A Passage to Israel
This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

A Passage to Israel *

When called upon to defend the Jewish claims to the land of Israel, it is common to point out how even in eras when circumstances forced most Jews to dwell outside the borders of their homeland, they continued to proclaim their desire to return there. Although that sentiment does indeed find frequent expression in the liturgy and other traditional texts, relatively few Jews actually took the initiative of severing themselves from their diaspora roots and setting out on the perilous journey to the holy land.

Probably the most prominent figure to act on his yearning for the homeland was Rabbi Judah Halevi of Tudela, the epitome of Spanish Jewry’s “golden age” who sang the praises of Zion not only in his poignant Hebrew poems, but also in his theological masterpiece the “Kuzari,” in which he argued that the land of Israel is imbued with a unique metaphysical aura that distinguishes it from all other localities and is therefore the only worthy setting for prophecy.

The treatise closes with the protagonist–the Rabbi who serves as the author’s mouthpiece—affirming his determination travel to Jerusalem. His companion, the king of the Khazars, tries to discourage him from such a hazardous undertaking, arguing that a virtuous and spiritual person can approach the Creator anywhere. After the Rabbi presents his case that the holy land is the only place where he can truly fulfil his spiritual yearnings, the Khazar relents: “If it is indeed so, it would be a sin to hold you back.”

At this point the book ends. It does not state explicitly whether or not the Rabbi carried out his intention, but it is hard to conceive of any other outcome. It is therefore understandable that the Kuzari’s author drew the same conclusion about his own life. Shortly after completing the book, he abandoned the thriving Jewish civilization of Castile in which he was a prominent personality, to set sail at an advanced age to a land that existed as an ethereal ideal in his poetic soul. Indeed, a recurring theme in all of Judah’s philosophy, poetry and letters is his frustration with his role as a public figure forced to curry men’s favour and waste his time on fundraising, his medical practice and on the interminable social niceties that are expected from a distinguished literary celebrity.

It was not so long ago that the progress of Halevi’s travel plans had to be pieced together hesitantly from a few indirect allusions in his literary oeuvre. As it happens, we now possess enough authentic documentation to allow us to reconstruct his itinerary—or at least, significant parts of it—in considerable detail. Most of this new evidence takes the form of letters that were preserved in that magnificent wellspring of historical information, the Cairo Genizah, where Egyptian Jews were long accustomed to consign any text written in the Hebrew alphabet. Appropriately, most of the surviving details relate to Halevi’s sojourn in Egypt between his arrival from Spain until his eventual departure to the promised land.

A letter penned by the Alexandrian merchant Amram ben Isaac, an acquaintance of Rabbi Judah, describes the excitement that overtook the Jews of his city in anticipating the arrival of the Spanish celebrity on board “the sultan’s new ship.” This was followed by veritable panic when the ship was delayed in appearing, and when the esteemed guest did not disembark right away, but was apparently held back for bureaucratic clarifications.

After disembarking on September 8, 1140, a few days before Rosh Hashanah, Halevi was dragged into a flurry of social obligations of the kind that had annoyed him so much in Castile. The Who’s Who of Alexandrian Jewry were eagerly vying for the privilege of hosting their prestigious visitor, and trying to avoid the disgrace of being excluded from the a-list of eminent invitees. Judah did succeed in offending several people by failing to include them in his itinerary, and they reciprocated by accusing him of living a life that was too sensual for the devout pilgrim he pretended to be.

In view of our hero’s ardent yearning to tread the soil of the holy land, it is puzzling to learn that his sojourn in Egypt stretched out for more than half a year. We do not know the exact reasons for the delay, and it should probably be blamed on the inclement winter weather that confined the ships to the harbor.

Shortly before his departure from Egypt, Judah became involved in a perilous intrigue that could have cost him dearly. An Alexandrian Jew asked the rabbi to convey a large sum of money to his brother who was a convert to Islam. Halevi apparently tried to make use the gift as an incentive to entice the apostate to resume a Jewish life in Palestine (which was then under Christian Crusader rule). Unfortunately, the recipient was steadfast in his new faith and denounced Judah to the Egyptian secret police. Missionizing among the faithful was of course treated as a serious crime in a Muslim land, and Rabbi Judah narrowly escaped a sentence (or lynching) by disingenuously denying his involvement in the affair.

Whatever the reasons that prolonged his stay in Egypt, it was not until May 8 1141 that Judah Halevi finally boarded a ship in Alexandria harbour with the intention of resuming his travels to the land of Israel. Even now, however, uncooperative east winds kept the vessel in the harbour for almost a week until it set sail on May 14, on the festival of Shavu’ot, bound for the holy land. The appreciative poet was prompted thereby to compose two Odes to the West Wind.

At this point the historical documents stop speaking to us directly about Judah’s itinerary, though it is virtually certain that the ship completed its simple ten-day voyage to the Palestinian coast. A letter in the Genizah by Abu Naṣr ben Abraham mentioned in passing that Judah had died some time during the summer of 1141, leaving him several months in which to tour the pilgrimage sites.

It is not until the sixteenth century, in the notoriously unreliable chronicle “the Chain of Tradition” by the Italian scholar Gedaliah Ibn Yaḥya, that we read the well-known legend of how the poet, in the act of reciting one of his famous Odes to Zion while prostrating himself at the gates of Jerusalem, was trampled to death by an Arab horseman. If there were any truth to that tale, it would certainly have been hinted at in the earlier documents that record his death.

What was it precisely that impelled Rabbi Judah to travel to the land of Israel? Based on the praises of the holy land that figure in his poetry and in the Kuzari, it is evident that he aspired to the uniquely spiritual, mystical qualities that he expected to find in the place that was the abode of the holy spirit.

However, modern scholars have imputed to him other motives, considerations of a cultural or political character. It should not surprise us to hear that Israeli and Zionist historians have tended to paint the twelfth-century author as a proto-Zionist pioneer who recognized that the Spanish golden age was giving way to fundamentalist régimes and anti-Jewish violence. Accordingly, Judah was hoping to persuade his coreligionists by his personal example to migrate en masse to the land where they could live in proud national independence. Writers of this orientation searched ineffectually for evidence that Judah intended to immigrate to Israel (perhaps with his family) and not just go on a religious pilgrimage. In a similar vein, other scholars, projecting their own antipathies toward modern Jewish assimilation, emphasized Halevi’s dissatisfaction with Spain’s cosmopolitan symbiosis, and of his desire to replace it with an authentically Hebrew culture.

I wonder how Judah would have reacted to the realities of the modern Jewish state: would he be elated at the restoration of a proud and independent Hebrew homeland; or would he be dismayed at the ordinariness of its day-to-day lifestyle and at the cheapening of the sacred tongue into a worldly medium for ordering groceries and announcing soccer matches?

I suspect that he, like many of us, would just learn to live with the many paradoxes and contradictions that are Israel.


This article and many others are now included in the book

A Time for Every Purpose
A Time for Every Purpose

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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, May 2, 2014, p. 13.
  • For further reading:
    • Baron, Salo W. “Yehudah Halevi: An Answer to an Historic Challenge.” Jewish Social Studies 3, no. 3 (1941): 243–72.
    • Dinur [Dinaburg], Ben-Zion. “Rabbi Judah Halevi’s Aliya to Eretz Israel and the Messianic Fermentation of His Time.” Pages 47–83 in Rabbi Judah Halevi: Volume of Research and Tributes. Edited by Israel Zmora. Tel-Aviv: Maḥbarot Le-Sifrut, 1964.
    • Fleischer, Ezra. “Rabbi Judah Ha-Levi: Clarifications of his Biography and Oeuvre.” Pages 241–76 in Israel Levin Jubilee Volume: Studies in Hebrew Literature. Edited by Reuven Tsur and Tovah Rozen. Vol. 1. Tel-Aviv: Tel-Aviv University, 1994.
    • ———. “‘The Essence of Our Land and Its Meaning’: Towards a Portrait of Judah Halevi on the Basis of Geniza Documents.” Pe‘amim 68 (1996): 4–15.
    • Friedman, Mordechai A. “On Judah Ha-Levi and the Martyrdom of a Head of the Jews: A Letter by Ḥalfon Ha-Levi B. Nethanel.” Pages 83–108 in Adaptations and Innovations: Studies on the Interaction between Jewish and Islamic Thought from the Early Middle Ages to the Late Twentieth Century, Dedicated to Professor Joel L. Kraemer. Edited by Y. Tzvi Langermann and Josef Stern. Louvain: Peeters, 2008.
    • Gil, Moshe, and Ezra Fleischer. Yehuda Ha-Levi and his Circle: 55 Geniza Documents. Sources for the Study of Jewish Culture. Jerusalem: World Union of Jewish Studies, 2001.
    • Goitein, Shelomo Dov. “Did Yehuda Halevi Arrive in the Holy Land?” Tarbiz 46, no. 3–4 (1977): 245–50.
    • ———. “The Biography of Rabbi Judah Ha-Levi in the Light of the Cairo Geniza Documents.” Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research 28 (1959): 41–56.
    • Malkiel, David J. “Three Perspectives on Judah Halevi’s Voyage to Palestine.” Mediterranean Historical Review 25, no. 1 (2010): 1–15.
    • Scheindlin, Raymond P. The Song of the Distant Dove: Judah Halevi’s Pilgrimage. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.