Yehuda Halevi or Yehuda ben Shemuel Ha-Levi

Yehuda Halevi or Yehuda ben Shemuel Ha-Levi c. 1075-1141Medieval Moorish Spain was one of the most fabulous cultures of all history. The Moorish culture in what is today Morocco dates back to the time of the Roman Empire (and perhaps earlier) when they acted as trading partners with Carthage, the independent city-state founded by the Phoenicians and competitor/enemy of Rome. Following the destruction of Carthage the surrounding provinces were integrated into the Roman Empire and later Christianized. With the fall of the Roman Empire the Byzantine Empire, the Vandals and the Arabs all struggled to gain control of the Moors. Around 600 A.D. the region was brought under Arab-Islamic control. In 711, the now Moslem Moors conquered the Visigoths taking possession of the Iberian Peninsula and pushed well into France until eventually defeated by Charles Martel at the decisive Battle of Tours (or Battle of Poitiers). The Moslem forces continued to hold control of most of what is today Spain and Portugal and many of the native population converted to Islam. Nevertheless, a number of Christian-European city-states continued to initiate conflict with the Moors and to slowly push into Spanish-Muslim territories. In 1212 a coalition under Alfonso VIII of Castille pushed the Muslims out of central Spain. Nevertheless, they would hold out in the south until 1492 when the last Moslem stronghold in Granada fell to the Christian forces. With the “reconquista” of Spain by Christian forces there began a period of forced conversion to Catholicism shortly after Isabella and Ferdinand instituted the Inquisition in 1480. Not only was the Inquisition directed at Jews and Muslims who had overtly converted to Christianity but were thought to be practicing their faiths secretly… but also it was geared toward Protestants or other “heretics” who rejected Roman Catholic orthodoxy. The persecution lead to a mass exodus leading to a population loss of about 1/3rd by 1600.From the tenth century A.D. until the final fall of Granada Moorish Spain or Arab Andalusia would represent one of the great cultures and great cultural experiments in history. In spite of the Moslem control, there was a religious tolerance so that Islam, Christianity, and Judaism all flourished. Intellectual concepts and beliefs of these three religions and the artistic ideas of the east and west were interwoven in the hot house environment of Arab Andalusia. Among the great artistic achievements of the era one might point first to the marvelous art and architecture of Seville and Granada… especially as found in Alhambra, the fantastic palace complex of the Moorish rulers and once proclaimed the beautiful city in the world:

Beyond the visual arts, Arab Andalusia would inspire fabulous innovations in literature (Poem of the Cid, Solomon ibn Gabriol, Moses ibn Ezra, etc…) and music. The music of the Sephardic Jews would merge ancient Hebrew traditions with Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Greek, North African, etc. Attempts by the Jewish composer, Isaac Nathan in the early nineteenth century to revive some of this ancient music would serve as an impetus for Lord Byron’s Hebrew Melodies. The German poet, Heinrich Heine’s Hebrew Melodies were also rooted in the music of Arab Andalusia… but also the poetry of the great Spanish Hebrew poets, especially Jehuda Halevi.

Born c. 1075 in Navarre, Spain, Jehuda Halevi, Yehuda ben Shemuel Ha-Levi in full, was a Jewish poet, philosopher and doctor. Halevi’s youth is said to have been spent in seeking both pleasure and in study. He chose medicine as a career, but exhibited a great aptitude for poetry. His poetry aroused the praise and admiration of his great predecessor, Moses ibn Ezra. Halevi made a masterful use of both lyrical Arabic poetic forms and the traditions of Hebrew poetry. His early themes were common to Arabic lyric poetry: wine, women, and song.

from: That Night a Gazelle

That night a gazelle
of a girl showed me the sun
of her cheek and veil
of auburn hair

like ruby over
a moistened crystal brow
she looked like dawn’s
fire rising…

from: The Doe Washes

The doe washes her clothes
in the stream of my tears
and sets them out to dry
in the glow of her glory…

from: To Ibn Al-Mu’allim

Gently, my hard-hearted, slender one,
be gentle with me and I’ll bow before you.
I’ve ravished you only in looking-
my heart is pure, but not my eyes:
They’d gather from your features
the roses and lillies mingled there.
I’d lift the fire from your cheeks
to put out fire with fire…

-translated by Peter Cole, 2007

from Parted Lovers

…If parting be decreed for the two of us,
stand yet a little, while I gaze upon thy face…

By the life of Love, remember the days of thy longing as I-
I remember the nights of thy delight.

As thine image passeth into my dream,
So let me pass, I entreat thee, into thy delight.
Between me and thee roar the waves of a sea of tears
And I cannot pass over unto thee…

Would that after my death, unto mine ears should come
The sound of the golden bells upon thy skirts.

-translated by Nina Salaman, 1923

Of course Hafiz was more than aware of the Greco-Latin traditions of love poetry as well:

from: Epithalamium

The stars of the earth are joined today-
a pair unrivalled in the hosts of heaven.
Even the Pleiades envy this union,
for breath itself can’t come between them…

-translated by Peter Cole, 2007

His style, which was both personal and fluid… but also containing the mythic-visionary manner of the Hebrew Bible is all the more astonishing when one considers that Hebrew was NOT his native language. In spite of this, Halevi has the reputation as the greatest post-Biblical Hebrew poet.

Halevi described himself as the “immigrant from Christendom” due to his continual wandering. He had initially lived in southern Islamic Spain (some say Toledo). With time, he became disillusioned with the pleasure-seeking/ beauty-worshiping lifestyle of the Andalusian cultural ideal, declaring: “Don’t be taken by Greek wisdom/ which bears no fruit, but only blossoms.” This change of heart may have been in part due to a growing spiritual maturity, but it was also a response to the increasing intolerance toward Judaism which he was to witness following the assumption of control of Andalusia by the North African Almoravids. He moved initially to Seville or Cordoba and then eventually followed many other Jewish-Andalusian refugees to Castille, ruled by the tolerant King Alfonso VI. When King Alfonso died, however, anti-Jewish rioting broke out. Halevi seems to have continued to wander for some time, often witnessing the devastation of Jewish communities wrought by Christian and Muslim forces alike. At this time Halevi’s poetry began to turn to serious spiritual/religious content and build even more so upon the Hebrew Biblical traditions:

from Heal Me Lord

Heal me Lord and I will be healed.
Don’t let me perish in your anger.
All my balms and potions are yours
to guide to weakness or to vigor…

from True Life

I run to the source of the one true life,
turning my back on all that is empty or vain.
My only hope is to see the Lord, my king-
apart from Him I fear and worship nothing…

from Where Will I Find You

Where, Lord, will I find you:
your place is high and obscured
And where
won’t I find you:
your glory fills the world…

-translated by Peter Cole, 2007

In spite of Halevi’s rejection of easy pleasures of wine, women, and song and his rejection of the Arab-Andalusian culture he once embraced, his poetry still made masterful use of the forms of the Arabic lyrical poem traditions… often in combination with Hebrew traditions… in this case conjoining it with the tradition of the Biblical Psalms:

from Sabbath Hymn

On Friday doth my cup o’erflow,
What blissful rest the night shall know,
When, in thine arms, my toil and woe
Are all forgot, Sabbath my love!

‘Tis dusk, with sudden light, distilled
From one sweet face, the world is filled;
The tumult of my heart is stilled-
For thou art come, Sabbath my love!…

translated by Hartwig Hirschfeld, 1905

At this time Helevi also became noted as a philosopher, composer various treatises upon Judaism. Perhaps the most well-known of these is The Kuzari, In Defense of the Despised Faith which presented Hebrew beliefs in clear-cut manner and argued against Greek philosophy, Islam, and Christianity. Eventually believing that he could only find peace of mind in the Holy Land Halevi bid farewell to friends and family shortly after the death of his wife and sailed for Alexandria, Egypt. He was greatly welcomed there. There were many admirers there and Egypt provided a large and safe Jewish community, free from intolerance or oppression. Nevertheless, Halevi was set upon returning to the Holy Land. He was advised against due to ill health, but continued to push on. It is thought that he passed through Cairo, Tyre, Damascus, and eventually arrived at Jerusalem. Tradition has it that he was slain by an Arab horseman while he was singing his great Song to Zion before the remaining western wall of the great Temple of Solomon (now known as the “Wailing Wall”).

from Song to Zion

Won’t you ask, Zion,
how your captives are faring-
this last remnant of your flock who seek
your peace with all their being?
From west and east, from north and south-
from those near and far,
from all corners- accept these greetings,
and from desire’s captive, this blessing…

-translated by Peter Cole, 2007

More by Halevi: http://www.angelfire.com/ct/halevi/

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1 Comment

  1. johan baptiste said,

    July 1, 2009 at 7:09 pm

    Hey nice website, on the other side, who gives a fuck about what you think of preraphaelite painters?

    NAME ME ONE, JUST ONE DAMNED PAINTER TODAY THAT PAINTS HALF AS GOOD AS THE WORST PRERAPHAELITE!! PLEASE!


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