From Zion to Prophecy: A Conversation with Yehudah Halevi

by Henry Rasof

I recently met the famous author in a Jerusalem café. He wore a dirty white caftan, dark-green turban, and scraggly beard. Although looking haggard from his latest arduous sea voyage to the Land of Israel, he eagerly awaited a late-night tour of the Wailing Wall. I bought him a cup of Turkish coffee and a couple of pastries.

HR: I am trying to understand my fascination—obsession—with the Golden Age in Spain, with Hebrew poetry, and now with your poetry. I especially admire your Zion poems and sea poems.

YH: “Fame is not to the wise, nor yet favour to men of skill,/Save only to them that have skill to swim” (#16). [Note: poems numbered this way are from Brody and Salaman, Selected Poems of Jedudah Halevi.]

THE MEANING OF ZION

HR: What meanings have you invested in Zion? The image, or metaphor, or place appeals to me poetically and lends itself to many interpretations.

YH: Zion has the obvious meanings: the Holy Land, Jerusalem, Mt Zion. Also, it represents the hopes of “the remnants of thy flocks” (#2) for the messianic age.

HR: I also see Zion as a universal symbol for all of the strivings of humankind toward a higher place, to be closer to God, the source of life. The milieu of the Zion poems symbolizes the struggle for higher consciousness or maybe even just “the purposeful life,” as we might say today.

YH: That’s a nice psychological interpretation, but it’s not what I had in mind. I chose Zion for a limited number of metaphorical possibilities, but of course I cannot limit the meanings of my metaphors: “To wail for thine affliction I am like the jackals; but when I dream/Of the return of thy captivity, I am a harp for thy songs” (#2).

HR: We all have our personal metaphors, but of course on a deeper level all metaphors for God or the quest for God are similar or the same, aren’t they?

YH: Perhaps, but as you know from the Kuzari, the Jewish way is the best.

VIEWS OF MT ZION

HR: In these poems, too, you give us many views of Mt Zion, which reminds me of the “views of Mt Fuji” in Japanese art. In #1 Zion can be interpreted literally, as a place with a sanctuary or a place “beneath the fetter of Edom,” or metaphorically as a conceptual place. In #2 Zion is fleshed out geographically, with specific places like Hermon, Bethel and Peniel, Hebron and Gilead, but also fleshed out in its spiritual geography as being under the “gates of heaven.” In #4 Zion appears in a dream. In #5 Zion is the subject of a meditation on a possible journey. The Zion in #6 is again the more palpable place. In #8 Zion is reached on wings of yearning, so that the sweetness of the dust can be tasted..

YH: That’s a good analogy. I turned the whole thing over in my mind many times, and each time I thought or felt something different, resulting in different perspectives of Zion.

THE GOLDEN AGE IN AL-ANDALUS: ILLUSION OR REALITY?

HR: In my own quest I am doing something similar with al-Andalus in the so-called Golden Age. I am unhappy today with America and with the modern world. The Golden Age seemed a more peaceful, convivial time, when the metaphors of different traditions mingled. There was an outpouring of poetry. Some of the books I have read discuss or contain Arabic and Jewish poetry, and some also include work by Christians.

YH: It is true: In spite of some of our suspicions toward Arabs, we adopted and adapted many of their traditions. I never asked God to “break…the breakers of the sea” or “the deep” to “be dry” (#9). I needed the Andalusian poetical sea to carry my words to the people, and the physical sea to carry my body to Zion.

HR: Often the boundaries were blurred, so that secular images were used toward religious ends, religious images toward secular ends, and poems made that did not fit in the liturgy but nonetheless were spiritual. One commentator makes much of this blurring, saying, for example, that “in the secular poetry ‘gazelle’ is a code word for the lover; in religious poetry, for God or the Messiah” (Scheindlin, p 25). In my own life I try not to distinguish between the two. I am a spiritual person, in a way I cannot describe, but also secular. The blurring of imagery, sources, and boundaries between sacred and secular appeals to me.

YH: Maybe it’s just that a lot of categories are illusions. You think something is this or that but later realize it is something else.

HR: You repeatedly describe Zion as desolate yet find the soil sweeter than honey (for example, in #8) and describe Spain as desolate when it was not. In fact, Zion was in ruins, physically and spiritually, for Jews, while Spain was not. This pair of opposite images seems at the heart of the poems as a group.

YH: On the surface, yes, for a while Spain had a lot going for it, especially for Jews. But at the deepest level, Zion still had more to offer than Spain; the shekhinah (God’s presence) had been in Zion but never in Spain. However, even on the surface Spain was not everything it was cracked up to be.

Concerning the first level: Spain seemed—perhaps was—a garden. However, we still were second-class citizens, there was always the threat of persecution, the fanatics came, and that was that. The food always tasted foreign—“How can I find savour in food?,” I once asked (#1). Muslims, too, yearned for the East. Caliph ‘Abd al-Rahman wrote: “A palm tree I beheld in Ar-Rusafa,/Far in the West, far from the palm-tree land:/I said: You, like myself, are far away, in a strange land;/How long have I been away from my people!” (Irwin, p 245). The Sufis were persecuted by their coreligionists—witness the murder of Al-Hallaj. Later, al-Ghazzali, another Sufi, saw Spain as a wasteland. And Zion seemed—or perhaps was—a wasteland, with the Exile, Crusades, and so on.

HR: This is one level.

YH: But on a deeper level it’s reversed: The apparent good life in Spain was unreal, since God was absent. And although the shekhinah appeared to be missing from or to have left the Holy Land, in truth she was still there. Once I saw through the illusion—or rather, illusions—I knew the true reality could only be found elsewhere. I knew I had to leave Spain and go to Zion. Al-Ghazzali said: “Finally I found out that the way to God, to Truth, is the Sufi way…. During this time things were manifested to me that cannot be understood except by feeling [hal] and tasting [zowq], things that cannot be put into words” (Farzan, p 9). I needed to feel and taste the truth, and since for the Jew the only truth is God, I had to taste the dust of Zion. That’s why I begged to be taken there on eagles’ wings, to see for myself what my heart knew: “O be a help until the servant who hath faith in Tree,/And who hasteth to behold the places of Thy wonder” (#21).

HR: You’re saying that the Golden Age was a double illusion.

YH: Each place had its illusion. The stronger my yearning for Zion, based on my faith in the Bible, the more I realized that the garden of Spain was actually a desert and had nothing for me. At the same time, I realized that the desert in Zion was actually a garden and had everything for me. For a long time I “feared and trembled/With falling tears,/To cast Spain from him/And see shores beyond,” but eventually I placed my “spirit in the hand of the winds,/Thrust by the hand of the west into the hand of the east” (#16).

HR: Tell me more about how you penetrated the illusion of a desolate Zion.

YH: Just as in Egypt I knew I was not looking at the Nile but rather at the place of one of God’s miracles (#21). Conversely, the miracle by which the Nile was turned to blood appeared to Pharaoh as “magic” or “divination” “or “enchantment” but in reality was the result of God’s “name, by the hand of Moses and Aaron” (#21).

HR: Do you ever lament or regret leaving Spain or look back?

YH: “I thank/The waves of the sea and the wind of the west.” The west was not all bad, in spite of “the Arab yoke” (#9). Perhaps I exaggerated my love for Zion by saying the soil was sweeter than honey, to point out that even though the honey in Spain was sweet it didn’t matter. I wasn’t oblivious to the glories of the age, but they had lost their hold on me: “A light thing would it seem to me to leave all the good things of Spain…and behold the dust of the desolate sanctuary” (#1).

HR: Here the illusions and their penetration seem to come together.

YH: The exegetes say you can’t deprive a verse of its peshat (the literal meaning). Perhaps this applies to poetry as well as to scripture. (Sips coffee.)

HR: What about today? Has the shekhinah returned to Jerusalem? I see no peace, “the Arab yoke” still exists, the country is in hock to Christian fundamentalists, and—

YH: We are both poets, obsessed with complex ideals. Even the Psalmist couldn’t write one psalm that said it all. I want to be above it all, which is why I praise Zion as “beautiful of elevation” (#8). Reality is always a disappointment or just very scary: At the beginning of my journey, didn’t I say “a dread of departure seized hold of me” (#7)?

THEMES AND ORNAMENTS

HR: You are known as a master of poetic technique.

YH: Technique is only the vehicle of meaning. I have one theme in these poems and ornament it differently—like a theme and variations. You caught this already. One of my main ornaments is metaphor, as you have pointed out; another is repetition.

HR: You dream a lot. Dreaming brings you alive, as when you say in “Ode to Zion” (#2): “To wail for thine affliction I am like the jackals; but when I dream/Of the return of thy captivity, I am a harp for thy songs.” #4 has: “My dream did bring me into the sanctuaries of God.”

YH: What else could I do except dream? Dreams give people hope.

HR: You speak of flying, as well. In #1 you cry, “O who will make me wings, that I may fly afar,” and in #4 you say, “O that I might fly on eagles’ wings.” Of course, in English the word “flight” refers to literally flying and also to leaving a place. In #5 you use the second meaning. Eagles’ wings are popular, too—there’s #22.

YH: When you feel earthbound, stuck, fettered—whether in Arab chains or something else—flight comes to mind. It is a symbol of freedom to everyone, and of course for Jews, with the flight from the Egyptians through the Sea of Reeds. The eagle is the greatest of birds and a symbol of strength and might.

HR: “Dust” is pervasive. #8 and #20 say the soil and dust of Zion are sweeter than honey. “Dust” is also in #22. Dreams, eagles’ wings, and dust—these and your other images are strung on the girdle of the Zionides, repeated images accompanying new ones.

YH: Dust is a rich word, evoking the desert, neglected places, human fate, choking— With this one word, too, I condense the setting of the qasida.

THE QASIDA

HR: What is the draw of the qasida? In spite of your avowed aversion to aspects of Arabic culture, qasida permeates these poems. It is remarkable that you can pour your deepest self into such an antique, highly stylized form. (The qasida begins with a section in which the narrator finds himself in a deserted campsite in the desert. The people who lived here or passed through are no longer there. He is lonely and nostalgic. As he sinks into a reverie he conjures up his beloved.)

YH: It is the perfect vehicle for my emotions, but there are no camels or fawns.

HR: #1 has “desolate sanctuary,” #2 has jackals and “the ruins of my cleft heart among they broken cliffs,” #5 has “the ballast of sand on the surface of the sea…/And the iron sockets are like bits of chaff” “and the dry bones,” #6 has “the place of the pit and the worm,” #8 “thine habitation which is desolate,” and so on. It’s a fixation on death.

YH: But the graves are “peaceful” (#22), the Holy Land is a “region/Which hath for the Shekhinah/Abodes within (#22),” “the land is full of gates” (#6), and so on.

HR: We must know death, even if first in the mind’s eye and only later—

YH: Amazing how much you read out of—or in to—my poems! As for the qasida—it is the quintessential form of the spiritual life and quest. Life is empty, a desert. We come into this space, all kinds of things are stirred up—memories of a time of fullness, love, our animal nature—our nefesh. We dream or envision—a more perfect life, full of devotion and love. When our yearning is met, we shower praises on the Holy One, blessed be He. I have built many poems around elements of the qasida because of this.

HR: The voice of the Zion and sea poems praises God. It carries you on your journey, like a wind.

YH: Qasida blew in from the desert, like a lost camel—the ship of the desert.

HR: It also is like a sailing ship. Even on the sea, qasida is there: “Hath the flood come again and made the world a waste/…And no man is there and no bird? And then, “And I look on every side and there is nothing….” (#10) You left Spain but kept the qasida—you abandoned the content but kept the form.

YH: (Eats baklava.) This (pointing to mouth) reminds me of al-Andalus, in form and content. (Laughs.)

THE JOURNEY

HR: The qasida form itself seems a metaphor: Zion is a qasida. What about the journey to Zion: Was it real or metaphorical?

YH: Both and neither. It was a real journey—I actually did set forth, as you can read in my sea poems. It also was metaphorical. #10 expresses both aspects: “But I look on every side and there is nothing/But only water and sky and ark,” and then, “And Leviathan making the abyss to boil.” Poetry cannot be either concrete or wholly imaginary. Each must be grounded in the other.

HR: On your journey you stopped for a while in Egypt. Why?

YH: In Hebrew, Egypt also means “constriction,” you know. A quest is never easy. You don’t just yearn to go somewhere, then get there with no problems.

HR: You say, “Praise, above all cities, be unto Egypt” (#18). Why?

YH: “I bow down to Him at every stage;/And at every step I thank Him” (#7). The obstructions in our life help us grow.

HR: You couldn’t work it out where you were?

YH: I knew in my bones that God selected me for this quest: “Thy God hath desired thee for a dwelling-place; and happy is the man/Whom He chooseth and bringeth near…” (#2). I had to go, as I said, but getting there was less important—after all, I “died” right away. It was the burning dream that kept me alive and gave others hope.

HR: Your “death” was what some might call a beautiful death.

YH: What people call death is something else. I got to Zion. I am here now.

HR: Franz Rosenzweig says you brought in the reference to Job at the end of #8 because you wanted to die in the Holy Land (Kovach et al., p 233). He says “the last line…contain[s] an almost bashfully hidden allusion from which one can sense that the poet was quite in earnest, as were many thousands in later centuries, when he [you] expressed the wish to die in Jerusalem.” The poem ends, according to the English translation of Rosenzweig: “To caress and to kiss/your stones I desire,/and the taste of your soil would/be for me a reward sweet as honey” (Kovach et al., p 232).

YH: He ignores the metaphor. Also, I want to die in a lot of these poems.

HR: I think I can interpret your description of and quest for Zion, including the voyage, as follows: We think we are in “heaven.” Then we realize are in a wasteland instead. Next, we dream of something else, something we maybe once had—perhaps in childhood, like a forgotten dream of what to do in life. But before we can pursue this new or remembered dream, we have to leave behind the ideal-place-become-a-wasteland; we have become aware of the illusion and turn it into a vision. It’s hard to leave behind and also hard to go forward, because the place we dream about also seems a wasteland. This too is illusion, of the reverse kind. Finally we set sail, leaving our former life behind and striking out for a new life. What do you think?

YH: Interesting but not the way I approached things.

SUFISM AND NEOPLATONISM

HR: Getting back to death: Do you mean ego-death or ittisal?

YH: The first term I do not know.

HR: Your quest to travel to the Holy Land parallels the quest of the Sufi, to become one with God, and of the Neoplatonist, to return to the One. The return is one of your favorite images. In #6 you say, for example, that “here the bodies rejoice,/And the souls return to their rest.” You have come down through the body, to a lower place on earth—Spain—your soul is in exile. And now you go back to where you came from.

YH: The Sufis speak of union, the Neoplatonists of return and perhaps then of union. If you wish to read me these ways, you can. Al-Ghazzali yearned to make a pilgrimage too. He was always thinking of the hajj. The quest for a higher place, for enlightenment, is very old, a universal human characteristic, not just Jewish.

HR: You are a universalist.

YH: Just not a Unitarian universalist. (Laughs.)

HR: Do you think being an ascetic is essential to reach God?

YH: “To Jews attracted to Sufi asceticism,…the Divine is not as accessible as when Jews dwelt in the Holy Land, the divine Presence rested upon the Temple, and Jews could achieve prophecy,” according to Lobel (p 510). I couldn’t have said it better.

HR: Do you believe in the possibility of ittisal?

YH: I don’t know. The Arabs had a word for an experience that a lot of Jews either had or wanted to have or thought about a lot—to be close to God, to be in places where God was, but not necessarily to merge with God. That’s something else.

HR: You must admit that your intense longing for God is reminiscent of the longing of the Sufis. We are of course not even discussing your love poems.

YH: In Kuzari V:27 I say: “(I)f we provoke and instill love of this sacred place among men, we may be sure of obtaining reward and of hastening the (Messianic) aim; for it is written: ‘Thou shalt arise and have mercy upon Zion; for it is time to favour her, the moment is come. For Thy servants love her stones and pity her dust. This means: Jerusalem can only be rebuilt when Israel yearns for it to such an extent that we sympathize even with its stones and its dust.”

HR: More dust and stones!

YH: I guess I stirred up the dust “among the earth clods,/In a place of secrets,/A place of wonders” (#22).

HR: Your yearning was so great that it inspired others; one person alone cannot bring back the shekhinah.

YH: I simply yearned “for my soul to pour itself out within that place/Where the spirit of God was outpoured upon thy chosen” (#2).

PROPHECY

HR: One of the main themes of the Kuzari is the absence of prophecy among Jews. Does this not parallel what you say in many of your Zion poems, namely, that God is absent? For example, I think you say in #4 that God was not present in reality but only in your dreams and visions, but that these were so powerful that you “awoke” and were “yet with Thee, O God.” Yet is not this a form of prophecy, one of the levels that Maimonides describes in his list in the Moreh Nevukim, the Guide of the Perplexed?

YH: There is no prophecy as it was known in ancient times. It left us long ago. But a remnant of the prophets’ illuminatory powers has stayed with the Jewish people in the form of inspiration, and each Jew has some of this form. Prophecy was just the ideal form of inspiration.

HR: Are you are a prophet?

YH: Maimonides doesn’t even give me a footnote in the Moreh.

HR: The early Zionists canonized you, though. Rosenzweig says that “the lonely yearning of Halevi’s soul is the first beacon of the new movement (to return to the Holy Land), a movement that carries into the present day…” (Kovach et al., p 235). If that isn’t prophecy—

YH: (Smiles tiredly).

HR: And that perhaps is what has brought me to my fixation on the Golden Age—your inspiration and its timelessness. You have taken me to the mountain, on the long, dangerous watery journey across the sea, through mitzraiym (Egypt, or “constriction” or “narrow place”)—a place I know all too well—and then to the other side, a place I yearn to attain on my own voyage. You write about the journey beautifully, in both a Jewish and a universal way, and so your poems touch those of us today who are both Jewish and universal—too big for our Jewishness, too small for true universality. Those of us whom you touch are inspired to find our own way through this narrow place.

YH: I’m glad you have been so inspired.

HR: I’ve heard you are in Israel to lobby for a complete diwan (collection) of your poetry.

YH: (Referring to some recent poems)—I can write just so many qasidas about the academic desert. I’d like to see the poems in a good English translation, too.

HR: Maybe Coleman Barks wants a break from Rumi—all that whirling!

YH: How I wish I had an interpreter like him!

HR: Many people would welcome Yehuda Halevi in a relevant, contemporary Jewish voice to guide them in the bleak landscape of today’s world.

YH: You know what a lot of yearning can do!

SOURCES OF NUMBERED POEMS

The following references are to Brody, Heinrich, ed., and Nina Salaman, trans. Selected Poems of Jehudah Halevi. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1974.

1 “My Heart Is in the East”
2 Ode to Zion
3 “To Mount Abarim”
4 “My Dream”
5 “Equipped for flight”
6 “For the Sake of the House of Our God”
7 “When My Soul Longed”
8 “Beautiful of Elevation”
9 “On the Sea” I
10 “On the Sea” II
11 “On the Sea” III
12 “On the Sea” IV
13 “On the Sea” V
14 “On the Sea” VI
15 “On the Sea” VII
16 “On the Sea” VIII
17 “Glory unto Egypt”
18 “Refusal to Tarry in Egypt”
19 “The Wilderness in Egypt”
20 “In the Paths of the Ark”
21 “On the Nile”
22 “On Eagles’ Wings”

SOURCES OF OTHER POEMS/OTHER WORKS CITED

Farzan, Massud. The Tale of the Reed Pipe: Teachings of the Sufis. New York: Dutton, 1974.

Halevi, Jehuda. Kuzari. Edited by Isaak Heinemann. In Three Jewish Philosophers. New York: Atheneum, 1969.

Irwin, Robert, ed. Night and Horses and the Desert: An Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature. Woodstock and New York: The Overlook Press, 1999.

Kovach, Thomas, Eva Jospe, and Gilya Gerda Schmidt, trans. Ninety-Two Poems of Yehuda Halevi. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000.

Lobel, Diana. Between Mysticism and Philosophy: Sufi Language of Religious Experience in Judah Ha-Levi’s Kuzari. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000.

Scheindlin, Raymond P. The Gazelle: Medieval Hebrew Poems on God, Israel, and the Soul. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

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