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Judaism as introduced in the Book of the Kuzari

Author: Esther Ehrman, Cheshvan 5770/November 2009

Medieval philosophers were very good at arguing the case for the truths by which man lives. Believers and non-believers, defenders of the three major faiths and neo-Aristotelian secularists, battled to articulate the merits of their value-systems. The Book of the Kuzari by Yehuda HaLevy, completed around 1140, is a major contribution in this philosophical debate.

The setting of the Kuzari is well known. The King of the Khazars wishes to discover the truly right ideas to guide him and invites a philosopher, a Christian, a Moslem and a Jew to present their thinking. The format is reminiscent of the Socratic dialogue, though perhaps also of the Moslem Kalam. In the background to many of the ideas presented are the views of Aristotle, to the extent that he was known at the time, which was mainly through Arabic translations of some of his writings. The role of the King of the Khazars is to prompt the speaker, assess, approve or reject the arguments presented to him. He does not offer a position of his own.

The Jewish Chaver surprises the King, and perhaps also the Medieval reader, by presenting his religion as that of the G-d of Abraham Isaac and Jacob – surprising because this does not seem to be a philosophical argument. What about the Prime Cause, the Creator of the Universe, the Active Intellect? We need to keep in mind that the aim of the Chaver is to persuade the King of the merits of Judaism, not to prove universal truths. And Judaism begins with its history. Given that history, which includes the Covenants with the Divine and the revelation of the Torah, certain beliefs and principles characterise this faith and distinguish its position from others.

The standpoint of the Chaver is that of the Torah, which also determines the choice of topics: Humanity is descended from one original couple, languages have one origin, the world was created ex nihilo, G-d relates to the world, the laws of nature are infringed by miracles, - to name but a few. These were also topics debated by the contemporaries of Yehudah HaLevy. Let us look at just one or two.

Aristotle, who was the authority of the rationalist thinkers of the period, held that the Universe was infinite in time, if not in space. A few Jewish thinkers, such as Averroes, accepted this. If G-d is infinite and the world is included in that infinity, it, matter may be seen as infinite. The Chaver pays respect to the Aristotelian view without accepting it. The Kuzari asks 'is not the philosophy of Aristotle deserving of credence?' and the Chaver replies 'Certainly', but 'he had no tradition'; 'he meditated on the beginning and end of the world...and finally the abstract meditations which made for eternity prevailed and he found no reason to inquire into the chronology or derivation of those who lived before him.' 'the theory of eternity and creation is obscure, whilst the arguments are evenly balanced'. But 'the theory of creation derives greater weight from the prophetic tradition of Adam, Noah and Moses'. Again, the proof, for the Chaver is not a philosophical one; it is based on a tradition – history – and on prophecy – revelation. It is interesting to note that the rationalist Maimonides, a few decades later, takes a similar stand on Creation. 'Since I consider...either of the two theories, viz. the Eternity of the Universe and the Creation as admissible, I accept the latter on the authority of Prophecy, which can teach things beyond the reach of philosophical speculation' (Guide for the Perplexed, 2, 16).

Yehuda HaLevy does not, however, eschew reason from his account. Ancient cultures and astrology considered that heavenly bodies had an impact on earth. These, says the Chaver, have powers 'such as warming, cooling, moistening, drying etc', but they are not sentient intelligences. While their power is derivative, 'you must not deem it improbable that exalted divine traces should be visible in this material world, when matter is prepared to receive them.' Just as G-d has created a nature in which everything is appropriate, where ants, flowers e.g have the properties suited to their life-style, so the Divine traces in our world can exist in beings fit to receive them. This, we are told, is a source of faith or heresy. Prompted by the King, the Chaver explains that being fit is not natural. 'For this, inspired and detailed instruction is necessary' A believer will accept this, but 'whoever strives by speculation and deduction to prepare for the conditions for the reception for this inspiration, or by divining...or manufacturing talismans, such a man is an unbeliever'. Such a person is like a fool in charge of a medicine chest, dangerously doling out medicines without the knowledge of doses, kinds of drugs or their suitability. Such was the state of affairs before Moses taught the Law and people staggered from belief to belief in ignorance of the Divine wisdom.

The Chaver has restricted himself in that he may not assume any knowledge of Torah on the part of his interlocutor; there are no Biblical verses, such as Maimonides made use of, to prove a point. The appeal relies on the evidence of history, which itself needs to be demonstrated as credible, on revelation shown to be a source of outstanding wisdom and on assumptions seen to be reasonable. The device of the presence of the King of the Khazars who is shown to be somewhat hesitant and then convinced by the arguments presented adds to the persuasiveness. The King, and with him the reader, are led to accept ideas and values without being made aware at this stage that these are ideas and values basic to Judaism.