[I. 103] Visible Proof of Eternal Bliss

In [I, 103] Hallevi begins to get into the details of the intrinsic advantages enjoyed by the Jews. He highlights the “bright, overwhelming sign” (al-āya al-bāhira al-qāhira) that the Jew can witness and experience while still in this world, inhabiting their material bodies. All that is asked of him (the Jew) is to have his soul become “a divine human soul” by detaching itself from the sensory world and linking up with the supernal world. This can be achieved by devotional works, purification, or by simply coming into physical contact with true prophets. Any law code whose rules and restrictions can lead the person to this level is assuredly the one which guarantees the perdurance of the soul after the demise of the body. The Khazar king retorts that other faiths promise rewards that are “firmer and fatter”, to which the ḥaver replies: “But all of those are after death, and none of it is available while alive, nor is there any proof of it.” In other words, the reward promised to Jews may not sound as appealing as that promised by other religions, but the Jew can be sure that it exists and it is true, because one can experience something of it while still alive.

If I may indulge in a tiny bit of epistemological analysis—acknowledging that none of the heavy technical vocabulary is deployed here—then I would suggest the following. In matters of science, Hellevi rejects tajriba, the reliance on pure empiricism, with no formal theory and proof to back up one’s claims. Here, though, he seems to have in mind what the Sufi’s call dhawq, “taste”, an experience of bliss whose certainty is impeccable.

I must once again pick a small bone with Micahel Schwarz. He translates a key sentence as follows: “For what is asked of from the world to come is that the human soul become divine, disengage from its senses, see the supernal world, and bask in the vision of the angelic light and hearing the divine speech, for that soul can be assured not to die when its bodily organs have spent themselves…” However, the phrase “from the world to come” is not in the original Arabic (see Baneth-Ben Shammai, 56:8-9). It is commentary and I think that it is wrong. Hallevi is speaking of what it is asked of the Jew while he is still alive, not what is asked or expected of the the world to come; if the Jew elevates himself so the point of the prophetic-like experiences described in the passage–and he has already said that this is possible–then his soul will surely not die. This also the understanding of Hesheq Shlomo and I think it to be certain; Schwarz’s intervention has no basis in either the Arabic nor in Ibn Tibbon.

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.

On Prayer: Iamblichus vs. Plotinus, Hallevi vs. Maimonides

chagallJohn Dillon speaks of “the core of the dispute between the ‘theurgical’ and ‘theoretical’ tendencies within later Neoplatonism, as represented by Iamblichus on the one hand, and Plotinus and Porphyry on the other”. Plotinus saw prayer as a form of meditation; in Enneads V 1 [10] he speaks of “invoking God … not in spoken words, but stretching ourselves out with our soul into prayer to him”. Iamblichus, De Mysteriis II-11 (96-97) denies this, asserting that “theurgic union is attained only by the perfective operation of ineffable acts correctly performed, acts which are beyond all understanding, and by the power of unutterable symbols which are intelligible only to the gods”. Iamblichus’ prayers, or utterances, are recited as part of sacrificial rituals; they serve “to confer the highest degree of completedness” upon them. [these quotations are all found in his article, “The Platonic Philosopher at Prayer,” in John Dillon and Andrei Timotin, eds., Platonic Theories of Prayer, Brill, 2016, pp. 15-16.]

Mutatis mutandis—and there is a lot here that must be adjusted—this is part of a core dispute between Maimonides and Hallevi. Like Plotinus, Maimonides sees prayer as a type of contemplation; the two agree that ideal prayer can or perhaps should be wordless. (Maimonides may have had some access to Plotinus by way of The Theology of Aristotle, but he has prooftexts for his view in Pslams.) Moreover, Maimonides saw no “inner meaning” to animal sacrifices. Hallevi, for his part, greatly envaluates sacrifices and the entire Temple rituals. Like Iamblichus, he maintains that the details of the rituals that will evoke responses from above are beyond human understanding; they have, however, been revealed to the Jewish people in the Torah. On the other hand, and unlike Iamblichus, there is no place in Hallevi’s system for meaningless syllables to be muttered as part of a devotion (or anywhere else, for that matter). Hallevi composed moving liturgies in Hebrew whose power derives from the clear and present meaning of his beautiful formulations.

Interestingly, though, though their readings of history and theory are very different, Hallevi and Maimonides see eye to eye when it comes to recommended practice: the Jew should punctiliously recite the fixed, standard, traditional prayers, and no more. The challenge is to recite them each time in full concentration, being aware of what one is saying, and keeping one’s mind focused on the prayer and nothing else. A difficult challenge indeed.

[I, 97] What did Moses promise to bring down from Mount Sinai?

Cuzari [I, 97] contains Hallevi’s spirited defense of the Israelites in the episode of the golden calf. A similar, though far less detailed explanation, was presented by Abraham Ibn Ezra, to whom Hallevi was related by marriage. In my opinion, Ibn Ezra is a perfect exponent of the type of “philosophy” which is targeted by the Cuzari. However, none of this bears on the issue I am about to raise.

A critical element in Hallevi’s defense is his remark that the Israelites were “promised” something by Moses before he ascended Mount Sinai. At first, Hallevi indicates only that this something was a visible object that can be pointed to, gestured to, even bowed to—the way Jews then and now point, gesture, even bow to objects such as the ark in the synagogue, the pillars of cloud and fire, even the heavens above. These motions are considered perfectly legitimate. Hallevi smoothly segues into the story of the epiphany at Sinai in a way that makes it clear that the Israelites were expecting the two tablets in which the Ten Commandments were inscribed. Then, the defense continues, when Moses delayed his return, the Israelites decided to construct an object of their own for the same legitimate purpose. The sin consisted in doing it on human initiative. The proof that this was not such a terrible violation consists in (1) the relatively small number of violators who were punished, 3000 out of 600,000 and (2) the fact that tokens of divine pleasure, such as widespread prophecy, the cloud and the pillar of fire, all continued as before.

But did Moses promise to bring down anything of the sort? I find no indication at all, not even a hint, in the narrative displayed in Exodus 19-20.  Surprisingly, this did not pique any of the commentators, medieval or modern, whose works I have seen. The only one moved to make a remark at all is Ḥesheq Shlomo (ed. Dov Schwartz, p. 93), who cites Exodus 24:14. There, however, Moses promises only that he and Aaron will return, but not that he or they will bring anything. Moreover, throughout the epiphany the Israelites can see things: the cloud, the sounds, the lightning.

Hallevi does it again. Consummate litterateur that he is, he hypnotizes his audience to stream along with him in his story; no one bothers to stop and say: but that is not what the Torah tells us! This long passage has stimulated a great deal of interest, especially of late in academic circles, where not a few are spellbound by Hallevi’s talk of rūḥāniyyāt. That’s fine with me, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of a simple comparison of Hallevi’s version of the story with that given in the Bible.

Another correction to Michael Schwarz:

In the glossary, page 366, bottom, it is mistakenly stated that ta‘aqqul is the seventh form or conjugation of the root ‘/q/l; it is, of course, the maṣdar of the fifth form (and, of course, listed as such in Blau’s dictionary, to which Schwarz refers). As far as I know, that root has no seventh form. Michael Schwarz justly earned a reputation as one of the strongest Arabists in Israel, and such an elementary slip should not be allowed to remain in his book.

The “divine power” and the “divine thing”: are they the same?

Is the Cuzari’s “divine power” another name for “the divine thing”?

In I, 95, the ḥaver describes the final stages in the creation of Adam: “and he is the one who received the soul in her perfection, and [then] the maximum intellect possible for the human constitution, and the divine power after the intellect.” The divine power (al-qūwa al-ilāhiyya) is thus something superadded to the human intellect. Hallevi immediately tells us precisely what this divine power is: “I mean, the stage (rutba) at which he conjoins with God and the spiritual beings, and then knows the particular truths (al-ḥaqā’iq) without studying, but rather by means of the easiest of thought gesture (bi-ahwan fikra).”

The “divine thing” (al-amr al-ilāhiy) is a key and crucial element in Hallevi’s thought (see my preceding post). Is it the same thing as the “divine power”? The only person to ask this question, from what I have looked at, is the Nazir, and he answers in the affirmative. He correctly observes that both are the fourth and highest stage in a certain hierarchy. However, the “divine power”, like the “divine thing”, is a well-known concept with a history of its own; and the meanings it has assumed are different from that of the “divine thing”. (I have posted elsewhere notes towards a study of the term “divine power”.) Moreover, as we have just seen, Hallevi gives quite a precise definition of the “divine power”; it sounds like a form of intuition, which indeed was seen as God-given gift of some sort. (Yes, I have written on this too …) The description is not quite the same as that given earlier on for the “divine thing” (see especially I, 41), which includes the ability to survive fire, to go without food and water, to maintain robust health one’s entire life, and to have access to hidden secrets—a superhuman, as the ḥaver sums up.

I am not sure what if any difference it makes that Hallevi chooses to describe Adam by the “divine power”, but the great poet can be presumed to have chosen his words carefully.

Michael Schwarz’ Translation and more notes to Book I

I was very thrilled to finally buy a copy of Professor Michael Schwarz’ Hebrew translation, published posthumously. Needless to say I now consult his translation as part of my weekly study. I have already a few points to make, including, unfortunately, an alert to an egregious typesetting error that really must be corrected before the next printing.

Professor Schwarz graces his translation with very useful notes. They are not as thick as those accompanying his translation of Maimonides’ Guide, for the simple reason that no book of Jewish thought, not even the Cuzari, has generated as much scholarship as has Maimonides’ Guide. On the other hand, the notes to the Cuzari refer to Joshua Blau’s Judaeo-Arabic Dictionary, which had not yet appeared when Prof Schwarz published his translation of the Guide.

There are, however, at least two sides to every coin. The availability of Blau’s dictionary causes me to wonder why Schwarz chooses to translated a word differently. For example, towards the end of I, 84, we encounter ta’assuf. Blau cites Ibn Tibbon who chooses “stubbornness”; Schwarz prefers “arbitrary judgment”. There is no note; probably the difference is small and need not be noted. Still, I will be on the lookout for things of this nature.

Now for the regrettable typo. Schwarz appends to his volume a useful lexicon of concepts (מילון מושגים). One of the most important, and distinctive concepts in the Cuzari is certainly al-amr al-ilāhiy (אלאמר אלאלאהי), which can mean either “the divine thing” or “the divine command”.  Schwarz informs us that after some deliberation, he chooses הדבר האלוהי, ha-davar (maybe some sticklers would write ha-dabhar) ha-elohi, since the Hebrew davar can cover, at least approximately, the range of meanings enjoyed by the Arabic amr.

However, someone mistook the final yod in אלאהי for a single apostrophe, and the printed text consistently displays אלאלאה׳. If the apostrophe has any meaning in Judaeo-Arabic, it would indicate a tā marbūta, since it is tricky to put the two dots over the heh, which is what the manuscript copyists would do—if they bothered at all, which they usually didn’t. This would transform the adjective ilāhiy, “divine”, to the noun, ilāha, “goddess”, and, on top of that, would be faulty grammatically, since the first word in the construct formation cannot have the definite article. Professor Schwarz justly earned a reputation as one of the strongest Arabists in Israel, and his book deserves better.

And now for something completely different. After nearly half a century in academia I still haven’t figured why and when scholars feel the need to look for a source. In any event, I find it interesting that the Nazir identifies the “Apikores” or “Epicurean” if you wish referred to at the end of I, 84 (the Arabic has mutazandiqa, see note 302 in Schwarz, p. 38) with Hiwi al-Balkhi, especially in light of the reference to the miracle of the man (“manna from heaven”) described in I, 86. I have not seen any university people look for a specific polemical reference here. Personally, I can do without it, but given some of the targets and influences ascribed to the Cuzari on flimsy evidence, I think that the Nazir’s suggestion is worth considering, if only as a subtext.

notes to I, [80]-[82]

I, [80] The translators into Hebrew seem to have trouble with the word kalima.  (I have not yet seen the translation of Professor Schwartz, nor the promised English version of Berman-Kogan; they are likely to handle this properly.) Dozy’s dictionary, which specializes in the Maghrebian Arabic native to Hallevi, informs us that kalima is synonymous with dīn, “religion”. This is exactly how it is used by Hallevi in this paragraph, which is written in elegant Arabic prose.
Ta’alaffat is taken to mean “become united”, but I think it conveys more than political unity; it carries with it the clear nuance of becoming a harmonious whole.

I, [81] I think that the Nazir’s short comment is spot on, but just touches the surface of the contrast that Hallevi draws here. “Intellectual codes”–I think we might call this natural religion—develop naturally, that is, in a process over time. On the other hand, the divine code arrives instantaneously, in no time. This is very much the distinction between processes motivated by nature, and those brought about by fayḍ, the divine “overflow” or “bounty” that suffuses the cosmos. Maimonides makes use of this distinction in an entirely different context. The phrase, “He (Allah, the name used by Hallevi and other Jews to refer to God, with no hesitation) said, ‘Be!” (kun), and then it was,” appears in one way or another eight times in the Qur’an. I am sure that this has been pointed out by others somewhere.
I also suggest that tawfīq means here “success” rather than “support” or “help”, which is the meaning chosen by the Hebrew translators that I have seen. I also dare propose that this word nods to ittifāq, “chance” or “coincidence”, used in the following paragraph. The idea Hallevi gets across in this paragraph is that some of the inventors of “intellectual codes” will be successful, helped by fortunate circumstances, which lead people to say that those leaders are divinely guided and inspired. Hallevi is careful not to let on that they are in fact divinely guided; that is only the reaction of their followers, who see their success.

I, [82] I think we can notice here an interesting theological rift (one of too many to count) between Hallevi and Maimonides. Hallevi emphasizes that Moses did not abrogate (nasakha, fasakha) the commandments given to Adam and other pre-Mosaic prophets; he only added to them. Maimonides does not speak of an abrogation on Maimonides’ part, but he makes it clear that the biblical stories about Abraham’s circumcision and the like have no legal force in Jewish law. Jews do not circumcise because Abraham was told to do so, we do it because Moses received that commandment along with all the rest at Sinai. This is not merely a legal trifle. I believe that Maimonides held Abraham to be, well, an Abrahamic monotheist rather than a Torah-observing Jew.

Notes to the Cuzari, Spring 2017

Notes to Cuzari

Apropos my claim that Halevi had no serious interest in the issue of the world’s creation…this is intimated in the very first exchange with the Jewish haver–but lost in the medieval translation. In passage [10] the Cuzar King tells us that he has no choice but to interview a Jew, though that was not his original intention, but he now sees that “they are the proof that God has a law code [or: revelation? li-lah shar’ia fi-l-ard] on earth”. Ibn Tibbon (in addition to some other things that don’t quite agree with the Arabic) has borei, “creator”, instead of God (correctly displayed in Even Shmu’el and Rav Qafih).

This is no oversight. In his first presentation [11] the haver says nothing about creation, and the King reacts in [12] that he had expected to hear from the Jew about his belief “in the creator of the world, the one who orders it and governs it”–he is pleasantly surprised NOT to have heard all of this, and this leads him to continue the conversation.

Note also the end of the statement, where the Khazar king supposes that the goal of Judaism is to become like the Creator…imitatio dei must mean to become creative … so with the dismissal of Creator as (primary) attribute, so also are we not expected to become Creator-like?

Indeed, what role does imitatio dei play in haLevi?

Remark of the Haver in one of his opening statements that there have been “thousands” of prophets: an optimistic statement, indicating that prophecy may be within reach of more than just a very select few.

book 1, [47]
mention of Enosh; cf. Maimonides, also Kevin van Bladel on Mandeans and role of Enosh in their tradition

phrase: עלי אתצאלהם לבאב אדם וצפותה; does this refer their unbroken genealogical lineage which goes back to Adam, or to their personal achievements, which bring them to the rank of Adam?

note that the commentary of Shelomo ben Yehuda of Lunel (ed. D Schwartz) uses the translation of Cardinal –this is not noted by the editor –examples in table saved in a dropbox file of mine

interesting coincidence that Black Sea and Crimea home to pagan monotheistic communities in late antiquity–monotheistic pagan cults called sebomenoi theon hypsiston (“Worshippers of the All-Highest God,” or “God-Fearers”)–no evidence that haLevi knew about this, and their connection to the conversion of the Khazars is controversial–but that is NOT what I am talking about–I want only to point out that the Khazar King is behaving like a pagan monotheist

book 1, [79]
additional evidence that the Cuzari is not a book about beliefs; note the definition of the mu’min given at the beginning of this passage (my translation frmo the Arabic):

“whoever has had this command (al-amr, scilicet al-amr al-ilahi, “the divine command or thing” so famous in this book, discussed by Goldziher a century ago and by many others since) descend upon him, and he has obeyed it in conformity with its definitions and stipulations, with a pure intention, he is the mu’min“.
For this reason I am not sure that mu’min ought to be translated as “believer”, since the criterion for being a mu’min is obeisance, in strict conformity to the rules, measures, timings, etc. of the divine command. Since al-amr is something that is to be obeyed, it ought to be translated here “command” rather than “thing”. Mu’min here would better be translated “faithful” or “loyalist”. No mentioned is made of belief, only of intention, niyya –the same word that features in the message relayed by the angel to the Cuzar king at the beginning of the book, “your intention is pleasing to God”. There is no difference in intention between the Cuzar king and the Jew, the only difference lies in the details of ritual and praxis. Belief plays no role.