One of the best-loved books in Judaism is the Spanish Jewish poet Yehuda Halevi’s Kuzari (around 1075-1141), a book that was completed around 1140. It is considered by many to be an easy-to-read and informative book of philosophy that expresses, in the opinion of many, the basic principles of Judaism. Halevi’s goal was to demonstrate, even prove, the superiority of Judaism. Many synagogues give classes on the book. Halevi is acclaimed by many to have been Judaism’s greatest poet and his book is certainly entertaining. However, a close reading of Kuzari reveals unfortunately that Halevi did not succeed in the impossible task he attempted and his logic is problematical.
Halevi’s Kuzari imagines that the king of the Kuzars decided to adopt a religion, planning to choose between Judaism, Christianity, Islam and philosophy. He invited a representative of each of the four groups and discussed their ideas with them. Needless to say, the king decided that he and the people of Kuzar would become Jews. Halevi’s anti-rational defense of Judaism focuses on two themes:
Halevi’s first contention makes a distinction between a religion whose foundation is historical, which he favors, and a religion that is based on faith or on reason. In his opinion, Jews know that Judaism is correct because it is based on facts. Jews choose to be Jewish because they are able to recall that the miracles recorded in the Bible actually occurred. He writes:
“[For a religion to be acceptable] it must also have taken place in the presence of great multitudes, who saw it distinctly, and did not learn of it from reports and traditions. In short, all that is written in the Torah and the records of the children of Israel cannot be disputed because they … were revealed before a vast multitude [of witnesses]. Israel … knew these things first from personal experience, and afterwards through uninterrupted tradition [the passing on of the reports through reliable witnesses], which is equal to the former.”
Halevi cites as items of history that were seen by a multitude of witnesses and therefore cannot be doubted: the splitting of the Red Sea, the revelation of the Decalogue, the writing of the Decalogue by God and the manna.
However, Halevi’s argument is problematical. Very few Jews, if any, are convinced that these events occurred due to a three-thousand-year-old recollection. Those who believe these miracles do so because they are recorded in the Bible. Judaism therefore cannot be set apart from other religions and from philosophy and shown to be true because Judaism is a historically proven religion.
Halevi’s second defense of Judaism is his theory of the uniqueness of the Jewish people. Halevi insists that the religious faculty was incorporated in the Jewish soul only. This faculty is activated when Jews observe Jewish rituals, making it possible for Jews to come into contact with God.
Only Jews, Halevi insists, were elected by God, are genetically superior and possess a supernatural character; non-Jews are subject to the hazardous risks of the laws of nature. He went so far as to say that a convert to Judaism, not having been born a Jew, lacks this uniqueness. One wonders how the king of the Kuzars decided to convert to Judaism after hearing this!
The following are his problematical words: “If the law were binding on us only because God created us [and therefore available to all], the white and the black man would be equal, since he created them all.”