No Miracles when it comes to changing people and their cultures!

In [I, 100], the king recaps what he has gathered so far from the ḥaver, and tries to put it together. In situations such as these, the listener must fit whatever he has heard into his own way of thinking. The listener perforce still has some conceptions that are alien to those of the person to whom he has been listening. Filtering what one hears through one’s own preconceptions leads to some misunderstanding. With this in mind, I will summarize the king’s recap (as I understand it), the misunderstanding that Hallevi cleverly puts into his recap, and then put down a few points to ponder, or puzzles.

The king likes what he hears. The manifest miracles connected with the emancipation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage and the swift conquest of Canaan that have been described erase all doubt. The greatness of the messenger [Moses], the exaltedness of the Sender [God], and the distinction (faḍl) of the people to whom he was sent specifically sent, have all been confirmed. So far, so good. But now the king continues: had the messenger proclaimed that he was sent to the entire world, when in reality less than half of the world has heard of his message, then his mission would have been faulty; the divine would not have been executed in full. Nonetheless, the reason for this could lie in the language of the revealed book, namely Hebrew. It can take hundreds of years for circumstances to develop that would bring success in outlying areas such as India or Khazaria, given that those people have not seen the Prophet or another prophet who can testify to the Prophet and ratify his Law.

In the second part of the king’s recap Hallevi has inserted a nice double-entendre of sorts, and I am not sure that it has been appreciated. On the face of it, the king’s assumption that a divine mission of this magnitude must have been universal, and directed at all of humanity, reflects the “baggage” that he has brought with him to this conversation. This is a nice set-up, as it allows Hallevi to drive home forcefully in the subsequent discussion his particularistic message: this awesome mission was directed at the Israelites alone! But in the course of making the point, he gets in a jab at both Christianity and Islam, since their messengers did proclaim a universalist message, but neither has reached more than half of the world. This hearkens back to [I, 2], where Hallevi speaks of “the Christian and the Muslim, who have divided the world between them” and continue to make war with one another. My impression is that readers have generally honed in on the polemical aspect of this passage, namely the failure of Christianity and Islam to get their universalist message accepted world-wide, rather than on the king’s mindset which led him to speak of reaching the whole world.

There are a number of puzzles here; a few words in the Arabic call for explanation. The overall picture will not change much, if at all, but I am interested in a close reading. The words are the verb ‘adhara and the noun istiḥāla.

Some form of ‘adhara is used to explain, or excuse, the fact that the mission described in this passage has not reached the entire world. I learn from the edition of Baneth-Ben Shammai, p. 34, n. 10, that it does not occur in the manuscript; it is a correction made by Ignaz Goldziher. Ibn Tibbon, who presumably had access to a better manuscript than what is available to us today, translates מונע, “prevents”. Baneth-Ben Shammai (following Goldziher, who says nothing about the meaning of the word) puts a shadda on the dhāl. Ben-Shammai adds in his note (after citing Ibn Tibbon) that support is found in Dozy’s dictionary. In this reading, Goldziher’s emendation is harmonized with Ibn Tibbon’s translation; it is endorsed by Prof Blau in his dictionary (p. 604), who translates an entire line from the Cuzari, and Prof Schwarz as well in his new translation. Here ‘adhara in the second form means “to prevent”, “to render impossible”. Far be it from me to challenge those authorities. I simply must point out that nothing of the sort is found in Dozy, who gives “admonish” as the meaning of ‘adhara in the second form. (True, Wehr gives “to be impossible” as the meaning of the verb in the fifth form, which is the reflexive of the second.) Rabbi Qafih ignores the shadda and puts the verb in the passive, so that it takes on the meaning of “to be excused”: the fact that the mission was not completed can be excused because it takes hundreds of years etc. etc.

Ultimately there is not much difference in meaning between “the mission was impossible to accomplish” and “the lack of completion can be excused”. However, I think that we ought to think a bit the implications of whichever rendition of the statement we choose: the messenger (and, though not stated, his successor, Joshua) performed a tremendous series of miracles, over the course of several generations, culminating in the swift conquest of the Promised Land. Why, then, was it impossible to complete the mission and spread the Torah to the entire world? Hallevi will of course tell us that this was not the divine intent. The king, however, seems to think that it was, but that its failure can be excused. Are there then limitations on the might of the messenger? Are there certain human processes, ostensibly related to language and culture (see below) which require a long period of time, such that even a great prophet cannot accelerate them? If this is so, then Hallevi ascribes to the king a theory that is the exact opposite of the “naturalistic” theory of miracles espoused by Gersonides and, if I recall correctly, Maimonides as well. According to this theory, miracles consist in the acceleration of natural processes. For example, the elements that make up a wooden staff could, over the course of many long years, reassemble into a serpent; Moses’ staff performed this natural transformation in a matter of seconds.

An even greater puzzle is this: what had to transform into what? What process of transformation requires hundreds of years, and even a great prophet cannot speed it up? Hallevi’s statement is somewhat ambiguous and quite puzzling in the Arabic. The excuse, or impossibility, lies “in his book’s being in Hebrew, and imposing its comprehension, and its practice, in India, Sind, and Khazaria can happen only after hundreds of years, ’in yattafiqa al-istiḥāla ilayhā by means of conquest, or living as neighbors”, but not by means of a prophet.

The Arabic phrase, ’in yattafiqa al-istiḥāla ilayhā, means literally: if the transformation into it [or: them] should happen to occur. Here are my puzzles:

  1. Everything so far has come about through divine intervention and a great prophet. Why must the final stages be left to chance—and this is precisely that the verb ittafaqa implies?
  2. The subject of the verb yatiffiqa is al-istiḥāla; it is the transformation that “must happen to occur”. But what is being transformed? And to what does the pronoun in ’ilayhā refer? Here we meet with a built-in ambiguity, since the feminine singular pronoun can have an antecedent that is the plural of either gender as well as a feminine singular.
  3. Istiḥāla is a technical term in Aristotelian physics, translated usually “alteration”. According to the principles of physics (see Avicenna, Shifā’, Physics 4.91, in the translation of John McGinnis), alteration is a gradual process that requires physical proximity; so Hallevi is adhering to the rules of physics or natural philosophy when he expects this natural process to require physical proximity and time! Still, why should the process be downgraded at this time from a miraculous one to a natural one? Or is the king already anticipating the special, supernatural role of the Israelites?
  4. Finally, what is being transformed? Since the Hebrew language is mentioned earlier as the obstacle to quick transformation, Rabbi Qafih understands here that it is the language of the sharī‘a, here referring of course to the Torah, which must be transformed, or, put more simply, translated into the languages of the Indians and others. His understanding is the most correct as far as the flow of the text is concerned. However, why should translation from one language to another require hundreds of years? Moreover, istiḥāla is never used to mean translation; Rabbi Qafih knows this, and his laconic note 87 basically admits the difficulty. Most readers, though, take the sentence to mean that the peoples must be transformed culturally in order to resemble the Israelites; only then will they be ready for the Torah. Cultural transformation takes time, and even a miracle won’t help.

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