Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Levi’s Love Song on Jewish Self-Identification for the 7th day of Pesah
Halevi grew to be one of the greatest and most prolific of these poets, his vast corpus including shirat kodesh sacred or liturgical poetry as well as shirat hol secular poetry. Halkin also takes care to describe how many of these poems actually work in Hebrew, explaining their structure and meter, wordplay and scriptural quotations and allusions. He peruses these poems like a detective hunting for clues, trying to tease out from them valuable bits of biographical information. Such work is necessarily speculative, and Halkin is careful with his inferences.
Halevi is widely known for a sequence of poems known as shirei tzion , the most famous of which Halkin translates as: My heart in the East But the rest of me far in the West — How can I savor this life, even taste what I eat?
Halkin provides a sensitive discussion of this influential and difficult work. In the early fall of , Halevi set out from Spain to Egypt, the first leg of his journey to the Land of Israel. In May , he set off from the port of Alexandria to Acre, never to be heard from again. In the 19th century, Halevi was celebrated as a romantic by Heine and as a national poet by Graetz. Was this the purely personal decision of a spiritual pilgrim or the public act of a proto-Zionist? In the 20th century, the image of Halevi was appropriated by Zionists, both secular and religious.
The book concludes on a personal note, as Halkin meditates on his own decision to leave the mid-century American convivencia to take part in the Zionist project, and the role Yehuda Halevi has played in his own life and self-understanding. Share on facebook Share on twitter. Related Content.
Already registered? Remember Me Forgot Password? Create Premium Account. Subscribe for our daily newsletter. Hot Opinion. Susan Hattis Rolef. To deny the worth of Jewish life outside the land of Israel is thus essentially to deny millennia of Jewish creativity. As for the secular Hebrew culture celebrated by Halkin, furthermore, my contention is that it has not so much enlarged the Jewish heritage as betrayed it.
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As it happens, I too am excited by the promise embodied in the Hebrew culture of Israel; but how is that promise to be fulfilled? This, in fact, was one of the key questions confronting the founding fathers of Zionism, and in particular those among them who attempted to envision the new Jewish culture that would be shaped by the return to the land of Israel.
Two of the greatest figures to grapple with this issue took opposing positions. For Mikhah Yosef Berdichevsky , the cultural aim of the Zionist project had to be the complete severance of the historical continuity that bound Jews to their past and its replacement with an altogether new identity. In the Diaspora, Berdichevsky maintained, the Jews had been subjugated not only by Gentile authority but also by the Judaism of the rabbis.
His Zionist program therefore had a dual thrust: emancipation at once from Gentile rule and from the rule of Jewish tradition. Behind the demand to break the link between Jewish identity and Judaism stood an animating impulse: Zionist anger toward the Jewish past and in particular toward the stereotypical passivity of Diaspora Jews. This anger propelled a mighty wave of creativity, shaping many seminal works of the modern Hebrew imagination; today, the anti-religious attitudes that lay behind it are still to be found in various segments of contemporary Israeli society.
He, too, was looking to emancipate the Jewish spirit, and he, too, sought freedom—but he understood these terms in a completely different sense.
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Freedom was to be achieved not by liberation from Judaism but by the liberation of Judaism—a goal to be approached through a new and free interpretation of the tradition. In no way inferior in talent or learning to the generations who had come before, this new generation would be thoroughly immersed in traditional texts but would relate to them less as sources of restrictive authority than as sources of expansive and vitalizing inspiration.
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Secularism, defined as a veritable wall of separation between Israeli Jews and their Jewish past, became the paradigmatic stance of many of the key political, cultural, and educational institutions of the Jewish state. In this respect, ironically, a large part of secular Israeli culture came to resemble a mirror image of its archenemy: ultra-Orthodoxy. As the ultra-Orthodox segregate themselves from the outside world, many secular Israelis still zealously segregate themselves from their religious and Diaspora past.
Over the last decade, a deep change has come over secular Israeli culture. Energetic forces, some of them still underground, have given rise to a new and decidedly Jewish cultural scene. In music, rock stars like Beri Sakharof, Ehud Banai, and Kobi Oz have created an avant-garde sound steeped in explicitly Jewish references and motifs; others, like the New Jerusalem Orchestra led by Omer Avital and Rabbi Haim Louk, explore the vibrant intersection of jazz and classical Sephardi liturgical composition piyyut. In these new academies, thousands of Israelis, starved for connection, are discovering intellectual and spiritual sustenance in the classical Jewish sources.
If, for the first two generations of Israelis, secular culture was built on the negation and repulsion of Diaspora traditionalism, the burgeoning secularism of recent years is defined by a wholly different impulse. A new-old paradigm is taking hold: a secularism based not on the repudiation of Judaism but on the willingness, and the desire, to be influenced by it.
The new Israeli paradigm embodies a more modest and less radical form of Zionism—but it does so by offering a synthesis that is actually bigger and more capacious than the one sketched by Hillel Halkin. Embracing power, land, and language, it also welcomes and eagerly embraces Maimonides of Spain and Egypt, Rashi of France, and the talmudic sages of Babylonia.