Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The KUZARI and Greek Philosophy

The KUZARI - Sefer HA'KUZARI by Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi

Photo: Miriam Woelke

Until today, Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi, is one of the most famous Jewish poets and philosophers. He used to live in the "Golden Age" of medieval Spain. At a time when the Muslims were still reigning the country and very much supporting intellectual studies. On the other hand, leading Christians did the opposite in northern Europe, as they tried to keep their citizens uneducated. Spain under Muslim rule was flourishing and for hundreds of years, Jews enjoyed their personal intellectual freedom. 

It was Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi writing the famous KUZARI in the early 12 century. In general, the book is about the king of the Khazars (a people which really existed around the 8 century). The king is searching for a new religion for his people and thus invited a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim and a philosopher in order to see which one of them has the best reasons believing in his theology. In the end, the Jew wins and the entire people of the Khazars converted to Judaism. 

It is true that the Khazars converted to Judaism but historians claim that the story Rabbi Yehudah tells in his book is nothing but a fairy tale. In real, the Khazars had different reasons to convert and it had nothing to do with an angel appearing to King Bulan. 

Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi, however, saw a necessity in writing the book, as, in his days, Greek philosophy of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle became popular among intellectual circles. Rabbis had to act in order to prevent Jews from leaving Judaism and following Greek philosophical ideas. 

Greek philosophy shows quite a few differences to Judaism. First of all regarding the creation of our universe. Greek philosophers thought that the universe has always been in existence. Judaism, however, believes that G - d created any existence from nothing. Furthermore, the Greeks regard the human intellect as something extremely important and only by being intellectual, one is able to have a relationship with the creator. A theory the Rambam (Maimonides) later discussed in his "Guide for the Perplexed – Moreh Nevuchim". Just like Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi's KUZARI, the Rambam's "Moreh Nevuchim" consists mostly of philosophical discussions. The Rambam like to use Aristotle as an example and quotes him plenty of times. 

The KUZARI is the Jewish response to Greek philosophy as well as Karaite ideas. The Karaites mainly spread in the very early Middle Ages as well as in the days of Rabbi Yehudah. Already Rabbi Sa'adia Gaon wrote against Karaite ideology. Basically, Karaites believe in the written Thora but not in the oral law. On Shabbat they sit in the dark, as they don't prepare any light in advance. Furthermore, the Karaites have a problem with Olam HaBah and the etrenal existence of the Neshama. Rabbis felt like they had to act and prepare a response. 

The KUZARI is a unique and great response to the Karaites as well as to Greek philosophy fans. The book points out Jewish basic believes but the reader has to have a knowledge about Greek philosophical ideas. It is not enough that one is sitting around being so terrible intellectual when he doesn't do anything else. In Judaism, a Jew has the task to fulfill Torah Mitzvot in order to have a relationship with G - d. Judaism is a religion of doing / acting. 

One doesn't just read the KUZARI but studies the book carefully. With all kinds of commetaries and, if necessaries, for years. I have been trying to do so but, unfortunately, my time is limited. However, those who want to understand and appreciate the content of the KUZARI won't get around studying Greek philosophy too.

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