (as in the case of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik or Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the latter of whom held that those who believe that God belongs to them alone are not only racist, but also pagan). Followers of both schools of thought have offered up interpretations of “The Kuzari” in the centuries since it was written, with one embracing and the other rejecting the text.

Many of the controversies that today divide the Jewish people, such as those between the universalist camp and the ultra-nationalist camp, are reflected in polemics about “The Kuzari.” As Goodman sees it, “tension surrounding ‘The Kuzari’ attests to the disappearance of the book’s spirit, to the disappearance of its dialogue. ... Herein lies the tragedy of ‘The Kuzari’: a book that trains its readers to listen turned into one of the greatest impediments to listening.”

Can “The Kuzari” return to its original status? There is reason to believe that it can. Though at first it seems that there are many differences between the two Jewish states the Khazar kingdom and the State of Israel the dilemmas faced in each time period are similar. For instance, the Jewish sage in the text, who is called upon to remain in the Kuzari empire as the king’s personal adviser, has to decide between life in the state of the Jews and life in the land of the Jews (that is, the Land of Israel). In other words, he, like the Israelis of today, must decide between the people and the land.

The same holds true regarding the subject of the Jews’ supposed moral superiority. The king listens to the sage’s words, and then, by uttering a single barb, he extracts the prideful air from the Jew’s balloon. Any moral supremacy exhibited by the Jews, says the king, was a function of necessity and impotence. “When you are victorious,” says the king, “you will kill.” That is, the day the Jews attain power and a state, they will be destined to use their strength to ill purpose. And how does the Jew reply? “You’ve found my weak spot, King of the Khazars!”

Halevy asks himself, and ourselves, a tough question, and does not respond. Thanks to Goldman’s important, stimulating book, this vexing question awaits our own answers once again.

Yuval Elbashan, an attorney, is deputy director of Yedid: The Association for Community Empowerment. His most recent novel, “The Masada Case,” was published by Yedioth Books, in Hebrew.