An unrivalled master of Hebrew and its prosody, Yehuda Halevi is perhaps the most famous and certainly the most revered of all the medieval poets. “The quintessence and embodiment of our country … our glory and leader, illustrious scholar, unique and perfect devotee,” is how an 1130 letter from the Cairo Geniza describes him, and his reputation has faded little since. Born near the border between Christian and Muslim Spain (some say in Toledo, others Tudela, and still others neither of the two), HaLevi, it seems, traveled to Granada as a teenager, at the invitation of Moshe Ibn Ezra, whom he had impressed with a poem. The self-described “immigrant from Christendom” lived in the Muslim south for several years. By the time the North African Almoravids assumed control of Andalusia in 1090, bringing great hardship upon Andalusia’s Jews, HaLevi had already begun to wander, and he lived, it seems, for a while under Almoravid rule in Seville, Lucena, or Cordoba. Like many other Andalusian Jewish refugees, he eventually made his way north to Castile, which was then ruled by the tolerant King Alfonso VI, who allowed Jews to take up the professions of their choosing and even participate in the administration of the kingdom. The beginning of the twelfth century finds HaLevi settled in Toledo. Earning a living as a physician, he attended to Castilian court circles, though the practice brought him little gratification: “I busy myself at an hour that is neither day nor night with the vanities of medicine,” he wrote to a friend. “We heal Babel, but it is beyond healing” (Jeremiah 51:9). He also engaged in trade and was active in Jewish communal affairs. Following the political murder in 1108 of the nephew of his Jewish patron, Yosef Ferrizu’el (Cidellus, or the Little Cid), who had been close to the Christian king, HaLevi became disillusioned with his situation at court. A few months later, when Alfonso himself died, anti-Jewish rioting broke out. What happened to HaLevi at this point is hard to say, but it appears that he left Toledo and again traveled from town to town before settling for a while in Cordoba with his wife and their daughter. Throughout these years he witnessed the devastation of Jewish communities by Christian and Muslim forces alike, and the events of his day shaped his emerging nationalist (or as Salo Baron has called it, “racialist”) consciousness. 

HaLevi is an important piece of the Spanish-Hebrew cultural puzzle not only for his achievements, which are major, but because in the course of that career he came to develop far-reaching reservations about the adoption of Arabic poetics and all they implied. By mid-life he had rejected the Andalusian cultural ideal altogether, though he expressed that rejection through masterful employment of the Andalusian forms. “And don’t be taken by Greek wisdom, / which bears no fruit, but only blossoms,” he writes. More sanguine in temperament than any of the other major poets of the period, he seems to have kept at least the courtly dimension of his work as a poet in perspective. When Levi Ibn Altabbaan implied in a poem that he, HaLevi, was a dedicated professional poet who earned a living from his art, HaLevi replied: “If wisdom is like the expanse of the sea, / poetry’s rhymes are its breakers’ foam. / Writing isn’t a wall to break through; / diversion for masters is the making of poems.” A treatise he wrote on Hebrew meter c. 1129 shows him returning to essential questions about the Andalusian revolution that had been raised by Dunash’s opponents at the beginning of the period. And in the last fifteen years of his life, even as he continued to compose in the classical Andalusian style, he began experimenting with an alternative poetics that would de-Arabize Hebrew verse and return it to exclusively Jewish sources.

In the summer of 1140, HaLevi set sail for the Holy Land, hoping to pray at Judaism’s holiest places. (More than one scholar has suggested that he made his pilgrimage because Jewish life in the Holy Land, including perhaps the gathering of a group of priests to perform the cultic rites on the Mount of Olives, near the site of the former Temple, would—according to his worldview—have accelerated the redemption and brought about the revelation of the Shekhina.) Unable to free himself from the lure of the Andalusian modes, he engaged in an intensive final bout of composition on the sea and while wintering in Egypt, where he was regaled as a celebrity by the local literati and socialites, and also besieged by friends pleading with him not to risk the extremely dangerous journey to Crusader-held Palestine. All in all he spent some eight months in Alexandria and Fustat (Old Cairo), as he prepared for the second leg of his trip. Initially, it seemed, he was going to take the overland route through the desert, but when those plans were thwarted, he had to wait for the gentler spring winds that would carry him across the final stretch of the Mediterranean to the port of Acre, from which he would journey by land to Jerusalem. He was last heard from in a poem written aboard ship just outside Alexandria’s port in mid-May of 1141.

His more conventional secular lyrics apart—some of which are quietly haunting—the poetry HaLevi wrote is prized for its fusion of a pure Hebrew lyricism and religio-historical concerns. It is, however, only when either crisis or loss enters his work that the secular poems rise to the level of major poetry—as in his poem of friendship to Moshe Ibn Ezra, his meditations on aging and the worth of his work in the world, and the sui generis poems he wrote on his journey away from Spain. Beyond that, some have argued that HaLevi’s real greatness lies in his liturgical poetry, where his effortless command of the language comes into perfect conjunction with his subject. Throughout that sacred verse one feels the tremendous force of the poetry’s currency and the spell of its fluency; at the same time, HaLevi’s temperament lends his lines a combination of tranquility and clarity that is in many ways unique in the literature. Ironically, we find this most nationalistic of all the major medieval Hebrew writers incorporating Sufi or Shi’ite devotional elements, such as the notion of total surrender before the divine (tawakkul)—perhaps because he knew it would speak to his peers, but clearly because it spoke to him.

 HaLevi is also the author of one of the period’s major (and most widely read) works of prose, The Book of the Kuzari: Defense of a Despised Faith (Kitaab al-Khazari: Kitaab al-Radd wa-l-Daliil fi l-Diin al-Dhaliil), which was written in Arabic and completed during the last decade or so of his life. Seeking guidance in matters of religion, a fictional Khazar king summons representatives of the three Abrahamic faiths, along with a philosopher, to present their beliefs to him. The king soon comes to the conclusion that the spokesman for rabbinic Judaism is the most convincing of the four, and the remainder of the book involves his asking questions that allow the Jewish representative to hold forth on the tenets of his faith. At the end, the Jewish scholar announces that he is leaving for the Holy Land. Recent readings of the book argue that its essential purpose was, as Ross Brann has put it, “to undermine the attachment to Sefarad among the culturally sophisticated Jews.”