This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Hiwi the Heretic*

News Item:

October 2001. An international force led by the United States begins military strikes against the Taleban regime in Afghanistan as part of a campaign to root out the terrorist forces who attacked American targets on September 11 2001.

Recent events have taught us more than we may have wanted to know about obscure locations in the bleak terrain of Afghanistan with names like Mazar e-Sharif and Kanduz.

Even without entering into the controversial theories that identify certain Afghan tribes with the "ten lost tribes" of Israel, there can be no denying that Jewish communities existed in Afghanistan for many centuries.

During the medieval era, the region was known as Khorasan, and it is mentioned in many Jewish documents as a place of habitation and as a station on the lucrative trade routes to the Orient.

I wish to focus here on one particular area in Khorasan, a place known as Balkh, which was recently   mentioned in the news as the scene of a major surrender of Taliban fighters. The city of Balkh was known in ancient times as Bactria a glorious metropolis destroyed by Genghis Khan in the thirteenth century, and rebuilt in the fifteenth century by the Turkic ruler Timur.

This territory was also home to one of Judaism's most radical and enigmatic heretics.

The name of Hiwi (or more correctly: Hayawaihi) al-Balkhi shows up, usually qualified by caustic insults and maledictions, in the writings of several prominent Jewish biblical commentators, including Sa'adia Ga'on and Abraham Ibn Ezra.

Hiwi, who lived in the early   ninth century, is one of the earliest Jewish scholars that we know of from the post-talmudic era. None of Hiwi's works have survived intact, and therefore modern scholars have been compelled to reconstruct the personality of this mysterious author on the basis of the derogatory remarks of his antagonists..

Sa'adia Ga'on devoted a special treatise to refuting Hiwi's unorthodox views, and a few fragments of that work have survived.

What was it about this obscure Afghan Jew that aroused the indignation of so many distinguished rabbis and scholars?

To judge from the few remaining samples of his two hundred (!) objections to the Bible, Hiwi was neither a profound intellect nor a systematic philosopher. Rather, he often strikes us as a prototypical village atheist taking pot-shots at easy targets in the Bible.

A favourite stratagem of his was to call into question the miracles of the Torah.

For example, he argued that the parting of the Red Sea was a natural phenomenon, and that Moses' claim to greatness lay merely in his ability to calculate the right moment for the crossing. Hiwi provided similar naturalistic explanations for the mannah and the radiance of Moses' face (the latter he wrote off as "wrinkling," not "shining"). He also emphasized that the Egyptian magicians were able to reproduce several of Moses' "miracles," proving that they could not have been so unique.

Several of Hiwi's criticisms were directed at what he felt were philosophically primitive notions of God's power. Why should an omniscient deity have to "test" Abraham? Why does God have to walk through the Garden of Eden calling out in search of Adam? Why does he have to be fed on sacrificial meat?

Hiwi was also quick to point out inconsistencies in the meting out of divine justice. Were the people of Sodom and Gomorrah really more evil than many other wicked figures in the Bible? Why can God not safeguard the righteous from natural or human injury?

Historians have attempted unsuccessfully to find a theological foundation that would account for Hiwi's critique of the Hebrew scriptures. Unfortunately, such efforts are usually obstructed by Hiwi's methodological inconsistencies. In some places, he bases his criticism on the literal meaning of a verse, but in others he is tacitly accepting the midrashic interpretation. Sometimes he seems to be championing a more refined monotheism, while elsewhere he seems to be supporting a trinitarian reading of the text.

Several scholars have pointed out that Hiwi's objections to the depictions of God in the Bible seem to be reworkings of arguments that appeared earlier in inter-religious polemical literature. In the hands of the ancient Gnostic Christian sect, these criticisms were used to prove that the God of the "Old Testament," is an inferior deity who dwells in darkness and ignorance. In the hands of the dualistic Manicheans and Zoroastrians (the founder of whose religion had actually been born in Balkh), the same proof-texts were cited in order to identify the God of Israel as a power of absolute evil.

From all the above examples there emerges a classic image of a self-hating Jew who has accepted the anti-Jewish accusations of rival religious movements. Viewed this way, it is not hard to understand the disdain with which he was treated by Sa'adia or Ibn Ezra.

In spite of all his shortcomings, our Afghan Jewish heretic may nevertheless lay claim to some more constructive contributions to Jewish culture.

It was only in recent decades that it became possible, by comparing a five-word quote preserved in a work by a Karaite author with a manuscript fragment in the Cairo Genizah, to restore about a dozen lines from Hiwi's original words.

This modest snippet of text is enough to reveal some unappreciated aspects of Hiwi's achievement. Most importantly, we can now recognize that Hiwi was a talented Hebrew poet, the earliest known writer to compose Hebrew verse for use outside the synagogue liturgy. Hiwi can also be credited as a pioneer in adapting the sacred tongue to the needs of rationalistic discourse. Many other Jewish philosophers were convinced that Hebrew was unsuited to that task, and elected to publish their works in Arabic. Hiwi had the ingenuity and boldness to harness the holy tongue to this formidable task.

In these respects, Hiwi may be compared to those exponents of Enlightenment ideologies in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe who, in spite of their declared discomfort with traditional Jewish values, became so enamored of their ancestral language that they ended up laying the foundations for a renaissance of Hebrew letters that would one day play a pivotal part in the Jewish national revival.

So too with the enigmatic personality of Hiwi of Balkh-- even when he was attempting to disparage or ridicule the sacred scriptures, he did so as a Jew, and in the language of his people.

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University of Calgary Press

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free PressDecember 20 2001, pp. 10-11.
  • Bibliography:
    • Baron, Salo Wittmayer. A Social and Religious History of the Jews. 2d ed. 19 vols. Vol. 6. New York: Columbia University Press, 1958.
    • Gil, Moshe. Hivi Ha-Balkhi Ha-Kofer Me-Horasan, Ketavim. Merhaviah: Sifriyyat Po'alim, 1965.
    • Davidson, Israel, ed. Saadia's Polemic against Hiwi Al-Balkhi: A Fragment Edited from a Genizah Ms, Texts and Studies of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1915.
    • Fleischer, Ezra. "A Fragment from Hivi Al-Balkhi's Criticism of the Bible." Tarbiz 51, no. 1 (1981): 49-57.
    • Guttmann, J. "The Sources of Hiwi Al-Balkhi." In Alexander Marx Jubilee Volume, edited by Saul Lieberman, 95-202. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1950.
    • Malter, Henry. Saadia Gaon: His Life and Works, Morris Loeb Series. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1921.
    • Rosenthal, J. "Hiwi Al-Balkhi: A Comparative Study." Jewish Quarterly Review 38; 39 (1947-48; 1948-49): 317-42, 419-30; 79-94.